Scripture: Jonah, chapter 3
As I have mentioned in the past, I grew up in an Appalachian setting; a setting where cities were held suspect. I have a friend still living on the outskirts of Johnstown and when she learned that Britt and I would be relocating to the Chicago area for Britt’s PhD work, the first words out of her mouth were, “I’m so sorry.”
My upbringing did, in fact, enculturate me to fear the city. For many of us here in the Midwest, farm living is wholesome living; whereas cities may conjure up images of dirtiness, decadence, despair, or diversity that puzzles or troubles us – fast living and fast traffic… except during rush hour when it just comes to a dead stop.
Even so, according to our bible, “the city constitutes a central context for faith and practice.”[i] Without a doubt, the best known Old Testament scripture is Psalm 23. Yet we often forget, that pastoral psalm concludes in an urban setting as the psalmist writes, “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”[ii] The “house of the Lord,” my friends, was the Temple and the Temple was located in Jerusalem, the holy city. Jerusalem must have been a large city. After all, King Solomon, under whose reign the Temple was built, used the forced labor of his subjects. It would have been a large construction crew and in a day and time when commuting would not have been a viable option.
Now, it is true that life began in a garden. But, it’s going to end in a city. I’ll say more about that later. Anyway, in Genesis, chapter two, Eden is portrayed as a veritable paradise, God’s gift to humanity. It is also true that cities like Sodom and Gomorrah support a negative urban stereotype of sexual deviance and a complete disregard for hospitality and simple human decency. Finally, one cannot argue the fact that Jesus was put to death in a city. Our Lord grieved as he said, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”[iii] And yet, that very same city is the place of Jesus’ resurrection and, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus gives indisputable instructions to his disciples that Jerusalem is the place where they are to remain until the coming of Pentecost. “Stay here in the city,” Jesus tells them, “until you have been clothed with power from on high.”[iv] One can only imagine how much more slowly the Jesus movement would have spread without the benefit of so many people and cultures intermingling in the thriving metropolis of Jerusalem. It was the perfect launching pad for a movement whose evangelists are specifically instructed to witness to all nations. We’re told by Luke that, on that Pentecost day, “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.”[v] The apostle Paul was an urbanite through and through. His missionary strategy involved the planting of churches in major cities like Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi and Thessalonica. And Paul’s ultimate geographical goal is the largest city of the first century: Rome, boasting up to a million people.
This Sunday marks my third week preaching from the Old Testament book of Jonah. The first two chapters focus, primarily, on the prophet himself. The opening verses of the book are God’s command to Jonah to go to the great Assyrian city of Nineveh. But Jonah’s resistance to the prophetic call means that two full chapters of the book have little to do with Nineveh and much to do with Jonah, himself. If nothing else, this little book makes clear that anyone who might hope to outwit, outlast or outplay God had better think again. God’s passionate concern for the city and its residents will not be thwarted by human disobedience. It will, ultimately, lead to their restoration… a possibility Jonah does not wish to entertain or be party to.
The Rev. David Albert Farmer recounts his experience when a large denomination planned its annual convention in New Orleans, the city where he lived and pastored. They decided to descend upon the city a couple of days early in order to use their evangelistic influence to save the souls of New Orleans’ wicked residents. Farmer was on Bourbon Street one evening when he was approached by a young man pushing an evangelistic tract into his face. He writes:
I thought at first he wanted me to smell something. When I figured out what was going on, I took the tract out of his hand and asked, “What is this?”
“It’s a publication about God.”
“Oh, I see. What will it tell me about God?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You haven’t read it?”
“I’m sure it must tell me something about God’s love, don’t you think?”
“I doubt it,” he explained. “We want to keep you people from going to hell so it probably tells you about burning for eternity and stuff.”
“Let me be clear on this,” Rev. Farmer queried. “You care about my eternal destiny, and you don’t even know my name or what the tract says?”
“Look, mister, I have to pass all these out before I can meet my friends for Cajun food. You’d better get saved, or you’re going to hell; that’s all.”
