Tuesday, March 14, 2017

"Living Our Baptismal Calling: Accept" - Sermon, March 12, 2017

Community UMC, Quincy
“Living Our Baptismal Calling: Accept”
March 12, 2017
Pastor Andrew Davis
John 3: 1-17

        Back in the mid-90’s and being a child of the media, I remember watching TV in the afternoon after school and seeing the promos for the first of the “Mission Impossible” series of movies in 1996 starring Tom Cruise.  Based on the 1960’s and 70’s TV show, the movies started with the catchy little theme song <> that then said from a tape recorder “your mission should you accept it…” with some details sprinkled in before the tape recorder self-destructed.  Well today, our mission, should we accept it is to “accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” Kind of a lofty mission should we accept it, but also worth thinking about today as we continue our Lenten series, “Living Our Baptismal Calling.”
        As we began our series and Lenten journey last week, we thought about the first question from our baptismal vows, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this word, and repent of your sin?”  It’s the first question that is asked when we are presented for baptism as infants or adults, but this week we take this idea a little bit further when asked, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves." This weeks’ question about accepting the power God gives us builds on last week in renouncing evil and wickedness, but now adds injustice and oppression to what we are asked to renounce and resist. 
        Now I need to admit that I struggle a little bit when trying to think of what is evil, what is injustice, and what is oppression.  See, what might be evil, injustice, and oppression in my eyes may be something totally different in someone else’s eyes.  In keeping things real, we live in a world today where evil, injustice, and oppression can be found in many shapes and forms around us.  However, while watching the news or perusing social media, it is hard not to see violence, acts of vandalism, or looting which I see as one form of evil, or different phobias and pure hatred, which can lead to injustice and oppression if left unchecked.  The list can go on and on and on.  Yet, it also seems that in this recent election cycle, that we have seen a rise in violent rhetoric, acts of violence, and  various phobias manifesting themselves in frightening ways, particularly because we have more access to visual media today and it’s put before our eyes.  Or, I think back to November when I arrived to church one morning to find that someone threw an egg at our sign, then wrote the words ‘devil idol’ using peanut butter.  Without flinching, a few of us were able to clean up the vandalism before the congregation arrived, and got a clean sign out of it.  We could have given the people who did this free publicity by going to the newspaper and fighting an evil act with equally evil words about the people who did it, but instead we resisted evil by acting quickly and praying that the people who did this find peace.  Even amidst different ideas of what may constitute evil, injustice, or oppression, I am also thankful that we are a community of faith here who are able to still love each other while having different ideas, as it is a blessing to be a part of a theologically and politically diverse congregation.  However, it’s up to us to keep seeking what is true and show others how to use the freedom that God gives us to resist the powers of evil, injustice, and oppression, regardless of where we stand. 
        As we encounter the text this morning, it might seem a little murkier to see how the text fits in with this question on accepting the freedom of resisting evil, injustice, and oppression.  Although the translation that Leslie, you, and I read together is slightly truncated, we first encounter a Pharisee, Nicodemus who comes to Jesus at night.  Being a Pharisee, which was a teacher of the law in the Jewish tradition, Nicodemus obviously does not want others to know he is coming to see Jesus.  It’s like trying to conceal something you don’t want anyone else knowing about.  Now this is our first encounter with Nicodemus who we will only see in John’s Gospel, but Nicodemus is obviously intrigued by the signs, or miracles that Jesus is performing, although when he inquires more of Jesus, Jesus tells Nicodemus about the idea of new birth, which Nicodemus struggles with upon hearing. 
        In some ways, I empathize with Nicodemus here, as new birth is something I really struggled with for a long time the first time I heard it.  Whenever I would hear the saying ‘born again,’ it left me scratching my head, like Nicodemus, who asked how could we “enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (Jn. 3: 4, NRSV).  But as I got older and began understanding my faith a little more, this kind of new birth that Jesus is talking about is birth by the Spirit.  As Jesus will explain, it’s a re-birth of our faith and quite honestly, after spending those eight months in the desert, away from the faith ten years ago, but then feeling a change of heart about not being part of a faith community, I felt like I had been born again when I re-engaged with the faith and with a community of faith. 
     And when we are asked to renounce the powers of evil and wickedness, and resist evil, injustice, and oppression in our baptismal vows, we are each taking part in this new birth through baptism as we think about the vows we made or were made for us as infants.  Furthermore, we have the power and choice that God gives us to accept or reject the freedom to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in any form that it takes.  When we do accept these powers, it becomes more about new life in Christ that Jesus is trying to explain to Nicodemus, but also to us. 
        Also in this text is one of the most beloved and well-known statements, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3: 16-17, NRSV).  Now this is one of those feel-good verses that is often cited, as it speaks to God’s love for the world and all of humanity.  Hence why it is vital for us to accept the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression because God still so loves the world.  When we enter this baptized relationship as infants or at another time in life, we have to keep doing our part in renouncing evil and wickedness, as well as resisting evil, injustice, and oppression, no matter what form they take.  It’s all a part of this life-long journey of faith.  Furthermore, we cannot fight evil with evil, injustice with injustice, and oppression with oppression, as our resistance to such is in how we do good in our community and through our kind actions with each other and with those who are outside the walls of this church.  Each Sunday during the prayers of the people, we have been lifting up the need for truth, for healing, and reconciliation in our country and even our world, especially in light of the deep divisions of today.  While I generally try to refrain from politics while preaching and am trying to do so on social media these days as well, I can’t help but address the elephant in the room. 
A couple weeks ago, I was watching one of my preaching professors’ sermons online on YouTube.  In this sermon on discipleship, Rev. Dr. Matt Poole, lead pastor of Glen Mar UMC in Ellicott City, MD pointed out that since this past election cycle, there has been more conflict and division, both as a society and even within the church (universal), an indication of the broken political system that we are living in.[i]  Being the thinking person and pastor that I am, I have been chewing on the fact that if God so loved the world, God still loves each of us, as broken as we may be and different and diverse as we may be.  But as I also said earlier, what I personally may see as evil, injustice, and oppression might be something totally different to someone else, which is perhaps a good way to open up channels of conversation.  I admit that my reluctance to be able to address things that are happening in our nation and world and how it intersects with our faith is like being Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the cover of night.  Even though I get mixed messages, with some saying not to get into political stuff or some saying I need to speak up more, I believes that we all need to be able to bring things into the light, talk, pray, and work through such differences when we accept the power that God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression, whatever form they may take.  
Now I know that I probably hold some views that some of you will not agree with me on, AND that’s okay.  God still loves each of us, even when we don’t agree politically or theologically.  As we have lifted up prayers for healing, truth, and reconciliation in our broken world, Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser at Discipleship Ministries writes that “the work of healing and reconciliation must start in our religious communities. It begins in our local church communities. But true healing cannot even begin unless we are able to be completely honest with one another. Deep healing, reconciliation, and movement toward unity will not happen if leaders act like Nicodemus and keep their true beliefs hidden in the shadows.”[ii] And doing such is risky and may ruffle some feathers here and there, although we still have this opportunity for new life in Jesus Christ by being born of the Spirit when we are willing to be saved by Jesus regardless of where we stand, but we also need to continue seeking what is true and taking the high road by accepting such power that God gives us.  At the same time,
It is critical that we let the gospel of Jesus Christ speak to our world, not just in the past, but today, and every day, every week, every year, every decade, for every generation until Christ comes in final glory and we feast at his heavenly banquet. Because what is at stake is great. It is greater than any election. It is greater than any worldly success or any worldly failure. What is at stake is life itself.  What Jesus offered Nicodemus was something much greater than anything the world could give him. It is something much greater than anything the world can give us.[iii]

