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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Up and Away - Mark 1:14-20

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Jesus was walking along the lake, and seeing the fishermen in their boats, he said, “Follow me,” and they did. Easier said than done! This week, I was staying with a friend in DC. Wednesday morning, we planned to go grab some breakfast and she wanted to show me her office. Since I was then leaving town and she was staying at work, we took separate cars. She hopped in her car and said, “Follow me!” Easier said than done.

We went across DC in morning rush-hour combined with however many million people trying to get out of DC after Tuesday’s events. There were accidents all over the place, stalled-out vehicles, and blocked intersections. As we drove across town, she forced her Honda Civic through places it was rude for one car to squeeze through, let alone two, especially when the second has out-of-town tags! Now, those of you who have ridden with me know that I have no problem being a bit “assertive” and pushing my car into places I need it to be, but even my limits were stretched on that. “Follow me!” she said, which is sometimes easier said than done. May we pray.

I love this passage of Scripture. I remember learning this one at a very young age in children’s church, and we had a song that went along with it and everything. As Mark tells it, it was all very simple. Jesus said, “Follow me!” and they did. Jesus said, “I will make you fish for people,” and they all nodded in agreement, as if they completely understood everything he was saying.

But I wonder if wasn’t more complicated than that. Mark, as you know, has a way of telling the story that sorta hits the highlights and moves on. I wonder if the disciples asked where they were going to be following? Or for how long? Or why they should follow him in the first place? I wonder how Zebedee felt when he watched his business succession plan drop their nets in the boat and walk off without even stamping their timecards. Who knows, maybe Zebedee was a bad father and a hard boss, and the boys were grateful for anything that took them away. I wonder if Simon Peter or Andrew or James or John stopped and said, “He’s going to make us fish for people? Does anyone know what he means by that? Are we going to be gone for just a couple of hours or what? And WHEN are we stopping to get something to eat?”

Mark doesn’t answer these questions—in fact, he is not even concerned with them. And really, for Mark, these few little verses are a transition – little more than a stopping point on the story to explain how a few followers ended up on the journey.

When Jesus calls these fishermen to follow him, to be his first disciples, we realize that we are being given a glimpse of the beginning of their journey with Jesus. Think of being one of Jesus’ disciples as a journey with Jesus. Journeys, as you know, have a starting point and a destination, but there is a whole lot that has to happen between those two things. This evening, for example, I have to drive to Jacksonville, Florida for a series of meetings. I have a beginning point in mind – Boone, NC. I have a destination in mind – Jacksonville, FL. But do you know what has to happen between Boone and Jacksonville? Several hours in the car, through very boring and mundane parts of South Carolina and Georgia. Eventually, I’ll arrive, but I won’t arrive there all at once. It will happen over time, mile by mile, as I close in on my destination.

I think it’s easier and more exciting to become a follower than it is to remain a follower. Becoming a follower of Jesus is pretty easy on day one. Or starting a new diet, or a new exercise regimen, or quitting smoking, or getting organized or any other new venture is always easiest on day one. Starting something is easy, but sticking to it and following through with it is a little more difficult.

Think of the commitment your most significant relationships take. With your partner, your children, your parents, your siblings – these relationships require constant commitment. When the relationship is new, it’s exciting, it’s fresh, it’s a constant adventure. But somewhere along the line, you get used to it. And, you may even begin to get bored with it. That’s where the commitment kicks in.

This is one of the things I stress to couples who are about to get married. A wedding, though it can be costly and somewhat stressful, is easy. But marriage can be more difficult. The wedding is fun—a great big party with all your friends and family, everyone dressed up in fine clothes, celebrating, happy, smiling—that’s just a fun occasion! But marriage—the day-to-day ins and outs of communicating, putting up with weird habits, and learning to place someone else’s needs higher than your own—that takes a lot of work. The wedding is the fun part, but marriage takes work. It takes daily commitment. It takes waking up every morning and saying “Today I am going to treat my partner with greater honor than I treat myself.”

That’s a big commitment. That’s a lot of communication. That’s a lot of willingness to say “I’m sorry, please forgive me.” That’s a lot of sticking together through days that aren’t all that exciting, through very mundane chores, through times of want and plenty, through times of joy and sorrow, through times of better and worse. It’s a commitment, and it takes some work.

