Spirit upon us | 10 January 2016


Texts: 1 Corinthians 12:12-13,26-27; Isaiah 43:1-2; Luke 3:21-22


When Jesus is baptized, we’re told that the Holy Spirit descends on him.  What this looks like is a dove coming down towards him.  What this sounds like is a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

In the worship calendar, this Sunday after Epiphany is always Baptism of Jesus Sunday.  Since we have hardly any stories of Jesus’ early life, we do some time travel and jump from baby Jesus in the manger visited by the magi – last week – to this week – Jesus’ first public appearance as a grown man, as one of the masses being baptized by the charismatic John in the Jordan River.  It’s a Sunday we’re invited to remember not only Jesus’ baptism, but also our own baptismal identity.  What does it look like, and what does it sound like for Holy Spirit to be on and within us?

In our secular calendar, we’re ten days into a new year and I’m still doing double takes every time I write and date a check, ending in 2016.  How did that happen?  The present is looking more and more futuristic every year.  In two days our President will give the annual State of the Union address, outlining his goals for the year ahead in a political and cultural climate that feels more and more like a bad reality TV show.

Given the intersection of these two calendars, I want to use today to look ahead to what might be in store for our congregation in 2016.  I guess this could be called a State of the Congregation address, but that sounds way more ambitious and comprehensive than what I’m intending.  What I’d like to do is name three developments, or trends, or themes that I see.  To put it in more theological language, I’m inviting all of us to think about What is the Holy Spirit doing among us?  What does it look like and sound like?  What is our small part in 2016 in the Kin-dom of God being present on earth as it is in heaven?  So, recognizing there are any number of ways to answer these questions, here are three observations, each one accompanied with one of the lectionary passages already read.

1) More sheep | 1 Corinthians 12:12-13,26-27

The week before the children’s Christmas play our doorbell rang.  It was Debra M.  She’d recently passed out the kids’ costumes, but had stopped by to retrieve Ila’s sheep costume.  As it turned out, there weren’t enough sheep costumes to go around for all the children signed up this year to be these wandering and, I think we can all agree, adorable, creatures.  So Debra and her crew needed to use one as a pattern to make more.

A few days earlier Phil H had joked with me that he’d thought of a headline for an article in the Mennonite publications.  The headline would read “Church that hired gay pastor having problems.”  The article would be about how our congregation has grown this past year and that some Sundays we’re having problems finding enough parking spots near the church and sometimes enough places for people to fit in the sanctuary and fellowship hall.

It’s true that in the last four months our worship attendance has consistently been 20+ more people per Sunday than it has been in recent years.  It’s been wonderful to welcome new people of different ages and backgrounds and especially wonderful that some of you seem to be sticking around.

In highlighting this I don’t mean to imply that numerical growth means that the Holy Spirit is among us and a lack of growth means it isn’t.  I also know that Mark has zero interest in making this about himself.  What I am saying is that I see in you all a genuinely loving community, we’re trying to be church together, not always perfectly succeeding, but living with grace, and there is a vitality to all that which is widening the circle of this congregational family.

This subtitle of “More sheep” was meant to be a play on those extra sheep costumes and the metaphor often used for churches, that we are a flock of sheep following after Jesus the Good Shepherd.  In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul uses another familiar metaphor to talk about church life.  He speaks of the body of Christ being made up not of the cells and tissue and organs which made up the living and breathing body of Jesus of Nazareth.  But the body of Christ as being made up of people, living and breathing people, each of us being one small part of this miraculous, cosmic, collective body, which is Christ alive today.  Paul says that we are members of one another.  He says that if one member suffers, all suffer.  If one member is honored, all rejoice together.

When I meet with newer folks in the Inquirer’s class each fall I invite them to make observations about the congregation, and a common observation is how many different people are involved in visible aspects of leadership, especially on Sunday mornings.  I usually follow this up with a gentle warning that if they stick around they may be next.  Which is to say that we truly do believe that the Spirit is alive in each person, and that we are all enriched by one another’s gifts – being very aware that not everyone feels called to share those gifts in an up front kind of way.

So if you are one of those who consider yourself new-ish: welcome.  We are honored that you’re here.  Please do feel free to say No to any requests you may be bombarded with, but also feel free to join in as you are able.

And if you’ve been here a while, 2016 can be a year to invite someone new to your home or small group or mission project, without feeling guilty about not knowing every single person, which I know is a part of the history of this congregation and part of what has made it a close knit community.

The Apostle Paul would have us believe that we are more than merely a collection of individuals.  That we are actually members of one another, suffering and rejoicing together, almost as if we share a common network of nerves and neurons.  A common set of hands to act together.  Common feet to go places together that we can’t go as individuals.  The body of Christ.

2) Hospitality as mission | Isaiah 43:1-2

The prophet Isaiah addresses the people of Israel in the voice of the Lord, saying, “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you, when you walk through fire you will not be burned, and the flame will not consume you.”  The thing was, the people of Israel had already been through fire and water, recently carried into exile in Babylon, their temple destroyed, their homeland occupied.  It is in this context of trauma that Isaiah as YHWH utters that phrase repeated so often throughout scripture: “Do not fear.”

