We concluded our first Blessing Backpack Ministry on Sunday, June 19, with the assembling of the backpacks after a potluck lunch. It was wonderful to see our congregation work together on a ministry to its community. Claire Cote, Director of Senior & Social Services, was thrilled to receive the backpacks. She will share them with the Police and Fire Departments in Canton. Thank you to all who donated to make this ministry a success!
In her first report to the Board of General Ministries at its meeting on Friday, June 17 in Green Lake, WI, American Baptist Churches of the USA (ABCUSA) Interim General Secretary Dr. Susan Gillies addressed the recent shooting in Orlando, FL, saying:
“We offer our deepest sympathy to the families and friends of the victims of the horrible tragedy in Orlando. We extend love to those of our family directly affected. We grieve with our American Baptist brothers and sisters who are part of the LGBTQ community. My message to them is, never mistake our debates and disagreements with the depth of our love for you as part of our family. To the rest of the ABC family my message is, even in the midst of profound disagreement, let us love as Christ loved.
American Baptists agree on many things and we have recently lifted up seven Mission Table priorities on which to work together. One of these includes dealing with the violence in our society which needs our attention now more than ever. We have an active Task Force at work on Race and Race-Based Violence. The American Baptist Home Mission Societies will take a leadership role in addressing wider issues of violence. I encourage all American Baptists to support this work.
American Baptists are participating in conversations with Muslim faith leaders. Our General Secretary Emeritus, Rev. Dr. Roy Medley, leads in these efforts. We will continue these efforts for understanding and peace in a spirit of love.
Historically, American Baptists believing deeply in individual responsibility and local church autonomy, have grappled with issues of our personal and public witness. We differ on biblical understanding. We are diverse in race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity and we now learn from recent research, we are evenly divided Republican and Democrat. But through it all we’ve learned (and continue to learn) to trust in Jesus. American Baptists believe in and are guided by the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are driven in our proclamation and practice by the good news of God’s unceasing love.
Our diversity is a gift of God. We are called to bear witness to the world that living well in diversity can be done. We are who we are. We follow Jesus. For every time we falter, we ask forgiveness. For every time we succeed, we give thanks.”
Acknowledging Jesus Christ
In the gospel passage for today, Jesus says, “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven” (10:32-33). Today we will explore what it means to acknowledge Jesus Christ. To do so, however, we first have to put this statement of Jesus in context.
This statement about acknowledging or denying Jesus comes in a section of the Gospel According to Matthew in which Jesus is sending his twelve disciples out on a mission trip. He is giving them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness (10:1). Before sending them out he tells them what they are to expect as they go about doing his work. He says that they should expect to suffer persecutions (10:16-25). He urges them to be courageous while being persecuted (10:26). He tells them to take strength from the fact that those who will persecute them may be able to kill their bodies, but they are not able to kill their souls (10:28). Their souls belong to God and are under God’s care. God cares for them so much that God counts even all the hairs on their heads (10:31). And then Jesus says the two verses we are considering today: “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven” (10:32-33). Just what does Jesus mean when he talks about acknowledging him?
If we consider the context in which this statement is set, we get a clue about what acknowledging Jesus is all about. His disciples are being sent out on a mission trip to cast out unclean spirits and to cure disease and sickness. In other words, they are to do what Jesus has done when he has been on a mission trip. Jesus taught in the synagogues, preached the gospel of the kingdom of God, and healed people, and that’s what the disciples are to do. They are disciples of Jesus and they are to do what Jesus did. Acknowledging Jesus, then, is about doing what Jesus did.
We in the twenty-first century can have a hard time relating to casting out unclean spirits and curing disease and sickness in that way. We know about the science of illness. We know about germs, bacteria, and viruses. But people in Jesus’ day and age didn’t have the scientific knowledge that we have today, so they called the cause of illness “unclean spirits.”
Just because our culture now has scientific knowledge and uses a different language to describe illness, however, doesn’t mean that we can’t relate to what Jesus was saying. The idea that there are “evil forces in the world that manifest themselves in various ways” is still a valid idea. We know when we’re around someone or something that has negative, destructive, life-killing energy. And we know when we’re around someone or something that has positive, creative, life-giving energy. Love is, basically, energy, either feeling energy or action energy. And hate is, basically, energy, either feeling energy or action energy. When you are praying for someone you are, essentially, loving that person – you are sending her loving energy. And, when you are cursing someone you are, essentially, hating that person – you are sending him hateful energy. When Jesus spoke of unclean spirits, he was talking about negative, destructive, life-killing energy.
Jesus gave the disciples authority over unclean spirits, which means he gave them authority over negative, destructive, life-killing energy. And he asked them to cast out this energy and to heal the illness it had created. We tend to think of this illness as physical illness, but it could just as easily be emotional illness, psychological illness, spiritual illness, or social illness. The disciples were to cast out any negative, destructive, life-killing energy with which they came into contact and they were to heal any illness that energy had caused. In this way, they would be acknowledging Jesus; they would be doing what he would do; they would be fulfilling his mission.