A wedding is great, but you know what’s even better, in my opinion? A third anniversary. After about three years, the shiny has worn off. Things may not be as exciting any more. Quirks that used to be adorable are now annoying. A third anniversary is something that should be celebrated, and a 5th anniversary, and a 9th, and a 14th – these should be celebrated because they are reminders to us that two people have stuck it out through what may have been very difficult, painful, or just plain boring circumstances. I can still remember the party celebrating my grandparents’ 50th anniversary. Papa publicly thanked Grandma for 27 happy years of marriage.

By the way, I don’t recommend that. Members of my family delight in pushing my grandmother’s buttons just to get a reaction, and we all learned that from him. But it was also an honest admission that it wasn’t all wine and roses, but these two people chose to face it together instead of apart. They were in it for the long haul.

Jesus said he was going to make the disciples fishers of people. Now, many of you are probably familiar with catch and release fishing. This seems an odd practice to me. When I was growing up, we didn’t catch fish simply to throw them back in the lake. If you aren’t going to take it home and eat it, why would you want to catch it, torture it by poking holes in its lip, and then put it back in the water?

I wonder if that wouldn’t create a lake full of fish with low self-esteem and bad attitudes. You have to go back to your friends and family with holes all in your lip and explain that you weren’t good enough. They didn’t want to eat you. All your life you’ve wanted to grow up and feed a hungry family, and then you’re caught, they look you over, and throw you back in the water.

Can I tell you something about the way Jesus fishes? Jesus isn’t into “catch and release.” When Jesus catches you, he means business. Jesus cast his net and caught these fishermen up into the kingdom of God, and there was no looking back. And so it is with us. When Jesus catches you, he’s not offering you a leisurely vacation. He’s not catching you simply to throw you back into the water. When Jesus catches you, it means that he wants to keep you, that he is committed to you, that he makes an everlasting promise and covenant with you that begs your participation and cooperation.

This morning, we baptized Lydia Grace Dean. Her baptism marks the beginning of her journey with God, it marks when Jesus walked beside the lakeshore and called her name, it marks the day that she became a disciple of Jesus Christ. God is committed to her, and God asks us to commit to raising her and nurturing her in the Christian faith. And you know what? This is something that will happen daily. Today is not the end of the story! Baptism is the beginning of a journey, a time when God has said “yes” to each of us, and it anticipates the days and weeks and months and years of our continuing to say “yes” back to God.

Becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ is not a one-time static event. So many times we act as if someone’s baptism, or their public profession of faith, or their salvation moment, or their heart being strangely warmed or however we choose to describe that experience is all that matters, when, in fact, that moment simply highlights an important part of their spiritual journey. Being a disciple is something that happens each and every day of our lives as we say “yes” and recommit ourselves to the life offered in Christ. People will sometimes ask when I became a disciple of Jesus Christ, and my answer has always been this: “I became a disciple of Jesus Christ at my baptism, and by the grace of God, each and every day since then.”

I’m sure that on that day beside the sea of Galilee, Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John had no idea what they were getting themselves into. They had no idea what was about to unfold before them. I’m sure there were numerous times they were ready to walk away from the whole thing, ready to walk away from Jesus. And, quite honestly, there was nothing that forced them to stay.

But look at what they would have missed out on. They would have missed out on the teachings, and the healings, and the miracles. They would have missed out on a vision of the kingdom of God that was broad and glorious, a vision of the kingdom of God that cast a wide net and invited the whole world to come and be part of God’s family.

Friends, when Jesus goes fishing, he’s not into catch and release. When he catches you, he wants you to be a child of God. He wants you to be one of his disciples. He wants to pull you up out of the water and away from its murky depths. He wants you on his fishing crew, casting his net far and wide, a fishing crew that doesn’t only work weekends, or who plays catch and release, who pick and choose among all those who are dying to know God. Our calling is to cast the net and let God do the sorting. We don’t have the freedom to decide who gets to be loved and accepted and called by God. We don’t have the leisure to say, “He’s no good. She’s no good. Throw ‘em back in.”

