Archive | February 2012

1. Lent: God’s Rainbow Promise

First Sunday in Lent

26 February 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

God’s Rainbow Promise

Based on Genesis 9: 8-17

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            Covenant is one of the most important ideas of the United Church of Christ. Because each congregation is autonomous, or has freedom to makes its own decisions, as do UCC institutions, associations, conferences, and our national Church House, covenant is the relationship between churches and institutions and associations and conferences and the Church House that we freely enter into. We also believe in the UCC that pastors and churches covenant together, church members covenant to be in relationship with one another, and most importantly God makes a covenant with us. A recent UCC document proclaimed that:

Covenant embodies and honors the United Church of Christ’s conviction that all members and all settings of the Church are called by God into a relationship with God, and therefore with one another, which depends upon God’s grace…Covenant assumes the autonomy of each partner to commit one’s self to the relationship and the journey. Covenant requires that each be responsible to the others and for the self. It assumes that all partners regard themselves and one another in their wholeness and integrity as bestowed upon them by God.[1]

 

            The idea of covenant is biblically grounded, found in the Old Testament 326 times. The English word covenant is from the Hebrew berith, which means “to fetter” or to bind.[2] Covenant language is much less prevalent in the New Testament, found primarily in St. Paul’s writings. Jane Fisler Hoffman in her book on covenant commented, “The tight focus of the New Testament uses of covenant makes one thing very clear: the new covenant is all about Jesus and the gift of life through his life.”[3]

            But this morning’s story of Noah is the first time God makes a covenant with God’s people. Our passage this morning is just the tail end of the story of Noah. Most people inside and outside of the Church are familiar with the bare basics of the story – God asks Noah to build an ark, and Noah and his family load up the ark with a pair of every kind of animal, the flood comes for 40 days and nights destroying all left behind, and its left to Noah’s family and the animals to repopulate the earth. This story is one of the first stories most of us learned in Sunday School. It’s no wonder that we do – it’s an engaging story to have kids to think about all those animals on one big ship. Of course we don’t tell children how awful it would have been to live with all that mooing, barking, meowing, and roaring for 40 days with no escape. We save our children from the reason behind the ark, and often fail to realize as adults as well – that is because God is so discouraged with humanity that we read in Genesis 6: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and the every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out form the earth the human beings I have created- people  together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I made them.’ But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.” Noah, by the way, we are told, is 600 years old when God tells him to build the ark. We hear God say to Noah this convicting statement, “I have determined to make an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them.” When God called Noah, he was sorry that he made humans because of our violence.

So God brings the flood, which destroys everything not on the ark. After 40 days, the flood stopped and the earth began to dry. Noah and his family and all the animals leave the ark and God says “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind.” God sees what he has done and decides to never do it again. God who can do as God chooses, decides to limit what he will or will not do, for the sake of God’s creation. All of this leads up to our actual passage, to where after all this God says to Noah and his sons, “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” According to Terence Fretheim, professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, “This God expresses sorrow and regret; judges, but does not want to judge; goes beyond justice and decides to save some, including animals; commits to the future of a less than perfect world; is open to change in view of experience with the world and doing things in new ways; and promises never to do this again.” Human beings’ behavior hasn’t changed, but somehow God is changed by this experience. We don’t often think about God changing, yet in this instance, God’s approach does. God sees that countering violence with destruction is not the way that God wants to proceed. Instead, God claims a covenant not only with people, but “every living thing.” Imagine that – God’s love and care extends to all creation – even “ the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth.” We are just one among them, and each one of us is told that God will never cut us off. There are no restrictions and stipulations on this covenant. God doesn’t say “I won’t cut you off if you behave the way I want…” The covenant, the relationship of God to us as God’s children is unconditional. It is the most purely unconditional love we will ever experience. God says, “Never again shall all flesh be cut off.”

God lays out this covenant before Noah and his sons, and then God declares, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and all the earth…When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh on earth.” God uses the rainbow as a reminder not to us, but to God to remember the covenant that God has made. Of course it also reminds us of our relationship with God. The rainbow can signify for us God’s promise to always be in relationship with us always. When scripture says that God set his bow in the clouds, God puts away the bow as a weapon, and sets the rainbow of a symbol of this new relationship, this covenant that shall not be broken.

Dr. Terence Fretheim says, “For God to decide to endure a wicked world, while continuing to open up the divine heart to that world, means that God’s grief is ongoing. God thus determines to take suffering into God’s own heart and bear it there for the sake of the future of the world.” God, we must honestly say, is grieved by us – in having “left undone those things which we ought to have done and we have done those things which we ought not to have done”[4] God is grieved in much the same way our own parents were grieved, when we in the words of a hymn, “wandered off to find where demons dwell.” A wise mother recently told me that she had to learn to rise above her children’s acting out and throwing fits and disregard of their parents, and to not lash out in return, but to show unconditional love and realize that such acting out was not because her children didn’t love her. God our eternal parent seems to also come to this place in declaring this covenant, in determining that never again will God cause a flood to destroy what God had created. Just as our parents birthed us with the hope of our doing good in the world, God has the same hope for us – and stays in relationship with us regardless of our action or inaction. In essence, God loves us, and wants us to be able to love ourselves and all of creation.

The covenant that God made with Noah and all of creation reminds us of the covenant we observe in Lent and throughout our Christian life together, the new covenant in Jesus Christ. As in the flood and following covenant, God seeks an end to our violence. In the cross of Christ, our Creator takes the violence of humans gone astray, violence of a state execution of Jesus, intended to end his message of love to the marginalized – God takes that act of ultimate violence and destruction – and God destroys its power. God transforms an act of hate into one of love. God transforms death into life. God raises Christ to new life, and God raises us to new life. In Christ Jesus, who vulnerably died on the cross for our behalf, death and destruction lose their power. This is God’s ultimate act of covenant and being in relationship with us, to show us that violence has no place – that we each are so valued that God takes on human form to show us yet a better way – a way of life, a way of hope, a way of resurrection, the way of God’s rainbow promise to each and every one of us, to all of creation.

