Saturday, January 28, 2012

Well, What Happened in Worship Today?

Mark 1:21-28
Ordinary 4 (B)
January 29, 2012
William G. Carter

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, [Jesus] entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching--with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Last Sunday morning, I made an unscheduled stop here for worship. It was the end of a study leave week. Even though I had booked a substitute preacher, I wanted to hear my younger daughter sing. After worship, I had to take her older sister back to college. It was good to be here for the 9:00 service, good to dress in my incognito blue jeans, good to sit right back there in the very last pew.

I don’t ever get to do that. After what I saw, I am going to have to do it again. When you sit back there, you notice things that you don’t ever see from up here. Who arrives late? When do they get here? Where do they sit? You see who is paying attention and who is not. I mean, ten minutes into the service, I had already blended in. People forgot I was sitting back there.

Once in a while a note is passed or a word is whispered. I observed that our organist starts a hymn at a sprightly tempo, and the congregation tries to slow her down. That was interesting. Occasionally somebody will say at the door, “Can’t we sing a little faster?” Well, stop trying to slow her down.

I noticed that the leaders up front have a good bit of energy. But the energy dissipates by the time it gets to the last pew. I discovered how ushers are recruited, and how some of you help others find the right hymn or the right hymnal. I learned a lot by sitting in the back pew. Some time I am going to do it again.

            As many of you know, my wife plays the organ at a Presbyterian church over the mountain. Most Sundays at lunch, we begin the conversation with the question, “Well, what happened in worship today?” Maybe we will talk about the sermon that she heard, or the sermon I thought I preached. We may remark on the music, or a special prayer, who was there, or the props used in the children’s sermon. Last week, I had a lot to tell her. She assured me that all of it regularly happens in churches like ours. So I should not be surprised.

            Well, what do you think they said after the synagogue worship in Capernaum? We heard the story from the Gospel of Mark. A lot of us have heard it before. It was the very first public act in the ministry of Jesus. Right before this, he had taken on some issues in the wilderness, observed only by the angels. Then he snatched a couple of fisherman from their father, and then two more after that.

On the Sabbath night that week, in the very town where the four fishermen resided, Jesus goes into the village synagogue. He steps up to the podium and begins to teach the Torah. And he’s good. Oh, he’s really good. The people are nodding in agreement. They are delighted by his insights. Somebody over here murmurs, “He isn’t reading his sermon to us, like one of those boring temple scribes.” Another says, “He hasn’t downloaded any of it from the internet, either.” (You know, it’s possible to do that. Go to On Saturday night, they get 200,000 clicks.)

In the little town of Capernaum, Jesus didn’t need to download other preachers’ material. He has first-hand wisdom of what God wants to say to those people on that given day. Do you know how rare that is? It’s amazing. He gives them the instruction they need – and they know it.

And that’s not all that happens in worship. There was also that hostile interchange with a man who was out of his mind. Here is how Mark describes him: “he had an unclean spirit.” I’m not really sure what that means. Maybe he had a bad temper. Perhaps he was under some ongoing stress, always about to blow his top in a volcanic rage. Maybe the chemistry in his brain was off. Or he was just given to rants. In the first century, they didn’t have a specific diagnosis for this sort of thing. All they would do is point and say, “Something got into him.”

Can you hear it? “Something got into him.” They didn’t wonder what it was that got into him. They just knew. It was some kind of forcefulness. When whatever it was got into him, it seemed to possess him. And it was holding the rest of them hostage.

Some of the old-timers still talk about the outburst that happened in a small town not far from here. After a string of one young preacher after another, this church I know decided to call a seasoned veteran. Compared to all those recent seminary graduates who never stuck around very long, Rev. Samson was fairly old – 54 or 55, I think. He was set in his ways, with his silver hair slicked back. Nobody pushed him around.

About fifteen minutes after he came to town, he discovered why the young preachers kept leaving early. It was a small church and didn’t pay very well, but that wasn’t the reason. It was a small town and didn’t have a lot of entertainments, but that was not the reason, either. No, it seems they had a number of strong-willed characters in that church who loved to bicker with one another. The loudest bickerer was the local physician, Doc Harley. The others would complain about a hymn, but he would complain about the preacher’s theology.

