Monday, December 28, 2015

Dec 27, 2015: "Christ, Coming of Age"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Psalm 148
NT: Luke 2.41-52
The Christ, Coming of Age

            Several weeks ago, Kerry and I were without television.  No news, no sports, no Real Housewives, no Property Brothers.  It was…nice (except not getting to watch the new episode of Moonshiners).  We realized that we have the TV on way too much, even if we’re not particularly watching.  So we read.  I started a biography, which is my favorite kind of book. 
For me, the appeal of biographies is their honesty.  When you read about someone’s life, it’s never predictable or neat, because our lives never are either.  Biographies contain all the unexpected twists and turns life takes.  For example, did you know Einstein felt his greatest achievement occurred during his 20s, and he never lived up to his own expectations after that?  I didn’t know that. 
My favorite kind of biography is the “coming of age” story.  You know, the story where a young woman or man goes off on their own, discovers their true self, and then begins their adult life. 
The coming of age biography I most want to read has, unfortunately, never been written, and it’s too late now.  Am I the only one who would like to know how Jesus came of age?  There is a twelve year gap in Luke between the time he is born, shortly thereafter presented in the temple, and then travels with his parents to the temple in Jerusalem.  And nowhere else in the Bible does it fill in the gaps. 
Don’t you want to know if he shared his toys in kindergarten?  Did he ever disobey Mary and Joseph?  Was he different than other children?  Did he know who he was?  Or did they have to tell him?  How could they tell him?  Did he pray?  Was his room clean?  Did he do his chores?  Don’t you want to know?
While the sacred stories of the Bible tell us nothing more than Luke about Jesus’ coming of age, sacred texts discovered in a cave in the 1950s, referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls, do have stories about the boy Jesus.  They are what you might expect—stories of a young man learning to live with an enormous burden placed on his shoulders.  Sometimes he deals with it well, sometimes he does not.  If you’d like to read those stories, let me know.  I’m happy to share them with you. 
In our world, coming of age stories are generally told about teenagers and young adults, for that is the age when they are supposed to discover who they are and begin living their lives, right?  Seventeen, eighteen, twenty year olds.  Guess what the coming of age year was in ancient Israel?  Twelve.  People who went on to do great things began to show their potential at age 12.  And how old is Jesus in the temple?  Twelve. 
All of the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John—are ancient biographies of Jesus, each written by different authors with different emphases.  And to my chagrin, while Luke may not say much about Jesus’ coming of age, he does say a lot.  And what he says is important.  
One, we know Jesus grew up in the temple.  When he was only a few weeks old, his parents took him there to be blessed.  And the next time we hear from him, at age 12, he’s back in the temple again.  So it’s safe to assume that Jesus grew up in a community of faith.  If half the people who make such a big deal of saying “Merry Christmas” today belonged to a community of faith, the church would be a different, stronger institution.  
Two, we know his parents loved him dearly.  Now, this isn’t a Home Alone situation (did you see that movie this holiday season?), where Mary & Joseph are so busy in a big family group they fail to notice their son isn’t with the group.  Well, actually, it’s a lot like Home Alone!  They probably would have traveled to the temple in a large group, and it was perfectly conceivable that their son would have been with the group but not by their side the whole way.  After all, by 12 he was considered “of age.”  And when they do realize he is missing, they react like any loving parent would.  They are sick about it, and they do not rest until they find him. 
Three, we know Jesus loved his parents dearly.  While he doesn’t understand why they were worried, what twelve year old would?  When they get back home, he is more careful to obey them than he was before.  He doesn’t want to upset them again, because he loves them too much to hurt them. 
Four, we know that he knows who he is.  Once his parents find him, he says to them so matter-of-factly, “Didn’t you know I’d be in my father’s house?”  He knows he’s not just any ordinary boy, and this story puts the rest of the world on notice also.  This child, who has now come of age, has a big future ahead of him. 
            The season leading from Christmas to Easter is a season of growth.  As Jesus comes of age, he invites us to mature alongside him.  To grow in faith.  To grow in wisdom.  To grow as a person.  So, my friends, consider the turning of the calendar into the new year an opportunity to grow alongside the boy in divine and human favor.  Amen.    

Dec 24, 2015 Sermon: "Room in the Inn"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: Luke 2.1-20
Room in the Inn 

            What in the world would compel sane people to come to church at 11pm on a Thursday  night?  The same thing that would compel wise men to follow a star, and shepherds to follow the angel’s advice.  The same thing that compelled Mary and Joseph.  Christmas compels us. 
            I often wonder what it felt like for them to make such incredible journeys to the baby.  We’ll never know for sure, but we have a pretty good idea.  Why?  Because the same thing compelled us to come here tonight.  Christmas compels us all. 
            What are you feeling tonight?  Tonight at dinner we talked about how confused we feel this year.  Confused about the weather and the timing and making sense of it all.  However, that’s not the strongest feeling I have.  The overwhelming feeling I have tonight is gratitude.  I am grateful for each one of you, my community of faith.  I am grateful for the Christ Child, born so humbly to embody Emmanuel, God with us.  I am grateful to be able to sing carols and read the Christmas story, for though they remain the same year after year, they have a holy ability to set my heart at peace.  I am grateful to hear the Trents play sacred songs so beautifully.  I am grateful for food on the table, friends around the table, and a roof over the table. 
            I am especially grateful for children.  This past Sunday in church, I asked a leading question.  “Are you all excited?” 
With Christmas just around the corner, I thought they would say, “Yes!  I can’t wait to open my presents!”  But they said no such thing.
Caroline said, “I’m excited to light the fourth Advent candle!”
Ashton said, “I’m excited for Jesus’ birthday!” 
I am grateful for children, for sometimes they see the truth of Christmas more clearly than us adults. 
I am grateful for generous people.  When the Deacons asked for food for a family of six, you brought enough food for six families of six.  When the Mission Team asked for $900 to buy turkeys for all the families who visit the Food Pantry, you gave $1,000.  When a woman in need came by the office seeking help with her rent, the staff gave out of their own pockets, without even being asked, to help this woman and her family.  When the calendar turned to December, you called and asked who needed help…and you provided it.  When a family experienced a fire, you called and texted and pledged your support.
Whenever you are given an opportunity to assist folks in humble circumstances, like those of Mary, Joseph, and the baby on this night in Bethlehem, you do it.  You stand in solidarity with people you do not know simply because they are your brothers and sisters in Christ.  You share what is yours with those you only know in passing simply because they have need.  And you fill my heart with gratitude and joy. 
I am grateful for Jesus Christ, who compels us all to do good joyously. 

The story goes that Mary & Joseph were turned away from the inn because there was no room.  Some days I wonder if it’s still the case today that we don’t make room in our hearts, but tonight…tonight, I know that he finds room.  Whether we make room or he makes his way inside our hearts, the Christ child compels us to do good in his name, and my heart feels especially full tonight.  I thank God.  I thank you.  I thank Christmas.  Amen.    

