Packing Light

My wife and I were raised in the faith community of the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, DE.  As a part of their sixtieth anniversary this congregation invited me to preach the sermon on October 29, 2017.  Coincidentally, this was the room in which I was ordained to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament on October 28, 1990.  Perhaps NOT coincidentally, the worship service at Trinity on 10/29/17 began with the commissioning of a “Disaster Response Team” (ostensibly for relief in parts of West Virginia, but I have my suspicions that this had something to do with my ordination…).  The scriptures for the day, included in the audio portion, were Matthew 22:34-46 and Colossians 3:12-17.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click the link below:

In her profoundly beautiful and deeply disturbing novel The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver tells the story of a fiery evangelical Baptist who leaves the hills of Georgia in 1959 in order to take his wife and his four young daughters to be missionaries in the Belgian Congo. The book opens with young Leah describing how the family packed for what they imagined would be a year in the heart of “the dark continent”. Her mother had spent weeks laying out what she thought of as “the bare minimum” in the spare room: Betty Crocker cake mixes, Underwood Deviled Ham, a dozen number two pencils, and so on. However, they encountered a challenge:

Just when we considered ourselves fully prepared and were fixing to depart, lo and behold, we learned that the Pan American Airline would only allow forty-four pounds to be carried across the ocean. Forty-four pounds of luggage per person, and not one iota more. Why, we were dismayed by this bad news! Who’d have thought there would be limits on modern jet-age transport? When we added up all our forty-four pounds together, including Ruth May’s—luckily she counted as a whole person even though she’s small—we were sixty-one pounds over…
We were nearly stumped. And then, hallelujah! At the last possible moment, saved. Through an oversight (or else probably, if you think about it, just plain politeness), they don’t weigh the passengers. The Southern Baptist Mission League gave us this hint, without coming right out and telling us to flout the law of the forty-four pounds, and from there we made our plan. We struck out for Africa carrying all our excess baggage on our bodies, under our clothes. Also, we had clothes under our clothes. My sisters and I left home wearing six pairs of underdrawers, two half-slips and camisoles; several dresses one on top of the other, with pedal pushers underneath; and outside of everything an all-weather coat. (The encyclopedia advised us to count on rain). The other goods, tools, cake-mix boxes and so forth were tucked out of sight in our pockets and under our waistbands, surrounding us in a clanking armor.[1]

Having led more than one planeload of would-be missionaries to Africa, I laughed when I read about the strategy of the Price family – because I know that it’s true. At the heart of that narrative is a question with which anyone who’s ever left home has struggled: How will we be able to survive in this new and foreign place without the things that we are sure we’ll need?

In fact, as I stand here thinking about that family and their struggle to enter a new place, I cannot help but reflect on the events that took place in this very room on October 28, 1990. Some very wise, thoughtful people representing both this congregation and the Church of Jesus Christ stood in front of the body that had assembled and testified that you, and they, had done everything possible to prepare me for a vocation in the pastorate. And they weren’t lying, I can tell you.

In 1990 – myself with my daughter, my father, and my wife.

I’d somehow managed to cram a three-year graduate degree into 8 years of study. I’d been to four seminaries, worked in three Presbyteries, and had already been employed by two different denominations. I had boxes and boxes of books that were filled with underlining and highlighting, a plethora of wall hangings, and files and files of paper. I belonged to caucuses within the church and had served on committees; I had stood up for issues and made sure that people knew my positions on the important matters of the day.

And when I stood in this chancel on that day, I felt like I had a lot to carry with me into this new land of ministry. It was a wonderful day in so many ways. My good friend Kate Killebrew Salmon preached a whale of a sermon, and then I knelt on the slate floor here and people like Stu Wysham and Barbara Price Martin put their hands on me and prayed and I felt the weight of all I’d been given and everything I’d carried with me, and it seemed as if my knees would be ground right into the floor.

But that day was not just about me – it was about this church sending one of its children into the world. And I think that for the church, it was a good day.

