January 14 Sermon

A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
for January 14, 2018 celebrating the Baptism of Christ
on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend
Based on Mark 1:4-11

The gospel of Mark begins the story of Jesus with Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan River. In this passage we are told that God’s own voice spoke confirming Jesus’ identity.

Some weeks, sermon writing is like a dartboard: some message is so evident that writing the sermon is a matter of focusing on that single bull’s eye. It might be the scripture passage, or a holiday, or a church event, or some experience during the week. Some weeks sermon writing is like an old-time arcade shooting gallery – you know, ducks on a belt going round and round, targets on swinging pendulums, targets that pop up briefly then disappear, and lots of lights and buzzers to distract the shooter. Preparing this week’s message has been more like the arcade than a dartboard.

With one statement, one word, the president has disparaged an entire continent – and a national debate erupts if it is really racism. This on the weekend celebrating a national hero in civil rights; is the timing accidental? It comes in a week following a powerful testimony by Oprah about the power of speaking up, speaking out – followed by her silly assessments of the mudslides near her California home.

As I conclude my ministry with you, I feel responsible to accomplish three things: to thank you for allowing me to minister with you; to speak hope for new ministries with your soon-to-arrive called pastor; and to hold up a mirror to you about your life together as a congregation. And because of the calendar, those three tasks get compressed into two Sundays.

As I said, sometimes preparing the message is shaped by a holiday. I know my limitations: I am not the same caliber preacher as Dr. King. I do feel responsible for honoring his legacy, responsible to speak to the issues he was addressing of racial hatred, class inequality, the manipulation of government and economics and media to benefit some and hold down others, especially on the basis of their ethnicity. I found a very nice resource published by the UCC using some words by Dr. King; where I used that resource in today’s service, the words of Dr. King are unlined.

The church calendar and the assigned gospel lesson direct us to consider how Jesus is recognized as Christ. That’s the entire theme for the weeks of Epiphany: every Sunday between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday is intended to be a new and renewed understanding of recognizing Christ. For me, that also means finding ways to express our faith as we engage the issues of the world.

That’s what Jesus did, that’s what Martin Luther King did, that’s what we are called to do – not the same issues, not with the same ferocious passion, not even expecting the same impact – yet nevertheless demonstrating an active faith addressing the current issues. That may be the bullseye target I am seeking.

We are in the midst of a raging culture war. It’s been going on for at least three decades, but it is becoming even more polarized. It’s been oversimplified as right versus left, with alt right and extreme identity politics on the far margins. Oversimplified, I say, because no one is completely aligned on all the issues. I believe people throughout the spectrum are looking to religious institutions for answers; some are seeking confirmation of the answers they already have for themselves, but many are looking for a faith response that engages the complexity, seeking justice without fostering hatred. Lyonsville, what do you have to offer for making sense within the complexity of our current culture?

I know you well enough that you will not take a congregational stand – partly because you are not united in your perspective, partly because as a congregation you shy away from confrontation, partly because you are afraid to offend someone out there, some yet-unknown potential new member, and thus potentially turn them away. That’s commendable – or would be if you were more explicitly committed to practices of open dialogue. Having a safe space to explore opinions, having a place to examine social issues with integrity, having guidelines to explicitly insure compassion, to protect dignity, to integrate prayer: those are things people in our culture are longing for as expressions of Christ’s presence, as examples of being disciples of the living Christ. As demonstrations of what it means to be the church.

Having a viewpoint and a social commitment, creating spaces for open dialogue, accepting opposing viewpoints without rejecting the person expressing those positions: those are powerful demonstrations of love. If they are expectations you have of people who are baptized, if they are expectations you have of being part of the church, if they are expectations you have of being a living disciple, then you as a congregation need to become explicit about how to do those things. Maybe those things are not what you expect from a community of baptized followers responding to God’s grace.

OK; they are not the only hallmarks of faithfulness. So then, what are the hallmarks you expect people to uphold? Would you permit someone to make comments about people from other countries, people of differing ethnicities, denigrating the assumed economic capabilities of people based on their race, the kind of comments our president has been making? If those comments were made by a visitor at today’s fellowship hour, would you quietly, politely, inoffensively just let those comments go unchallenged, or will you as a congregation confront such hatred? What are the standards for behavior for being part of this expression of church, for this community of discipleship, behaviors necessary for sustaining the heritage of Lyonsville?

Lyonsville, you have two great opportunities in front of you. One is working with Sean as your pastor. Don’t assume his values are the same as yours. In some ways, on some issues, regarding some practices they will be aligned – but he’s human, so in some ways, on some issues, regarding some practices he is going to disagree with you. How will you express to him the core values of the congregation – and similarly, how will you allow him to direct the expression of those core values? After all, you called him as your pastor and teacher: have you been preparing to learn from him?

Second, you are rapidly approaching the celebration of Lyonsville’s 175th anniversary – 127 days from today! (Just for reference, Labor Day was 131 days ago.) This anniversary can be a time for reviewing Lyonsville’s history, finding expressions of core values – but also for expressing visions of how those values will be expressed through future ministries, how love will be made concrete, how faith is made into an activity.

Exploring your shared identity and finding its expression transforms this work of being the church together from being a noisy arcade of random targets to focusing you work like darts aimed at a single bullseye. And that is my prayer for this congregation as I depart: that you may find a common, unifying sense of direction for your life together. It’s not simple work, but it is a gift from God, a gift for your own souls, and a gift for a hurting world. It’s not simple work, but it is where I think grace is to be found, for I think it is in our shared identity and shared commitments that we meet Christ. Amen.