+To God be the Glory. Amen.

 


[1] Governance Follow-Up Team II, “Recommendations to be considered during the Fall 2008 Board and Executive Council meetings,” 18 September 2008, 9-10.

[2] Fisler Hoffman, 17

[3] Fisler Hoffman, 25

[4] Book of Common Prayer: According to Use in King’s Chapel, 1986, 4.

Transfiguration: Who Then is This?

Festival of the Transfiguration

19 February 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

“Who Then Is This?”

Based on Mark 9: 2-13

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer. Amen.

 

Today, we mark the end of the season of Epiphany, and will on Ash Wednesday begin the Lenten journey. Epiphany is the season of light, of growing knowledge of whom Jesus is. Lent is alternatively, a solemn season leading to the cross. As we reach the end of one season and begin another, St. Mark’s account of the Transfiguration is particularly appropriate. The gospels according to St. Matthew and St. Luke include very similar accounts of the Transfiguration. But the difference in Mark is that the Transfiguration occurs almost immediately after Jesus has explained to his twelve closest disciples that he will undergo great suffering. What follows, is basically a slow journey to Jerusalem, and ultimately Calvary.  The Transfiguration story lies in stark contrast to everything else in St. Mark’s gospel, particularly in how it is placed between accounts of Jesus declaring how he will suffer and die. According to James Boyce, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, “More than any of the gospels, Mark’s story makes clear that if there is to be any transformation of us hearers into disciples and followers, new life will be connected to the suffering and death of Jesus the Messiah that now unfolds in his subsequent story.”[1] Here we have, for the disciples, a dazzling revelation of who Jesus is, with the declaration: “This is my Son, the Beloved;* listen to him!” Up on the mountain the disciples receive a marvelous epiphany, but they still have much to learn from Jesus on the way to Jerusalem.

In the previous chapter of the gospel, Jesus asks the disciples,

Who do people say that I am?” 28And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’* 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Apparently, Peter gets it. He has affirmed that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. It would appear that the disciples, who up to this point, are painted as bumbling buffoons, are finally starting to get it. But immediately after this,

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

Peter has just declared that Jesus is in fact the Messiah. Yet, Peter has the audacity to challenge Jesus—to tell Jesus that this is not the way it is supposed to happen. Peter and the disciples left their families, their friends, their homes, and their careers to follow Jesus; but yet, they don’t fully understand what it means to follow Jesus. Their ideas of a messiah who breaks into the world powerfully and victoriously, with a radical revolutionary overthrow of the power of Rome still reign. They were not prepared for the way that Jesus would show them, for power shown through servanthood and suffering. When during the Transfiguration, God’s voice bellows from the cloud, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him!” it sounds as a rebuke to the disciples. The subtext is that “You have chosen the Way, which is right and good. But you must unharden your hearts, and truly listen, in order to go the true path of discipleship.”

            After Jesus had rebuked Peter, he told the crowd around them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,* will save it.” No doubt, the disciples began questioning what they’d gotten themselves into—wondering what this suffering would be, when, and if it was really worth it. Again from Dr. Boyce, “In the same way, the question for hearers today is whether we who have heard Jesus’ call and followed him through these series of “epiphanies” will be just as eager to follow him where he leads us on this way to the cross.” Jesus certainly knew that the disciples might be questioning their commitment. Wise it was then to take his “inner circle” of disciples up to the mountain, away from the crowds, perhaps to pray, reflect, and get some sense into Peter’s head. It is vital to note here, that James, John, and Peter, the three who witnessed the Transfiguration, also became the three most important leaders in the early Christian church, in Rome and Jerusalem.

            So the disciples go up the mountain with Jesus, likely expecting some private teaching from Jesus. But with not even so much as a voice saying “And now for something completely different,” almost immediately atop the mountain Jesus’ clothes become an astoundingly bright and effervescent white. The gospel makes clear this was no trick or slight of hand, saying “his clothes became dazzling white, as no one on earth could bleach them.” So either Jesus’ clothes were so dirty that even the best bleach provided no hope for him, or something miraculous was happening. The disciples suddenly see Moses, the giver of the law, and Elijah, the greatest prophet, surrounding Jesus, speaking with him. How do they identify that these holy men are Moses and Elijah? Surely there were no icons of them in the synagogue. One commentator suggests that perhaps, just as we, even by seeing only silhouettes of Washington and Lincoln, know who they are, the disciples saw signifiers indicating Moses and Elijah. Can you imagine it? Jesus shining brightly, with the company of the greatest men of God ever known? It is almost incomprehensible. Surely the disciples were astounded and at loss for what to do, amazed by this revelation. Peter, ever impulsive, suggests building three booths, for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He basically is suggesting a resurgence of the Festival of Booths, when booths were built to commemorate the Israelites Exodus from Egypt. We hear no response from Jesus on this, but after the cloud descends and God declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” Moses and Elijah disappear.