To acknowledge Jesus, then, is to be a faithful disciple. In the gospel reading for today, Jesus says, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master” (10:24-25). If we are to acknowledge Jesus, we are to be like him.
Jesus was the supreme manifestation of the love of God. He brought all that positive, creative, life-giving energy of the love of God to earth. Hildegaard of Bingen, a German Benedictine abbess who lived in the 12th Century, described Jesus as,
“Love appearing in a human form, the Love of our heavenly Father . . . Love – in the power of the everlasting Godhead, full of exquisite beauty, marvelous in its mysterious gifts.”
And, in a vision, the figure of Love she described spoke to her and said,
“I, the highest and fiery power, have kindled every spark of life, and I emit nothing that is deadly. I decide on all reality. With my lofty wings I fly above the globe. With wisdom I have rightly put the universe in order. I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows. I gleam in the waters. I burn in the sun, moon and stars. With every breeze, as with invisible life that contains everything, I awaken everything to life.”
While Jesus was alive, those who came into contact with that positive, creative, life-giving energy of the love of God who wanted to be made well were made well. But those who came into contact with that energy who did not want to be made well remained ill. Think of the many people Jesus healed: the Gerasene demoniac, the woman with a hemorrhage, the Centurion’s servant, the official’s daughter. They sought him out, received the energy of the love of God he gave them, and were made well. But think of the many who opposed him: the Pharisees, the scribes, the Roman authorities. They loved their power and position more than they loved God, which means that they were spiritually sick. They fought against the energy of the love of God that Jesus offered them and remained ill. And, in their illness, they killed Jesus.
This is why Jesus warned the disciples that they would be the victims of persecution if they acknowledged him as he asked them to do. Essentially, he said, “If you go out into the world and proclaim the love of God with your voice and with your actions there will be people who won’t like it. They will love their power and position, their safety and comfort more than they love God. They will try to silence your voice and stop your actions. In the process, they may hurt you. They may even kill you. But be strong. For, though they may kill your body, they may not kill your soul. As long as you are acknowledging me by proclaiming the love of God, your soul will be alive and well.” Paul the apostle said in his letter to the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. . . . So you . . . must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:3-4, 11).” Our souls are alive to God in Christ Jesus, and no human being can kill them. They belong to God and God will care for them.
When we witness the negative, destructive, life-killing energy that manifests itself in various ways in our world and we do not try to cast it out and heal the illness it has caused, we are denying Jesus. We are not being faithful disciples. We are not participating in his mission. Jesus said, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:38). This is a painful thought because, like the first disciples, if we do as Jesus asks us to do and acknowledge him, there will be people who won’t like it, and who will not like us, and who will try to stop us. Jesus is asking us, his present-day disciples, to take up the cross of his mission, which is a challenging, difficult, and, perhaps, even painful thing to do. But he promises that, in doing so, we will find life, life as God wants to give it to us. Jesus said, “those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10:39).
As faithful disciples we must look around us and see where the negative, destructive, life-killing energy – the energy that Jesus called “unclean spirits” – is manifesting itself. And then we must do what we have to do to cast it out and to cure the illness it has caused. This is what Jesus asks us to do. Doing so can be as simple as caring for someone who is sick, making sure that they see a doctor and picking up their prescriptions for them, or as complex as insuring that our healthcare system insures that those people who, for whatever reason, don’t have the means to see a doctor or buy prescriptions, can get the health care they need to survive and thrive. It can be as simple as fulfilling the recycling regulations in our community so that we cut down on pollution, or as complex as forcing manufacturing companies to be responsible toward the environment through legislation. It can be as simple as educating ourselves about political candidates and their views and then voting responsibly, or as complex as starting and managing a letter writing campaign to our representatives on an important issue. It can be as simple as donating food to a shelter, or as complex as figuring out why there are homeless people in our community and then doing something about the cause of homelessness. However the “unclean spirits” are manifesting themselves, we are to cast them out and heal the wounds they have caused. This is what we are to do if we want to participate in the positive, creative, life-giving energy that was with God from the beginning, that was concentrated in Jesus while he was on earth, and that lives on in the movement of the Holy Spirit and the light of Christ.
We are about to sing the hymn, “I Danced in the Morning.” It is written in the first person, and the speaker is Jesus Christ. The hymn begins with, “I danced in the morning when the world was begun, and I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun, and I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth; at Bethlehem I had my birth,” and it ends with, “They cut me down and I leap up high; I am the life that will never, never die; I’ll live in you if you’ll live in Me: I am the Lord of the Dance, said He. Dance, then, wherever you may be; I am the Lord of the Dance, said He, and I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be, and I’ll lead you all in the dance, said He.”
Jesus will lead us in the Dance of Life, the Dance that the unclean spirits can never, never stop; the Life that the unclean spirits can never, never kill. Jesus will lead us, if we will only acknowledge him as he asks us to do. Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Sunday, June 12, 20016, the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost.
 James M. Efird. In The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition. Paul J. Achtemeier, General Editor, with the Society of Biblical Literature. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996, 236-237.