“Well, thanks for your concern,” Famer said. “I think I may preach about how to come to God this coming Sunday morning. Have a fun time in the French Quarter this evening.”[vi]
As I mentioned two weeks ago, Jonah’s disdain for this city is understandable. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. The Assyrians had swooped in upon the northern tribes of Israel in 721 BCE and destroyed them. So effective were the Assyrians that those ten tribes were considered forever lost. What an incredible grief and what an understandable anger and outrage Jonah carried.
And yet, God cared about the city of Nineveh and the people that inhabited it and preferred their deliverance over their destruction. God had a plan to redeem Nineveh. God has a heart for the city because it does, in fact, constitute a central context for faith and practice.
In chapter 3 of Jonah, the city of Nineveh finally receives the attention it deserves. And God’s passion for the city is a fitting message for our congregation. We were the first church in the city of Lafayette… in Tippecanoe County, for that matter. And, in the beginning, downtown was all there was. And then, as we all know the story, suburbs sprung up and people spread out and, as a congregation, we were faced with the choice of going or staying. And we chose to stay.
In 1975, Lyle Schaller, the father of modern church renewal, the teacher of folks like our consultant, Dan Bonner at the Center for Urban Congregational Renewal… In 1975, Schaller came here and the cover of the report he prepared for us based on our input proclaimed, “The Downtown Church That Did Not Relocate.”
But what are we doing here? Why are we here?
Although it is an easy detail to overlook, one might notice that Jonah’s message to the Ninevites does not include any stereotypical prophetic lead-in, such as: “Thus says the Lord” or “Hear the Word of the Lord.” Our author clearly states in Jonah 3:3 that “Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.” But the content of Jonah’s message to the people of that city sounds a little more like the young man in Rev. Farmer’s story. Note the similarity: “You’d better get saved or you’re going to hell;” “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” I guess neither evangelist saw the need to toss in any of that “steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end” stuff.[vii] Forget that. Just give ‘em hell. That was the missionary strategy of Jonah and the young man in New Orleans.
I mean Jonah doesn’t even bother to cover the whole city. He gets about a 1/3 of the way in and blurts out his gloom and doom and he is done. But, lo and behold; despite Jonah’s worst efforts, the people of Nineveh put their trust in the message they hear. From the greatest of them to the least of them, they humble themselves. Their king admonishes them to turn from evil and violence. They are a remarkably responsive audience.
Now perhaps the book of Jonah sugar coats what it’s like to do ministry in a downtown setting. It is not generally so simple. Downtowns are notoriously diverse; hard to define in all their complexity. Perhaps that is why so many head to the suburbs where things tend to be a little more similar and uniform. But that is not where we are, my friends. We are downtown. We are “the downtown church that did not relocate.” You know, some of our very best theology is hymns, like this one: “The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people.”[viii] Now please, don’t misunderstand me. I am thankful to God for all of you who are here this morning. I am grateful that most of you passed, no doubt, several churches on your drive to Trinity. I am thankful for your dedication and commitment to this place. And yet, the Church is not a building – despite ours being an extraordinarily beautiful sanctuary – the Church is not a building, but a people. God loves this city, this downtown, and its people and this downtown is where we are. But this downtown community, if we examine our membership rolls, is not who we are. So, I don’t think we can or should try to escape God’s Word to us to “Go” to our city, to this downtown neighborhood. Friends, my message today is about God’s love for the city and it’s an important message for us because we have identified ourselves as “the downtown church that did not relocate.” That was neither a decision nor an identity someone else imposed on us; it was our choice, our self-identification.
Now I wish I could give you a very simple, fool-proof system for how we can effectively connect with our neighborhood. But I can’t. It will be a process, a lengthy process; a series of experiments, trial and error. We won’t be able to just hand people fliers or brochures. We’ll have to get their name and get to know them and listen to them.
It will take time. But friends, it is an exciting time to be in this downtown because it is growing and developing in ways that bear all kinds of potential and possibilities. Right here, right now, is a great time and place to be.