            So much comes together in this brief moment; no wonder the gospel says the disciples were terrified! Moses went up to Mount Sinai to receive God’s law, and came down from the mountain with his face shining like the sun—as radiantly as Jesus’ clothes. Then there is the passage from 2 Kings, in which Elijah is carried off to heaven. Dr. Lance Stone, a minister of the United Reformed Church in the UK, suggests a much starker comparison:

Here, in this story of the transfiguration, Jesus’ clothes shine with the glory of God; there, at the crucifixion, the soldiers gamble for Jesus’ clothes. Here in this story, Jesus is surrounded by two great heroes from ancient history; there, on the cross, Jesus he is surrounded by two common criminals. Here, at the transfiguration, Jesus is witnessed by three male disciples – Peter, James and John; there, at Golgotha, three woman followers are named as witnesses: two Marys and Salome. Again, this scene of transfiguration is one a scene of dazzling light, while at the crucifixion Matthew tells us that darkness came over the whole land. Here, in this scene, Jesus basks in God’s presence, there he suffers the hell of God’s absence and cries out, ‘My God why have you forsaken me?’ Here on the mountain God confesses Jesus as God’s son as a voice sounds forth, ‘this is my son, the beloved!’ There, in utter abandonment, it is left to a Roman centurion to blurt out, ‘truly this man was God’s son.’[2]

It is no wonder then that “As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” The disciples could not fully comprehend what had happened on the mountain for those brief moments, until living through Christ’s death and resurrection. This account as well as the crucifixion, resembles too the resurrection, with Jesus’ clothes dazzling white and two heavenly beings by his side. So soon, after Peter has declared Jesus to be the Messiah, he along with James and John see a reflection of what this truly means.

            The Transfiguration did not change Jesus. In this moment Jesus of Nazareth did not become Jesus Christ. He was not suddenly infused with holy power. Indeed, he already had it, as evidenced in the miracles and healings that performed in Mark prior to this event. Jesus, from birth, was both fully human and fully divine. I imagine if instead of the birds and the bees talk, Joseph didn’t instead have the “savior of the world” talk with a young Jesus. What happens rather is more of a transformation of Peter, James, and John. They still do not know the suffering, the persecution that awaits them. But they are privileged to witness a momentary lifting of the veil between heaven and earth, a glimpse of the Kingdom of God to be, and Christ in his glory.

            It is this brief moment, which they do not yet fully understand, that must sustain them on the road to Jerusalem. Whatever awaits them, whatever trials they are yet to endure, they have been confirmed in their belief in Jesus as the anointed one of God. In one of his last speeches, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”[3] Dr. King’s own mountaintop experiences sustained him too, in the midst of all the turmoil and the great burden put upon him as the focal point of the entire civil rights movement. It is such experiences when we meet God face to face that can sustain us when we have to make our long journeys through the desert.

            Through their mountaintop experience the disciples begin to see more fully who Jesus is, and are prompted by God to listen to his beloved. Throughout the gospel, St. Mark through the miracles and healings attempts to create an understanding of who Jesus is. The Transfiguration event is one such story that illustrates and leads us to greater understanding of Jesus. This is not to say that it is merely a story or literary device used by the gospel authors—its appearance in the first three gospels and Peter’s second epistle points to the fact that this was an important moment for these apostles, in both their own journey, and one that can illuminate the journeys of others. The event is so mystical, so contrary to the world that we typically experience. But to discount it, is to discount the ways God can radically enter the world and interact with God’s creation. In the words of a friend, “We don’t believe in miracles—we depend on them.”

            What does it mean for us, to be transfigured or transformed, to be fully realized into our God-given vocations? Is an alcoholic who turns away from the bottle and becomes sober transfigured? Is the racist who recognizes the error of her ways and seeks reconciliation, is she transfigured? Are we transfigured when seen anew with the eyes of someone deeply in love with us? I think we are. I believe that when we strive to live into the fullness of who God calls us to be, we are transfigured as well. Like Moses, we will come down from the mountaintop with our faces shining like the sun. Who stands with you on that mountain, declaring what is fulfilled in you? Which saints of glory stand by your side then? This is not to compare us to Jesus, but to affirm that like Peter, James, and John—when we truly see who Jesus is, we can see who we are called to be as well. The more we know about Jesus, the more we understand about the way of life that he calls us to and who God calls us to be.

            In closing I’d like to share with you a reading from the Church of Scotland, which eloquently addresses some of these questions.

My name is Abraham.

But that has not always been my name.

 

Before the journey,

before the star-map,

before the wandering in the desert,

before the child born to a hundred year old pensioner,

before sand grains became promises,

before the attempted sacrifice of Isaac,

I was Abram.

 

But then the call

and a new name.

 

My name is Israel.

But that has not always been my name.

 

Before making peace with Esau,

before 12 sons,

before the dreams of Joseph,

before the coloured coat,

before the kidnapping,

before the droughts,

I was Jacob.

 

But then the call

and a new name.

 

My name is Peter.

But that has not always been my name.

 

Before the discarding of nets,

before the walking on water,

before the confession,

before the denial,

before the running to the tomb,

before being called the rock,

I was Simon.

 

But then the call

and a new name.

 

My name is Paul.

But that has not always been my name.

 

Before Damascus,

before the letters,

before the thorn in my side,

before preaching to the Gentiles,

before Antioch,

before imprisonment,

I was Saul.

 

 

But then the call

and a new name.

 

The call:

to a wilderness journey,

where stars have names,

and sand grains whisper between your toes.

 

I was settled,

retired,

and comfortable.

 

Now I’m a new father,

I have a young family,

an old wife,

and a career in futures.

 

Life is always being transformed,

and every so often,

given a new meaning,

transfigured by God’s own hand.

 

I was Abram,

now I am Abraham.

By God’s grace,

who will you become?

 

The call:

to a wilderness journey,

to a new land,

and a wrestling match with God.

 

I was restless,

I was pushy and dishonest,

the trickster.

 

Now I’m settled,

live in honesty with my eleven sons,

rejoice at the finding the twelfth one in Egypt,

and long for the prospect of a peaceful retirement.

 

Life is always being transformed,

and every so often,

given new meaning,

transfigured, by God’s own hand

 

I was Jacob,

now I am Israel.