Candlelight Sermon: "Christmas Hope"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: Luke 1.46-55
Christmas Hope

            I recently discovered that I’ve been doing something wrong for years.  Talk about humiliating.  Do you know that feeling? 
I’ve always opened a banana from the stem end.  That usually works.  But sometimes it’s a struggle, and sometimes the stem breaks.  You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?  This week I learned that monkeys peel bananas from the other end.  They just pinch, and the skin opens right up.  So I tried it, and it works like a charm!  Easy as pie.  I’ve been doing it wrong for years, and it took a monkey to teach me the right way to do it! 
            As I fiddled around in the kitchen after learning that new trick, I wondered what else I have unknowingly done wrong for years?  Then a segment came on the radio with people sharing their hopes for Christmas this year.  They “hoped” for all kinds of things.  Kids hope their parents didn’t lose their Christmas lists.  Parents hope their kids behave at family gatherings & church services.  People hope their dogs will sleep in on Christmas morning.  We all hope it will snow on Christmas.  Grandma hopes her turkey won’t get overdone.  And, in sum, that was the answer to my question. 
What else have we been doing wrong all these years?  Hope.  We have Christmas hope backwards. 
            Think about it.  Where does that kind of wishin’ and hopin’ get us?  It will not snow this Christmas, no matter how hard we wish.  Our dogs will wake us up as usual.  The kids won’t be able to sleep.  Parents will forget that one little gift that turns out to be the one the kids wanted most.  The turkey will be overdone. 
The things we say we “hope” for are usually the last things to happen.  Because we only “hope” for something when we think we have zero options left and our only shot is a Hail Mary.  That’s not how hope works.  Hope is much, much more than wishful thinking. 
            This morning, I made an elaborate argument about it feeling like somebody stole Christmas.  That’s because our culture and even many inside the church have relatively little insight into the theological meaning of Christmas.  Just because it’s about an infant doesn’t mean our understanding of it has to be infantile.  So…why do we celebrate Christmas?  Because it’s Jesus’ birthday.  Yes, but why does Jesus’ birthday matter?  Because he is our Lord and Savior.  Yes, but what does it mean to claim his name?  To live in hope. 
            The great American preacher William Sloane Coffin says, “Hope is a state of mind independent of the state of the world.”  Say that with me.  Hope is a state of mind…independent…of the state of the world. 
In the face of tragedy and violence, hope is here.  In the wake of terror and doubt, hope is here.  In the midst of confrontation and consternation, hope is here.  We have hope no matter the waters that rage around us because we have faith. 
            Whereas wishful thinking is passive, thinking that something good may happen if we’re lucky, Christian hope is active.  We make something good happen, even out of something bad, because we know God has good plans for all of us.  THAT is Christmas hope.   
No better example exists than Mary, mother of Jesus, whose story we just read here tonight.  We all know the seriousness of her plight--young and pregnant.  Poor and penniless.  Shamed and ridiculed.  Can we even begin to imagine what if must have felt like to be a pregnant teenager, promised to a man she barely knew, visited by an angel wanting her to do something unspeakable…for God?  Frightened probably doesn’t begin to describe what it must have felt like.  According to Luke, she doesn’t tell anyone.  Who could blame her?  What would she say that someone would actually believe?  Mary, Mary, Mary.   
Yet, in the face of all that adversity, she is full of hope.  Why was Mary so full of hope when she spoke to her baby those beautiful words we just read?  How was she able to endure the difficulty of being a young, unwed, pregnant teenager? 
Perhaps because she believed the angel, who told her that she would give birth to the Son of God.  Only the innocence of youth would be joyous at that prospect.  Or, perhaps because Mary was a faithful woman who knew the prophecies written by Isaiah and believed she had a part in them.  Or finally, perhaps she was a hopeful woman who believed, even in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that God works good purposes out in this world through faithful, hopeful people. 
Hope is something we do, and Mary was full of hopeful action.  You could say Mary made the best of a bad situation, but Mary did one better.  Mary held out hope. 
If you find yourself wishin’ and hopin’, do what Mary did to find Christmas hope.  She visited her cousin Elizabeth.  She sought counsel.  She acted a friend.  She asked questions.  She availed herself to the Holy Spirit.  She trusted those around her.  She watched for signs.  She rejoiced in small moments of beauty.  She refused to become a victim of her circumstance.  Instead, she embraced her circumstance as an opportunity to prove hope’s power. 
I know it’s hard to be optimistic some days.  So when you can’t be optimistic, be persistent.  A heart full of hope never gives up, for it knows that God doesn’t either.  If God was willing to come to earth in human form, born to two poor teenage refugees, then we better be persistent in our beliefs that God does not give up on us.  God does not cut corners.  God does not take the easy way.  God dives right into the ditch…with us. 

So as you unwrap presents, gather together with family, and celebrate the season, I pray you and yours uncover the most precious gift of all—Christmas hope.  Mary took a bold chance, allowing God to be born in her.  And if we allow God to be born in us, there’s no telling what good may come of it.  Amen.   

Dec 20, 2015 Sermon: "Somebody Stole Christmas"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: Mark 1.1-11
Somebody Stole Christmas

            Girls and boys, gather round.  Women and men, won’t you please come on down?  I’ve got a story for you, which you won’t think is true.  It seems impossible…improbable… implausible: But, somebody stole Christmas! 
            You may wonder why I’m keeping my voice as low as a whisper, and it’s because our thief may be a visitor.  But don’t fret or worry, and please, whatever you do, don’t get in a hurry.  I’ve solved the riddle, and if you’ll give me the courtesy of a bit of your time, I’ll widdle it down for you…at first in rhyme.
            Perhaps you think that the Grinch is our thief?  We all know the story of that grouchy Grinch’s grab for glory.  In the words of Dr. Suess:  
"I know just what to do!" The Grinch laughed in his throat.
And he made a quick Santy Claus hat and a coat.
And he chuckled, and clucked, "What a great Grinchy trick!"
"With this coat and this hat, I look just like Saint Nick!"
We know what happens next.  He breaks into every Who house to steal their presents and only leaves crumbs too small even for a mouse. 
That’s what I’m here to tell you today.  Somebody stole Christmas!  But it wasn’t the Grinch.  That poor green outcast has been the butt of too many jokes already.  Somebody stole Christmas, but it wasn’t him. 
Perhaps you are thinking what I’m thinking.  Mother Nature stole Christmas! For two weeks, we’ve been able to wear short sleeve shirts during the day!  The Christmas forecast for southern WV seems more like a Christmas forecast for southern Florida. Mid to upper 60s! 
How are we supposed to sit by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa snuggled in our flannel unwrapping gifts when it’s 67 degrees outside?  It feels like somebody stole Christmas.   
            Maybe I’m missing the obvious candidate for who stole Christmas.  Our culture.  The one that starts advertising Christmas in October.  The one that makes you think you have to spend a fortune to express your love.  You can find plenty of people who believe the culture stole Christmas, but our culture would have to understand Christmas in order to steal it.  Most people don’t have any idea what Christmas means, so they couldn’t have stolen it. 
If you paid attention to this morning’s reading, you know who did it.  Don’t you!  It was Mark, the author of our Gospel reading, who stole Christmas!  Did you notice what was missing from his story?  Christmas!  There was no mention of Bethlehem or the census or Mary and Joseph or a star or angels or wise men or the manger or the stable. 
            Somebody call Judge Bob King!  Somebody call Judge Jim Rowe!  Somebody call Judge Frank Joliffe and bring him out of retirement!  We need to throw the book at Mark for stealing our Christmas story. 
            But if Mark were here to defend himself, he might remind us that he wrote his Gospel first.  When they put the Bible together, Matthew jumped the line and got ahead of him, Luke gets all the credit for the details of the birth, but don’t get it twisted!  Mark wrote his story first.  And he mentions nothing about Jesus as a child.  Why is that? 
            Because for Mark, Jesus became Christ.  The way he tells Jesus’ story, Jesus has to grow up.  God doesn’t hand him the keys to the kingdom; Jesus has to earn them.  He has to go to school, learn a trade, treat people with respect, follow his teacher John the Baptist, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, figure out how to deal with crazy people who come up to him on the street asking for crazy things, become a man, and eventually become the Son of Man.  So for Mark, Christmas is a time not so much for celebration…as a time for anticipation.  It is not the end of the year, but the beginning.  It is not the finish line, but the starting line. 
            I think that’s a message with great relevance in today’s world.  Mark’s Christmas story may not have all those details we’re used to hearing (though we will read those tonight…so don’t fret), but it does have a weight that we need to hear.  For Mark, the significance of Jesus lies in what he does.  His actions matter more than anything else.  That’s a message with great relevance for our lives. 
            It we’re going to claim the name of Jesus this Christmas, we have to do something with it.  If we’re going to celebrate Christmas and send people Christmas cards and put up a Christmas tree and give people Christmas gifts and share Christmas meals together, understand the name that you are claiming. 
Jesus wasn’t just given the title of Christ.  He earned it.  If we want to claim his name, we have to work alongside him.  Feed the hungry.  Clothe the naked.  Heal the sick.  Listen to the person everyone else runs away from!  Claim his name--not in words but in actions. 

