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.