The Hard Work

Posted by secondchurch on January - 30 - 2019

I was baptized by my grandfather, an Evangelical and Reformed pastor. It was in the living room of my grandparents’ home in Dixon, Illinois. My parents would have preferred we be baptized in the church in Wisconsin where they were active members, but it meant a great deal to my grandparents so, private, home baptism it was. In general, I’m not in favor of private baptisms. I’ve made exceptions over the years, of course. I baptized a little girl in her hospital room, just before she was to have surgery. She was in isolation so all of us in the room wore masks and full body coverings, all except the little peanut who was in her strawberry pink nightgown, pale, tiny, and so excited. She kept saying “Welcome to my baptism party!” That was a fun baptism. On another occasion, a couple in my church had experienced a fetal death well into the eighth month of pregnancy. The woman expelled the fetus through an otherwise normal delivery process. I was in the delivery room with the doctor, two nurses, my two very sad parishioners and their dead baby, newly delivered. The parents insisted they wanted the child baptized, so I baptized her, mingling the language of life and death. That was a heartbreaking baptism.

What I believe now about baptism is that it is a symbolic act of commitment and hope. I believe baptisms should be celebrated in the presence of one’s faith community – the people with whom we’re working to be disciples of Jesus, striving, together to bring in the Reign of God. It’s a beginning, a first step in doing the hardest work ever that can be imagined – the work of living our faith.

We’ve jumped ahead thirty years in the story of the life of Jesus. Last week the kings visited the baby in Bethlehem. This week John the Baptist and Jesus are adults. Life hadn’t improved for the Jews, living under Roman rule. We’re on the banks of the Jordan River now, where John is baptizing people as a repentance of sin. Some of the Jews are wondering whether he might be the Messiah. No, John tells them. The Messiah to come will be more powerful. He will baptize with Spirit and fire.

Among those at the river, waiting to be baptized, was Jesus himself. The baptism was nothing all that special, according to Luke’s version. Jesus came out of the river with his fellow baptizees largely the same as when he went in to the river. But then, he knelt to pray. And that is when the Spirit of God descended and rested on his shoulders, and God anointed Jesus to the difficult, brief, dangerous life as the Messiah.

With the sweet image of the tiny baby in a manger still in our minds, it’s hard to make the switch to this sharper, winnowing Messiah who will cleave the oppressors from the oppressed, the righteous from the false prophets, the holy from the profane. And yet, it is this very Messiah who was blessed by God with the Holy Spirit, who entered full-faced and full-bore into the hard work.

We have chosen discipleship to that Messiah. We have decided to follow the way of that one whose life was brief, whose friends were poor, marginal laborers, whose critique was harshest for people who were, in their time, a lot like us in our time – wealthy, privileged, powerful, confident and in charge, profligate, and a little obtuse about why we are resented by the impoverished, the powerless, the victims, and the oppressed. So, right out of the gate the work of Christian discipleship is hard for us because we are the very ones who would be at the receiving point of Jesus’ most piercing judgement.

But let’s leave that thought alone for the moment, and think about a few other ways discipleship to Jesus, our Messiah, is hard work. I’m afraid they are many – so I’ve just picked out three.

Our Church Council this week will be finalizing a church budget for you to approve at our February Annual Meeting. It’s a little challenging. Money is tight and our needs and aspirations are many. Our resources, including our endowment and this magnificent building, have not come to us because we deserved them or even earned them. And they are not to be hoarded by us or warehoused as if we have no trust in God. And we know, that is if we have any faith at all, we know that we are obligated to advocate and care for those who do not have enough money for food, shelter, medical care, safety, or dignity.

I don’t think it’s impossible to be Christian and wealthy, but it is hard. It is the emotional need within us for a protected, secure financial cushion that stands between us and the Realm of God. It is the time it takes to determine how much we need to be secure that is time not devoted to God. It is worry that whatever we have now will not be sufficient to meet whatever tomorrow will bring that keeps us from taking risks for our faith.

How else is being Christian hard work? What else keeps us from living in full, unshackled discipleship? What else blocks us from trusting God with our lives? Of course, this is a question you must ultimately ask of your own heart and mind, but let me offer two more possibilities for your consideration. One is to relinquish our last and most certain judgment of another human being. Another is to trust that heartbreak is not the last experience we will have in life.