            Did somebody steal Christmas?  Not exactly.  I probably exaggerated.  OK, I definitely exaggerated.  But it did get you interested, didn’t it!  For whatever reasons—culture, weather, the Grinch in all of us—we’ve lost sense of the theological meaning of Christmas.  To the point that it feels like somebody stole Christmas.  Come back tonight—yes, this was all a ruse to get you to come back again tonight—and we’ll take about the real meaning of Christmas.  Amen.      

Dec 13, 2015 Sermon: "You Dirty Rascals!"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Isaiah 12.2-6
NT: Luke 3.7-18

            Isn’t it amazing that you can say the same words in a different tone and convey a completely different meaning?  We typically read today’s passage in an angry, with John the Baptist almost yelling at the people gathered around him for baptism!  We assume he is angry, even disappointed with them for their sinfulness.  But that just doesn’t make sense.  Even for John.  Would he really expect to recruit new church members by yelling at them the first time they show up to church?  I’ve never tried that…because I don’t think it would work! 
            Now, I know last week John was just born in our Bible reading.  He was a baby.  But by this week’s reading we have hit the fast forward button.  He’s all grown up.  And he turned out to be a weird guy.  He lives in caves and wears animals skins.  He yells in the forest.  But… people adored him. 
He was charismatic and popular and beloved.  The people gathered around him that day were common people--soldiers, peasants, farmers, tax collectors, widows, and orphans.  They were dirt poor.  Society marginalized and despised them.  But John loved them.  And they loved him.  Why would so many people come to an adored man for baptism just to take a verbal beating?  That doesn’t make sense.  So, if he wasn’t calling them names in an angry way, what was he saying?  p
            Well, my wife can say anything, even something inflammatory or insulting or difficult to hear…but she can say it with a big smile in a way people love her no matter what.  It’s a real gift.  A gift that John has.  A gift he uses in calling the people a bunch of snakes.    
            He calls them a brood of vipers not as an insult but to rib them.  It would be like saying, “You dirty rascals!  I can’t believe you came.  Who convinced you to come get baptized?”  They came in droves, and he was tickled pink.  So tickled he made a joke out of it.    “You dirty rascals!  I don’t know why you came, but I sure am glad you did.” 
            And since he has a captive audience of common people just like him, who get his humor and have come to him for counsel, he gives it to them.  He reminds them his job is to prepare them for the coming Savior, and they tell John they want to be ready.  “What should we do?” they ask him. 
            John gives a speech that would make any kindergarten teacher, much less Jesus, proud.  His message is simple: Share.  If someone doesn’t have enough food, share yours.  If someone doesn’t have clean clothes, share yours.  If someone needs money, share yours.  The “coat” in verse 11 is more appropriately translated as “undergarment.”  In a nutshell, that is John’s radical Advent message: Share absolutely everything.  If you have more than enough, share with someone in your community who does not. 
             I read a story this week about a poor man in Ontario, Canada, whose neighbors suffered a tragedy.  He lived beside a local mosque which was burned down in the wake of the Paris attacks.  This man who lived beside the mosque did not attend it; he was an inactive Christian.  But he knew some of his neighbors who did attend there, and he wanted to do something about it.  They wanted to rebuild, but they needed $80,000.  He didn’t have any money.  Well, that’s not exactly true.  He had 17 cents in his bank account.  So he started a fund with that 17 cents and asked his community to chip in and rebuild the mosque for their neighbors.  That was on a Tuesday morning.  By Tuesday evening, they raised $80,000.  A neighboring Christian congregation offered their sanctuary for worship services, and a local Jewish temple is hosting prayer services and potlucks during rebuilding.  That is the spirit of Christmas.
            Now, I know it doesn’t feel like Christmas.  I never remember being able to comfortably wear shorts in mid-December!  Time always flies this time of year especially, doesn’t it?  But make no mistake: Christmas is coming.  John the Baptist’s job was to prepare us.  Are you prepared?  Not for the gifts or the meals or the events.  Are you prepared for the child who will expect you to share everything? 
John said it’s not enough just to say you believe.  It’s not enough to have an “In God We Trust” license plate.  It’s not enough to call yourself a Christian.  John said to be a follower of Jesus, we must act like it.  We must live the grace given to us in the form of the child.  All year long. 

            It’s time for us to get ready.  So that one day when we enter the pearly gates, John the Baptist can shout, “You dirty rascals!  You did it, and I’m so proud of you.”  Amen.  

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Dec 6, 2015 Sermon: "Reasonable Doubts"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: Luke 1.68-79
Reasonable Doubts