Brothers and sisters, the time for picking and choosing is over. Now is the time for inviting everyone we find – the good and the bad, those who smell good and those who smell bad, rich and poor, black and white, those whom we like and those whom we don’t, Republicans and Democrats and Independents, Carolina fans and Duke fans and Wake Forest fans and State fans and even Florida and Boston College fans, those who are popular and those who are unloved, the educated and the simple, the cultured and the unrefined—everyone—we are called to invite everyone into God’s presence, to cast our net wide and haul them all in and then let the Master Fisherman figure out what He’s going to do with all of ‘em once they’re in the boat.

No wonder you can’t do this job part-time. It just shows that a relationship with Jesus, like any other relationship, is a continual, daily, intense thing. There are times it’s going to be hard and challenging and gut-wrenching. There are times when people will say all sorts of things about you. There are times you’ll be absolutely exhausted and overwhelmed by the enormity of the family business.

But look at the payoff. You’ll see it in the eyes of people who never considered that they could possibly be loved or accepted by God. I was discussing this text with Brooke Newsome earlier in the week. Some of you know Brooke. She graduated from ASU last May. She was active in the ministry of the Wesley Foundation, and she became an affiliate member of this church during her time in Boone. She’s now a full-time missionary through the United Methodist Church’s US-2 program, and is in the middle of a 2-year placement at Cunningham Children’s Home in Urbana, Illinois. Many of the kids have been in and out of multiple foster homes and juvenile detention facilities. About 75% of these kids have been sexually abused. All but two are on daily pshychotropic drugs. They are kids society would have otherwise given up on, kids who thought that God could never call their name or have any desire to fish for them.

But through the work of Brooke and the rest of the staff and volunteers, these kids are discovering what it means to be made in the image of God, how much they are loved and valued by the Master Fisherman. She said, “you have no idea what it means to these kids when they have been unloved and unwanted all their lives, and they realize that God not only loves them, but wants them in his net.”

Friends, I realize that we all have our own stuff going on, and our experiences with God have all been different. Maybe God called your name a long time ago, and you walked together, but you’ve been gone for awhile. God wants you back. Or maybe you’ve never really thought that God or anyone else could love you, and you’ve kept your distance. God wants you, too. Or maybe even Christians or some Church somewhere told you that you were outside the reach of God’s net, that God didn’t love you, or that you were somehow a second-class citizen in God’s plan. That’s simply not true. God wants you, too.

Jesus continues to walk the shores of our lives, calling each of our names, and inviting us to be caught up in his net. He wants each and every one of us on his fishing crew, casting the net far and wide – touching every person with his love and grace.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Deep End - Mark 1:4-11 (Blackburn's Chapel)

This morning is “Baptism of the Lord Sunday,” which, as you have probably already figured out, means we’re going to be talking about Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John and also our own baptism. You can see the font is right here in a prominent place, reminding us of baptism throughout the entire service. Right after the sermon, we’ll have an opportunity to reaffirm our baptismal covenant, to recommit ourselves to the great work that God is doing within us, and you’re all invited to be part of that.

Now, as we talk about baptism, you have to realize that this is a topic that also brings out a great many of my gratuitous bad preacher jokes. Indulge me in this one: The Baptist and Methodist were arguing yet again about baptism, as Baptists and Methodists are prone to do when they get together. The Baptist insisted that anyone who received baptism by sprinkling wasn’t actually baptized. “You have to be immersed,” he insisted. The Methodist thought for a minute. “What if you go in up to your knees?” “Not good enough,” came the reply. “What about your waist?” “Still not good enough.” “What if you go in up to your chest, surely that has to count for something!” The Baptist held fast to his argument. “Still not good enough. Unless the top of your head gets wet, it doesn’t count.” The Methodist grinned and said, “Terrific! That’s the part we baptize!”

OK – time to lay bad jokes aside. Let’s turn to today’s Scripture reading:

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Thus begins the Gospel according to St. Mark. Matthew and Luke begin with events that naturally flow into Jesus’ birth, John begins with a theological dissertation that attempts to use our finite language to describe the infinite nature of God.

