“I have an affection for a great city. I feel safe in the neighborhood of man, and enjoy the sweet security of the streets." -Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Gift of Water

Matthew 3:13-17

Each year, many children and adults come to this font to be baptized. They have the water sprinkled or poured over their heads. If they are infants, unable to answer for themselves, their parents reaffirm their faith, proclaiming their belief in Jesus Christ. We, as a community of faith promise to encourage them, strengthen them, and support them in the faith. This is not simply an individual act, but rather it is a communal act.

I remember the first time I baptized a child at that font. It was a joyous occasion for the family, but also for me personally as it was the first time I had baptized a child, ever. As a said the prayer of blessing over the water, saying the words “Pour out your Holy Spirit to bless this gift of water and the child that receives it. To wash away his sin and clothe him in righteousness throughout his life, that in dying and being raised with Christ he may share in Christ’s final victory.” I felt as if the spirit of God entered this sanctuary, covering this child, and strengthening his parents. It was a moment I will remember for the rest of my life. A few weeks later, his parents sent me a picture along with his birth announcement. Like a proud parent, or in my case, minister, that picture hangs on my refrigerator, reminding me of the way that God’s spirit covered both of us that day. I am sure when he is a teenager, or college student, or adult we will run into each other, and each time I will remind him that he was, the first child I baptized. With great joy, and perhaps a little bit of pride, I will tell him about that day. I would be surprised if after a few times he will be interested in the story, but for me it will be a cherished memory, a remarkable story.

Baptism is often difficult to understand, or explain. Various traditions have different opinions, theological stances, and interpretations about this holy act. As United Methodist we believe baptism is a sacrament; meaning God uses common elements, in this case water, as a mean of divine grace. For our church, baptism is the act of God through the grace of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.

As the water pours over the person, the Spirit of the Lord descends upon them. They become part of the community of faith. It is by water and the spirit that we are all baptized. It is by water and the spirit that we are integrated into the community of faith. It is by water and that spirit that we are all called children of the Almighty God.

Unlike the Methodist church, many traditions simply baptize because it is in the Matthew passage that we read this morning. In this passage, we see how Christ began his ministry. This is how it all started. It is the story of Christ going from a small child, Mary’s little baby boy, to an adult. It is here we see this transformation- the spirit of God descending upon the Messiah, affirming Christ, and declaring Jesus as God’s only Son. It is indeed a remarkable story. And so like Christ, we respond as well…offering ourselves, and our children for baptism, for transformation and incorporation into the Body of Christ. Knowing, that it is not something that we do, rather it is something that God does. God’s spirit ascends on us, covering us, loving us, and affirming us.

When I worked as an intern at First United Methodist in College Park, baptisms were an especially exciting time in the life of the congregation. The congregation at College Park is comprised of mostly older adults with few young families and children. When I was there we confirmed three teenagers, and that was cause for a great celebration since they had not had a confirmation class in over five years. It makes me very thankful for all of the young people we confirm each year. Funerals, at College Park, are much more frequent than baptisms, so when there is a baptism it is also cause for a great celebration. One Sunday, while I was there, we baptized one of the few babies in the congregation. To hear that community of older adults promising to raise this child in the faith brought tears to my eyes. They proclaimed the words we often say “With God’s help we will proclaim the god news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround this child with a community of love and forgiveness, that he may grow in his trust of God and be found faithful in his service to others. We will pray for him, that he may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life eternal.” When they spoke these words, words they rarely had the opportunity to speak, they meant what they said. They took the responsibility very seriously. The words that were infrequently spoken, were said with great great conviction. They made a promise to God, to the child, and to his parents, and they were serious about the promise. With those words, the spirit of the Lord came upon the child and his community of faith. It was a remarkable worship service in which all who were there encountered the Divine.

When we, this United Methodist community of faith, respond during baptism with the same words spoken in Untied Methodist congregations in Cameroon, Chattanooga, Chicago, or College Park we each live out those words differently even thought they have the same meaning. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, tells us that we have each been given different gifts[1] and we are called to use those gifts for the Kingdom of God… to lead all of God’s children in the “way that leads to live eternal.”

When I was a child Miss Sue Ellen Autry took that promise very seriously as my two years old Sunday school teacher. Each Sunday she showed up to “teach” a group of two year olds about Jesus’ love for them. Although I did not understand Christ love for me at that point in my life, I was certain Miss Sue Ellen loved me and that was enough at the age of two. When I was three Miss Rhonda helped me find my voice and a microphone as I bolted out the words “If I were a bell I would ring, ring ding a ling I would ring, but a bell I will never be because I am happy you see just being me.” She took the promise she made at my baptism very seriously. When I was in the sixth grade John and Josephine Foshee took their promise very seriously as they lead about twenty 12 year old in confirmation, showing us that faith could be cool and fun integrating bands that we listened to at home like Phish or Dave Matthews into their weekly lessons. As a high school student I went on various mission trips with my youth group. Brad Norris, a contractor from my home church, took his promise very seriously as he helped high school students with construction in a third world country. As an adult, many of you have taken that promise seriously as you continue to affirm my call to ministry. The promises we make carry a great deal of weight. In their own way each of these people helped “lead me in the way that leads to life eternal.”