You came by it honestly, of course. Just a few decades before, you’d been started on a journey yourselves by the good and wise people of New Castle Presbytery. You found yourselves plopped down on a few acres in a growing area, and held the worship services in the old farmhouse.

Brandywine Hundred was up and coming in those days. There were plenty of new families moving into the community, and a number of them ended up here… and so the Venables and the Tills met folks like the McCoys and the Carvers and the Chubbs and the Smrz’s. There was a great opportunity for growth, and the church had to get crack-a-lackin if it was going to claim northern Delaware for Christendom and Presbyterianism.

You started in a farmhouse, but you had an entrepreneurial spirit and big ideas. Soon enough, we had the Naaman’s wing. There was space for worship, a giant tree under which we could enjoy lemonade in the warm weather, and the remnants of an orchard where I could pick cherries or pears or apples while I waited for my parents to quit talking and get me home to play.

Growth and fruitfulness were the order of the day, in fact. The sanctuary was added, and later on the “new building”, or the Darley wing, which contained all sorts of spiffy new rooms in which you trusted the likes of a teenaged Dave Carver to teach your second-graders their Sunday school lessons. It was a good place to be, and a fine place to grow up.

Trinity Presbyterian Church, like thousands of other congregations scattered across North America, functioned as a vendor of religious services to a culture that was overwhelmingly Christian. The hope, I believe, was to produce fine citizens and servant-leaders who had a heart for Jesus. I learned something about life and ministry and went to college where I continued to work with children and youth – although I will confess that a good bit of the time my early work with young people seemed to be about keeping “our” kids chaste and sober until they came to their senses and embraced the “faith of our fathers…”

Trinity Presbyterian, Dave Carver, and the entire North American church, by and large, did this because we were pretty convinced that the future would closely resemble the past. We built ministries around the culture and the landscapes that we knew. We filled our days and hours making sure that we were orthodox – that we had the right ideas and beliefs about the world, because we knew that having the correct answers mattered – it mattered a lot.

And then… the world changed. It didn’t happen overnight, necessarily, but it sure changed quickly and dramatically.

This church, and a thousand like it, was built in the expectation that people who had been faithful somewhere else would move into this neighborhood and continue to practice the orthodoxy they’d learned in some other place. We’d have kids, of course, and reach out to the few people who didn’t have a place to worship regularly (without being pushy, of course). Mostly, though, we’d keep doing what we’d always done, teaching the answers that had always worked so well for us.

Except it didn’t really work out that way, did it? I mean, when I stand at the corner of “Real Life” Avenue and “21st Century America” Street with my collection of diplomas, books, orthodox ideas and doctrinally correct positions, I am regarded with as much suspicion by the natives as was the Price family when they arrived in the Belgian Congo laden with Betty Crocker mixes, pinking shears, and Absorbine Jr.

And we – the church of Jesus Christ – have had to learn (again) that what matters most is not what we carry, but rather staying in touch with the One who sent us – to Brandywine Hundred, to Pittsburgh, and to 2017.

The Pharisees and Saducees who encountered Jesus on that day in temple were not bad people. Heck, if any one of them walked through the door this morning they’d probably be approached by the nominating committee in the hopes that they’d be willing to serve as an officer here. They were wise, seasoned believers who were trying desperately to keep the faith that they’d received from their ancestors. The problem, of course, was that the “faith” had been confused with a lot of other things, and by the time that Jesus entered the Temple, these decent men and women were holding on to all kinds of things that they did not need.

Matthew 21, 22, and 23 describe a series of encounters between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. They wanted to see his diploma, check his orthodoxy, and make sure that he’d read all the right books. And in return, Jesus looked at them and said, “You guys are making this way harder than it needs to be. You know this stuff, for crying out loud. Love God with all that you are and with all that you have. And love your neighbor.”

Which isn’t so scary, really, in a world where my neighbor looks like me, believes like me, and votes like me.

And today, two thousand years later, there are decent women and men of faith who look at Jesus and say, “I hear what you’re saying, Lord, but to tell you the truth, my neighbor is a Muslim. My neighbor has three kids to three different fathers. My neighbor is an addict, or is homophobic, and I’m pretty sure that my neighbor voted for that person.”