A couple of years into this, the whole place was boiling. Rev. Samson was starting to feel the stress, but he stood his ground. He led the church the best he knew how. And one Sunday, in the middle of the sermon, Doc Harley got out of his seat, walked down the aisle, stood in front of the pulpit, and interrupted the preacher. He wagged his finger at the preacher and shouted sarcastically at the top of his lungs, “I love you, I love you, I love you!”

After a stunned moment of silence, he wheeled around, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “I said it, but it doesn’t do any good.” Then he walked out of the church, never to return. Nobody said another word.

Two weeks later, Rev. Samson had a heart attack. He ended up taking an early retirement and leaving the area. Shortly thereafter he was replaced by a young preacher who didn’t stay very long.  

Doc Harley never came back. He kept his medical practice, had a lot of patients who were church members, and never did any of them ask, “Doc, what got into you?” They knew. They knew.

The most curious thing was what the church members said among themselves after he left. “How are we ever going to get along without Doc Harley?” How are we ever going to get along without him?

Did you hear what the man screams in the Capernaum synagogue? “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”

Sometimes evil is so nasty that it not only overcomes a person; it can tangle people together. And everybody gets used to it. It settles in. It’s part of the unspoken atmosphere. Have you ever worked for a company, or belonged to a group, and you sensed that something about it wasn’t right? You can’t figure out what it was . . . but there’s something twisted, something dark, something like the Stepford Wives – it’s just a little too perfect. And if you try to address this, you will be singled out and attacked. Or worse.

Now, here’s the thing about our Gospel story: Mark is not the least bit surprised at this. He knows who Jesus is. He is the Holy One of God. Jesus is the One on whom the Spirit falls, the One who says, “The time has changed, the Kingdom is right here.” And Mark knows that Jesus brings out the worst in us. He is not surprised at this. Jesus brings out the worst in us.

I mean, let this story sink in. Jesus has gone to teach the Bible to an assembly of God’s people. They are meeting in the place where the Bible is always opened to them, week after week. It is the day that God has set aside for the hearing of the Holy Word. Listen to the Word of the Lord: “God loves you, God heals you, God claims you as his own.” That’s what Jesus gives them – and that’s what brings out the worst in Doc Harley, the demoniac in the second pew.

He screams at Jesus, and Jesus screams back. And he screams again, “Have you come to destroy us, you Holy One of God?” And Jesus screams back, “Come out of him! Shut up and come out of him!” And the man shakes - - - and there is a great calm.

And I love what Mark says. The people look at one another and say, “We’ve never heard a sermon like that.”

What happened in worship today? What would you say? I think that Mark would say that, in worship, we hear God speak, through the scriptures, and in the voice of Jesus Christ. When the scriptures are opened, God speaks. Either we push God away and say, “What have you to do with us?” Or we find ourselves strangely realigned through the power of Jesus Christ. Either way, it brings out the worst in us. We can’t stay the way we are.

And the Gospel of Mark is not surprised at this. This is the world that God has made, and this is the world that pushes God away. We are the creatures who are made in God’s image, and we are the creatures who are twisted in upon ourselves. This is how Mark portrays the Gospel: Jesus comes so close that he will change this, that he will make us into new creations. It is the very thing that will heal us and the very thing we resist.

What amazes me is that the Gospel work begins among the religious people, in a Jewish synagogue on the Sabbath. It begins in holy space, on holy time. After this, Jesus will meet other people in homes, on the street corners, in the market places, even one man is lowered to him through a roof. But he begins in the gathering of God’s own faithful, as the scriptures are opened, as the Word of healing and restoration is proclaimed and taught.

No matter how much we resist it through kicking and screaming, Jesus comes to make us well. He comes to realign us with God’s good purposes for our lives. Our spiritual healing never comes without a struggle. We have to lay down the hurts that all of us have. We have to forgive what we don’t feel like forgiving. We have to decide that the damages of our past are not going to hurt us or anybody else anymore. Like I said, Jesus comes to bring out the worst in us – he calls out the worst and he takes it away.

Do you know why this is? Because he is the Holy One of God. He comes in the power of the kingdom, a power described so well by the Harlem poet Zora Neale Hurston. She said, “Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.”

Well, what happened in worship today? What do you want to happen more than anything else?

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Friend By Friend

John 1:43-51
Ordinary Time 2
January 15, 2012
William G. Carter

Jesus said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

I want to talk today about how the Kingdom grows, the Kingdom of God. Jesus says somewhere it’s like a mustard seed. The Kingdom is a little tiny seed. It takes root and grows. Suddenly it becomes a great bush, from a little seed. And how does it grow?

