What a wonderful day today is. We have received 12 new members and baptized a father and two of his children (LaDon, Zen and Lyric). Spouse Shannon and daughter Lotus took this step a few months ago.
We continue a tradition that has been carried on for over 2,000 years. Women and men, young and old, rich and poor, of every race, creed and color, of every orientation, and ability – from the dark and musty catacombs of Rome, to the magnificent baptistery at Dora Europa in Eastern Syria; from the sublime cathedrals to the humble parish church – in times of persecution, revolution, reformation, empire – people have come to kneel, to confess, to become and belong – to be dipped, dunked, splattered – and join the church.
It is amazing to me. I forget sometimes, when I get caught up in the business and the drama and the personalities and the agendas and the politics, that still people want to be a part of the community of Jesus; even if they don’t quite know what it all means.
A community of people who lean in to catch a glimpse of some holiness in their lives. A community of persons whose individual stories are as varied as they are. A community connected, interpreted, revealed, and redeemed by the story of Jesus. Jesus, the one who shows us God, who shows us a God of love so profound that nothing separates us, nothing, no matter what we do, no matter how matter how far we try to run because we always end up running into the arms of the one who created us, and the one who redeemed us and the one who inspires us. Spirit calling to spirit. A community of imperfect but blessed, holy, beloved, talented, forgiven people – yes you!
Really, look around. Look at us, look at yourselves and your community. We profess that this is the day that the Lord has made; this is the community that will do God’s work; this is the community that will reveal hope, and light, and love and joy in the midst of the pain and the confusion and the marvelous craziness of this world. Sometimes I need this re-awakening, this renewal because it gets hard sometimes.
We can, as Christians, get narrow and closed minded and petty and bitter. We can become more holy than God where perfection becomes the enemy of the good.
The story goes that a public sinner was excommunicated and forbidden entry to the church. He took his woes to God. ‘They won’t let me in, Lord, because I am a sinner.”
‘What are you complaining about?’ said God. “They won’t let Me in either!”
But we can also go long and deep and broad and expansive and inclusive!
Anne Lamott shares this little story in her book Grace (Eventually). Anne awakens on a Sunday in a foul mood. Everything is going wrong with her son, her friends and family, with the world. With those dark clouds hanging over her, Lamott writes:
Then I headed to church. And it was not good. The service was way long, and boring, and only three people had shown up for the choir, and the song they sang sucked. There was a disruptive baby who spoiled everything for the rest of us. I sat with a look of grim munificence, like so many of your better Christians, exuding mental toxins into the atmosphere. I decided that this church was deteriorating. I had come for a spiritual booster shot and instead got aggravation. I was going to leave, and never come back.
Then something amazing happened. I would call it grace, but then, I’m easy. It was that deeper breath, or pause, or briefly cleaner glasses, that gives us a bit of freedom and relief. I remembered my secular father’s only strong spiritual directive: ‘Don’t be a [jerk], and make sure everybody eats.’ Veronica quoted a fellow pastor recently: “I’m only a beggar, showing the other beggars where the bread is.” There are many kinds of bread: kindness, companionship, besides the flour-and-yeast kind…I realized I was going to get through this disappointing service, and anyway, you have to be somewhere: better here, where I have heard truth spoken so often, than, say, at the DMV, or home alone, orbiting my own mind. And it’s good to be out where others can see you, so you can’t be your ghastly, spoiled self. It forces you to act slightly more elegantly, and this improves your thoughts, and thereby the world.
Sometimes it truly is just that easy (and just that hard) to live the by the directive: “Don’t be an [jerk], and make sure everybody eats.”
Now, of course, Clover’s and my sermons are never boring and the choir never “sucks!” Amen?
But you know, Lamott is correct. How many times have you come here, and perhaps the sermon or the anthem didn’t touch a chord, but then you went into Fellowship Hall and someone said just the word you needed to hear?
Yes, the church is an institution, called to make a difference in the world, but first and foremost it is a family – the family of God – a collection of riff-raff, and sinners, and precious people.
And St. Paul invites you and me, in this crazy little letter to churches in the region of Turkey called Galatia, to engage with what it means to be community. What it means to be free in Christ, what it means to live as if nothing could hold you back, what it means to live a forgiven and forgiving life. What it means to be imperfect and impetuous and even at times irreverent and still saved and cleansed and called. Nowhere else will you hear this.
If Paul were alive today he would write like Anne Lamott: don’t be a jerk and make sure everyone eats! Paul offers such simple, clear and right on advice about living in community, wisdom from your granny. We are known by our actions; a tree is known by its fruit. We reveal Jesus to others by how we live and how we get along.
Friends, Paul writes, if you see someone sinning, or doing something that you don’t like, please remember how you would like to be treated. Be gentle, not a jerk. Speak your truth, but in love. Share how it ought to be done, but with humility. Don’t fall into the temptation that you alone are the arbiter of what right and proper. What is hard to understand about that?
Bear one another’s burden. If you want to see Christ in action around here, notice those who are in some nook and cranny of this building shedding a tear together. Volunteer at the pantry lunch, or hand out food to those who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Go down on Sunday evenings and enjoy the fellowship on Euclid Ave. in East Cleveland. You begin to get some insight into the words of Jesus about: “my burden is easy and my yoke is light!” You know in your gut that this is true!
Remember the time when someone cared for you, said something to you, when you yearned for community and received it. It isn’t that difficult.
“All must test their own work…” Paul tells you and me to look in the mirror. Michael Jackson put it this way:
I’m starting with the man in the mirror
and no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change
You will reap what you sow – your life will reflect your deepest concerns and needs – if you are living in the spirit. Clover reminded us last week that the fruits of the spirit are: love, joy, patience, kindness, and self-control, and that “there are no laws against such things.” The fruits of the Spirit build up, support, liberate. What is not to like about this? Is there anything that is untrue in these words? They don’t even need to be interpreted: just lived.
Each time there is a baptism, each time we receive new members, we renew and reclaim and re-commit that we will be a community that does not grow weary of doing good to ourselves, to each other, and to the world.
What’s not to like about that?