 Matthew Fox. Illuminations of Hildegaard of Bingen. Santa Fe: Bear & Company, 1985, 39.
 Fox, 39-40.
FROM THE CANTON COMPASS: The town of Canton held a Remembrance Vigil at the Canton Peace Pole Thursday evening to commemorate those killed at a Gay Orlando Nightclub earlier this week.
The event featured stories, readings and prayers by local clergy of varying faiths as well as brief remarks by First Selectman Leslee Hill. Claire Cote, the town’s Senior and Social Services Director, read the name of each victim.
CLICK HERE TO SEE IMAGES FROM THE VIGIL
CLICK HERE TO SEE ORIGINAL ARTICLE
Trust in the Lord
Psalm 146 begins with an instruction to the writer’s soul: “Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord, O my soul” (1-2). The life of faith is a life of praising God with all that we are and all that we have and all that we do. The whole self – the heart of which is the soul – is to praise God all life long.
This instruction is followed by another: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save” (3). Princes, mortal men, even ourselves, are finite and corruptible. Eventually, we will die. But, even before we mortals die, we will be corrupted, we will sin, we will fall short of what is required of us, we will commit evil; in short, we will be human, which, by its very nature, is finite and corruptible. Regardless of what we do with our lives, we will fall short of the ideal and we will, eventually, die. “On that very day [our] plans come to nothing” (4).
To put our trust in humans, in mere mortals, is folly and foolishness! And, yet, we do it all the time! We trust the authorities in our lives all the time: the doctors, the teachers, the lawyers, the pastors, the priests, the professors, the counselors, the social workers, the police, the firemen and women, the real estate agents, the politicians, and so on. We trust the authorities in our lives all the time because, on some level, we have to. We, ourselves, cannot be authorities in all areas, so we have to trust the authority of others in those areas in which we are not authorities!
The psalmist reminds us, however, that we cannot trust completely the authority of others. We must trust them with a grain of salt, so to speak. We must reserve some doubt about them. We must question their authority and integrity. They are human, and are thus finite and corruptible. Trust authorities to the extent that humans can be trusted; but reserve your complete trust for the Lord.
Why can we trust the Lord completely? The Lord is the Maker of the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything in them. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry, sets prisoners free, gives sight to the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down, loves the righteous, watches over the alien, sustains the fatherless and the widow, and frustrates the ways of the wicked (6-9). God is not corrupted by power, money, greed, self-interest, jealousy, or any of those others things by which humans are corrupted, so God takes care of those who are powerless and thus at the mercy of the corrupt.
As I have shared with you, I’ve been reading a book about the history of the East and the West and how they have interacted with each other since 4000 BC. The common thread in the history – regardless of which culture, country, or people are involved – is domination through any means necessary (most often violent) for political and economic gain. Victors include ancient Hebrews, the Roman Empire, Alexander the Great and the Greek Empire, Genghis Khan and the Mongolian Empire, Persia (now Iran), Russia, Spain, the British Empire, the United States of America, and others I can’t recall at the moment because the book is hundreds of pages long! Whichever culture is in power at whichever time thrives due to the riches over which it has control, and whichever culture is oppressed at whichever time declines due to being robbed of its riches by the culture that is in power.
We are in the midst of a presidential election year, which means that we hear and learn about political corruption every day. Not only do we hear about political corruption every day, we hear about how horrible our country and the world is at this time in history. During presidential election years, we wallow in the mud that is being slung all over the place! We become anxious and worried. We think we know the answers to problems. We think we know which candidate will fix our country and our world. Or, we despair that anything will ever be fixed. We wallow – in certitude, or arrogance, or despair, or apathy, or cynicism, or sarcasm, or whatever.
Because I have been reading this history book, however, I have been able to realize that our time in history is no different than every other time in history. Human beings are corruptible. They will be corrupted and, even, become depraved. They will behave horribly due to the sins of self-interest and greed. They will be caught in the webs of social and structural evil. They will die, and on that very day their plans will come to nothing!
So, what are we to do in the midst of all this human messiness? What are we to do as we slog through the mud and filth of the world? We are to hope and trust in the Lord. Now, this doesn’t mean that we do nothing but sit around and wait for God to do God’s thing. No; we must, of course, engage with our world to the best of our ability. We must listen, read, study, and become educated. We must pray for guidance. We must behave as God would have us behave. And, after all of that, we must vote our conscience. Ultimately, however, we do not have control over the results of our efforts. We do our part, and then we let go and let God do God’s part.
And, while we do all of this, while we live in the messiness and muddiness of the world, we put our hope and trust in the Lord. The constant in all that goes on is the Lord. He is the rock on which we stand. Psalm 146 ends with, “The Lord reigns forever; your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord” (10). When all else is said and done, we are to praise God, which means that we should live with integrity as Christians. More important than any outcome is our integrity as Christians. If we must become corrupt to get what we want, then we have lost already. Stand firm on the rock of the Lord. Be a faithful disciple of Jesus. In the muddiness and messiness of the world, let the light of Christ shine in and out of you. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, June 5, 2016, the Third Sunday After Pentecost.