We look at Jesus and we say those things as if we somehow expected Jesus to stop and say, “What? For real? Well, gee whiz, I never thought of that! Of course, if you’re going to love God, you can’t possibly be expected to tolerate people like that in your life…”

And some of us are so surprised by the fact that Jesus doesn’t take us off the hook that we simply pretend that he says all that stuff anyway.

But of course, he leaves us on the hook. He tells us to travel light. He keeps on asking us to trust him more than we trust the books that line the walls of my study… to trust him more than we trust our own ideas or inclinations.

Jesus Sends Out the 72, by James Tissot

And we remember that when Jesus sent anyone anywhere, he never said, “Hey, make sure you take an extra suitcase of good stuff, because you never know what kind of knuckleheads you’re going to run into out there…” He told us to pack lightly, and to trust that the One who was sending us would make a way for us when the time was right.

Listening to and following Jesus can be way scarier than anything you’ve got planned for Halloween. But I think that the only way to stay rooted in the Divine intention is to practice that kind of faithfulness.

When I take a group to Africa, I tease them about the 17 bottles of sunscreen, or the rolls of Duct tape, or the boxes of granola that they cram into their suitcases. I tell them about the Price family and The Poisonwood Bible.

But as I consider how Leah Price and her sisters layered up before they got on the airplane, I remember the words of Paul that invite us to take small suitcases but to wear lots of layers. “Put on”, says the old saint, “layer upon layer of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and forgiveness. Don’t pack these away – wear them every day. And at all times, keep yourself wrapped in love for God and neighbor.”

There’s one thing that I have carried ever since October 28, 1990. So far as I know, it’s never gone out of style and it never will. It’s a tiny communion kit that was handed to me by Carson Herr as a gift from this congregation. It’s gotten beaten up. It’s tarnished and dented. The felt inside the case is getting threadbare, and the outside is held together by Duct tape and replacement hinges. The original plastic bottle wore out and sprung a leak about a decade ago.

But whenever I use it, or see it, I remember the words I learned here. Do this. Do this – offer yourself in love to the people who need what you have because you remember how God, in Christ, has offered God’s self to you. Do this in remembrance of me.

I can’t find my diplomas. I lost a lot of books when my study flooded in 2010. I’ve changed my mind on a lot of issues. But this? Well, I think it’s all I need.

And, thanks be to God, you have one too. May God bless you in the next sixty years of doing, remembering, and loving. And don’t forget to layer up when you go out there. Amen.

 

[1] The Poisonwood Bible (Harper paperback, 2003, pp. 16-18).

A God Who Is Baptized

The message from our worship on The Baptism of our Lord Sunday, January 11.  Scriptures included Psalm 29 and Mark 1:4-11.

Is Jesus God?

I have to tell you, this is one of those trick questions that you should not really answer out loud in church. How we answer that question depends on a lot of things, not the least of which is context and definition of terms.

The Martyrdom of Polycarp (unknown artist)

The Martyrdom of Polycarp (unknown artist)

For instance, in about 160 AD, a man named Polycarp, a leader of the church in Asia Minor, and the man who was thought to be the last person who knew one of the twelve apostles personally (he was a student of John), was brought before the governor in the stadium in the Turkish town of Smyrna. “Say it,” the governor said. “Caesar is Lord.” Polycarp, who was then about a hundred years old, said, “No. Jesus is Lord.” The Governor pressed him, threatening him with ferocious beasts and fire and death, but the old man said, “86 years have I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” And so Bishop Polycarp became one of the most celebrated of the Christian martyrs, a man who would rather die than refuse to say that Jesus is Lord.

1900 years later, a young man by the name of Mansfield Kaseman caused quite a stir in the Presbyterian Church when he was asked during his ordination trials, “Is Jesus God?” Kaseman said, “No. Jesus is Jesus. God is God.” Oh, you should have been there that day! People quit the church, and there was generally great weeping and gnashing of teeth.