By God’s grace,

who will you become?

 

The call:

to a wilderness journey,

of discipleship and cross carrying,

of foot-washing and broken bread.

 

I was hot headed,

misunderstanding everything,

jumping out boats and sinking,

embarrassed to confess on the night of his death

Jesus as Lord.

 

Now I am The Rock,

recognising the truth of the empty tomb,

 

happy to confess Jesus as my Saviour,

right to the point of my own death.

 

Life is always being transformed,

and every so often,

 

given new meaning,

transfigured by God’s own hand.

 

I was Simon,

Now I am Peter.

By God’s grace,

who will you become?

 

The call:

to a wilderness journey,

to where there is no difference

between slave and free, Jew and Gentile

 

I was racist,

holding the coats,

persecuting a new faith

that questioned my own.

 

Now I am imprisoned for their sake,

for I am committed to the cause of Christ ,

an apostle to those I once persecuted.

 

Life is always being transformed,

and every so often,

given new meaning,

transfigured by God’s own hand.

 

I was Saul,

Now I am Paul.

By God’s grace,

who will you become?

 (Church of Scotland, Rev Roddy Hamilton, Clydebank Abbotsford)

+To God be the Glory. Amen.

 

           

6. Epiphany: The Problem with Leviticus

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

12 February 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

The Problem with Leviticus

Based on Leviticus 12

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            This morning, I’d like to take a survey. Raise your hand if the following applies to you:

            You watched the Super Bowl last Sunday or have ever touched a football.

            You’ve ever had a ham sandwich.

You’ve ever been to Red Lobster, Long John Silver’s or any other seafood restaurant.

            You’re a woman and have ever worn pants.

            You have ever worn polyester or any other clothing made out of two fabrics.

            You’ve ever planted two kinds of crops in the same field.

            You’re a man and have ever had a haircut.

            You’ve ever shaved.

            You are far-sighted, near-sighted, have cataracs, wear glasses or contacts.

            You’ve ever eaten or touched a

                        Camel

                        Rock badger

                        Rabbit

                        Eagle

                        Osprey

                        Falcon

                        Water hen

                        Vulture

                        Pelican

                        Stork

                        Heron

                        Hoopoe (what the heck is a hoopoe?)

                        Bat

                        Lizard

                        Crocodile

                        Chameleon

                        or Gecko.

For shame! You’ve all committed abominations! All of these things are called an abomination in the book of Leviticus. Just be glad I didn’t ask you about the other laws having to do with more intimate matters. Leviticus is a book of holy and priestly laws written for the Hebrew people while they were exiled in Babylon. Among other things, those laws including not touching the skin of a pig (banning touching pigskin footballs or eating pork), not eating any sea creature without scales or fins (banning shrimp and lobster), forbidding women to wear men’s clothes (sorry, no pants ladies), banning the use of mixing two fabrics (goodbye poly-cotton blends), and banning intercourse during a woman’s menstrual period. All these things are called abominations. The Old Testament lists a total of 65 abominations: 5 are abominations in relation to other people, 13 are dietary restrictions, 17 involve improper sacrifice, 12 include a wide range of behaviors from murder to women wearing pants, 8 are unclear in their purpose, 5 are sexual restrictions, and 2 forbid the love of money. The New Testament only uses the word twice, once in Revelation and once in the gospels. Jesus uses it to refer to the love of money – and absolutely no reference to it again. The word abomination comes from toevah, which does not mean something that is intrinsically evil, but ritually unclean for Jews themselves.

            This morning’s text from Leviticus says on the other hand, what persons should do, rather than avoid. We hear that when a woman gives birth to a boy, she needs to spend 33 days of purification – but when she has a girl, she needs to spend 66 days of purification. It’s important to note here that the purification was required not because of any sin associated with childbirth, but because of the flow of blood – which the Hebrews associated with death. But why would a woman have to purify herself half the time for a boy as for a girl? The answer when this text was written may have had something to do with the supposed sin of Eve and its legacy for all womankind. But really, its more likely that its because male children were more valued than female children.

            Now, if I as your pastor suggested that we strictly follow this passage – I’d rightly get run out of town by the women of this congregation. Today, we simply find no need for such purification rites. We don’t see anything inherently unclean about childbirth, and we certainly don’t think women should be treated differently if they have a boy or girl. For the time this text was written it served a purpose. But it has little meaning for us today. Mind you, this text is almost harmless compared to another gem from Leviticus 25, which says, “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property.” That passage basically argues that it is ok to own slaves as long as they don’t come from your own country. This is one of the passages that slaveowners in the United States used to defend their practice of slavery.

                        From the harmless to very harmful, Leviticus includes many passages that we today do not follow, some of which we find just plain abhorrent. Yet, some continue to use one passage in Leviticus to berate same-gender loving persons. Why do this, when we follow almost none of the other mandates in Leviticus? Why do this, when even orthodox Jews do not even follow all of these mandates? Quite frankly, it’s out of prejudice. Most people know little about Leviticus, yet cling to one verse that backs up their prejudice. If people want to do that, that’s their prerogative, but they need to be honest that they’re picking and choosing scripture. We all do that to a certain extent, in deciding which scriptural passages are most important to us.