        The Gospel of Jesus Christ is our primary means of resistance to evil, injustice, and oppression.  It helps us tell Satan to take a hike!!  After all, “God did not send [Jesus] into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3:17, NRSV).  Despite acts of evil, injustice, and oppression that may happen around us, we have the good news of a savior in Jesus Christ, and the opportunity to be born of the Spirit when we choose to accept this power that God gives us.  But we also cannot be like Nicodemus and do it in the shadows of darkness, but we all can be open and honest.  We can definitely disagree on what may constitute evil, injustice, and oppression, but we can definitely love each other out of the same love that God has for each of us and for the world.  As we lift up the concerns in our nation and world through our prayers, it’s going to be up to each of us, the body of Christ to keep facilitating the process of telling the truth and working towards healing as we work towards unity.  God so loves the world, God so loves our community, and God so loves each of us so much, broken and messed up as things may be, that God sent his son, Jesus to save us, not condemn us.  As New Testament scholar David Lose explains,
Notice that God does not ask the world if it wishes to be the recipient of God's love. God just goes ahead and loves, and not only loves but gives the world God's only beloved Son over to death. The one who dies for you clearly has a significant claim on you, and John makes that clear. God's love -- surprising, all encompassing, unasked for and undeserved -- is also given unconditionally. God loves us, that is, whether we like it or not. In the face of that kind of love, we will likely either yield to God's love or run away screaming, for no one can remain neutral to such extravagance.[iv]

Like we talked about last week, these vows that we make at our baptism are not a one-time event, but an ongoing part of this journey, and we need each other on this journey.  Nicodemus took a great risk in seeking out Jesus at night and as the body of Christ here in Quincy, let us not be afraid to take a risk or two in sharing the love that God has for this world and our community. Let us not be afraid to talk openly and honestly about the things that affect our nation, world, and even our community as we seek truth.  Whatever the form of evil, injustice, and oppression there is out there, we as the body of Christ can accept the power that God gives us to resist it each and every day that we go along on this journey.  That is our mission together, should we choose to accept it! <>
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the church say, Amen!

[i] "The Year Of Discipleship: Part 2 - Pastor Matt Poole". 2017. Youtube. Accessed March 9 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aT3P9NbkohE.

[ii] Ministries, Discipleship. 2017. "Second Sunday In Lent | Accept — Preaching Notes - Umcdiscipleship.Org". Umcdiscipleship.Org. Accessed March 9 2017. https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/second-sunday-in-lent-accept-preaching-notes.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] "Commentary On John 3:1-17 By David Lose". 2017. Workingpreacher.Org. Accessed March 9 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=903.

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