Becoming Friends of Jesus
I would like to begin today with a quote from the Talmud:
“The best preacher is the heart; the best teacher is time;
the best book is the world; the best friend is God.”
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer . . . but I have called you friends . . .” (15). Jesus is, indeed, our friend – our best friend. And we are his friends, as he has stated. Even though I believe that this is true – that Jesus is our friend and that we are his friends – I find it difficult to think of Jesus as my friend, and me as his friend. I more easily think of myself as his disciple, and him as my master or teacher. I think more easily about his commandments – what he asks from me – than about his comfort – what he gives me.
Thinking more about Jesus’ commandments than about his comfort may be the result of where I am in my journey with God. When I was a member at the First Baptist Church in America, I remember a discussion that took place about the stages of discipleship present in a church. The stages are similar to the stages we go through as developing human beings. As infants, we need to be taken care of. We need to receive physical and emotional nourishment from others. As we mature, we move along a continuum of taking and giving. We learn how to do more and more for ourselves and we are able to do more and more for others. There begins to be a balance between taking and giving. By the time we reach maturity, we are able to give more than take, which is what happens when we become parents of infants. We give, they take, which is as it should be, because that’s what infants need from us, and that’s what we have been enabled to do for them by the process of maturing.
There are similar stages of development in our process as disciples of Jesus, too. When we are infants in our relationship with God, we need spiritual nourishment. The infancy stage of our relationship can take place when we are actual infants, or it can take place when we are children, or it can take place when we are adolescents, or it can take place when we are teenagers, or it can take place when we are young adults, or it can take place when we are middle-aged, or it can take place when we are elderly. Spiritual infancy is not defined by age, but by where we are in our relationship with God. Spiritual infancy is where we are at the beginning of our relationship with God, whenever that takes place in our life span.
There was a woman at the First Baptist Church in America who shared about the development of her journey with God. She was in her late twenties when she began attending church as an adult. Looking back at that time, she could see that she was somewhere between the infancy stage and the child stage of her relationship with God. She was spiritually hungry and needed to be spiritually fed. So she hung on every word of the sermons. She absorbed every note of the hymns. She enjoyed every minute of fellowship. She devoured every piece of theology. Over time, she matured and was able to give more, so she served on one of the church boards, sang in the choir, and taught Sunday School, but she still wasn’t that concerned with the plight of the homeless, or the poor, or the disenfranchised. Over time, however, she matured some more and was able to give more, and she became concerned with the plight of the homeless, and the poor, and the disenfranchised. As the quote at the beginning of this sermon stated, time is the best teacher, and the time she put into her relationship with God as a disciple of Jesus moved her along in her spiritual maturation. She said that it wasn’t that she no longer thought about what God could do for her – of course she did – but that at that point in her journey she was thinking more about what God asked her to do for him.
Because of our tendency as human beings to compete with each other, it is important to point out that there is no more or less glory to any particular stage in the process of spiritual maturation. The stages are merely the natural progression of our development as disciples of Jesus.
Jesus gives a reason for calling his disciples friends rather than servants. The reason is that he has made known to them everything that he has heard from God. As they have journeyed with him, Jesus has been nurturing them, and they have matured spiritually. At this point in their relationship with Jesus, he has made known to them everything they need to know. This moment is kind of like their graduation ceremony. They are graduating from being servants of Jesus to being friends of Jesus.
But here’s the interesting thing: how they are to behave, what they are to do, is the same whether they are servants or friends. As servants, they are to do what their master, Jesus, commands. As friends, they are to do what their friend, Jesus, commands. Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Either way – whether they are servants or friends – the disciples are to do what Jesus commands them to do. The only thing that has really changed is their perspective on what it is they are to do. As servants they do what Jesus commands because servants are supposed to obey their masters; whereas, as friends, they do what Jesus commands because friends desire to do what is good for their friend. If you’re my master and you tell me to wash the dishes, I wash the dishes because I have to; whereas, if you’re my friend and you ask me to wash the dishes, I wash the dishes because it will help you if I do so.
It turns out that there is very little difference between what it means to be a servant of Jesus and what it means to be a friend of Jesus. Whether I am Jesus’ servant or Jesus’ friend, I am to do as he commands. I thought that thinking of Jesus as my friend meant thinking of him as my comforter. But the gospel lesson for today makes it clear that being a friend of Jesus isn’t only about comfort; it is also about doing what he commands us to do. As a matter of fact, it is primarily about doing what he commands us to do. Remember, he said, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
Doing what Jesus commands us to do means bearing the fruit of God. He told his disciples, “I appoint you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” It’s a powerful metaphor. Fruit is nutritious and delicious. It grows on trees and bushes and is available for anyone to pick. The metaphor of bearing fruit tells us that the things we produce are to build people up, to be deeply satisfying to them, and to be available to anyone who has need of them. Think, for a moment, of the millions of disciples of Jesus around the world as trees and bushes with fruit hanging off of them, fruit that is good for and satisfying to anyone who happens to walk by and need a piece. When I picture that, I picture millions of little trees and bushes all over the world, small spots of color and aroma in the wilderness that the world can be – trees and bushes of oranges, apples, lemons, persimmons, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, mangoes, bananas, pineapples, grapes, limes, and so on. In the midst of all that can be wrong in the world – in the midst of violence, and poverty, and starvation, and illness, and sorrow, and jealousy, and anger – there are these trees and bushes of love – vibrant, sweet, healing love – and we are those trees and bushes. At least, we are to be them if we are friends of Jesus.