But here’s the thing: I think that in some very important way, the mystery of our faith is that both Polycarp and Kaseman were correct. Jesus, the Son, is fully divine. But he is not God the Father or God the Spirit. And Jesus, the messiah, is fully human. But he is not me and he is not you. One of the things that the Bible seems pretty emphatic about is that Jesus is one being, and that he is at once entirely human and entirely divine. I’m not sure that makes sense. But I’m sure that it’s true.

In the stories that we normally read around Christmas, Matthew and Luke point us to the events leading up to and around the stable in Bethlehem. These gospels attest to the amazing circumstances of Jesus’ identity, and establish his credibility as the Son of God, and therefore fully divine.

When Mark wants to tell the story of Jesus, he introduces him to us as a full-grown adult. There are no stories of his nativity. He is an itinerant Rabbi who goes, like hundreds if not thousands of others, out to the wilderness to be baptized by another Rabbi, named John, who just happens to be his cousin.

Matthew takes half of two chapters to tell us who Jesus is: There are genealogies and stories of his birth and infancy that help cement the relationship between God the Father and God the Son.

Luke goes into even more detail, using almost two entire chapters to give us the same attestations.

Mark, however, gives us three verses at the beginning of his Gospel that help us understand the relationship between God the Father, God the Son, God the Spirit, and us. Listen:

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.” (Mark 1:9-11, NRSV)

In only three short verses, we learn some amazing things. For instance…

We are told that God the Father is awesome and powerful. The phrase “he saw the heavens torn apart” is there to remind us of the reading we shared from the Old Testament this morning, Psalm 29, that describes God’s power, God’s holiness, and God’s ‘otherness’.

We see that God the Holy Spirit is present, and doing what we expect the Holy Spirit to be doing in any age and any time – pointing to the truth in ways that God’s people can see and accept.

We are told in those phrases that Jesus is the Son – just like Matthew and Luke have been telling us. In the person and being of the Son, the Father is well-pleased. Whoever or Whatever God is, Jesus is part of that. And Whoever or Whatever Jesus is, God is filling Him.

And, of course, Mark uses these three verses to tell us something that didn’t happen to the baby Jesus in the manger: he was baptized.

Why? Why would Jesus be baptized?

I mean, when most of you have brought your children to me and asked me to help facilitate their baptisms, I have asked you why you want to share this sacrament with those children. And almost always, you mumble something about sin and forgiveness and acceptance. Jesus is clearly accepted by God. And we hold to the truth that Jesus did not sin and therefore does not require forgiveness.

So why baptism? If Jesus is God – or even Godly, or God-like – why should he be baptized?

The Christmas stories are told so that we might know that God came here. The virgin birth, the worship of the wise men, the fulfillment of prophecy – they all tell us that Jesus is God for us. In a very personal and immediate way, God demonstrates that God is not removed from us and not isolated from us. God came down at Christmas. God is here.

The Baptism of Jesus is here to tell us that the baby born in Bethlehem who grew up as the carpenter’s son and went on to become a Rabbi is really a human being. We learn at Christmas that God is here. We learn today that Jesus is one of us.

That’s kind of hard to get your head around, isn’t it? How can one being be 100% one thing and 100% another thing? Jesus is God. Jesus is human.

Some of the folks who were leading the early Christian Movement shared a belief that has come to be called “Docetism”. The people who taught this were convinced that Jesus was fully God – and because he was so fully God, he could not really be human. The Greek word  dokéo means “to seem”, and those who held this belief swore up and down that there was no way that Jesus could have been human. It only looked like a real body. Jesus was not a man, he was God wearing a man-suit. As God, Jesus was entirely Spirit, and timeless, and existed only as an aura. So Jesus could not have really been born. And he could not truly suffer. And surely, God cannot die. So Jesus, as much as he looked like the real deal, was not really a human.

The baptismal story of Mark, though, is the Gospel’s way of telling us that whatever else he may have been, Jesus was one of us. In presenting us with a messiah who goes through the process of baptism, the Gospel tells us that in Jesus, God himself entered fully into the human condition. Jesus, the Son of God, bore the effects and marks of sin.