There’s not a whole lot in this passage that relates directly with hospitality – Except for those words to not be afraid.  Fear, it seems, is on the opposite end of the spectrum as hospitality.  Be to hospitable, one must not be ruled by fear, and the more one is afraid and fearful, the less one is able to extend hospitality to others.  Fear can quite literally cause walls to go up.  Fear locks doors.  Fear is not a good listener or empathizer.

“Do not be afraid,” Yahweh says.  “For I have redeemed you.  I have called you by name, you are mine.”  Being called by name is echoed in Jesus’ baptism, when he hears the word “Beloved” spoken over him.  When you know you’re Beloved, when you are secure in a home and an identity, it’s a natural step to create spaces of hospitality for others to walk into.

It’s difficult to make sweeping statements about the direction culture is headed, but it seems like hospitality may be becoming a more and more radical act.  Simply to welcome another into one’s space and one’s life, to welcome other thoughts and worldviews into one’s consciousness.  Not being afraid can be a true act of spiritual resistance to culture.  Or, if we are afraid, living as the Beloved anyway can be an equal act of spiritual resistance.

I have no doubt that in the coming year each of us will have choices to respond to people and situations either out of fear or out of hospitality.

I love what has become an annual tradition here of people opening their homes and sharing a meal with others in the congregation.  This is definitely a shameless plug for the sign up sheets now present out in the foyer and I’m sure Jan S would love to talk with you more about this and encourage you to sign up to attend a meal.  This also relates with the first point of getting to know one another better.

As a congregation, we’re making some significant investments in our own space which can help us be more hospitable to one another and the community.  At the end of 2016, the front of this sanctuary and the kitchen in our fellowship hall will look different, Insha-allah, as Muslims says, If God wills.  Many of you have pledged money for these projects – and if not it’s not too late.  On Thursday Council affirmed moving forward with detailed drawings so we can start receiving bids from contractors.  Rather than seeing this merely as spending money on ourselves, I encourage us to see this as a part of our mission of hospitality – to the many groups who use our building throughout the week, including the new CRC kids club group meeting here each school day.  To neighbors who use our building for voting, to groups who rent our sanctuary and to our Jewish friends in the Little Minyan congregation who worship in our sanctuary during their high holy days.  Whether or not the renovations will be underway by early summer, this year we will also be hosting our brothers and sisters of Central District Conference for the annual meeting in June.

Investing in this space and seeing the physical transformations will be a significant part of our life for 2016.  Hospitality is mission.  “Do not be afraid.”

3) Black Lives Matter | Luke 3:21-22

Back in September we had a gathering of Commission chairs and church staff.  People representing Community Life, Worship, Christian Education, Facilities, Mission, and Shepherding Team were all in the same room.  The main question we discussed was this:  If our congregation were to focus on one particular topic in the year to come, what should it be?  After giving time for input and discussion, a clear consensus emerged.  We need to be talking about race.  We need to be talking about Black Lives Matter.  We need to be talking about white privilege.  One person even said that if the church isn’t talking about race these days, it’s not being the church.

So there you have it.

Those first two themes are pretty pleasant: a growing congregation, building renovations.  But this, talking about race, might get difficult.  It might get downright uncomfortable.

Part of white privilege is having the privilege to not think or talk about race, because the world kind of works for us either way.  But we’re going to do it.

In 2016 we intend to weave this focus into different aspects of congregational life.  If you don’t like it, you can blame those Commission chairs.  Better yet, if you feel some energy for this you can be a part of what this actually looks like, which is far from determined.  Please know that we are looking for ideas and planners.

The first line of the first vow that we take in baptism says this: “Do you repent of sin and renounce the evil powers of this world?”  One of the evil powers we renounce is surely the power of racism.  It’s a power that grips us and affects our daily lives whether we’re aware of it or not.  It has been called the original sin of America.  To be Christian, to be a follower of Jesus, to have the Holy Spirit upon us and to live out a baptismal identity is to reject racism in all its forms and to continue to repent and make right the awful history of racism we have inherited.

The second part of that first vow asks, “Do you accept the forgiving grace and steadfast love of God as the guiding power in your life?”  To do any of this well we will need to rest in the grace of God and extend grace towards one another, even as we allow ourselves to hear difficult things.

In two weeks I’ll use the sermon time to introduce this theme more fully, and Worship Commission is planning a Lenten season in which we journey with Jesus toward the cross with race at the front and center.  I’m planning to organize some breakfast Bible studies with the Lent scriptures and weave comments and insights from those conversations into Lent sermons.  So keep your eyes open for that invitation.

For now, as we embark on this new year together, we hold in front of us this image of Jesus, sensing that the time is ripe, having made his way out to the wilderness and toward the River Jordan, now under those waters, now emerging, the Holy Spirit coming down on him like a dove, the voice declaring him as the Beloved.  He will soon head out deeper into the wilderness to battle the devil and the evil powers.  His whole ministry lays open ahead of him and what it will be no one yet knows.  Something new is about to begin.