Relinquishing our last and most certain judgement of another person, that is very hard work. All of us here, with varying degrees of accuracy, believe we are pretty good judges of the character of others. We are reasonably smart and, since we have not lived as recluses, we have related to people quite a bit. Some of us are supervisors of the work of others. Some of us depend on our ability to “read” people for our livelihoods. We all have had interactions with arbitrary service providers and most of us have been stopped in achieving our goals by a receptionist or two along the way. We are pretty sure we know what makes people tick, what’s right and what’s wrong with the way they act, how they will respond to particular situations. We can identify the peculiar characteristics of New Englanders. We think we understand what makes African Americans angry. We believe we know why more men than women are violent. We have come to appreciate that women’s wisdom is a valuable resource for solving problems.

But here’s the hard work that our Christian discipleship calls us to do – it is to relinquish what we thought we knew about another person and replace it with the desire to know more, to understand more deeply, to listen more carefully and to assume positive intent. Few of us are ready to do this hard thing. We enjoy the feeling of power that accompanies an accurate perception of another’s motivations and we do not really want to go more deeply than that shallow and smug little rush that comes when our perceptions are proved to be true. It is easier, God knows, and less time-consuming to function with our shallow perceptions, which, if we were to admit it, were formed almost entirely by the shallow perceptions of others who are simply bold enough to put their shallow perceptions on-line. It is harder to seek out, listen to, and be persuaded by the person her or himself – to have our perceptions broadened, or possibly, proven wrong. It is the hard thing to care more about knowing who a person really is than to be comfortable with the categories of personhood based on broad and usually ill-informed biases and characterizations.

One more hard thing, then I’m through for today. Christian discipleship requires us to trust that heartbreak is not the last experience we will have in life – heartbreak, despair, suffering. I may not be speaking to all of you at this point. Not all of you have been knocked down flat in every way by some terrible life experience. But to those of you who have, here’s the hard thing you have to do to remove that last obstacle between your heart and God’s – it is to trust that the heartbreak that you think was the last time you trusted God’s goodness, is not the last time you can trust God’s goodness. You can trust again, and God will give you evidence that trusting again is worth the work, that God is trustworthy, that suffering, however it comes to us and whatever its breadth and depth, is not the last experience you have had or will have of God. There is the morning after the dark night, there is the still, small voice within the storm, there is the empty tomb after the cross. It is very, very hard to believe that God can be completely and unabashedly trusted. But believing that suffering is the last, most significant experience we will have of God in our lives simply must be relinquished if we are ever to be disciples, if we are ever to find joy, if we are ever to be people of faith again.

This may be the hardest thing of all, not only because licking the wounds, long after they’ve healed, is a difficult habit to break, but because heartbreak works on us in so many insidious ways. It nourishes our insecurities, strips us of the protective clothing of what we thought were our abilities, and teaches us with precision that we are powerless to stem the tide of the perceptions of others, the reckless chain of events that leads to betrayal, or the despair that follows so closely on its heels. No wonder we think this will be the last profoundly religious experience we will ever have. It engenders more emotion than every conversion, mountain-top insight and answered prayer put together! But it is not the last experience we will have. Trusting that God stands in the shadows of even that most lonely experience and will be the very light that tells us morning has come again, trusting that God is still there, still powerful, still very, very good will make the last barrier crumble. If you’re going to be a Christian, you’re going to have to face Calvary. And if you’re going to be a Christian, you’re going to have to trust the incredible power of the resurrection.

Hard work, very hard work, relinquishing our need for the security that comes with wealth, relinquishing our perceptions of others, relinquishing our fear that God’s last word is silence, all these are part and parcel of being disciples. But it is the work we were called to do when we were baptized, whether that baptism happened in your grandfather’s living room or in this very sanctuary, and it is the work that will change the world and dismantle the powers and principalities. It is the work that will bring down God’s Spirit, like a dove. It is the work Jesus himself was called to do. I believe Jesus believed the words from Isaiah “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. You are precious in my sight and I love you. Do not fear, for I am with you. I am with you. Amen.

Isaiah 43:1-5b; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
A sermon preached at The Second Church in Newton UCC January 13, 2019
Carla J. Bailey

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