“But wait!” you say. “Jesus didn’t sin!”

No, he didn’t. But he took on all the freight of sin and bore its consequences. Even though he didn’t do it, he paid for it.

You know what that looks like. Think of the woman who has never had a drop of alcohol in her life. She is a real tee-totaler. Driving home from work, she gets plowed into by a fellow who’s three sheets to the wind and she, who never drank, winds up in a rehab facility for three months, learning how to walk again. She, who abstained, bears the effects of alcoholism.

Or you, who are, presumably, either a man or a woman. And let’s say that you’ve never in your life had an impure thought about the opposite sex. You have always thought of people with grace and kindness and goodness in your heart. But still, when you are with others, you must be aware of the fact that not everyone is like that. The sins of gender conflict, sexism, and sexual violence affect everyone in some way or another.

Jesus’ willingness to go to John for baptism is an indicator that he was fully aware of the effects of sin in the world and that he was entirely prepared to live with those effects – even when he himself was not a sinner.

Those effects included having to put up with the denseness of his friends and followers and the limitations of their ability to process his message.

His motives and purposes were questioned at every turn. Almost everything he said or did was misread or misinterpreted by people who thought that they had power.

Jesus bore the weight of sin when he was forced to watch people that he loved, people that he cared about, people that he created – go through great pain, suffering, and death.

Even though he himself did not sin, Jesus was forced to undergo violent treatment and torture and endure the distortion of his own, sinless, flesh. And, of course Jesus died. He really died. He didn’t seem to die, pretend to die, or look like he died. He died.

Jesus, the son of Mary, the Son of God, was really a human being. He was really baptized. He really died. He was really resurrected from the dead.

And because Jesus, the son of Mary, the Son of God, was fully human, that means that I can be fully human, too.

There is no part of my life that I need to hide from God. There is nothing about me that makes God scratch God’s head (or whatever it is that God does when and if God wonders) and think, “Hmmm. Well, that little bit of humanity is just too much for me. I’ll never figure those little rascals out.” Because Jesus is human, Jesus “gets” me. Thanks be to God, Jesus knows who I am, what I’m about, where I’m stained, how I’m bent, and what kinds of pathetic behavior I’ve thought about or done…and he loves me anyway.

Is Jesus God? Yes, yes he is, in the sense that he is an eternal, creative, loving presence that participates in all that is, and has been, and will be. That is indeed Good News.

The Gospel reading for today gives us even better news: that Jesus is human. In the person of Jesus, I am presented with a model, a hope, a reality that declares that my earthly existence matters. By entering fully into humanity, God has declared that this life matters, too.

When I was in High School, I was in the marching band. During the football games, we would go out onto the field and move around in shapes and patterns while we played. The one thing that we all had to learn to do was “Mark time”. If you were in the marching band, your feet were supposed to be moving – even if you weren’t going anywhere. So I played a lot of trombone while I was pretending to march.

Listen: we are not just marking time in this life. We are not sent to this earth to simply wait for heaven, where we get in on the “real” action. Jesus is human.

Your body is good. The creation is good. What we do with these bodies and in this world – it matters.

Because God in Christ honored the body by having one of his own, I am compelled to love myself, and others, and the world the way that I would love Jesus were he here beside me. Because God in Christ has honored the body by having one, we can dwell with the encouragement that is offered by Psalm 29. The same Psalm that describes the amazing strength and power of God concludes with this blessing:

May the Lord give strength to his people!

May the Lord bless his people with peace! (Psalm 29:11, NRSV)

In Jesus Christ, that’s exactly what God has done. The power that shakes mountains and breaks cedars and flashes fire and strips the forest bare and thunders over the waters is with us…and on us…and in us…and for us.

I want to live as if I believe that that is true. For me, for you, and for those that I continue to think of as “them.”

Jesus, the Son of Mary, the Son of God, has come to enter fully into our reality. Thanks be to God for the promises that brings. Now, may we have the strength and the courage to enter fully the reality into which we are sent. Amen.