It’s a good time to be a pessimist.  There’s plenty of evidence across the world to support your worldview.  But Advent & Christmas are also the best time of year to be an optimist…to find hope where others cannot. 
            A family had twin boys whose only resemblance to each other was their looks. If one felt it was too hot, the other thought it was too cold. If one said the TV was too loud, the other claimed the volume needed to be turned up. Opposite in every way, one was an eternal optimist, the other a doom and gloom pessimist. 
            Just to see what would happen, on the twins' birthday their father loaded the pessimist's room with every imaginable toy and game. in the optimist’s room, he put absolutely nothing. 
That night the father passed by the pessimist's room and found him sitting amid his new gifts crying bitterly. 
"Why are you crying?" the father asked. 
"Because my friends will be jealous, I'll have to read all these instructions before I can do anything with this stuff, I'll constantly need batteries, and my toys will eventually get broken." answered the pessimist twin. 
Passing the optimist twin's room, the father found him giggling and wondering around his room with a big smile on his face. "What are you so happy about?" he asked. 
To which his optimist twin replied, "You hid my present really well!” 
Today’s story from Luke is one of my favorites.  This time of year we typically read Mary’s magnificat (her song of praise she proclaims for all the world to hear when she finds out she has been chosen to carry the Christ child).  Magnificat literally means, “My soul magnifies!”  Mary gives a beautiful, poetic, powerful song, but…she’s an optimist!  Of course she would find the best in even a bad situation!
 There’s another magnificat in Luke 1, and it comes from a doom and gloom pessimist.  That’s why I like it so much, I think—because it is so unexpected.  Let me read you the magnificat of Zechariah (father of John the Baptist). 
READ LUKE 1.68-79.
Beautiful, isn’t it?  The optimists agree while the pessimists know there has to be a catch.  Let me tell you the back story. 
Zechariah was a priest.  He and his wife, like Abraham and Sarah, spent so much of their lives serving the church they didn’t have time for kids of their own, and they were getting on in years.  One day, Zechariah was on duty at the temple, which meant it was his turn to pray with the walk-ins who didn’t have an appointment.  During a prayer, an angel appeared to him out of thin air.  Zechariah was terrified; this had never happened to him before.  But the angel comforted him, saying, “Do not be afraid.  I’m here to answer your prayers.  Your wife will bear a son.” 
            He said, “I don’t remember praying for that!  Have you noticed how old my wife is?” 
            The angel responded, “I’ve just given you good news, but still you doubt.  Therefore, you will be unable to speak until your son comes.”  And that was that.  He didn’t speak in conception, he didn’t speak in his wife’s five months of seclusion, or the last four months of her pregnancy.  Zechariah didn’t say a mumblin’ word for nearly 300 days, after he dared to question God and speak ill of his wife.  Let that be a lesson to you, husbands! 
            The time came for their son to be born.  Everybody assumed they would name him after his father, Zechariah Jr.  Elizabeth didn’t think so!  She had a name of her own.  She said, “His name will be John.” 
            The people still weren’t satisfied.  Zechariah came from a long line of priests.  Wouldn’t a family name be a nice way to honor that?  They asked Zechariah what he thought.  A man who hadn’t spoken for nine months.  A man who hadn’t said a word through morning sickness and labor pains and cravings.  A man whose last words had been something about how old his wife was.  Now, tell me: How do you think he responded? 
            He took out his chisel and wrote on a piece of rock, “Listen to the woman.  Name him John.”  And immediately, after nearly 300 days of silence, his mouth was opened, he could speak freely again, and he chose his words quite carefully.  The words he spoke are the words we just read.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel...this child will be called prophet of the most high…he will guide our feet into the way of peace.”  Zechariah, the pessimist, repented.  He changed his mind.  He found hope in a hopeless situation.   
Zechariah’s story is the story of our lives.  God sends us a message.  We have reasonable doubts as to whether or not that message will come true.  So we sit with it for a while, usually in silence, to let it simmer and sink in.  Then, we eventually begin to believe God’s promises on our lives are possible.  We can nurture life, we can find purpose in what we do daily, and we can find joy…even in the ordinary, everyday lives we call our own.  We can…believe. 
Sure, this is a good time to be a pessimist.  If you don’t believe.  If you don’t find hope in Advent.  If you don’t think Jesus’ birth some tow thousand years ago changed everything for all time.  But if you do believe and you do take hope and you do think Jesus changed everything, then this is a good time to be alive. 
Anything is possible with God.  The barren can conceive.  The pessimist can hope.  The child can save.  Amen. 

Nov 29, 2015 Sermon: "Beginning at the Ending"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Jeremiah 33.14-16
NT: Luke 21.25-36

Beginning at the Ending 

In Advent, we live in the unsettling tension between what is and what will be.  And we all know exactly what that feels like. 
It’s like pulling an all-nighter, staying up all night to work another shift or to finish a paper for school, or staying awake helping Saint Nicholas put together toys. 
It’s like flying to a different time zone and suddenly feeling the slow burn of jet lag the next morning. 
It’s like being asked to do two things at once or look in two directions at the same time. 
That’s what the unsettling tension of Advent is like, caught in the middle of what is and what will be.   We not only look back at the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, but we also look forward to his eventual return when the kingdom he began over two thousand years ago will eventually be completed. 
Today, on the first Sunday of Advent (the first day of the new year in the church calendar), we begin at the end.  Why?  Why does the church calendar ask us to begin the new year at the end of Jesus’ story?  So that we’ll know where were’ going.  It’s the same thing I do at weddings. 
When I officiate a wedding and we gather to rehearse the service the night before, I ask the wedding party to begin at the end.  The bride and groom take their places, the wedding party lines up on each side accordingly, the ring bearer and flower girl are told which adult will be their guide, and everyone knows exactly where to be.  Then I ask everyone to leave, and we start at the beginning.  Because then and only then do they know where they are going and how to get there. 
We begin at the end for the same reason in Advent.  So we know where we’re going and how to get there. 
In today’s reading from Jeremiah, the prophet speaks a word of hope amidst the unsettling tension of living in a time between what is and what will be.  The city of Jerusalem was completely destroyed in 587BC, with Jeremiah writing in the aftermath.  The Israelites were once again scattered from their homeland, living as refugees in foreign lands.  They didn’t know if they’d ever get to go home again.  They didn’t know if they’d see their families again.  They wondered if God abandoned them.  It was an unsettling time, so God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “The days are surely coming, when I will fulfill my promise.” 
Perhaps you know what it feels like to be stuck in between what is and what will be.  Author Janice Springer wrote about such a time following her diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.  She says, “There have been many losses (since that day).”  She used to feel strong and vibrant, but now she struggles every moment to simply stay on her feet.  She has lost friends and activities and routines of days gone by, but she says the most painful loss is: “I’ve lost my illusions.  I’ve lost the illusion that I am exempt from the losses and limits that besiege other people.” 
In Advent, we live in the unsettling tension between what is and what will be.  We know where we’ve been, we can see where we’re going, but we don’t know exactly how to get there.  Jesus compares it to a fig tree.  When we see it begin to sprout leaves, we know summer is near.  We don’t know exactly how long it will take, but we know it’s coming. 
If you look and listen and open your heart, you can see the kingdom of God sprouting leaves.  We don’t know how long it will take to arrive, but we know it’s coming.  That’s why we begin Advent at the end.  We remind ourselves--amidst all the unsettled tensions of life, of wars and rumors of war, of injustices and insincerities--that Jesus is taking us on a journey.  We do not walk alone.  We cannot find it ourselves.  We go with him.  We must trust him to guide us. 
Advent is a season of waiting.  As hard as it is, especially when the world seems so unsettled, we wait for the hope that sprouts like leaves on a fig tree.  We look forward to a day when all will be well.  We look back to times when all was not well.  Most importantly, we look around now, when all is well and nothing is well, depending on where you sit. 

And we wait.  We wait for the birth.  We wait for the boy.  We wait for the king.  We wait for hope to be born…anew.  Amen.  