            So what do we do with Leviticus? What do we do with these passages that we typically choose not to follow? I don’t think most people are going to give up their glazed ham Christmas dinners or shaving or pants. But Leviticus is part of sacred scripture and it does need wrestling with. First, it’s important to understand the role the Levitical code played. The name Leviticus comes from Levi, which was the tribe of priests in ancient Israel. The Hebrews had been exiled out of their homeland to Babylon. They were living in a foreign country and culture, and were looking for ways to protect their identity as a people in a strange land. The laws found in Leviticus were the result of those attempts to maintain their own distinct identity away from their homeland. These laws were written to separate them from their captors and the other people of Babylon. They were designed to preserve the purity of the chosen people, to prevent mixing with other nations and avoid acculturation in Babylon. These primitive peoples did their best to identify how they could maintain their identity and to avoid foreign diseases, so that when they were able to return to their homeland, there would at least be some living who could return to their former way of life. They did not have the scientific information that we have on what food is safe to eat, how to have sanitary childbirth, or how to prevent sexually transmitted infections. But they used what knowledge they did have to try to sort those things out, so that at least a remnant could return to Israel someday. Leviticus was written with all this in mind – for a particular people, for a particular time and place in history. We can learn from the Hebrews’ struggle to maintain their identity and who they were in the midst of oppression, but there is not a need to follow those laws today in our time and place.

            There is a variety of literature in the Bible with a variety of purposes. There is history of the Israelite people and their laws, prophecy calling those people back to God’s ways, wisdom sayings in Proverbs, songs and poems of both praise and disappointment with God in the Psalms, the story of Jesus in the gospels, Paul, Peter and John’s guidance to the early churches in the letters, and an apocalyptic allegory in Revelation – and that barely covers the wide variety in scripture. Much of our holy text speaks to us across time and space, and can find universal application. But not all of it does. Some things simply don’t translate into our current context – like forcing a woman to purify herself doubly because she had a female child. Some of the Old Testament laws are universal, like the ten commandments – which provide the basis for many nations’ laws. But others, like much of Leviticus are unnecessary today. It’s like some of the antiquated laws of our own state that are still around today. For example in Kansas City, installation of bathtubs with four legs resembling animal paws is prohibited. In Natchez, it is unlawful to provide beer or other intoxicants to elephants. In St. Louis, it is against the law for a milk man to run on duty. In Normal, Illinois, where I went to college, it is unlawful to make faces at dogs. They sound ridiculous, right? Just about as ridiculous as a ban on eating rock badger. But, all of these laws at one time served a purpose and at least to those who wrote them, had a reasonable meaning behind them.

            So we can acknowledge the Levitical code’s importance in the history of the Israelite people in preserving themselves, while admitting that this is no longer our concern. So we need not feel bound by it, nor guilty when we get a haircut or wear clothing of two fabrics or love the person we are naturally attracted to. Rather, when we come across such passages like these in the Bible, we need to measure them against the great arc of scripture and Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor. Saying ‘What would Jesus do?’ is often a good guide, but we don’t always have a clear answer. Like, ‘Would Jesus eat a camel?” I’m not sure about that – maybe, maybe not. I’d rephrase the question slightly, and ask, “Does this action get in the way of loving my God and my neighbor as myself?” If one commits murder, robbery, or adultery, of course the answer is yes, those all create serious breaches with our God and our neighbors. But if we say “Will having deep-fried camel hump for dinner create a problem between me, God and my neighbor?” the answer is probably no, unless of course, the camel belonged to your neighbor.  

            Leviticus is one of those places in scripture that we really have to struggle with. We often want to use scripture to provide guidance and comfort for our lives. Many books of the Bible do provide that. But there is little of that in Leviticus – it is so foreign to our own culture and day. But we don’t just toss it out and dismiss it, thinking how much more enlightened we are than the ancient people who wrote it. Rather, we need to honor the fact that the laws of Leviticus were written to help the Hebrews remember who they were in their time of exile – and while we don’t follow the mandates of those laws, we can affirm the importance of remembering one’s identity as the people of God.

            So there is no need to berate others with the ‘abominations’ found in Leviticus – since in all likelihood, each one of us is violating the laws of Leviticus in some way. After all, in the gospels, Jesus is only concerned with one abomination: the love of money. That, according to our savior, is more worth avoidance than any of the other so-called abominations. As Christians, we are freed from the law by grace. We are no longer bound to such rules and regulations. Even for the early Church they no longer applied, because even then they no longer spoke to the needs of the day. So we continually develop our own sense of Christian ethics, not based on what were thought to be abominations 3,000 years ago, but with the same reasoning the people who wrote Leviticus used – how to maintain our identity and remember who we are as God’s people. That’s something we can live up to.

+To God be the Glory. Amen.

5. Epiphany: Eating Unworthily

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany

5 February 2012

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

Eating Worthily

Based on 1 Corinthians 11: 17-34

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            Can you imagine a church ever being in conflict? And in conflict over something as essential as communion? Whether you can or not, this morning’s passage from St. Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth is about just that. Paul reprimands members of the community there for ‘eating unworthily.’ Before exploring what that means, first I want to take a look at holy communion itself.

            Where does the sacrament of communion, also referred to as Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper come from? In mainline Protestant tradition, the United Church of Christ has two sacraments: baptism and communion. These are our sacraments, we say, because Jesus Christ instituted them in his earthly life. We spent the past three Sundays considering baptism, and now come to communion. Most often, we talk of communion as coming from the Last Supper – as we read in the gospels and in our Corinthians reading – as Jesus said to “do this in remembrance of me.” While in holy communion we do re-member the Last Supper, we also remember the innumerable mighty acts of God throughout the life of creation, the crucifixion and death of our Lord, and celebrate his resurrection and ascension, and anticipate his coming again in victory. Communion is not merely a recitation of the script of the Last Supper, nor is it play-acting with the minister pretending to be Jesus. In actuality, the Last Supper itself was a ritual Jewish meal. Near the close of his earthly life, Jesus had a ritual Jewish meal with his disciples. The gospels according to Sts. Matthew, Mark and Luke say that it was a Passover meal, while John and Paul have no reference to Passover.  It is believed that during the meal he said the prayer over the bread and cup known as the Quiddush, and after the meal said the Birkat ha-Mazon, a Jewish prayer of thanksgiving from which part of the communion liturgy is thought to have descended. According to Enrico Mazza in The Celebration of the Eucharist, this prayer of thanksgiving was said “whenever there is a meal, provided it consist in something more than a medium-size olive.”(p. 15) This prayer first blesses God, remembers God’s goodness, and asks for God’s continued mercies. In the Didache, a first-century document of early Christians, the early rite of the Eucharist included a rite of the cup with a blessing, rite of the bread with blessing, the meal, and a Christianized thanksgiving prayer.  From the beginning of the practice of communion, it included a full meal for the nourishment of the whole gathered Christian community. This would eventually be eliminated as the Church grew and became more institutionalized, being replaced instead with a ritual meal. In sum, the Last Supper came out of the tradition of ritual Jewish meals, and our own practice of communion has developed from there.