But I’m not gonna leave you with nothing this morning, don’t worry. I can give you three ways, relatively easy ways, to connect better to this community, to get to know folks, and to share the good news of God’s love. One, join me for lunch in Centennial Park. A member and I had lunch there last Wednesday. It was great; a little muggy and drizzly, but you’ll find that everywhere right now. We met and talked with a group of ladies who drive school buses and use the park as their place to visit while the kids are at the Y. Two, attend the Tuesday evening Dulcimer concerts in the park. The music’s beautiful and you can mingle with our neighbors. Three, walk around the neighborhood and introduce yourself to folks. Find out how long they’ve lived here, what they like about the neighborhood, and what they’d like to see change.
Now, I have to confess to you: Some of those online preaching websites say I need to end every sermon with some personal application to the individual lives of my congregation. But folks, here’s the truth: the good news doesn’t call us to be individuals, islands unto ourselves; it calls us to be a community, a faith family. That’s why our vision statement is “Growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.”
Oh, I made you a promise that I’d say something about how, or where, life will end… or at least how our Holy Scriptures say it will all end. When God has finally and fully defeated all sin and evil, a new heaven and earth are established and what comes down from those heavens? A city, the New Jerusalem, fully and entirely permeated by the presence of Jesus. The city, my friends, constitutes a central context our for faith and practice.”[ix] God loves the city… and the people of God are called to love it too.
[i] Interpretation: a Journal of Bible and Theology. January, 2000: “The City.” P. 4.
[ii] Psalm 23:6
[iii] Matthew 23:37
[iv] Luke 24:49b
[v] Acts 2:5
[vi] Interpretation: a Journal of Bible and Theology. January, 200. P. 63-64
[vii] Lamentations 3:22.
[viii] We Are the Church, hymn #558 from “The United Methodist Hymnal.” Words and music by Avery and Marsh, 1972, Hope Publishing Co.
[ix] Interpretation: a Journal of Bible and Theology. January, 2000: “The City.” P. 4.
Jonah, chapter 1 – “No Place to Hide”
We human creatures are very good at hiding. It seems to come naturally to us. That very first man and woman, Genesis tells us, when they realized that had sinned against God… well, they tried to hide from God; to run away from the face of the Lord.
Hiding is a game for us. One of the very first games we play with infants is “peek-a-boo.” Initially, an infant is startled at mom’s or dad’s sudden reappearance. But, as they develop object permanence, they anticipate with delight that moment when hands slip away and mom or dad suddenly is found. As children, we play hide-and-go-seek, creating an inward tension. Part of us wants to be found to validate our importance to our peer group; while another part of us wants to remain hidden, outsmarting our peers. We hide – to outsmart, to deceive, to pretend.
Long after we outgrow physical hiding, we adults grow adept at hiding our feelings. We hide them from one another and stuff them down. We’re to meet a friend for coffee or lunch. Something in their life has changed; they don’t seem to have time for us anymore. And now, as we sit at the coffee shop, our phone pings and we read their text: “Sorry. Something’s come up. Can we reschedule?” And we text back: “It’s OK. It’s not a problem.” But it’s not OK and we hide what we really want to say: “You’ve let me down and hurt my feelings. I wonder if our friendship matters to you anymore.” We try to hide our anger… after all; anger is a sin, right? We try to hide our frustration… after all; isn’t patience a “fruit of the spirit?”
And then, just like that first man and woman, we try even to hide from God. Throughout scripture, God’s “face” is idiomatic for God’s presence… a presence that is unavoidable and more intimate than we can sometimes bear. Yet few in scripture better capture the human instinct to hide than the prophet Jonah. Called by God to go to the great city of Nineveh, he runs as far and as fast as he can in the opposite direction. He flees from the face of God. He gets on a boat and goes down into the bowels of the ship to hide… as if there were anywhere he could truly go to escape the presence of God. But he can’t escape. None of us ever really can. It is as the Psalmist writes: Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your face… For it was you who… knit me together in my mother’s womb. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” Friends, we cannot flee from God’s presence. We cannot escape the gaze of God’s face. And there are no games we can play, no cosmic peek-a-boo that will hide our actions, our words, or even our thoughts from the God who knit us together. We have nowhere to hide.