But not Mark. See if this sounds familiar. Mark begins out in the country, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Mark begins off the beaten track, beyond the end of the bus route, outside the reach of the cell phone towers. Mark begins on the banks of a narrow, shallow river in a place that is barely a wide spot on an infrequently-traveled road. ­May we pray.

It is commonly accepted that Mark is the oldest Gospel. These words we have just read are the first words to be written down about Jesus. When I sit down to write a sermon, the beginning point is often the toughest part. By the time I have finished reading and studying and researching, I have a general idea of what I want to say. I know the main point I intend to make. I know much of the content I want to cover. I have an idea what illustrations and stories and jokes I’ll use. I know how I want you to respond, and I know what I want the “take-home” assignment to be. But boy, that beginning point is hard. I know that I’ve got a limited window to capture your attention. I want to set the scene for you, and allow you to imagine with me where we’re going to be headed over the course of the next 20 minutes. Sometimes I want to make you laugh, sometimes I want to make you cry, sometimes I want to make you think, and sometimes I simply want to make you wonder. I know the rules of good communication, that I am supposed to tell you what I’m going to say, and then say it, and then tell you what I just said.

Granted my grandfather had a different rule of three. He said, “A good preacher should stand up to be seen, speak up to be heard, and shut up to be appreciated.” He also shared several other axioms with me as I grew up. One time, he told me, “You know, I’ve heard plenty of good 15-minute sermons given in 45.” And another time, “that preacher sure passed up a lot of good stopping points.”

I imagine that, for Mark, as he sat down to write this Gospel, he thought long and hard about what he wanted the Church to know about Jesus. I imagine he thought, “What’s the most important thing I want to say about Jesus? What’s the first thing I want them to know?”

And so, I think this starting point of Mark, Jesus’ baptism in the country at age 30, this beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, was a carefully chosen event. That is not to say that everything that happened before Jesus’ baptism is unimportant or insignificant, but for Mark, the real life of the story begins at baptism.

Perhaps Mark is making more of a theological point here than we first gave credit. Because for those who claim the name of Christian, our spiritual lives also begin at baptism. And there are three components to that spiritual life that I want us to focus on today.

The first is cleansing. It may seem obvious here, but water is used to clean. Have you ever had the experience of getting really nasty, dirty, sweaty somewhere and then having an opportunity to take a bath? I remember back when I was about 14 years old, our church youth group went to a youth convention in Fort Collins, Colorado. With several other churches, we chartered three tour buses to make the drive from Niagara Falls to Colorado. I don’t know if you’ve ever made that drive, but it’s about 36 hours straight.

We left at midnight between Sunday and Monday, and arrived shortly after noon on Tuesday. Now, it was the end of July. Even in western New York, it is hot at the end of July, and much like around here, not everyone has air conditioning, including my family. I was 14, my glands were working overtime, and I hadn’t yet realized that you could take showers at times other than the beginning of the day. I was still trying to figure out that whole ratio of how much deodorant and cologne you’re supposed to wear. In those days, I was wearing too little of one, and too much of the other. So, after what had already been a long, hot, sweaty day, I climbed aboard a tour bus for a 36-hour ride. I was pretty gross when I got on the bus; you can imagine how nasty I was when we finally got to Colorado.

The first thing I did after we checked into the dorms was to take a long, hot shower. I stood there under water that normally would have been way too hot and felt it pour over me, just washing the grime and filth and nastiness away. I distinctly remember thinking that no shower or bath in all my life to that point had felt so good.

I think that’s sorta what baptism does for us. But instead of washing away the grime on the outside, it makes us new on the inside. It does beg the question, though, does more water equal more cleansing? This is a question Christians have argued about and divided over throughout the centuries. Which is the right way? Dunking? Sprinkling? Pouring? Does more water equal more covenant? Does less water mean less of God’s grace?

You already know the answer to this. The power in baptism does not increase because you used a waterfall or a firehose. The power in baptism does not come from Pastor A.J. or Reverend So-and-so or Preacher Whats-his-name or even John the Baptist. The power comes from God. The power comes when we link up God’s Spirit and life-giving Word with simple things. Spirit + Word + Water = Baptism. Spirit + Word + bread and wine = Communion. It is God who does the good work within us and through us and on our behalf.