The seed parable comes from over in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew doesn’t really explain it. He keeps the growth as a mystery.

But today as we hear this story from the Gospel of John, we gain a little bit of insight. Jesus finds Philip. Philip finds Nathanael. Nathanael finds Jesus. The little seed takes root and begins to extend its branches. Here’s the picture of growth. Right here.

A lot of churches are worried about growth, especially in a time when more and more people are sleeping in on Sundays.

When I moved here all those years ago, some of our leaders said they wanted our church to grow. One of my friends was the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Scranton. He said, “Where do they think all the new members are going to come from?” He had a point. That church and this one have been trading members on occasion for thirty-five years. That’s not the same thing as growth.

There are marketing seminars that church people can attend. For $500 a seat, they lay out their own time-tested principles for growth. One principle: only go after people who are just like you. Forget about any diversity, just focus on similarity. Announce that newcomers have to agree with you, look like you, live in houses like yours, and you will grow. It’s called the principle of Homogenous Growth. It comes from the marketing world, not from the Bible.

Another principle: drop your franchise name. The marketing experts say people don’t know what “Presbyterian” means, and they have mixed opinions of the word “Baptist.” So brand yourself as something new, something unique, something all your own, and you will grow.

Another principle: do something different. Forget about tradition, forget about history, forget about anything that existed before you were born. Dwell only in the present and declare that it all begins with you. Suddenly all those tired people from tired churches where they have “always done it that way before” will perk up and flock to you. At least, that’s what the marketing people say.

And I can report what people report to me. A worn-out, weary Methodist gets invited to the Church of What’s Happening Now. She resists it, but her friend says, “Once you try it, you’ll never go back.” Now let me just say: some people think that’s growth. That’s not growth. It is thievery.

So let’s talk about growth. Not church growth, but Kingdom growth. There is a difference. The issue is not increasing the seating capacity or improving the slickness of the promotional material. It is not about numbers, statistics, and increased income. The Kingdom does not focus on demographic information. Nor does it dumb down the message so that people with consumer appetites can be spoon-fed Gospel McNuggets in a place that is hip and cool and a little bit creepy.

No, let me tell you how the Kingdom grows. It grows friend by friend in an invitation to authentic holiness. It is not flashy. It is down to earth and it is real.

This is how growth is reported in our text from the Gospel of John. Jesus finds Philip. Who’s Philip? We don’t know. But he comes from the same little town where Andrew and Peter hail from, so he must have known them. I mean, Bethsaida was a little place. And then Philip finds Nathanael. Who’s Nathanael? We don’t know. Just a friend of Philip. He is mentioned five times in this story, and not again until chapter 21.

Nathanael never makes the official list of twelve disciples. There are people who think he should. Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention a guy named Bartholomew. John never mentions anybody named Bartholomew. John mentions Nathanael. So the pious interpreters say, “Maybe Nathanael is the same man as Bartholomew.” We don’t know.

The little bit we do know is that, in chapter 21, he is called “Nathanael of Cana in Galilee.” There was a “wedding in Cana of Galilee” (2:1). Maybe it was Nathanael’s wedding. You know, the wedding where they ran out of wine, and Jesus had to make more wine? That story happens immediately after this one. It would be reasonable to surmise that Jesus says, “Nathanael, you will see greater things than our little banter, greater things than me telling you that I spotted you under a fig tree.” And the very next day (as John says, “on the third day”), Jesus transforms the water into wine.

But here’s the thing: hardly anybody sees it. Even though it is the first miracle, or sign, of Christ, it happens at a wedding party when a lot of people were probably drunk. Most of the miraculous moments in the Gospel of John happen out of sight. A lot of people miss them. Or they can be explained another way. This is John’s way of reminding us that holiness does not happen in the sky; it happens on the ground. You can’t see holiness in the huge, Technicolor miracle with 5.1 sound. That’s because the holiness of God is often in those occasions when somebody’s life is touched and changed. God is in it somehow, somewhere, not for everybody to see unless they are looking in the right place.

That’s how it is with Nathanael, whoever he was. He hears about great things about Jesus, but his hopes hit the ground with a thud when he hears where Jesus is from. “Nazareth? He’s from Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

You know where Nazareth is? It’s around the bend from Forest City. How many of you have ever been to Forest City? Can anything good come out of Forest City? It’s just so ordinary.