The assignment Jonah received was a hard one. Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria. It was a very impressive city, a “great city”… so long as “great” means large and powerful; for Nineveh, most certainly, was not great in the sense of being honorable or benevolent. No; the Assyrians were the nation that descended with a vengeance upon Israel around 722 BCE. Their leader, Sargon, had a brilliant strategy to insure that Israel would never rise again. He deported and dispersed the Israelites throughout the Mesopotamian region and he brought other nationalities within Israel’s borders. Ten tribes were lost forever… And all thanks to Assyria, whose capital, Nineveh, stood as the symbol of her rapacious power. And it was to those very people Jonah was told by God to “Arise and go at once…” “Arise, go at once… to the people who have destroyed you… who have taken from you what can never be recovered.”
You know, friends, sometimes people tell me they don’t like to read the Old Testament because it reveals a God of vengeance, not grace. But if the story of Jonah doesn’t stand as a testimony to God’s grace, I can’t imagine what would. It was Methodist founder John Wesley who wrote long ago: “Nothing is more repugnant to capable, reasonable people than grace.”
Grace is an awesome idea when the one being forgiven is me. But grace is a horrible idea if it means that someone who has brought harm and suffering to me and mine could get off scot free, facing no personal penalty for the horrible pain they’ve caused. Nothing is more repugnant than a grace bestowed on those who have wounded us, hurt us deeply. It is all we can bear to be told that God loves them. But when God tags us as the bearers of that message… Well, we want to run in the opposite direction as far and as fast as we can.
And so this morning, the story of Jonah ought to challenge us to look deep inside and consider, “Is there someone to whom we begrudge God’s grace?” Let’s be honest with God and ourselves. There might be days that go by without us even thinking of that person. But then, something happens to remind us and we think back to the pain that person caused us or the loss they brought to us, and we feel that tightness in our stomach or our jaw; although we try to tell ourselves and God that “It’s OK. It’s not a problem.” But it is a problem and it’s not OK.
Maybe it’s the “ex” we tell ourselves we’ve forgiven. But then we go to that holiday family gathering. Our siblings all have their children with them. But ours is with the ex. And we feel that resentment well up inside us. Or maybe it’s that boss who mismanaged everything. His flippant, irresponsible choices meant the company had to downsize. And now you’re out of work and it’s meant all kinds of sacrifices for you and your family. Or maybe it’s a co-worker from long ago. You considered her your teammate until you discovered that, to the boss’s face she missed no opportunity to throw you under the bus. And now, years later, she’s the VP and you’re still in the same position you started in. Or maybe it’s that friend whose kid introduced yours to drugs and it’s been a horrible never-ending roller coaster of addictions ever since. Or maybe it’s that neighbor who was far more neighborly than appropriate with your spouse. Or maybe it was that drunk driver who T-boned your car and your back has never felt the same. The list could go on and on. You know God’s love and grace are for everyone. But it is hard, so hard. And sometimes it’s hard to look God in the face; to come into his presence when that resentment and anger is still rumbling down deep in our souls. You’ve tried stuffing it down and it works for a while. But every now and then, it gets the better of you.
So maybe today is a good day to admit to yourself that you can’t pretend anymore; that trying to hide from your own emotions is about as logical as thinking peek-a-boo really makes someone disappear. Maybe today is a good day to ask God to help you get real with him and with yourself… and perhaps, if it would be appropriate, with that other person. We are called, my friends, to be vessels for God’s grace to overflow into the lives of others. But if anger and resentment is sloshing around in our hearts, then that’s what’s going to spill out on others. God wants to flood our hearts with his grace so that grace will slosh around and spill out wherever we go. God wants to flood our hearts with grace. And so today is as good a day as any to ask God to soften your heart and to help you accept that his grace is not just for everyone in the general, generic sense; but that it is for that person who wounded you and wronged you in the most specific, personal sense.