When we all make this promise, it is important for us to think about they way we are going to help lead the child “in the way that leads to life eternal.” Some of you have the gift of teaching, so when you say ”We will surround this child with a community of love and forgiveness, that he may grow in his trust of God, you are promising that child, his or her parents, and God that you will teach that child. You will teach them in vacation bible school, or Sunday school, or in a bible study when they are an adult. If you have the gift of administration you are promising to make sure that their playground is safe, their youth room is a place of growth, or that their Sunday school classroom is easily accessible when they become an older adult. If you have the gift of song you are promising to teach their 4-year-old choir, lead them in a youth praise band, or lead as an example in making a joyful noise during worship. If you have the gift of service and outreach you are promising to help them make cards for soldiers overseas, or support them in planning a college mission trip, or visiting them in the nursing home. If you have the gift of care and compassion you are promising to encourage them when they when they fall, love them when they do wrong, and support them when they grieve. If you have the gift of diligent prayer, you are promising to pray for them at all times and through all parts of their life.

Regardless of your gifts, you are making a promise to raise them in the “way that leads to life eternal” and this does not simply apply when they are a child but as they grow and mature in the faith. It is a promise we make to that child and we remember the promises that were made to us when we were baptized. It is a promise we make to the parents and we remember people who supported and encouraged us along our journey of faith. It is a promise we make to the Lord, vowing to care for our Creator’s children. It is a remarkable promise we all make.

Christ began his ministry on this earth by first being baptized. When we are baptized we are incorporated into the body of Christ, into the community of faith. It is here we begin our journey of faith… the journey of love and understanding of our Lord. This journey is not always an easy path. There are often challenges when our faith is questioned, but through those who have promised to support, encourage, and lead us in the way to life eternal our faith remains solid. It remains our foundation. As I look out into this congregation, I am reminded of the promise that I, with you, made to that precious little boy I baptized about a year ago. And with that promise I am reminded of my promise to all of you. When we vow to raise a child in the way that leads to life eternal, it is not just to that specific child, but rather it to the enter Body of Christ. The words we say certainly carry a great deal of weight. They are reassuring, comforting, and at the same time challenging.

I will always remember the first child I baptized, I will always remember hearing you say those words. Words of challenge, comfort, and reassurance. That day, that precious boy was incorporated into the Body of Christ, that day he became part of the community of faith. That day he began the journey. The journey that leads to life eternal. Let us remember the words that we so frequently proclaim” With God’s help we will proclaim the god news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround this child with a community of love and forgiveness that they may grow in their trust of God and be found faithful in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life eternal.” Knowing that with those words we person begins their journey and we fulfill a promise. Knowing that through the water and the spirit the individual is brought into the Body of Christ. God’s grace covers them. God transforms them, and they are given into our care. Let us go forth from here sharing in the promise, rejoicing in the spirit, and being cleansed by the water.

[1] 1 Corinthians 12:4-11

The Word Became Flesh

John 1:1-14

The day after Christmas is often anti-climatic. Rarely to people look forward to the 26th. Toys have been opened, dinner has been eaten, and surprises are no longer surprises. Secrets that have been kept for weeks and weeks have been revealed…. and most of all Santa is resting. Within an hour, there were no longer presents under the tree at my mother’s house. The present I bought weeks ago in Atlanta for my mother had been opened. Steve opened his presents, including some of my grandfather’s cuff links and even Liza, my dog, had opened her stocking and seemed to be enjoying her new toy. Soon we would eat baked cheese grits, bacon, and apricot scones. The time of excitement is Christmas morning, this is what children have been looking forward to for weeks and weeks. The rest of the day, for most of us, is spent watching children play… and, if you are lucky, taking a nap. Rarely is today, the 26th of December exciting. On December 26th, life attempts to go back to normal.

But, for whatever reason, this is always more difficult that it seems. It is hard for life to go back to normal. After all, we have been watching Christmas commercials since Halloween. Following Thanksgiving we entered the season of Advent: Children’s programs, choir cantata’s, missions festivals, and worship services prepared our lives and our hearts for our savior to enter. We sang “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” over and over. We read our advent devotionals; we worshiped together on Christmas Eve, taking communion. We sang JOY TO THE WORLD OUR LORD IS COME with excitement lifting our candles knowing that our savior had been born. After weeks and weeks of waiting, weeks of advent. After weeks of preparing our hearts for the birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ has been born. God is here! Our Savior sleeps in a manger. Mary looks at her precious baby boy with wonder. Joseph, the proud earthly papa, gazes at the child with pride. Our Lord has come to this earth. After all of this it is very difficult for life to go back to normal.

