Delivered at Ames UCC
on January 8, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
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NEAT AND TIDY
Luke tells a good story, he’s a good story teller. The Gospel of Luke and its sister book the Acts of the Apostle are beautifully crafted cases for Christ. Rather than a collection of Jesus stories with no segues or explanation, each element within Luke’s gospel is connected, and is a stepping stone to the predicted end.
In the second chapter, for instance, a barren woman is able to get pregnant, a classic Biblical sign of God at work in the world. That woman, Elizabeth, now pregnant with John, visits her cousin Mary, now pregnant with Jesus. John gives Elizabeth’s bladder a good kick, and Elizabeth proclaims Mary blessed among women.
This is a foreshadowing of today’s story: John, now born and grown and working as a religious leader, kicks back against those who think he is the anointed one. No, he says, not I. But, the one I have preceded all my life.
In the Gospel of Luke, the structure of the story leaves no room to doubt that Jesus is the Son of God. The structure of Luke’s story of faith is neat and tidy.
But, man oh man, the contents are not. Look, for example, at the company Jesus keeps, right from the very start.
Although the Christmas story tells us that Jesus is going to be someone special, the audience for that is pretty small, once you exclude the sky full of heavenly host. Jesus’ baptism, then, is considered his debut act of ministry, the moment at which Jesus declares his commitment to God and God blesses that commitment.
The version most commonly represented in art and story is from the Gospel of Mark. In it, John is in rough clothing and eating bugs. John cites the prophecy from Isaiah and predicts Jesus. Jesus is then clearly baptized by John and just as he comes out of the water, the heavens open right in front of everyone, in direct response to John moving Jesus through the water.
Not so in Luke. In Luke, we just hear that sometime after everyone was baptized, including Jesus, Jesus was praying, but where and for how long and with whom, we don’t know. Only then does God speak.
That crucial moment almost reads as an addendum to what came before: seventeen verses of John preaching and chastising and getting arrested, then only two about Jesus and his baptism. In Luke, it is the lead up to the baptism and holy blessing that get the attention, that have the weight. And it is not tidy. The lead up to baptism and blessing are messy.
John has rejected his birthright. This one who could have been—should have been?—a temple priest like his father is instead a hollering, river-wading name caller. People, he says, there is one coming who will straighten everything out. But you are a brood of vipers! You think you can rest on who you are related to and do no work of your own. Bah!
Then things get messier, because it turns out that the people who were drawn to John, at least the ones who warrant naming, are tax collectors and soldiers. This first group consists of fellow Israelites who make their living off of taxing their own neighbors on behalf of an occupier, while taking a cut for themselves. The second are the agents of occupation who keep the rule of foreign law, including suppression of resistance, through violence, extortion, and pinning crimes on innocent people. John tells them to clean up their acts and be prepared to be judged by fire.
These are the people chosen by Jesus to be his first witnesses. These are the very first members of what we now call the body of Christ.
Now, speaking of members, it is time for a little Ames UCC membership show and tell. A couple of months ago I found this church directory sitting out in the office. It’s from 1979, so nearly 40 years ago. Let’s see if anyone here today was here then…
A lot has happened since these faithful people found this sanctuary and made it their home. A lot in the world and a lot just in the church. And it hasn’t always been neat and tidy, either.
Who was here when Russell Fate was your senior pastor, 1960–1966? The story I have heard was that he delivered a sermon in which he directed the church on how to vote in a presidential election. After that, he was fired. That’s pretty rough on a church.
We have been a Just Peace church since 1986. That’s a designation of the national United Church of Christ, which defines “just peace” as the interrelation of friendship, justice, and common security from violence. By being a Just Peace church, we publicly identify as justice-doing and peace-seeking. But how did the process leading up to that vote go? Not smoothly at all, from what I’ve heard. Those who opposed the designation said it felt like a critique of those who chose to serve in the military or were conscripted to do so.
And how about when we became Open and Affirming in 2000? The details of that are on the cover of your bulletins each week. Again, I have heard from those who were here, that it was a struggle.
We can tell a neat and tidy story of Ames United Church of Christ, our positions and our work, but the reality of that story over the days and the decades, has often been messy. Not just messy, but hard.
And yet a whole lot of you have stayed. A whole lot of you have stayed for lifetimes not because this church has remained as it was the day you fell in love with God here. You have stayed even through it is not a place where you have always gotten to hear what you want to hear, or know people that you want to know. You have stayed, but not out of blind loyalty.
A forty year or more commitment to the holiness celebrated at Sixth of Kellogg reflects the same willingness of that first body of Christ to learn a hard lesson and do a new thing because somehow God is asking for both.
So who here is at 20 years? 10? Two or less, like me? Under six months? One of the hallmarks of this church that I appreciate the most, maybe even more than being Just Peace and Open and Affirming, is that it does not matter how long any one of us have been here. By the mere act of coming to this sanctuary of peace, justice, and openness, we all count as equal. What matters is that we are here.
Kind of like with Luke and his baptismal postscript. Not even Jesus is distinguished by his baptism, for Luke. It wasn’t the water touching Jesus’ skin that triggered God’s voice, but the entirety of Jesus’ presence among the people, and the baptism, and his prayer.
In Luke’s account, God is looking for more than a one-time ritual. God is looking for people who are willing to commit their bodies to not cheating, to not being greedy, and who demonstrate that commitment by remaining present among others who do the same, no matter who they are or where they are in their life’s journey.
Luke started this chapter with a nod to the religious and political leaders of the day. Faith and its demands have never existed apart from daily life. Our decision to be a Just Peace and Open and Affirming church reflect that. So there is no doubt that messy and hard times will be ours again, in the world and probably here in our church.
Thankfully, much of the rest of this gospel will be devoted, very specifically, to what it means to be a disciple in such circumstances. I am thankful, too, to be at a church already so gifted, already so practiced in that work.
The best case for God in Christ is not a tidy tale. It is wading into the messiness of life to see what valley needs filling and what road needs repair, with anyone who is willing to do the same. It is not easy and it may be uncomfortable to walk in those shoes made wet by baptism, but when we stick around and when we pray, we might just hear the voice of God, if only for a verse or two.