Years back, 48 Hours aired a story about a Vietnam veteran named Paul Reed. After the war, Reed returned to America filled with anger, resentment and prejudice. For decades, he could not hold down a job or make a marriage work. When the Persian Gulf War erupted, he really came unglued. With the encouragement of his mother, he decided to seek help. His anger and resentment were destroying him from the inside out.
During the war, Reed had confiscated some trophies – photos, stamps and even a diary. Now, as part of his personal recovery, he decided to have the diary translated. One entry read:
"Forget about everything. Calm yourself. Listen to the world speak. Love bears no grudge."
Reed could hardly believe what he was reading. He realized the truth of his enemy’s humanity – that they had shared the same thoughts and feelings. The writer of the diary was named Nguyen Nghia and Reed now believed that the only way to find healing in his own life was to return the diary to that soldier’s family. So, Reed took a second step: instead of moving further and further away from the Vietnamese people, he now decided to move toward them.
And, in taking that step, he made the most startling discovery of all: Nguyen Nghia was still alive. This man whom Reed assumed he’d slaughtered on the battlefield was still alive and wanted very much to meet him. So, Paul Reed traveled back to Vietnam in hopes of receiving forgiveness from a former enemy and making peace with himself.
It was through his relationship with Nghia that Reed experienced inward transformation. Nghia invited Reed into his home to meet his wife and four children. One by one Reed presented to him the items he had confiscated during the war. Last of all, he brought out his diary. The man began to weep. But, Reed noticed that he seemed to be having trouble reading it. When he asked he was told by the translator that Nghia’s eyes had been wounded in their battle. It was the last battle he had fought in. Afterwards, he was taken to an underground hospital to recover. He then walked the 500 miles to return home to his village. The journey took him two years. Reed asked Nguyen if he still hated him and the man responded “let the past be the past.” Each forgave the other and Reed stated that his enemy had become his best teacher and his friend.
But Reed’s journey still was not complete. He had been blinded to the humanity of the Vietnamese people. But, in meeting Nghia, he had come to see and desired to help him see, as well. He elicited support from fellow-veterans and 3 years later returned to Vietnam to bring Nghia back to America for medical care. The damage to one eye could not be corrected. But, his right eye could be helped by corrective lenses. Nghia put on the glasses and, immediately, he was able to read.
The grace of God, my friends, is not just for everyone in the general, generic sense; but it is for those who wound us and wrong us in the most specific, personal sense. The grace of God is for them and the grace of God is for us.
Scripture: John 3:1-17 and 1 Peter 1:22-25
Title: Welcome to the Family
My nephew, Danny’s first child, Daniel Rhys, was born in March of 2014. I should precede this story by telling you that my dad, also named Daniel, is already deceased. His uncle, my great Uncle Dan, died before I was even born. My brother, Dan, suffered a sudden heart attack and died at 47, when my nephew was only 19. When the fifth generation Daniel, who actually goes by Rhys, was born, my nephew texted his picture. But then, I didn’t receive any pics at all for a couple of months. I texted back, asked what was up with that and received about four more, more recent pictures, accompanied by this text from my nephew: “I think he looks like Pap, don’t you think?” (Pap being my dad and his grandfather). I texted back, “Maybe; it’s hard to tell.” There was a lot of expectation riding on that little baby boy.
When people ask me if their newborn looks like a family member, I am always reminded of the Bill Cosby skit about his wife giving birth to their first child. As the baby emerged and the doctor lifted him up, Bill took his first look, cringed, and said, “It’s not done; put it back!” A new born infant, especially one delivered via the birth canal, is not so charming. They can look a little like something out of a Sci-Fi film. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long for them to evolve into a beautiful baby. But even then, if you ask me, in those first few months, they bear about as much resemblance to their family of origin as I do to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I mean, here’s what I think, a certain amount of time, growth and maturity is necessary before a child begins to look like their family. I have another great nephew. I went to visit him when he was just a couple of months old. He was cute. But then, just a couple months back, my sister sent me a picture of him and Jace, now two, is the spitting image of his daddy. A lot happened in that intervening time between two months and two years. He filled out that baggy baby skin and he grew into, well, our family. Let’s face it; time, growth and maturity are what cause us to begin to look like our families.