            So what is happening with the Corinthians and their practice of communion? St. Paul writes to the Corinthians that “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. 22What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!” It is a harsh – but deserved critique. The Church at Corinth, we can deduct from Paul’s letter, included persons across the social spectrum, both rich and poor. But for this common meal, the rich do not share what they have brought, but go on and eat as if having a private meal – some drinking enough to become drunk. All this happens while the poor receive little and are treated with disregard. And this is at the Lord’s Table.

            St. Paul in essence charges the Corinthians with eating and drinking unworthily because they do not realize what they are doing in the Eucharist. We find from this passage that there are divisions within the church. Such division is a wound to the Body of Christ, and to eat and drink of the Lord’s Supper as if it is one’s solitary meal to be hoarded from the poor is to eat and drink unworthily. The Corinthians did not realize (or simply ignored) that the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of unity. According to Mazza, “In the Eucharistic liturgy, unity becomes a reality because the faithful share in the one bread which in turn is a communion in the body of Christ.” (p.84) Yet the Corinthians did not practice such unity by some eating before the others and letting some go hungry. To allow such division keeps the Body of Christ divided and ignores the unifying aspect of the sacrament. For St. Paul, the solution is not difficult: “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat a t home, so that when you come together it will not be for your condemnation.” According to Dwight Peterson of Eastern University, “Instead of turning the Lord’s Supper into an occasion to exhibit social distinctions, the Corinthians needed to be reminded of what the Eucharist is for: remembering Jesus and proclaiming his death until he comes. They ought to partake in the Lord’s Supper in a way that demonstrates their unity rather than their divisions.”[1]

            Why is this important? Why was it such a big deal to St. Paul? The intentionality with which we approach communion is important because it is the most central act of the Christian community. It is the most central act, not of the individual, but of the community together. We cannot be Christians alone – this is why representing unity in communion is so important. After all the very word communion should remind us of our common union, our common bond together as Christians. That is why it is such a disgrace to have divisions present at Christ’s Table.

            Because we believe as Christians that Christ is present in all times and places, we can say that Christ is really present in communion and at the Table. This is not saying that we believe that the bread and wine become the very flesh and blood of Christ, but we do make memory of the flesh and blood of Christ with the symbols of bread and wine. Rather, Christ is spiritually, mystically, and really present in holycommunion. John Williamson Nevin, one of the great theologians of our United Church of Christ heritage, from the German Reformed tradition, explained that it is a spiritual presence “because Christ’s body is in heaven” but remains with us spiritually; it is real because “Christ is truly made present to the believer in the sacrament through the work of the Holy Spirit” and in receiving the meal, we “commune with the glorified person of Christ whose life…

flows into” us; and it is mystical because through the Spirit, “the medium of the presence of Christ in the Church,” Christ dwells in those who believe, receiving grace by faith. For Nevin, we don’t just sympathize with Jesus on the cross, but experience Christ real and present at the table, by the power of the Holy Spirit which unites across time and space.

 

            It is because Christ is present to us in communion in this very unique and vital way that we must attend to our practice of it with care. Because Christ is present and because this sacrament is a sacrament of unity that is intended to further our bond as the Body of Christ, it matters how we come to the Table, how we practice communion matters. Again that is why the way the Corinthians disregarded the poor among them is such a grievous sin to St. Paul. When we disregard, dishonor, and disrespect each other it is a wound to the Body of Christ. If we come to the Table with hatred or malice or prejudice on our hearts, particularly if that is directed toward others – if we come with that mindset, we disgrace the sacrament. We confess during worship so we can lay down those things. We need to lay down those things that divide us. Divisions do not belong in communion. Christ came to unite us, “that they may all be one.” That was Christ’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane and it is the motto of the United Church of Christ. Christ came that we may be one with God, but also one with each other. Holy Communion is a sacrament of unity, celebrating our comm-unity, our common union with God and one another as the Body of Christ here on earth. Bringing divisions to this sacrament disregards its importance. To disregard or disrespect another person and to come to the Table with no remorse is to disregard and disrespect Christ. This is what so angered St. Paul with the Corinthians, that he would say to them, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. 28Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves. 30For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. 32But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.” For Paul, eating unworthily is less about breaking the law than breaking our bond as Christians. Eating unworthily is neglecting our unity, and valuing our own individual interests over the interests of the whole Body. Eating unworthily is hoarding the bread and wine away from the marginalized and forgetting that those we see as marginalized were and are some of Christ’s closest companions.