Trees and bushes don’t start out robust and productive. They begin as seeds – small, tiny seeds planted in the dirt. That’s what we are when we begin our relationship with God. We’re tiny seeds planted in the dirt of the Holy Spirit. And day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year, we are watered by worship, weeded by Bible Study, pruned by prayer, warmed by hymns, and fertilized by fellowship, until we become the mature disciples that Jesus would have us be – disciples that he can call friends, disciples that are able to do as he commands, disciples that bear the fruit of God, which is the fruit of love.
Do you realize how important – how essential – are we trees and bushes bearing the fruit of God in a culture that is wary of religion, and particularly of Christianity? If people don’t get the vitamins and minerals that are in fruit, they develop serious diseases – life-threatening diseases. The men of old who traveled the seas for months and years at a time would often develop scurvy because they wouldn’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables on their trips. Scurvy results in spongy and bleeding gums, bleeding under the skin, and extreme weakness. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? That’s what happens to our bodies if we don’t get enough fruit. Now, think of that in spiritual terms. If our spirits don’t get enough of the fruit of God, we develop serious spiritual diseases – life-threatening spiritual diseases. We might get scurvy of the spirit, which results in spongy and bleeding values, bleeding under the surface of our lives, and extreme character weakness. Once enough of us have scurvy of the spirit, we create communities that suffer from scurvy of the spirit, communities where individualism and isolationism reign, where classism and racism run rampant, where its every man and woman for himself and herself.
But, if we allow worship, and Bible study, and prayer, and hymns, and fellowship to nurture us into mature disciples of Jesus – if we become friends of Jesus who bear the fruit of God – then we create communities that are gardens of delight. (Okay, they may have a few rotten pieces of fruit now and then, and even a few dead trees, but, in general, they are gardens of delight.) Healthy, strong, robust communities where each cares for the other, regardless of class and race, and its every man and woman for every other man and woman. In other words, we create little pieces of heaven on earth. In a little book on friendship I have, there is a quote by William Morris, which says, “Forsooth, brothers, fellowship is heaven, and the lack of fellowship is hell; fellowship is life and the lack of fellowship is death, and the deeds that ye do upon the earth, it is for fellowship’s sake that ye do them. Therefore, I bid you not dwell in hell, but in heaven – upon earth, which is a part of heaven and forsooth no foul part.”
Whether we are at the beginning of our journey with God, or somewhere in the middle of our journey with God, or close to the end of our journey with God, the goal of the journey is to do as Jesus commands – to bear fruit, to love one another as he has loved us. The goal of the journey is to become friends of Jesus. May we be so blessed. And, now, may we end this sermon with a responsive Prayer of Commitment.
PRAYER OF COMMITMENT
Holy God, before time you named us,
through time you redeem and sanctify us.
You call us precious in your sight.
May we love as you love.
Holy One, through the turbulent waters
make us steady, your hands
holding strong the fragile and weak.
May we love as you love.
Loving God, take this day our fears, worries, and
Turn them into a faith that feeds our
hearts, minds, and souls.
May we love as you love.
God of justice, remove the chaff
of our lives that keep us from
hearing and following Your call.
May we love as you love.
Gracious God, may the fruits of our lives
be food for the hungry and drink for the thirsty
so that we may minister to your beloved people.
May we love as you love. Amen.
~ adapted from a prayer written by Terri and posted on RevGalBlogPals.http://revgalblogpals.blogspot.ca/Amen.
Sermon by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, May 29, 2016, Second Sunday After Pentecost.
 On Friendship: A Selection. Edited by Louise Bachelder. White Plains: Peter Pauper Press, Inc., 1966, 62.
 On Friendship: A Selection. Edited by Louise Bachelder. White Plains: Peter Pauper Press, Inc., 1966, 59.
The Things That Are to Come
(Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15)
Last week, on Pentecost Sunday, we explored how speaking the same language and not speaking the same language influence our relationships. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples gathered together, God erased the barrier of language differences and allowed each person present to hear the disciples glorifying God in each person’s language. Thereby, God created unity in the midst of diversity and enabled an experience of community and communion among people from all over the known world. It was a miracle, a miracle that reveals to us God’s intention for the mission of the Church: The Church is to bring unity out of diversity and, in this way, enable an experience of community and communion among people who are different for all sorts of reasons.