But here’s what’s really interesting… Some of you may know that my husband, Britt, is adopted. At the first church where Britt and I pastored, when Britt’s dad came to visit, I can’t tell you how many people remarked to me how much alike they looked. And it continued to happen wherever we went. I don’t think people were blind or making things up. Britt did look like his dad not because they shared genetic material. He looked like his dad because they shared life. Britt grew up in his father’s presence: gestures, facial expressions, posture, all that stuff and that is why they resembled one another.
So, who do you look like? Do you look like your family? Look around the sanctuary this morning. Do we resemble one another? Do you look like your church family?
You may already be aware that, of all the metaphors or images used for the early Church, none was so prevalent, none so vitally important, as that of family. The Church is family, first and foremost. We’ve all heard the expression “blood is thicker than water.” But, here’s the thing; scripture makes pretty clear that blood (or any genetic material) is never as thick, as binding, as the waters of baptism. Nothing means more than the identity we share in Christ Jesus.
The Church, my friends, is family and the only way into this family is to be born into it. But not in the way you might think. We’re not born into the church family because our parents or grandparents had their names on the church membership rolls. Maybe they did and maybe they didn’t. Either way, it doesn’t make any difference. To be a member of the Church family, you have to be born into it for yourself; you have to experience birth from above… the kind of birth that Jesus described to Nicodemus. It was hard for Nicodemus to figure it out. I mean, Cosby’s comment to the obstetrician was funny; but really, once babies are born, you can’t put them back.
But Jesus wasn’t talking about physical birth. Jesus was talking about spiritual birth; the birth that happens when we place our trust in Jesus as
God’s Son; the one God gave on our behalf so that we might receive the gift of life eternal, a share in God’s life. At birth, a newborn is immediately assessed for their ability to breathe air on their own. It’s critical to life and, if any problems, are detected, medical actions are promptly taken to get air flowing into the baby’s lungs. But Jesus teaches that our life in God is sustained through the Holy Spirit’s wind or breath. There’s a Michael W. Smith chorus: “This is the air I breathe; your Holy presence living in me.”
1st Peter puts it like this: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” (1 Pet 1.3)
And with God as our heavenly parent, this new birth places us smack dab in the middle of a new family, our church family. But we have to remember that, just like physical birth, it will take a while for us to grow into the family and it will mean we’ll need to spend a lot of time together. Remember what I said about Britt. He grew to look like his adopted dad because his dad raised him and they spent a lot of time together. We need a certain amount of time, growth and maturity before we begin to look like the rest of the family, especially our heavenly Father. For some of us, the growing process takes longer than others. We all grow and mature at different rates. But we’re family, so we hang in there together; teaching, encouraging, correcting; and celebrating moments of growth, rites of passage. Most definitely, we don’t – or at least we shouldn’t – mind our own business. After all, we don’t want to be outdone by the proverbial “pack of wolves.” We take good care of our young, raising them up in the faith, attending to their needs, making sure they understand what it means to be a part of this family. We help them discover them own unique place in the family. And most of all, we love one another because that’s what healthy, functional families do, right? We love one another. And that mutual love, that deep love from the heart, becomes the most distinguishing trait of our family identity.
Today is a wonderful day of celebration here at Trinity. Today we’ll confirm six young people. They have grown up in this church; we are their family. As time has passed, they have grown and matured. Many of you, no doubt, remember some of them being baptized right here at this font. If you did, I hope you remember the promise you made that day; a promise that you would be like a spiritual parent to them; a promise that you would accept shared responsibility for their growth and maturity. And today, when they join the Church, promising their faithfulness not only to Jesus but to all of you, their family, you’ll have the opportunity once again, to renew your commitment to them. And I hope you won’t take it lightly because it’s a big deal; a really big deal.