            Eating unworthily is letting our man-made divisions get in the way of our God-made unity in the Body of Christ. So how do we eat worthily? How can we honor the presence of Christ and the unity of the sacrament of communion? If we all drink from one cup and eat from one loaf, how do we honor that unity? For the Corinthians, Paul just told those who were hungry to eat beforehand so they didn’t prevent the poor from receiving the meal as well. I really don’t think it’s that much more difficult for us. Christ broke through society’s boundaries and barriers, so we shouldn’t be erecting them in the Church! When we’re tempted to erect them, we would do well to remember what Paul said later in Corinthians: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good…  For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit… the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.” When we care for one another and honor each other, we can eat worthily and not to our own judgment. Since divisions do not belong in a sacrament designed for unity – we need to confess them to God and to each other, not with anger and vitriol and yelling, but with listening and understanding. We may not come to easy agreements, but we are fully equipped by God to see and honor and respect one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, equally members of Christ’s Body, and faithful members of the Church. A wise woman told me this week that we need to put our mail in the right mailbox – meaning we don’t take our issues to other people who have nothing to do with our conflicts and triangulate, but we go to the people with whom we have conflict and work it out together in Christian charity, being gracious with one another. We have to lay down our conflicts and divisions in order to eat worthily. If we can’t resolve our issues before coming to the table, we need to at the very least suspend them in order to live into our unity as Christ’s Body. Just as we could not walk if one foot refused to associate with the other, we cannot be the Body without all the members of it working together for the Kingdom of God.

            The Table is a welcome table. God has spread it for us, for all of us. Whatever conflicts, whatever issues, whatever concerns, whatever prejudices we come with, we need to be able to lay those aside in order to be able to recognize Christ present with us, and Christ’s presence in others. If we can’t do this, communion becomes a meal for exclusion for others, and ceases to be a sacrament. So we must remember that welcome and that Christ came for each of us and will return for each of us – despite our own agendas and fears of who may sit at the table with us. It is God’s table, and we have no right to build a fence around it. So let us eat worthily, and honor, respect, and regard each other with dignity and concord, so that we may truly honor, respect, and regard the feast of God, the table of welcome, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the most holy communion of God.

+To God be the Glory. Amen.

           

4. Epiphany: Living Water for All

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

 

29 January 2012

 

St. John United Church of Christ

 

St. Clair, MO

 

 

Living Water for All

 

Based on Isaiah 55: 1-11 and St. John 4: 1-30, 39-42

 

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.

 

 

            Samaritans were not popular in Judea. That’s why whenever they are portrayed positively in the gospels, it would have been jarring for early Christians. Today, Samaria is located in the Palestinian West Bank. Samaritans once numbered over a million people, but as of last year have been decimated to only 745 left. But 700 years before Jesus was born the Assyrians invaded Israel. In the area of Samaria, some Samaritans mixed with the Assyrians and other foreigners, which recent DNA evidence actually confirms. The Judeans in their part of the country found this repulsive and repugnant. They wanted nothing to do with ethnic mixing, and especially these Samaritans. They believed that Samaritans also corrupted and altered the Jewish faith, while in reality the Samaritans actually practiced an older version of the faith than the Judeans themselves. The Samaritans also had their own temple, since the Judeans did not regard them as fellow Jews, a temple which the Judeans destroyed 100 years before the birth of Jesus. Samaritans today still worship at the ruins of that temple. So the Judeans and Samaritans had been fighting for 700 years when Jesus met this Samaritan woman. The view of these people was so low, that this is why in the other more popular story of the Good Samaritan that it is surprising that a Samaritan would help another person. Like often is the case today, Judeans, the people around Jesus, were afraid of what they did not know. If it all possible they would avoid traveling through Samaria, by taking a longer route elsewhere. Yet this morning’s gospel reading tells us that Jesus “had to go through Samaria.”

            So Jesus goes through Samaria on his way home. He’s tired and thirsty from his walk along the dusty roads. He finds himself at a well in Sychar. Today it is the town of Nablus, a populous city in Palestine. The well is still there – in fact I was lucky enough two years ago to visit the well, and even drink from it myself. This morning, we will use water from that very well in this morning’s baptism. The Greek Orthodox St. Photina Church is built above the well. The sanctuary is full of glorious Greek icons all over its walls. In the crypt of the church is the well. It’s a large square masonry fixture, with the cylindrical hole going down 135 feet. There is a crank with a bucket to bring up the water. This ancient well was dug by Jacob of the Old Testament, and has become deeper over time. Samaritans, Jews, Christians, and Muslims have all considered this well to be a holy site for thousands of years.

            It is there that Jesus meets the unnamed woman. Jesus says to her “Give me a drink.” But remember Jews are not supposed to associate with Samaritans. Further, no respectable male Jew spoke to a woman in public. This is doubly shocking. So no wonder the woman is offended and insulted and replies, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” She is understandably shocked that this man has even spoken to her, let alone ask a favor of her. But Jesus doesn’t respond in defense or really answer her question. Rather he changes the conversation to another plane, and says “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” The woman thinks Jesus is talking about literal water here, because the phrase ‘living water’ can mean flowing water, like that in a stream, rather than well-water. She smartly replies that “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” She asks good questions – for after all, who is this man who thinks he can one-up the well of patriarch Jacob? Jesus tells her though that “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.” Intrigued, but still taking Jesus literally she asks Jesus to give her the water so that she doesn’t have to keep coming back to the well day after day. Jesus has an interesting response. He tells her to get her husband. But she has no husband she says. Jesus astonishes her by saying that is true, and that she has had five husbands, and the man she currently depends on is not her husband. Now here, some people try to interpret to mean that this is a woman of ill-repute, a harlot, even a prostitute. But where does it say that in the text? Nowhere. More likely is that this woman has been widowed, divorced, or abandoned  (or any combination of them) by five different men, and now is dependent on a relative of one of them. This was the fate of most women who had  little power and had to depend on often unreliable men. It is out of Jesus repeating this woman’s personal history to her that she declares, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet.” She then begins a theological discussion with Jesus about proper worship, a discussion in which Jesus and this woman, who he’s not supposed to even be seen with, engage with one another on equal footing. At the end of it, she says, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Ok, fair enough. How does Jesus respond? He says, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Now this might not sound strange to us, who have already accepted Jesus as the Messiah. But remember how often in the gospels Jesus evades the question of the whether or not he is the Messiah? Yet here is a direct, cut and dry answer: “I am he.” And who does he say this to? He says it to a powerless woman who has been advantage of time and again, and not just any woman, but a woman of a people Jews refused to tolerate. This is the one and only time in the gospel according to St. John that Jesus openly says that he is the messiah – and once again it is to someone who is marginal, unexpected, and unlikely. Jesus has come for people just like her, to give the living water that truly satisfies.