The Church, by its very nature, speaks a different language than the culture-at-large. Regardless of where any particular church is located, its message will be different than the messages of the culture around it. As the saying goes, the Church and its members are “in the world but not of the world.” We are citizens of heaven who are living on Earth. We are immigrants, so to speak, and we speak a different language than our culture.
This is true throughout the history of the Church, but it is even truer at this time in history for us in the Western world. The time of Christendom in Western civilization has ended. “Christendom” is described as “the medieval and early modern period, during which the Christian world represented a geopolitical power juxtaposed [against non-Christian religions and philosophies.] In other words, during Christendom, Christianity held political power. Alongside kings and emperors, it ruled countries and large areas of the world. It had armies. It killed and conquered. It accumulated wealth. It was a political entity.
It was the Baptists who ended the marriage of politics and Christianity when Roger Williams, the founder of Baptists in America, insisted on the separation of church and state when founding Providence, RI. A quote from a Smithsonian article titled, “God, Government, and Roger Williams’ Big Idea,” states, “Williams believed that preventing error in religion was impossible, for it required people to interpret God’s law, and people would inevitably err. He therefore concluded that government must remove itself from anything that touched upon human beings’ relationship with God. A society built on the principles Massachusetts espoused would lead at best to hypocrisy, because forced worship, he wrote, ‘stincks in God’s nostrils.’ At worst, such a society would lead to a foul corruption—not of the state, which was already corrupt, but of the church. . . .” Eventually, the separation of church and state and the freedom of religious expression became part of the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; . .”.
Even so, Christianity remained the primary and dominant religion in the USA. Social norms and pressures reflected this. If you wanted to be considered an upstanding citizen, you better be a member in good standing in your local church, which meant that you attended church regularly and served on boards and committees. Even if you didn’t believe what you heard in church and didn’t enjoy being there, you did it, anyway, if you wanted to be respected in your community. Church was woven into the fabric of society. It provided worship, fellowship, Bible study, involvement in good works, and entertainment, in a society where not much else was going on. There was nothing to do on Sunday, anyway. Everything but church was closed!
All of this began to change in the second half of the Twentieth Century. Since then, our country has gotten progressively more multicultural and secular. Sunday is no longer a Sabbath day for the culture-at-large. As a Christian mother of growing children, I am faced with this on a regular basis. My children want to participate in the normal things children growing up in suburban America do – like sports, arts, sleepovers, and birthday parties – but many of these things take place on Sunday mornings. I am faced with either letting them do these things and not attend church, or with not letting them do these things and attend church. I don’t want to prevent them from doing the normal things children do, but I also want them to be formed in the Christian faith! What we end up doing is a bit of both. Earlier generations didn’t face this choice: There were no activities on Sunday mornings because the majority of people were at church!
Even so, I’m glad that our country and society is multicultural. I support the freedom of religion and the separation of church and state for which Roger Williams risked his life and, eventually, became part of our Constitution. When the Holy Spirit descended on the Church with a mighty wind and tongues of fire on the day of Pentecost, God didn’t make everyone learn the same language; instead, He enabled everyone to hear what was being proclaimed in his or her own language! God didn’t force people to change to make it easier for the disciples; he changed the way the disciples communicated so that it would be easier for the people to understand! The implication is that Christians are not to force everyone to be like us so that it’s easier for us to communicate; instead, we disciples are to work harder so that it’s easier for others to understand!
Being the Church today is harder than it was when most of us were growing up. Society is no longer set up to support the way we do church. We are immigrants from heaven who are in the world but not of the world in a time when the world is making our immigrant status very clear. Although this fact may make us sad, or angry, or anxious, or worried, or frustrated, it is the way it is. Jesus didn’t say it was going to be easy to follow him. As a matter of fact, he said, “Take up your cross and come, follow me” (Mt 16:24; Lk 9:23). And, Paul, in today’s reading, states, “[W]e also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Rom 5:3-4). We who have experienced the love of God in Jesus Christ are confident that God is alive and active in the world through the Holy Spirit!
Which brings us to the GOOD NEWS: God does not leave us alone in our plight! Jesus assured his disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (Jn 16:13). We are never the Church alone. God is always with us. The Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth and will declare to us the things that are to come. Yes, as the Church, we are in a wilderness right now. We know that the way we have done church doesn’t fit in our culture as it is today, but we don’t how we are to do it differently – yet. We don’t know how to do it differently yet, but we will, because the Spirit will lead us into all truth and will declare to us the things that are to come!
Trusting in this, I believe we must accept our culture as it is and continually turn to God for guidance regarding how to be the Church in our time and place. Rather than whining and complaining about how it is, let’s ask God how WE, as the Church, should be. We are the servant church of the servant Christ, so how can we serve the world today? What does the world need from us? Specifically, what does Canton and the surrounding area need from us?