Retired Methodist Bishop, Will Willimon, relates the story of a young man in a church he’d pastored. It was summer and the young man had returned home from his first year of college. He appeared one day at Willimon’s office to inform him that he would not be attending church that summer. The young man related his reason: “Well, you see,” he said, “I have been doing a lot of thinking about religion while I was at college, and I have come to the conclusion that there isn’t much to this religion thing. I have found out that I don’t need the church to get by.”
Willimon responded to the young man by telling him that he found all of that quite interesting.
“Aren’t you worried?” said the young man. “I thought you would go through the roof when I told you.”
Now, Willimon had known the young man for about five years. He had baptized him a couple of years previously and had watched him grow throughout his high school years. The youth had come from a difficult home situation. The church had been very interested in him and had had a hand in making it possible for him to go to college.
Willimon responded. “No. I’m interested, but not overly concerned. I’ll be watching to see if you can pull it off.”
“What do you mean ‘pull it off’?” said the young man. “I’m 19. I can decide to do anything I want to, can’t I?”
Willimon: “When I was 19 I thought I was ‘on my own,’ too. I’m saying that I’m not so sure you will be able to get away with this.”
The young man’s confusion increased. “Why not?” he asked.
“Well, for one thing, you’re baptized,” said Willimon.
“So, what does that have to do with anything?” the young man queried.
Willimon: “Well, you try forsaking it, rejecting it, forgetting about it, and maybe you’ll find out.”
“I can’t figure out what being baptized has to do with it,” the young man stated.
Willimon responded: “For one thing, there are people here who care about you. They made promises to God when you were baptized. You try not showing up around here this summer, and they will be nosing around, asking what you are doing with your life, what kind of grades you made last semester, what you’re doing with yourself. Then there’s also God. No telling what God might try with you. From what I’ve seen of God, once he has claimed you, you don’t get off the hook so easily. God is relentless in claiming what is his. And, in baptism, God says you belong to him.”
The boy shook his head in wonder at Willimon’s strange brand of reasoning and left his office. Willimon reports that in a couple of weeks the young man was back in his usual place on the second pew. The baptizers had done their work. And, God’s possessiveness had remained firm.
Friends, we all know that being a healthy, functional family requires commitment. It means we love each other, no matter what. It means we “show up” for one another. You know, for most of us, when we get up in the morning, think about what we need to do for our family that day – whether it involves babysitting the grandchildren, ordering flowers online for a sister who lives out of state and is going through a divorce, taking some time in the evening to help our child with homework for a class that is challenging them or discouraging them, leaving work early to go to a doctor’s appointment with our spouse, arranging to spend a week out of town with that favorite uncle who needs help recovering from surgery. When you’re family, you show up, because you love each other.
So this morning I want us to think about how often we apply that same principle to our church family. Look around. This is your family. When you get up in the morning, do you think about them? When we see these six young people up front this morning, we need to all remember, we’re all their parents in the faith and in the years ahead, we’re all responsible to God for their growth and maturity. We’re promising to show up for them and for each other. We’ve all heard that hypocritical, sarcastic cliché, “do as I say, not as I do.” But we don’t want to be that guy, right? None of us really respect or take seriously people who live out that cliché. So, if we really want to see our young people thrive and remain committed to Christ and the Church then we need to lead the way in that so they’ll be inspired to do as we do and not just what we tell them to do. We need to show up for them and for each other – in worship and study and prayer and service and fellowship because we’re the Church, we’re their family.
You know, one way that you can grow this summer in your relationship with Christ and your church family and lead by example for our young people is through the summer small groups we’re offering. It’s a great way to grow in our love for Christ and for each other. If you’re not connected to a group right now, then I would encourage you this morning to mark the back of your Connection Card so that, as the family of God, we can grow and mature together.
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On a lifelong journey of seeking to live out God's call on my life and to reflect His grace.
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