First Presbyterian of Lafayette, Louisiana

January 23, 2011 – Year A O3

Isaiah 9:1-4

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Matthew 4:12-23


Do you ever feel like you have too much on your plate?  Sometimes life can be like this pile of rocks (picking them up one at a time and placing them in a plastic pitcher). Work… School… Healthcare… Retirement savings… Friends… Social Commitments… Bills… Taking care of your house… Taking care of your children… Taking care of your parents… Taking care of your spouse…  Time to play…


Sometimes that last one doesn't even fit in.  I haven't even mentioned church.  For a lot of folks the church has become one thing in a long list of things, and there just isn't any room for it anymore.  That can make those of us who do not see the church that way feel sad and resentful.  It can even call into question our own feelings of commitment at times. 


The problem is not the other stuff that we compete with.  The problem is that the church is not what it used to be.  In many ways, for many people, the church has become one those rocks, and you just can't fit it in.  What if the church were different?  What if the church was never supposed to be the way we have treated it?  What if the church was less like a rock and more like water (picking up and displaying a pitcher of water).   Perhaps instead of asking where is the church in all of this, a better question is: Where is God in all of this?  God is the ground of all existence, in whom we live and move and have our being. 


Zoe asked me the other day how God could be in heaven and with us on earth at the same time.  In theological terms it is the essential question of transcendence and eminence.  How can God be as far away as the farthest star and as close as our breath?  That is the question much of Isaiah attempts to answer.  How can a people who have been conquered, abused, and neglected believe in the promises of a God who seems absent?


As their spiritual descendants we receive this text in a time following Epiphany, the celebration of enlightenment, the awareness of God's active presence, brought on by the person, work, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  For us, light has come; and this is the light that offers freedom.  Given the connection with Matthew's gospel, many have said that this text is about liberation.


For some, the idea of liberation is the central purpose of the gospel.  Liberation theology is based on the idea that God is concerned only with the poor, for the rich already take care of themselves.  The most confronting aspect of liberation theology for me is not about a God who chooses sides.  It is about the reality of oppression. 


I grew up thinking that oppression was a thing of the past.  I grew up thinking that racism was dealt with in the civil rights movement.  I grew up thinking that slavery was something that was now illegal.  I grew up thinking that the world was a level playing field, and that all anyone needed was initiative (at least in the USA).


The truth of the matter is that oppression exists, human trafficking is more alive than it has ever been, and we can't really talk about liberation without talking about bondage.  I could speak all day about the evils of the world and the role of the church, Western Culture, and globalization.  Arguments could also be made about the benefits of our free and civil society.  The truth is that none of this matters without addressing the bondage within ou


The best way to deal with that is to turn to scripture and ask questions that can only be answered through personal reflection and the actions of our individual and corporate responses.  What I find in scripture, then, is Paul telling the Corinthian church not to be divided by race, creed, or social class.  What I find in the Christian church today is an à la carte menu that people pick and choose from rather than face the difficulty of being in relationships with one another.


Back in Corinth, Paul seems pretty absent minded about baptism, and one would think this is a pretty big deal.  His point is not to take it lightly, given that he later describes it as dying to the self and rising with Christ.  His point is the opposite, to raise the severity of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  Paul is lifting up the reality of God's presence over and above the practice of Christian faith and the tradition of discipleship. 


Then, some time later, as the stories of the experience of Jesus began to be written down, we find this story of calling.  First it is Jesus, called into action by the arrest of John.  Jesus is preaching the good news of repentance that John "the baptizer" began. Yet, Jesus adds something to it.  The Kingdom of Heaven has come near.


Next Peter and Andrew, then James and John drop their nets and follow him.  We do not know if it was a bad month for fishing, if they had heard him preach before, or anything else but the fact that they dropped their nets, their security, their livelihood, even their father to follow this man.  Something in their souls heard, in his invitation, their identity as God's children being proclaimed, and they let go of everything and followed him.


Now this is the point that always gets me.  This is one of those points where the bar is set so high that it becomes a deterrent to putting faith into action.  Sure, there are plenty of examples of people who dropped everything and started up ministries of healing and wholeness in the world, but not everyone can and not everyone should.  So, how do we, with our pitcher full of rocks, hear this call to be fishers of people? 


How do we… in this land of promise and prejudice… this society based on the rule of law that profits from outsourcing to countries with little or no standards… this place of grace and punishment… how do we drop our nets and participate in the foolishness of the cross? 


You probably already know the answer.  The first step is to repent, to turn from our desire to control and manage and turn toward the desires of the heart of God.  Before we can do anything about the poverty and oppression of this world we must attend to the poverty of our own souls.  Then, and only then, do we see others as God's own, holy and beloved.  Once we find our place before God we can see our place in the systems that create oppression or empowerment.


Paul is right that it does not matter who baptizes us; what matters is who we follow.  As the disciples followed Jesus into the Galilee, healing followed repentance.  Once again, this is a point that I have to throw up a caution flag.  I am always inspired by stories of physical and mental healing through prayer.  I believe in the power of prayer, and would never suggest that God cannot heal someone.  Assuming that God decides to heal some and not others can also be dangerous. 

What I believe, what I know, and what I have experienced is that the power of the gospel is not limited by our weakness.  The gospel message we have received today is that God breaks the bonds that hold us back from loving and being loved.  The gift that we have received by hearing the voice of God within our souls and following God's call is the church.  We can see it as a burden to bear or a treasure to protect, but I can tell you that it is neither. 


When the church becomes to us as water, then it is no longer a question of fitting it in.  It simply becomes a part of who we are.  When the water of the church is the same as the baptism we have received, then this building is no longer simply a place to seek God's presence.   This place is instead a rally point that moves us into the world to demonstrate the fact that our limitations do not stop God.


Need I remind you that this worshiping body of 65 people just distributed 500 Christmas baskets to needy families?  Need I remind you that Easter is coming and you have set the bar pretty high for yourself for when we offer baskets again?  Need I remind you that this congregation of old and young, rich and poor, black and white continues to support the U.C.O.'s food pantry with generous donations of peanut butter every month?  Perhaps I should also tell you that although there are people we turn away with tears, unable to help them, we never turn a person away without offering the emergency food baskets you helped create, and many of them take one.


This congregation has a reputation in the community for the strength of its witness because with all our imperfections, we know this: The Kingdom of Heaven has come near.  That means that we are not waiting for eternity to experience God's presence!  We are not allowing our limitations to define our witness, and we are offering a unified witness that Jesus Christ is Lord!


Right now we are a pretty agreeable group, and it is my sincere hope and my belief that others will be moved to join us in this witness.  Paul's words are pretty easy on the ears right now, but they do remind us what we have to watch out for.  Fred Craddock tells a story about a little country church that he served long ago.  This congregation took a stance that did not welcome the working class demographic that had begun to enter their neighborhood.  Years later he returned to find that it had become a BBQ restaurant, and the communion of strangers at table was better than the church had ever imagined. 


When people do come to join us, and they will, we will not be who we are anymore.  If we are to accept and involve new people means that they become a part of us and we become a part of them.  There may be some aspects of our fellowship that will not change; however, our focus, our opportunity, our calling is to proclaim the saving mercy of Jesus Christ through the actions of our lives and the fellowship of our common unity. 


May it be so with me.  May it be so with you, and to God be the glory both now and always. Amen.

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