I believe we need to really tune into the Spirit. We are not to maniacally try to “fix” the situation. Instead, we are to attend to the Spirit. If we act out of fear, then we will be spinning our wheels, responding to our own anxiety and running around like a chicken with its head cut off! We must act out of faith, trusting that the way will be made clear. At the same time, we must be willing to be flexible, to change if need be, to do church differently if that is what God requires of us. Last evening, my daily devotional reading confirmed the faith versus fear response. I read,
“I, the Creator of the universe, am with you and for you. What more could you need? When you feel some lack, it is because you are not connecting with Me at a deep level. I offer abundant Life; your part is to trust Me, refusing to worry about anything.
It is not so much adverse events that make you anxious as it is your thoughts about those events. Your mind engages in efforts to take control of a situation, to bring about the result you desire. Your thoughts close in on the problem like ravenous wolves. Determined to make things go your way, you forget that I am in charge of your life. The only remedy is to switch your focus from the problem to My Presence. Stop all your striving, and watch to see wht I will do. I am the Lord!”
We can begin the process of seeking the inspiration and guidance of the Spirit, by stating what is essential to being the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ in the world, first and foremost. Jesus states in the gospel reading for today that the Holy Spirit will glorify him (Jn 5:4). We exist, then, to glorify Jesus. We glorify Jesus in many ways. We glorify him when we gather together, for where two or three are gathered in his name, there he is (worship and fellowship). We glorify him when we tell the “old, old story,” as the hymn says, and share the good news (teaching and evangelism). We glorify him when we meet people’s needs, for what we do to the least of these we do to him (ministry and mission). We glorify him when we work for justice, for we are to seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness (ministry and mission). Of course, all of these things must be done with love and in loving ways because, essentially, we glorify him only when we do things with love, for that is the new commandment Jesus gave to his disciples at the Last Supper: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn 13:34-35).
So, the ways in which we glorify Jesus with love are: worship and fellowship; teaching and evangelism; and ministry and mission. We are doing all of those things now, but we are doing them in ways that may not be working in our world today. Perhaps we need to be attentive to new ways of doing what we do already. Could we worship on a different day or at a different time? Can we provide opportunities for fellowship on different days and at different times? Are there ways that we can do ministry and mission in our community that we are not doing now? It’s possible that we are to stay very close to what we are doing now and how we are doing those things now. I don’t know. I don’t know because the Holy Spirit hasn’t revealed the way forward to me yet! Has the Holy Spirit revealed it to you? Will you, please, be in prayer about the future of the Church and this church? Will you, please, ask the Holy Spirit to guide us and lead us forward?
We are immigrants in our world and we speak a different language. Sometimes that language has jived with our culture more easily than it does today. Right now, it does not. The task for Christians in the USA today is to work harder to communicate and be in relationship with our world than we have in the recent past. What that harder work will be, we don’t know at this time. But let us trust that we WILL know when the time is right. Let us be in communion with the Holy Spirit, whose job it is to glorify Jesus by inspiring and guiding us. Come, Holy Spirit, come: We await you. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, May 22, 2016, Trinity Sunday.
The image above is from https://godandpoliticsuk.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/future-church.jpg
 Young, Sarah. Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence. Thomas Nelson: Nashville, TN, 2004, 148.
Not Every Spirit
(Genesis 11:1-9, 1 John 4:1-6, Acts 2:1-21)
Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day on which we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church. Some call it the birthday of the church, for it is the day on which the believers gathered together received the Holy Spirit and thus could embody the Spirit of God and be the Body of Christ in the world.
John 14 reports one of Jesus’ last conversations with his disciples, which he has during their Last Supper. He wants to prepare his disciples for the life they will soon be living, without him. Jesus promises them that he will send them the Holy Spirit. He states that the Holy Spirit lives with the disciples and will be in the disciples. The Holy Spirit will teach them all things and remind them of what Jesus has taught them. He urges them not to let their hearts be troubled and not to be afraid. They will not be orphans, for they will have with them and in them the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, to sustain them and to guide them.
After this conversation, events ensue quickly. Jesus is arrested, tried, convicted, crucified, resurrected, and ascended. After his ascension, the disciples are left to fend for themselves. They have been through quite a lot! Imagine what they have gone through, beginning with the procession into Jerusalem, with the crowds shouting, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna!”; to the growing conflict with the political and religious authorities; to the Last Supper, the arrest, the trial, the conviction, and the crucifixion; to the resurrection and the appearances; and to the ascension. Whew! They must have been exhausted – physically, emotionally, and spiritually! And, now, they have to function without Jesus. They have to carry on with The Way. They have to spread the Word. And they have to do all of this without their Lord and Savior.
So that’s what they do. They pull up their bootstraps and get to work, which is why they qre gathered together when the Holy Spirit arrives – and arrive it does! It arrives with noisy, blowing wind and tongues of fire that rest on each one present! They all begin speaking in other tongues as the Spirit gives them the ability. The arrival of the Holy Spirit causes such a ruckus that faithful Jews who are in Jerusalem for the Festival of Weeks (a Jewish religious festival) come to see what is going on. They each hear their own language being spoken by the disciples, which confuses and amazes them! How could this happen?