That brings us to the second aspect of what baptism is. First, as we’ve just said, it’s cleansing. Secondly, it’s claiming. In today’s Gospel reading, Mark tells us that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism and a voice was heard from heaven: “This is my beloved son.” Baptism is a time when God claims us, places a mark on us, if you will, as members of the family God.

Did you know that I have never performed a Methodist baptism? It’s true. I only perform Christian baptisms. Baptism claims people as Christians in the name of God, not as members of a particular denomination. There is no such thing as a Methodist baptism, or a Baptist baptism, or a Lutheran baptism, or a Presbyterian baptism, or a Catholic baptism, or a Biblical baptism. There is only one baptism – a Christian baptism. Baptism claims each of us as belonging to God in Christ.

You all remember several years when the Harry Potter craze hit. I had several people who wanted to know what the church’s stance on Harry Potter was. I thought, “Our stance?” The comment came from people who were concerned that Harry Potter was going to teach impressionable children about witchcraft and sorcery. Now, I happen to think Harry Potter is a great story that teaches a whole lot of other things about life, and coming of age, and difficult family circumstances, and meaningful relationships and friendships; how evil it is depends on how evil you choose to make it. There, that’s my stance on Harry Potter!

You may remember that in the story, Harry is scarred on his forehead as an infant, and that because of that scar, or that mark, he has a very specific role in overcoming the forces of evil. In that mark, a claim is made on his life. If you can understand that, then you can understand the similar way God marks us and claims us as His own in baptism. Baptism seals us with a new identity as God claims us as members of His family. As God did with Jesus, God looks at each of us and says, “This is my beloved daughter.” “This is my beloved son.” Baptism marks the beginning of a brand new life that belongs to God.

And it is belonging to God that brings us to the third aspect of what baptism accomplishes. First, it cleanses us from the inside out. Second, it claims us as God’s own. Third, it commissions us to participate in God’s ministry.

Do you remember learning to swim? Maybe you took lessons. Maybe you had a family member or friend who guided you through the process. Maybe your experience was like mine, in which an older sibling took it as their responsibility to throw you in the deep end. Regardless of what your experience was, there is one critical thing you have to do to learn how to swim. At some point, you have to get in the water. On the sideline, you can practice technique, perfect your stroke, and learn how to breathe. But at some point, what makes you a swimmer is that you actually get in the water.

The Christian life is the same way. You can’t be a Christian from the sidelines. You have to live the life God has called you to lead—a life of healing the sick, and welcoming the stranger, and feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked—a life of sharing the good news anywhere and through every means you can.

God wants you in the water. God wants you in ministry. It is not only pastors and missionaries and other so-called “professional” ministers who do God’s work. In baptism, God cleanses us, and claims us as members of his family, and then commissions us with the work of that family. Jesus said he was on earth to be about his Father’s business, and that’s exactly what we, as his followers, are to be about as well. Look around, and you will see opportunities for ministry everywhere. There are always people in need of God’s love and healing and grace; there are always people to whom we can be the hands and feet of Christ.

It’s a commission that comes with a promise. Jesus told us to baptize and make disciples, and promised that he would be with us, even unto the very end of the age. In his writings, St. Paul says that God, who began the good work within us by claiming us as His own at baptism, would see the work through. We are not in this alone, but we work as members of God’s family, united with Christ, and united with one another.

Perhaps you are here this morning and you have never been baptized. If that’s the case, I want to talk with you. Baptism is a huge, life-giving commitment to God, and I would be honored to help you make that commitment.

For those who have been baptized, I want to give you a chance to reaffirm the covenant made at your baptism, however long ago that was. Think of this as being similar to renewing your marriage vows. From time to time, married couples renew their vows, not in order to be re-married, but as a way of recommitting themselves to one another. So too, in renewing our baptismal vows we each have the opportunity to recommit ourselves to God. You’ll see in your bulletin that I am about to ask you the same vows that were made at your baptism. Then, if you choose, you are invited to come forward, where I will touch the water and then make the sign of the cross on your forehead and say, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.”

I invite you now to take advantage of this opportunity to recommit yourselves to Christ, as you remember that God continues to cleanse you, has claimed you as His own, and commissioned you for a life in ministry in service to the world.