We almost feel bad, for taking down the decorations, for taking down the tree. And if you are anything like me, you wait until the very end to take down the nativity set. It often sometimes seems like we take Jesus out of the world as quickly as he entered on Christmas Eve. We briefly celebrate the incarnation, then move to celebrate with friends and family, then nap, then wrap everything up, gently placing the ornaments in their boxes, hauling the tree to the curb, and placing the wreath back in the attic. But even if this is our tendency, it does not have to be the reality.

Now, do not hear me say that you need to keep your Christmas decorations our all year long. That is not the point. Indeed your neighbors will mind if your 10,000 light blinking nativity set is ablaze in May. Your tree will eventually become a fire hazard, and leaving decoration our all yearlong makes them less special when they go out next year. BUT life is different.

Our world is different because “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.” The incarnation IS real. God has become human. Love has come to this earth. “the Word has become flesh.” God is among us. God works with us. God taught us. God is given for us, for our salvation. That precious baby, God in the flesh, has come to this earth with a mission. Because of that… life is different. We have a new reason to rejoice. We have a new reason to serve. Because God loved, us, we now turn and love our neighbor. The birth of Christ comes into all aspects of our life...it becomes the theme of our world…the reason we love. The reason we worship. Christ becomes the reason we serve. Like Christ was born in an ordinary stable, in an ordinary manger, to two ordinary people, we find the Messiah in the ordinary places. We find Christ, “The Word who has become flesh is found in the most common of places.”One of my professors at Emory University tells this story about the incarnation. Dr Thomas Long states,

“A few years ago a church located in a large city decided to turn its gymnasium into a night shelter for homeless people. Every winter there were reports that some of these people, condemned to sleep out in the open, had frozen to death, and so the church made the warmth and safety of its building available without charge. Each evening during the winter, volunteers from the church would spend the night in the shelter, providing food, clothing, and lodging for as many of the homeless as the building would hold. Almost without exception, the volunteers reported that the experience of spending the night with these people from the streets had been far more than an act of dutiful charity. The volunteers had found their own faith strengthened, their own reliance upon the grace of Christ reinforced by the experience. Several months after the shelter was opened, one of the pastors of the church was being interviewed on a radio talk program. The interviewer was an opinionated fundamentalist whose biases were quite strong. It became clear during the interview that he felt that the church ought to stick to the business of preaching the old-time gospel and stay away from meddlesome activities like shelters for homeless people. "Now just tell me," he jeered at one point, "where is Jesus in all this?" For a moment the pastor considered silently how to respond, then said calmly, "You just have to be there…”

The incarnation is real, even after the lights go up, even after the presents are unwrapped, the incarnation continues to live among us. The incarnation continues with us, through the New Year. Even into places and times where the 10,000 light decorations would be frowned upon. The incarnation is real. The word has become flesh, and God dwells among us!

As people of faith we find it in different places, both past and present. We see God at work in our lives. We see our Lord moving among us, through us, and within us. This year I received a very unique and special present from my mother. These were the words, it contained. “Women are included in all provisions of the Discipline referring to the ministry.” The present I unwrapped on Christmas morning was a Book of Discipline from 1956, the year our General Conference voted to allow the ordination of women. As I opened it with tears in my eyes, I knew it would be a book I would value for the rest of my life. The incarnation was at work during that General Conference almost 55 years ago. The incarnation was at work in the ordinary place, the Alpha Chi Omega hall at Auburn University when called me to go into ministry. The incarnation was at work when you received me with open arms, continuing to affirm my call to ministry. God is found in our ordinary places. The word has become flesh!

It was in a stable in Bethlehem that God, in Jesus Christ came to this earth. It was a manger rather than a throne. It was a peasant girl, rather than royalty. The visitors where Sheppard’s rather dignitaries and persons of power.

God rarely makes a grand entrance. God does not require our pomp and circumstance to enter into our world, to bring light to our darkness. God is found in the normal. In a stable. In a gymnasium. In a sorority dorm. In Prattville, Alabama. God is found in our ordinary. You do not have to look far to see that the word has actually become flesh. To see that God is present among us.

A few weeks ago, as a community of faith, we gathered one Sunday evening in the beginning of Advent for an Advent Missions festival. We gathered together and participated in different services projects that allowed over 700 people, 700 people, to know that our church cares for them. To know that God loves them. In places like Epworth 101, Sunday school class rooms, and Pratt Hall, the incarnation was truly at work. God was at work in us. God was at work among us. God was at work through us. Jesus Christ uses our ordinary for the extraordinary.

The incarnation calls us to continuing seeking God even after the tree is placed away, even after the presents are unwrapped, even after the food is eaten, even after the candles from worship services are extinguished, the incarnation beckons us to find Christ in all places. In the ordinary. In our homes, in our places of work, in our school, in our stores, even in our gymnasiums.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

The word has become flesh, and God dwells among us. Let us seek our Lord, who was, who is, and who is to come in all places, through all people, and in all circumstances.