This could happen because the Holy Spirit is making it happen! The Holy Spirit is breaking down the barrier of language so that each one present could hear the wonders of God declared! No one is left out; all are included; and all can witness the glory of God! It is a miracle.
One of the essential things that the Pentecost story teaches us is that when the Holy Spirit is present, barriers between human beings break down. At Pentecost, there were people present from all over the known world, yet they could ALL understand what was being spoken.
The Tower of Babel scripture passage points out the magnitude of what took place. It tells of a time when the whole world had one language. Because they all had the same language and could understand each other, they could do great things together. They decided to build a city with a great tower that would reach into the heavens so that they could continue to live together and make a name for themselves.
God saw what they were doing and decided that they had become too powerful and too willful. He decided to confuse their language so they would not understand each other. And that is what he did. They no longer spoke the same language; they could no longer understand each other; they could no longer work together; so they scattered all over the Earth. Unity became diversity.
Now, why would God do that? He sounds petty or fearful or jealous in this story, like he doesn’t want human beings to surpass him in creativity. I think, however, that the issue was that the people didn’t seek God’s will before deciding to embark on a project. Instead, they were fulfilling their own desires. What was the rationale for building the city and tower? “We will make a name for ourselves.” We will glorify ourselves! Not, we will glorify God, but we will glorify ourselves! What is the first of the deadly sins? Pride! Here it is: unashamed, unabashed pride. I think that is why God confused their language and scattered them over the Earth.
So, why would God, at Pentecost, allow them to communicate as if they all had the same language? Why would God, through the Holy Spirit, give them this ability? Why would God break down the barrier he had created so long ago?
It was time. Jesus had come, and with him had come the possibility of the kingdom of God on Earth. What had Jesus said at the beginning of his ministry? “The kingdom of God is at hand.” He had proclaimed: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk 14:18-19). Jesus had come and inaugurated the kingdom of God on Earth through his ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. He had come and done his work. The time had come to enable his disciples to follow in his footsteps. The time had come to give them the Holy Spirit, so that it could be in them and they could do God’s will. Inspired and led by the Holy Spirit, the disciples would not be willful. They would not be prideful. They would glorify God, not themselves. And, so, God broke down the language barrier. Diversity became unity.
Unity in the midst of diversity is a sign that the Holy Spirit is present. Barriers may be present, but they do not define us or how we relate to one another or what we do in the world. 1 John 4 urges us to test the spirits to see if they are from God. We may think the Holy Spirit is guiding us, but we may be guided by another spirit, one that is not from God. So we must test the spirits, to see if they are from God. If they are from God, they will guide us to love, for God is love. John states, “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar” (1 Jn 4:20).
John also states, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” (1 Jn 4:3). If we acknowledge that God in Jesus has come in the flesh to redeem us, then we acknowledge that all flesh in all times and in all places is worthy of redemption, because Jesus didn’t come only to save those who were alive when he was on Earth, but those who are alive at any time! We, who are his disciples and who have received the Holy Spirit, are to carry on with his work of redemption. That means that when people suffer here on Earth, we are to care enough to respond. If they suffer spiritually, we can offer spiritual sustenance. If they suffer emotionally, we can offer emotional sustenance. If they suffer physically, we can offer physical sustenance. John states: “[Jesus] has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister” (1 Jn 4:21).
Test the spirits: If they are telling us to build barriers that define who we are, how we relate to one another, and what we do in the world, they are not from God. If they are telling us not to respond to suffering in our time and place, they are not from God. If, however, they move us to love despite barriers and thus respond to suffering, they are from God. Unity in diversity is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence. It is the ultimate illustration of love, for love that loves only those who are like us is self-love; but love that loves the “other” is God-love.
Unity in diversity can occur on a small scale or on a large scale. We have an example of it on a small scale right here in our own church! We have in our congregation a member that doesn’t speak English: Nam Kim, who is a Korean immigrant. Nam speaks a little English, but not much. Even so, she chose our church to be her church and she became a member this past year. We are blessed by her presence. Every Sunday, she and I give each other a big hug and she prays for me in Korean while we are hugging. I don’t know what she is praying, but I feel her love of God and of me anyway. We cannot speak each other’s language, but that doesn’t stop us from loving each other. It makes communication more challenging, but it doesn’t stop the love! When there is something I have to communicate to her, I type it into the computer and then I use Google Translator to translate what I’ve typed into Korean. I print it out and hand it to her on Sunday. That is how I asked her if she wanted to become a member of our church. She said, “Yes!” All it took from me was a little more effort. Loving despite barriers, working toward unity in diversity, takes more effort, but it is a sign that we are being inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus has come and done his work. The Holy Spirit has come and inaugurated the church. The church lives in the world as the Body of Christ. We, as the Canton Community Baptist Church, are a part of the Body of Christ in our time and place. How is the Holy Spirit moving in our midst? If we feel moved by the Spirit, let us test the spirits to make sure they are from God. Let us respond to suffering and break down barriers. Let us be faithful and create unity in the midst of diversity. God is love, so let us be love. Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, May 15, 2016, Pentecost Sunday.
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