            Just then, the disciples come and the woman runs off into the city and leaves her water jar behind. She’s completely forgotten what she came for – but it’s precisely because she now knows of Jesus’ living water that she forgets all about the water from the well. She goes into the city and says “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” She isn’t quite convinced by her own question. She is astounded by Jesus’ ability to describe her life and is pondering if he could be the one come to save all the people. She considers what this living water could be. She wonders how it can quench thirst forever. And meanwhile, by her witness, many come to see Jesus and they later tell her “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” It is out of this woman’s own testimony that others come and see Jesus and are able to confess him as the Savior. Once again God has chosen an unlikely messenger.

            Isaiah said:

Listen   everyone who thirsts,
   come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
   come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
   without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
   and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
   and delight yourselves in rich food.

Isaiah’s call to come to the water is like Jesus’ telling the woman at the well that she should be asking him for the living water that quenches all thirst. Like Jesus who says that the water from the well will not quench the inner, spiritual thirst, Isaiah asks “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labour for that which does not satisfy?” They both remind us that we are more than just our physical bodies, that we have a spiritual hunger as well, that only God can quench. John Wesley said that this thirst is “For the grace of God and the blessings of the gospel. This thirst implies a vehement, and active, and restless desire after it.” He said that when Isaiah said to come buy and eat, he merely means to “receive that which is freely offered. Wine and milk – All gospel-blessings; in particular, that peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, which are better than wine, and that love of God which nourishes the soul, as milk does the body.”[1] The living water of which Jesus speaks is the very same – this living water offers us newness of life each day, and eternal life with God which has no end. This is the water that is poured out in baptism – today here and everywhere the sacrament of baptism has ever and ever will be offered. As we baptize with water we remember not only the woman at the well and the living water that Jesus offered and the waters Isaiah calls us to, but  also how at the beginning, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the waters,” and how with Noah during the flood the “the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth,” how the Pharaoh’s daughter found a baby in the river and “he became her son; and she named him Moses, for she said, “Because I drew him out of the water,” and how Moses himself “stretched out his hand over the sea; and The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided,” of the water of Mary’s womb, the water of the river Jordan in which Jesus was baptized, the water on which many of the disciples made their living as fishermen, the water of the sea of Galilee on which Jesus walked, that Jesus said “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter The Kingdom of God,” of the turbulent waters on which St. Paul and Timothy traveled to spread the Good News, and the great vision of revelation which tells us that “he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” God was flowing through all these waters, to make them living water, water that is life-giving. In baptism, we pour water to remind us not only of its great importance and symbolism in scripture and Christian faith, but also to remind us that God is present to us in the commonness of our world. After all, what is more common than water, which makes up the majority of our bodies and the very earth? This is the very closeness of God. As that water is poured, the Holy Spirit is poured out upon us. In this act of baptism, of thirsting and coming for this living water that truly satisfies, we are bonded in relationship to God. We affirm our life in God and God’s life in us. We are intertwined with the Holy One and cannot be separated. Remember the psalmist who said,

Where can I go from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
   if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
   and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
   and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
   and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
   the night is as bright as the day,
   for darkness is as light to you.

We affirm this closeness of God to us in baptism, and begin on the path of discipleship. Our United Church of Christ baptismal liturgy, which we will share soon reminds us too that “Out of this water we rise to new life, forgiven of sin, and one in members of Christ’s body.” In baptism too, we are forever knit into the Body of Christ on earth, the Church. The Church may be broken into various forms, but it is still one Body, one Church. Through the living waters of baptism we are united with everyone everywhere who has thirsted for this living water and the eternal life it grants us. We are united with all Christians everywhere. All Christians – not just in the United Church of Christ, but Congregationalists, Reformed, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, Disciples, Assemblies of God, Nazarenes, Mennonites, Quakers, Brethren, Catholics, Apostolics, Orthodox, Churches of Christ, Anglicans, Christian Scientists, Seventh-Day Adventists, nondenominationals, evangelicals, fundamentalists, mainliners, restorationists, progressive Christians, and many more – we’re all a part of the Body of Christ together. We live in this world together as Christians, and for the sake of our witness to the world ought to remember our common baptism. We may do it in different ways, we may even use different words – but the same Holy Spirit is poured out, for the same longing for God in each of our hearts. Baptism unites us into one common Christian family. In baptism, we are knit into the Body of Christ forever. We claim God’s blessing and we promise to nurture each other as we grow into that blessing. Nothing will ever change this. Nothing we can ever do or anything anyone else ever does will ever remove our threads from the tapestry of the Body of Christ – each one of us is in there forever. Baptism is forever. Its promises can never be taken away. It is irrevocable. It is eternal. In a world that is ever-changing, this lasts beyond this changing world, into life beyond this place. So come to the waters! Come! Just as Jesus came for the Samaritan woman and offered her hope and new life, he offers the same to us. Say to Jesus, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” And Jesus says to us “The water that I give will become in you a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

+To God be the Glory, Amen.


[1] John Wesley’s Notes on the Bible, http://www.ccel.org/w/wesley/notes/