And then Jesus sees him and says, “Look, here’s an Israelite without any nonsense. Not an ounce of bologna in that guy.” Nathanael says, “Where did you get to know me?”

And Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael falls to his knees and said, “You’re a Rabbi! You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Well, he certainly gets all those titles right: Rabbi, Son of God, King of Israel. But wait: which fig tree? What fig tree is he talking about? We don’t know. Do you know how many fig trees there are in Israel? They are everywhere.

John’s point is simple: Jesus comes among regular people who aren’t even looking for him. He signals to them that they are noticed and known. That’s all it takes to open up to them that there is a God who sees them in truth and grace. Then he invites them to simply follow, to come and see what happens. It could be that the dusty little town of Cana becomes the place where heaven opens, and the angels ascend and descend upon Jesus.

Every once in a while, something big happens somewhere in the world, and the God Squad goes there to mark it as a miracle site. A statue of the Virgin weeps. A crippled woman drops her crutches and stands up healed. A burned-out hippy told me one time that Sedona, Arizona is the stairway to heaven. But the Gospel of John announces any place can be that stairway. The Eternal Word of the Father becomes ordinary perspiring flesh. Christ comes down and stays incognito so much of the time. Holiness happens among the ordinary. Jesus awakens faith by spotting a guy under a fig tree. No big deal -- except for Nathanael.

But that brings me back to say a few words about how the kingdom grows. It grows as ordinary people who have these holy moments invite their friends to come and see. Nathanael comes to Jesus because Philip first invited him. There is something that Philip had discovered about Jesus that prompted him to invite Nathanael to discover it for himself. We don’t know exactly what awakened Philip’s faith. We don’t know which fig tree Nathanael stood under.

What we do know is there was a chain reaction among friends. One friend saw it, spoke to another. The second friend saw it in a different way, and he undoubtedly spoke to somebody else. The Kingdom of God grows friend by friend in an invitation to authentic holiness. I’m talking about the only holiness there is, the kind of holiness in the middle of the everyday.

Sometimes we see it, sometimes we do not. As Eugene Peterson writes,

The hardest thing is to believe that God’s work – this dazzling creation, this astonishing salvation, this cascade of blessings – is all being worked out in and under the conditions of our humanity: at picnics and around dinner tables, in conversations and while walking along roads, in puzzled questions and homely stories… Everything Jesus does and says takes place within the limits and conditions of our humanity. No fireworks. No special effects. Yes, there are miracles, plenty of them. But because they are so much a part of the fabric of everyday life, very few notice. The miraculousness of the miracle is obscured by the ordinariness of the people involved.[1]

When a good friend dies, the Kingdom people gather to sing praises to God. Just happened here on Friday morning. Some people were here because they were friends. One person said to me, “I experienced the Truth today unlike any other time in my life.” Somebody else said to me, “I’m not sure I’m a believer, but today I think I am.” There are moments when Jesus, the Risen Jesus, comes among us. Should we glimpse it, we invite our friends to see what we see. Maybe they will.

            A flood sweeps through the river valley. People are shocked. Homes are destroyed. Even the church goes numb. One of my pastor friends lost so much in September’s flood. Shortly after the travel bans were lifted, an elderly man showed up with work gloves and a bucket. Jim mumbled, “Oh no, not him.” The man was known to be nothing but trouble. But then this volunteer says, “The people of your church helped me when I was flooded in 1972, and I need to be here to help all of you.”

Jim said it was as if heaven opened and the angels of God ascended and descended right there. Right there. In the mud, for God’s sake. Right there. My friend praised God, and invited his friends to come and see what God was doing right there.

The writer and artist Madeline L’Engle said it best: “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”[2]

Do you want the Kingdom to grow? Do want God’s influence, power, and grace to grow? Watch for the Light of Christ breaking in. Tell your friends where you see it.

This is the invitation to faith: come and see.

[1] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005) 34.
[2] Madeline L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (New York: Macmillan, 1995) 122.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

With Water and Fire

Mark 1:4-11
Baptism of the Lord
January 8, 2012
William G. Carter

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

It was a long time ago now, but I will never forget the day. It was the day a little girl was baptized right here in this church. Her name was Margaret Rose, and I was playing the role of father, rather than pastor. The pulpit gown was hanging on a hook across the hall and I had a red diaper bag slung over my shoulder. Even though I had a lot of experience as the splasher, I was extremely nervous that morning.