Monday, November 23, 2015

Nov 22, 2015 Sermon: "Christ the King"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: John 18.33-37
Christ the King

            For the past two years, mom, Kerry, and I have gone to visit my sister for Thanksgiving.  It’s a wonderful time to visit northern Vermont, because it’s literally like stepping into a snow globe for a few days!  Winter takes hold there much earlier than it does here.  The residents are wrapped in flannel, the streets are lined with snow, and Christmas lights make everything glow! 
We’re not going this year, which has me a little disappointed because we won’t get to see my sister and brother-in-law and their son Ethan.  But on the other hand, they’re vegan, which would mean another vegan Thanksgiving. 
Now, I have nothing against that.  To the contrary, I admire them for it.  Kerry and I are trying to eat better and eat less mass-produced meat because animals are treated so poorly by the food industry.  BUT…have you ever had celebration roast for Thanksgiving?  If you don’t know what’s in it, then I won’t tell you, because I don’t want to ruin your lunch at Rudy’s!  I have eaten it…for two years straight…and let me tell you…I have never been so excited for a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal as I am this year!  We will have turkey.  And mashed potatoes made with milk and butter instead of soymilk and olive oil.  I can’t wait!  Because I can already imagine that first bite tasting something like heaven. 
Have you ever witnessed heaven come to earth?  It probably wasn’t during a meal, but it may have been during a tragedy…or when you hit rock bottom…or when you thought everything was in its place.  Sometimes the line between this world and the next seems especially thin (in those moments when heaven seems to be reaching down just as we reach up). 
Unfortunately, the line between the two worlds often seems too big to ever bridge.  For 10 days now, we’ve been bombarded with suicide bombings, shootings, and drug busts here in our little neck of the woods.  As we look up to heaven and ask God how such things can be allowed to happen, I imagine God looking down at us wondering where we learned such evil.  Certainly God did not intend the kingdom to look like this; we are supposed to make the kingdom come…to earth!
One of my colleagues tells the story of visiting a woman in the hospital who just came out of surgery.  Her nurse warned him before he entered her room in the ICU that she was still confused after her anesthesia.   When he approached the bed, she quickly grabbed his hand and said, “Am I in heaven?”  He didn’t want to embarrass her, so he pretended not to hear.  “What was that?  How are you feeling?”
She repeated, gripping his hand more tightly, “Am I in heaven?” 
He said, “Goodness no!  Heaven will be much better than this.” 
Looking a little disappointed she wasn’t in heaven, she asked him, “Is it alright to want to go?  My life has been wonderful, but it’s time.  My body is giving up.  Is it ok to want to go to heaven?”  He smiled, gripped her hand in return, and assured her it was ok.  We all yearn for the comforts of Christ’s kingdom. 
According to the Lectionary, today is Christ the King Sunday, which is always celebrated on the last Sunday of the year before the church calendar begins anew with the first Sunday of Advent next week.  Our reading from John raises the question of what it means that Jesus is a king?  What is his power?  Where is his kingdom?    
The story begins with Pilot asking Jesus a question.  Most English versions translate the question this way: “Are you King of the Jews?”  But the Greek says it differently: “You?  King of the Jews?”  It’s less of a factual question than a judgment, as if Pilot was saying, “You of all people are a king?  You don’t look like a king.  You don’t act like a king.  Do you feel like a king under my control?” 
If you contrast Jesus as king with Pilate as king, it’s easy to see why Pilate would scoff at the suggestion they were anything alike.  Pilate controls the Roman nation.  He has at his disposal the mightiest military in the world, the deepest bank account, and citizens who will do anything he commands at any time.  Jesus leads no territorial nation.  He has no army at his back.  No money in the bank account.  His own disciples fail to recognize who he is, much less follow his every order. 
Pilate maintains his kingship through the fear of force.  No one dares cross him for fear of death.  Jesus maintains his kingship through the hope of peace.  
What holds more power over your life--fear or hope?  Anxiety or peace?  The answer to that question shows if you follow Pilate or Jesus, because the difference couldn’t be any greater.    
After going back and forth about the title of king, Jesus cuts to the chase: “My kingdom is not from this world.”  I think he means that Pilate’s political power cannot determine his fate.  I think he means that he condemns the way this world handles conflict.  I think he means that he and his followers refuse to settle differences with the violence so commonplace in this kingdom.  So he says, “My kingdom is not from here.” 
To whose kingdom do you belong?  Whose rules govern your life?  Are you captive to fear or freed by hope? 
Sometimes the line between the two kingdoms seems too big to ever bridge.  How can we live in this world and pray for God’s kingdom to come?  Because sometimes the line between this kingdom and the next seems especially thin (in those moments when heaven seems to be reaching down just as we reach up).  This season is one such time. 

By giving thanks to God, you choose your kingdom.  You pledge your allegiance to a more powerful king than this world can offer.  A king who rules not by fear, but by hope.  A king who forces you to do nothing, but compels you to do everything worth doing.  A king we proudly proclaim as our own.  Christ the King.  Amen.  

Monday, November 16, 2015

Nov 15, 2015 Sermon: "Repent--Change Your Mind"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: Mark 1.15b

            We Christians have such a long history that we sometimes have very short memories.  Case in point: repentance.  When we talk about repentance, we usually think about repenting of our sins or turning from our sins, right?  Except that’s not what it means Biblically.  Sometimes our long history leads us to have a very short memory. 
            In the New Testament, repentance means “changing your mind.”  When Jesus calls on the disciples to repent and believe the Good News, he is challenging them to see the world with fresh eyes!  To turn their expectations and assumptions upside down, allowing them to change their minds to the things they think they always knew. 
            If you turned on your radio or television while getting ready for church this morning, you probably encountered an evangelist.  If you encountered an evangelist on a Sunday morning, they probably talked about repentance.  If they talked about repentance, they probably tried to convince you of the need to turn from your sin.  I grew up in a church which taught us the same thing, but I repented!  I changed my mind when I learned what Biblical repentance actually means.  The problem is that we Christians have such a long history we often have short memories.   
  There’s a new movement rapidly gaining popularity in Christian circles.  It’s called the “I am a Christian” movement, and it’s often found on social media and even in local pulpits.  Its basis is a short and sweet affirmation of faith which goes like this: “I am a Christian.  You can ridicule me.  You can torture me.  You can kill me.  BUT YOU CAN’T CHANGE MY MIND.”    Let me say that one more time so you can wrap your mind around it.  “I am a Christian.  You can ridicule me.  You can torture me.  You can kill me.  BUT YOU CAN’T CHANGE MY MIND.”
The folks who say it find it awfully comforting.  It’s as if they drop an anchor and are happy to stay right there…forever.  On one hand, I admire folks who see the world so clearly.  That is a gift, which many of us do not possess.  On the other hand, we Christians have such a long history that we sometimes have very short memories. 
Jesus calls us to repentance, which means he expects us to change our minds.  He expects us to grow.  He expects us to learn.  He expects that somewhere between our failures and our accomplishments we will experience the transforming of our mind…and we might actually change our mind about things, because we haven’t always had it all figured out. 
            I was reminded of that this week when looking at the bare trees behind my office.  When the leaves fall, they expose a world which has been hidden from us for two seasons.  Last winter we trimmed those trees, making large cuts in the branches.  And just below where the branches had been cut off, dozens of new limbs sprouted in every direction.  Change isn’t always easy, but it does lead to new life. 
            I suspect the reason so many folks feel drawn to the “YOU CANNOT CHANGE MY MIND” camp is because we live in a rapidly-changing world.  The speed with which the world moves these days has accelerated quickly, and that leaves us yearning for the comfort of an anchor. 
            But we Christians have such a long history we sometimes have very short memories.  Jesus never promised an anchor.  Never promised stability.  Never promised comfort.  He actually promised the opposite.  Wars and rumors of war.  Confusion and chaos.  He called these things the birth pangs.  Signs that the kingdom is indeed coming.  We experienced such signs this week in Paris.  Signs of the end as some are saying?  No, signs of the birth pangs, as Jesus called them.  Signs that humanity still can’t quite get it right.  With our capacity for great good also comes the capacity for tremendous evil, and we unfortunately see the signs of that far too often.  A dear friend of mine and Kerry’s from college lives in Paris and was in the area of the concert which was attacked Friday night.  She made it home safely, but Saturday she was absolutely shaken to her core. 
            People are asking, “How can God allow this?  What should people of faith do?”  In a word, repent.  See the world as God sees it.  Grieve with a broken heart when tragedy strikes.  Then do everything in your power to make your life and the lives of those around you count.  And for goodness sake, please do not retreat to the comfortable seclusion of a certainty which does not exist.  I know we all want answers, but sometimes there are no answers.  Sometimes the only thing we can do is repent.  Change our mind.  Learn something new.  Grow. 
            This week I watched a video called, “Advice to Your Future Self.”  A seven year old tells a six year old, “Training wheels are for babies.  Just let go already.” 
            A nine year old tells an eight year old, “Find out your babysitter’s weakness. Then use it against them!” 
            A nineteen year old tells an eighteen year old, “Go easy on the makeup.  You’re prettier than you think. “
            A 25 year old tells a 22 year old, “Credit cards are not worth the trouble they cause later.” 
            A 35 year old tells a 30 year old, “Losing your job can be a blessing in disguise.”
            A 47 year old tells a 37 year old, “Stop caring so much about what people think.  They’re not thinking about you at all.”
            A 63 year old tells a 53 year old, “It’s never too late to try something new.” 
            An 80 year old tells a 75 year old, “Spend all your money.  Otherwise, your kids will do it for you.”
            And finally, a 95 year old tells anyone who’s listening, “Don’t listen to anybody’s advice. Nobody knows what in the world they’re doing.” 
            We all want the security of certainty.  But the hard truth is that it simply does not exist.  We must repent all the time.  We must learn.  We must grow.  We must face new challenges.  We must fail.  We must grieve.  We must get back up.  We must struggle.  We may not have any idea what we’re doing, but at least we know the Good News—that God abides.  Even if we forget, God abides.  Amen. 