The one calming influence was the memory of how well the baptism of her older sister had gone some three years earlier. Meg was already wearing a hand-me-down. In this case the same ivory satin baptismal gown her sister had worn. Most of the same family members were gathered around as they had three years before, and they were beaming the same radiant smiles.

And then came the moment when the heavens were split apart. It was a scene that a lot of people did not notice.  You see, Meg's baptism was complicated by the presence of her three-year-old sister Katie. I had mixed feelings about having her there. It turned out they were justified. Katie fidgeted while the preacher spoke the ancient words of scripture. She saw some people in the pews that she knew and waved to them. They waved back and thought it was cute. Then in a loud three-year-old voice, she began to narrate what she saw going on.

It was time for the main event. To maintain a ounce of decorum, I put a gentle vise-grip on Katie's shoulders as the water was splashed on her sister's head. Apparently it wasn't firm enough. That's when it happened. As the water splashed, Katie broke free with a delighted squeal and ran to her infant sister. Even though the minister was still holding the baby, she reached up to touch her sister’s head. With eyes as big as saucers, she turned and looked at me. "Daddy," she said out loud, "Meg's head is wet. It really happened. She’s baptized!"

            Now my family says I amplify the event, but that’s how it happened. Maybe my memories of parental anxiety have enhanced the details. But the point of the story is still the same: it really happened. The baptism really happened. That’s what every Christian needs to know. We want to know that every baptism really happens.

What is a baptism any way? It is the moment when God announces a claim on us through water and the Word. God announces that we are citizens in a new dominion before we even know it. God gathers us in a love that precedes all human relationships, a love that comes before every family tie. Baptism announces that we belong to God. It’s good to know that every baptism occurs.

Now there's no doubt that the baptism of Jesus really happened. For one thing, all the writers tell us it was accompanied by astonishing signs. When Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and saw the heavens had been ripped open. Then the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, came down like a dove and landed upon him. And then a great Voice spoke the coronation words from the second Psalm: "This is my beloved Son. I am pleased with him." The actual baptism of Jesus is not described in elaborate detail. But the signs confirm that it truly took place.

What's more, there is no way that the church would have ever dreamed up a story about the baptism of Jesus. Frankly, it is too embarrassing. John was in the Jordan River, baptizing people as a sign of repentance. Then Jesus appeared. We don't know if Jesus came to the river to repent. We don't think so, but it's hard to explain. Jesus took his place among sinners. As people were baptized by John in anticipation of the Messiah, Jesus appeared, apparently to join them. The church couldn't have invented a tale like that. Every New Testament scholar I know agrees: the baptism of Jesus was a historical event. It really happened.

Now, if a three-year-old touches her baby sister's brow at the baptismal font and discovers it's really wet, she knows something special has happened. And when we hear the of a day when the heavens open, a dove descends, and a Voice calls out, there is no question that God has broken into human history in a profound and significant way.

According to the brief story we heard a few minutes ago, the baptism of every child of God finds its meaning from the baptism of Jesus. For Jesus and for us, the evidence of baptism is found in what we do with our lives. Baptism is more than knowing that our little sisters' heads are wet. It is an event that guides the way we live. What matters most is how we live after the water has dried.

That's what the baptism of Jesus was all about. As Mark tells the story, this is the moment when Jesus first walks in to the picture. We don’t know anything about him until he is hip deep in the Jordan River.  In the Gospel of Mark, there are no shepherds, no wise men, no angels, no mention of Mary and Joseph. There is no manger, no temple dedication, no Christmas carols by Simeon and Anna.  There is only a baptism, as if to say, "Here is how it all began. This is when Jesus began to make a difference in peoples' lives. This is when heaven touched down on earth." His ministry began when he was baptized.

            For what happened when Jesus came out of the water? Suddenly he is hurled into the wilderness to battle the devils and demons. He goes into their own turf to take them on. And he comes out of the wilderness triumphant.

Then he goes to a sleepy synagogue in a small fishing village and begins to preach. Just as he speaks, a man in the fifth pew stands up and starts to yell. Jesus yells right back. And the man screams and Jesus screams. Jesus says, “Shut up!” Suddenly there was a great calm. The man is OK. The people say, "We've never heard a sermon like that before." Jesus teaches the congregation and mends the man.