Nov 8, 2015 Sermon: "A Spirit of Giving"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: Mark 12.38-44

            While you would never guess it after this week’s summer weather, three years ago this week it was snowing like mad.  Do you remember that early snow storm?  It came right after Hurricane Sandy and slammed many of the same areas hit by the storm.  We in Greenbrier County were spared the worst of it, but the Summersville area received a pounding. 
            The food pantry at Summersville Presbyterian Church gave away all the food they had in that storm, and they sent out a call for help.  You stepped up to the plate and donated generously, so I loaded up the van at Kroger with peanut butter and produce and bread and canned vegetables and headed to Summersville.  I remember seeing collapsed roofs all along the way—a gas station, a mechanic’s shop, but mostly trailers.  So many trailers had simply collapsed on themselves under the weight of the snow. 
            When I dropped the food off at the church, it was about 9:30am.  Normally, the food pantry is open twice a week.  But that week, they opened everyday.  And by 9:30am, they’d already served 38 families.  A woman came through the door holding a bag while I was unloading the car.  I assumed she was there for food.  Her hair was disheveled, her clothes were dirty, and she looked like she hadn’t slept much lately.  I wondered if she lives in one of those trailers that I had passed earlier. 
She asked me if I knew where Greg, the minister, was.  Just then he walked back in the room.  She said to him, “I don’t know if you remember me, but you and the church helped me out during the derecho.  You gave me food when my power was out for a week.  Well, this time, my power didn’t go out,” and she handed him the bag she was holding.  “So I wanted to come and give you some food because I know you are helping others like you helped me.” 
            In that moment, I knew why Jesus praised the woman who gave two coins to the temple.  It wasn’t because she gave all that she had; she needed those coins more than the church.  It wasn’t because he didn’t value what the rich gave in greater sums; the church needed those funds too and valued the wealthy members who gave them.  Jesus praised the woman who gave her only two coins because the value of an offering is not based on the amount…but the spirit in which it is given.
            May her example continue to inspire us all to give back to God of that which we’ve been given so graciously.  Amen. 


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Oct 25, 2015 Sermon: "Embracing the Darkness"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Job 42.1-6
NT: Mark 10.46-52

                I once read the story of a girl born blind whose sight was restored when she was a teenager.  After her surgery, she kept her eyes closed for two weeks because it was too much to bare so quickly.  When she eventually opened her eyes, all she could say, repeatedly, was, “O God, how beautiful!” 
                That’s the thing about light.  When you’re used to the darkness, light hurts your eyes.  And when you’re used to the light, darkness can be bewildering, even frightening.  I’ve often heard people who have their sight say losing it would surely be the worst thing imaginable.  For those who have sight, that may be true.  But for those who don’t, much worse things are possible.  It’s all a matter of perspective. 
                That brings us to blind Bartameus.  Jesus once said those who have not seen but believed are blessed!  I think he was talking about Bartimeus.  In a day and time when there were no nursing homes, no social security, and no 501c3s, physically disabled people like Bartimeus had but one option.  Sit at the city gates and beg for mercy.  People often believed disease and disability was a curse from God for some sort of sinfulness, so they did not go out of their way to assist those they believed deserved their lot in life.  (And lest we saddle up our high horse, let us remember we do the same with prisoners, prostitutes, and drug addicts today.)
                Bartimeus hears that Jesus is near, and not only knows who Jesus is…he believes in him.  How do we know this?  Because he calls him Son of David, a royal title indicating that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised heir of David sent to save the people. 
                Throwing off his cloak and jumping to his feet, he runs toward Jesus!  The people shush and push him backwards.  Bartimeus is used to such treatment, so he pays it no attention, calling out this time louder to Jesus! 
                And the Son of David wants to see him.  This blind beggar who has never met Jesus seems to understand him better than his own disciples.  So Jesus asks him, just as he asked his disciples in last week’s story, “What do you want?”  The disciples wanted glory; Bartimeus merely wants to see the Savior standing before him.   So Jesus grants his request and tells Bartimeus to go.  Instead, Bartimeus who is no longer blind sees exactly where he wants to go.  Wherever Jesus does.  So he follows him. 
                I’ve been stressing for weeks now that Mark’s stories aren’t always what they seem.  They seem to be about wealth or divorce, but they’re about something much deeper.  The same is true today.  The story is seemingly is about Bartameus’ blindness.  And it is, but it’s really about something more.  Let me tell you a story. 
                The great preacher Tony Campolo likes to tell this story.  You see, big-time preachers like him preach somewhere different each week, so they can tell the same story and even preach the same sermon over and over again…while some of us have to write a new sermon every week of every year!  Forgive me, I digress.  Here’s the story of Agnes the prostitute. 
                  Tony Campolo flew to Hawaii to preach at a conference.  It was late, so he checked into his room and tried to get some sleep.   His body woke him at 3am, thinking it was much later.   The night was dark, the streets were silent, the world was asleep, but Tony was wide awake and hungry.
He got up and went for a walk, looking for a place to get some breakfast. At 3am.  Everything was closed except for an old dive in an alley.
It was 3:30am in Hawaii.  There sits Campolo, eating a donut and sipping coffee, when in walked eight or nine loud prostitutes who just finished with their night’s work. They plopped down at the counter and Tony found himself surrounded by this group of smoking, swearing protitutes. Then the woman next to him said to her friend, “You know what? Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m gonna be 39.” To which her friend nastily replied, “So what d’ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?”
The first woman said, “Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? I’m just sayin’ it’s my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life.”
Well, when Tony Campolo heard that, he said he made a decision. He sat and waited until the women left, and then he asked the guy at the counter, “Do they come in here every night?”
 “Yeah,” he said, “that’s Agnes. Yeah, she’s here every night. She’s been comin’ here for years. Why do you want to know?”
“Because she just said that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think? Do you think we could maybe throw a little birthday party for her right here in the diner?”
A smile crept over the man’s face. “That’s great,” he says, “yeah, that’s great. I like it.”
At 2:30 the next morning, Tony came back. He had decorations and a sign made of big pieces of cardboard that said, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” Harry had gotten the word out on the streets about the party and by 3:15 it seemed that every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place.
At 3:30 on the dot, the door swung open and in walked Agnes. They all shouted, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” Agnes was stunned, her mouth fell open, her knees started to buckle, and she almost fell over.
And when the birthday cake with all the candles was carried out, that’s when she totally lost it. She sobbed and cried.
After Agnes blew out the candles and everybody sang, they looked to Tony for what was next.  So Tony got up on a chair and said, “What do you say that we pray together?” And there they are in a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, half the prostitutes in Honolulu, at 3:30 a.m., darkness outside, listening to Tony Campolo as he prayed for Agnes on her birthday.
When he finished, Harry leaned over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he said, “Hey, you never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?”
Tony answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”
Harry thought for a moment and said, “No you don’t. There ain’t no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. Yep, I’d join a church like that.”
Sometimes it’s in the darkness that we finally see the light.  I invite you to see the darkness in your life not as something to fear, but something to embrace.  Bartimeus’ blindness was a gate to a greater life, and yours can be too.  We’re all blind to certain things and people, but that’s not a death sentence.  It’s an opportunity to see the light. 
You see, Bartimeus wasn’t the only blind man in today’s story.  The disciples could see just fine, but they had no idea what was going on around them.  They could see the light of day, like us, but they too spent a lot of time fumbling around in the dark to find truth.  Perfectly healthy crowds followed Jesus for months but couldn’t see him clearly to save their lives.  Only Bartimeus did.  Sometimes it’s in the darkness we finally see the light.


Oct 11, 2015 Sermon: "Less Is More"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Psalm 90.12-17
NT:  Mark 10.17-31
Less Is More

            Last week we read a passage from Mark 10 about divorce.  Well, it was sort of about divorce but also about something much bigger.  Likewise, today’s story, also from Mark 10, is about money…but also about something much bigger.  Let’s dive right into what’s happening. 
            After Jesus embraced a group of children in his arms, saying the kingdom belonged to them, he was ready to leave town.  As he was leaving, a man approached him with a question. “Good teacher,” he called to Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” 
            Jesus ticks off commandments like they’re a grocery list--don’t murder, don’t cheat, don’t steal, don’t defraud, don’t lie, honor your parents.  And the man nods his head like a husband who has successfully gone to Kroger shopping for his wife.  Bread, milk, fruit, veggies, chocolate.  Got it.   He says to Jesus, “I’ve kept all of those since I was a boy.” 
            It’s hard to say what the man might have expected from Jesus.  Does he want an “atta boy?”  Does he want Jesus to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant”?  Does he honestly want to know what else to do?  Mark says that Jesus looked at him with love, which makes me think the man was earnest in wanting to know how to follow Jesus.  So Jesus tells him: Sell everything you own, give the profits to the poor, and then come follow me. 
            As if to highlight his point, Jesus then says to the disciples, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."  What does that mean?  Well, there’s an old saying in Jewish literature from Babylonian times about an elephant passing through the eye of a needle.  It was a figure of speech meaning, “Ain’t gonna happen.”  It didn’t just mean the chances weren’t good; it meant the chances were bad. 
            The implications for this wealthy man and for us are clear.  Jesus meant all that stuff about the first being last and the last being first.  He actually expects us to give.  That got me thinking this week about how we spend our money. 
Kerry and I went to the movie recently.  It was a night show, so it was full price.  And we got popcorn and drinks, because Kerry says so.  So it cost about $25 for our date.  I thought that was kind of expensive, but I was happy to pay it because getting to go on a date with Kerry was absolutely worth $25. 
            Do you know how much each of us as members give to the Presbyterian Church each year?  I’m not talking about what you put into the plate.  I’m talking about how much we give to the denomination out of what you give in the plate.  Any guesses?  Not much more than we spent for our date.  The denomination asks every local congregation to pay them about $28 per year per member.  And that money pays for our missionaries across the world, our new worshipping communities that are being created, our seminaries, our curriculum, Bibles distributed in local languages across the globe, and our national staff!  $28 per year.  That’s all the denomination asks for, and they’re talking about having to recall one-third of our missionaries because people aren’t paying their $28. 
            That made me think about how I spend my money, and perhaps it’s making you think about the same thing.  I did a children’s sermon once where I asked the kids to list how they spent their money.  You can guess what they said…candy, toys, games.  Then I pulled out my checkbook and had them read for the church how I spent my money.  Gas…shoes…groceries… golf…shoes. 
            It was a humbling and intimidating exercise, but it inspired me to do a better job of putting my money where my mouth was.  Which is exactly what Jesus challenges the wealthy man to do. 
            I don’t think Jesus literally intended the man to sell everything he owned in order to be a disciple.  Do you have to sell everything you own to be a good Christian?  I know plenty of faithful people who use the resources they have for good purposes, and I believe that sort of generosity honors God. 
            But remember, this story isn’t just about money.  It’s also about something much bigger.  When Jesus tells the man he must do one more thing, what is he teaching him?  Everything is a teaching moment for Jesus.  So what’s the lesson?  Sacrifice.  He asks the man to give up the one thing he would rather keep.  If you were in that man’s shoes and Jesus asked you to sacrifice the one thing you’d rather keep, what would it be?  Think about that.  What would it be? 
            BrenĂ© Brown, in a wonderful book on parenting titled “Daring Greatly” which I commend to each of you, says that the word sacrifice in its original Latin meant to make sacred or holy.  When we give up something onto which we cling—whether it is a possession, a fear, a grudge, a security measure, or a routine—we make our lives more sacred. 
            Keep in mind the man who says this—Jesus—has sacrificed his own family to be traveling the countryside, healing the sick and loving the unlovable.  The ones he says it to—the disciples—have left their own families, possessions, routines, and jobs to follow him.  When they spoke of sacrifice, they did not so lightly.  They all knew what it meant to give something special up…in order to make a more sacred life. 

            May we be challenged and inspired by their example as we consider the sacrifice to which God is calling us, not to make our lives less, but to make them more.  Amen.  

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Oct 4, 2015 Sermon: "World Communion Sunday"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Psalm 8
NT: Mark 10.2-16

            I walked outside the choir door this week just as the masons finished installing the columbarium.  They said, “We finished your house!” 
            Startled, I didn’t say anything, not knowing I if they were joking or threatening me. 
            So then one fellow spoke up and said, “Nah, hopefully you won’t have to live here for a long time…but when you do it’s a nice place!” 
            Facing our own mortality has a way of putting things in perspective.  And I’m not just talking about priorities.  I’m talking about our perspective on the universe.  This week NASA announced that Mars has flowing water.  They’ve also discovered dozens of planets capable of housing life in the last year.  The Kepler spacecraft that found those planets is currently 93 million miles away from Earth.  Thinking about that puts much more than your priorities in perspective. 
            Like a fallen leaf dancing in the wind on a blustery fall day, it is easy to feel small in this big world.  The Psalmist in today’s reading captured that feeling beautifully, writing: What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
             Carl Sagan famously pointed to a picture of the universe with a tiny little blue dot depicting Earth.  He said, “Look at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every 'superstar,' every 'supreme leader,' every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."
            With the Psalmist, we ask God: What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? 
            I think sometimes we get so focused on the little details of life that we fail to see God’s big picture.  A perfect example is how we read Mark 10.  We get so focused on the details of divorce that we fail to see what the passage is really about. 
            Now, hear me out.  Divorce is no trivial matter.  It was a significant controversy in the early church and it still is today.  I know how painful a divorce can be on families, and I also know it is sometimes the very best thing that could happen in the long run.  So I’m not dismissing divorce as a religious issue which needs our thought, our compassion, and our prayers.  I’m just saying that Mark 10 isn’t really about divorce.  It’s about something much bigger.
            Think about it.  The passage begins with the Pharisees, religious leaders of whom Jesus was regularly critical for following the law but ignoring how it affected real people, Pharisees ask Jesus what the law says about divorce.  This was a test.  Jesus knew it.  He’d been through these tests before.  And so they go back and forth about all the messy details of divorce.  They’re all intently focused on those details.
            Meanwhile, a bunch of kids want to see Jesus.  The disciples turn them away, for he is busy…arguing about divorce with the Pharisees.  I think sometimes we get so focused on little, ultimately insignificant details that we fail to see God’s big picture. 
            When Jesus finds out that the disciples have kept the children away from him—children who came seeking his acceptance, his love, and his blessing—he lets them have it.  Why?  Because they couldn’t see the forest for the trees.  They were all so focused on religious debates about who God loves that they failed to love God’s children who were standing at their feet. 
            Today is World Communion Sunday.  Christians of every race, nation, and denomination will all celebrate communion across the world today.  I know how tempting it is to focus on the little details that separate us from one another.  But God’s big picture intends something greater for us. 
             O God, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  The question itself may be the answer.  We may not know why God cares so deeply for this speck of dust suspended on a sunbeam, but why matters less than that God does.  God is mindful of each of us.  The faithful church attendee who receives communion today like every other time, the refugee family who stops at a church along the way to receive it, the new believer who just joined the church in a revival last week, the pastors and the officers, the musicians and the choirs, the young and the old, the sick and the well, the literalist and the liberal, the wise and the foolish.  God is mindful of each of us. 
            I can just picture the scene depicted at the end of Mark 10, where Jesus opens his arms and gathers the children around him in a warm and loving embrace.  As you receive communion today, know that you are being embraced by God in just the same way, just as you are.  We may not understand why God is so good to us, but we can give thanks that God is.  Amen. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Sept 27, 2015 Sermon: "Prayer That Works"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Psalm 19.7-14
NT: James 5.13-17
Prayer That Works

             Most of you probably remember the Challenger shuttle crash in 198­­6.  Our entire nation mourned, as the space shuttle carrying six astronauts and elementary school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, exploded just after takeoff as we all watched on live television.  It was a dark day for our nation.  Those liftoffs had become routine, even celebratory, and we could not understand why such a tragedy happened. 
            So, why did it happen?  Was it a fluke accident or an unforeseen circumstance?  No, it was a failure to communicate.  Engineers who worked on the shuttle’s booster rocket system, the big tanks on the belly of the shuttle that thrust it through the atmosphere, expressed concerns about the o-rings for years.  They never quite sealed correctly, so they advised their bosses that the Challenger wasn’t ready to launch. 
            Their bosses didn’t want to disappoint NASA, NASA didn’t want to disappoint the President, and the President didn’t want to disappoint the nation.  So the news about the faulty o-rings, which sealed the fuel in the booster rockets, never made it past the lowest level engineers.  Their bosses never told anyone.  NASA didn’t know.  The President didn’t know.  The nation didn’t know.  Until we saw the flames in the sky that fateful day.  The reason was faulty o-rings, but the cause was a failure to communicate. 
            If the consequences of failures in human communication are that grave, then what might the consequences be when we fail to communicate with God?  That question came to me this week as I watched, with the rest of the nation, the Pope drive around DC in his little Fiat.  While there’s certainly much to say about his trip, one of the most striking to me has been his ability to speak so publicly, so proudly, and so appropriately about church things outside the church.  He has taken our entire nation to church.  He has facilitated communication with God. 
This week’s scripture is about prayer, and prayer in its most general sense is communication with God.  When we pray, we speak silently and aloud, we listen, we watch, we wait, we leave voicemails wondering if anybody ever hears them.  Sometimes when we don’t receive a call back, we assume the lack of an answer is the answer. 
            James’ point here in chapter five seems to be that no matter what our situation is, prayer is always in order. 
Communication with God is necessary, according to verse 13…if you are suffering.  Whether you find yourself wandering in the desert for 40 years like the Israelites on the exodus or stuck in a job that isn’t making use of your talents, it is OK to grumble to God!  Let it all out in prayer.  Get it off your chest.  We all need to vent every now and then!
            Communication with God is necessary, according to verse 13…if you are cheerful.  Whether you are celebrating an anniversary or basking in the glory of achieving a goal you’ve been working towards for months, enjoy your success with God!  Share your thanks with God for bringing you this far, for you surely haven’t gotten there by yourself. 
            Communication with God is necessary, according to verse 14…if you are sick.  Not because you expect prayer to work like a magic trick, but because you need support.  God’s support and the support of your community to get you through whatever ailments you face. 
            Communication with God is necessary, according to verse 16…if sin is gnawing at your soul.  Whether you’ve done something you know you shouldn’t have or failed to do something you know you should have, prayer allows you to ask God for forgiveness!  And forgiveness allows your relationship to be mended. 
            The Challenger crashed because of a failure to communicate.  The engineers’ concerns never made it to those in charge, because they were too busy.  Imagine the consequences we face when we fail to communicate with God.  I know we’re all busy.  It can be hard to sit down to a meal together, much less pray together.  Sometimes when we get in bed we’re so tired we fall asleep before or during our prayers!  I suggest you approach prayer, communication with God, differently. 
            What kind of prayer works?  The answer is, “Prayer than works.” 
            What am I talking about?  Think back earlier in James.  He teaches us that faith  without works is dead, right?  What if the same is true of our prayers?  What if, in describing all these kinds of prayers, he is saying that our prayers should be more than words?  What if he’s saying prayers that work…work? 
            A prayer that works for those who suffer would mean helping to relieve their suffering.  If they are hungry, we might live out our prayer by feeding them.  A prayer that works for those who are joyous would mean praising God!  A prayer that works for those who are sick could mean something as simple as giving them chicken soup or giving them a ride to the doctor.   A prayer that works for everyday folks might mean a service of wholeness, where the pastor sprinkles water on your forehead to remind you of your blessedness and your importance to God and God’s desire that you be whole.

            What kind of prayer works?  Prayer that works.  Remember, prayer is communication with God.  And words are just a small part of communication.  As the pope taught us this week when we preached to Congress about ending poverty and then ate lunch with the poor, our works and our actions are prayers too.  Amen.