And just then, he goes to the house of Simon and Andrew, where Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever. And immediately Jesus takes her by the hand, lifts her up, and chases away the fever. And she feels so good, she cooks them lunch.

And immediately the word spreads. Even though it was the evening of the Sabbath and people were supposed to sit back and do nothing, suddenly they got busy. The people brought to Jesus all of their damaged neighbors. He healed every one of them. It was all in a day's work: preaching, teaching, and saving the world.

Remember how it got started? When Jesus got baptized. Baptism is the moment when God says, “You belong to me – and I am sending you into the world to make a difference.” To make a constructive difference. To make a holy difference. The heavens have been ripped open, baby, and there’s no word that they have been stitched shut. The Spirit comes down, lands on Jesus, and is refracted now through everybody who loves Jesus – all to the end of making a constructive difference in the world.

It’s not just the water that was on his head; it’s the fire God ignited in his heart. Just as John promised: “I splash you with water, but he fills you with fire.”

Last summer, we heard about praying women who got together in this little railroad stop town and prayed this congregation into being. Last fall, we heard about the Gibbons family, who convened a congregation into being. They had come back from the mission field, and they knew God has a mission in the world, that God wanted a church to make a difference in the world.

Now, there were a few other churches already in the area. There was a Catholic chapel, a number of Methodist churches about a horse ride apart. But these Presbyterians wanted a church with a democratic government that would make a difference in the world. You see, for them it was not a matter of merely singing some hymns, praying a bit, and calling it a day. They wanted God’s work to get done.

It’s the same work that Jesus is still doing: teaching, healing, mending the world one person at a time. And I have to say it is a wonderful thing to serve a church that understands his ministry. This is not a congregation that sits around and does nothing. There are Christians here. Baptized people. They take on Christ’s ministry as their own.

On any given day, the people in this church are looking in on one another. They are making phone calls and offering rides. They deliver meals and welcome strangers. They rejoice with those rejoicing, they offer a firm shoulder to those who feel broken down. They breathe forgiveness. They contribute to human needs out of their own resources. And a lot of this is done without any fanfare, because people know: if you are baptized, you are sent to do Christ’s ministry.

In fact, that little girl that got baptized sixteen years ago? Last night at 10:00, she was bugging me. “Dad, take your checkbook to church. We have to get in my deposit for the youth group’s summer mission trip.” Apparently enough of you have been working on her – just as you continue to work on her sister, on me, on one another – and this is exactly how Christ’s ministry takes flesh among us. We are the community of the baptized.

The good news in our text is that God does not abandon the world to its own inclinations. God does not ignore a world that is prone to its own selfishness. God does not walk away from a world that is enamored with its own destruction. No, says Mark, God rips open the sky and comes down here. And in the curious left-handed power of Jesus, lives are healed. Compassion is enlarged. Wisdom is deepened. The world is rescued, one square foot at a time.      

            That is the promise of Christ’s baptism and ours. Heaven touches earth, and earth is changed. It happens through our ministry, the ministry we share. And that leads me to say, don’t ever abandon the work of the Gospel to the professionals. It doesn't matter if you spend your time building houses or cleaning them. God has something for you to do with your life. It doesn't matter if you punch numbers into a machine or make life-and-death decisions with the stroke of a pen. What matters is you serve God, full-time, every hour of every day. It doesn't matter if you are retired, employed, or looking for work. What matters is that you see your life as a ministry. And what you do with your life matters more than you can ever know.

            It has been that way ever since Jesus went down into the Jordan River and came up to see that the world has changed. When Jesus was baptized, God called him the king. Ever since, those of us who are baptized in his name are called to live as if Jesus really is the ruler of heaven and earth. That won't be easy. There are forces that hurt and destroy human life. There are demons to cast out and telephones to answer. There are headaches to cast away and furnaces to fix. There are sins to forgive and equities to establish. Most of all, there are a lot of people who need a lot of love. And it matters what we do with the time God has given us.

            It has always been that way. The true Christian does not withdraw from the world to say, "I've been washed in the waters of baptism; now I'm going to sit back in my Easy Chair." Rather the true Christian says, "It's time to get out of the water. There is something God has for me to do." 

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved