Sermon: Dear Norah

Today’s sermon is an open letter to Pastor Joe Gunby’s goddaughter, Norah Valentine, who was baptized during the service …

I have a story to tell you. A story of great distance and starlight. A story of deep delight. It’s a story that begins in a place beyond time …

Sermon: “Dear Norah”

“Dear Norah”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
1 Corinthians 3: 1-9
February 17, 2019

Sermon: The Gift of Being Thunderstruck

“The Gift of Being Thunderstruck”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Job 37: 1-5
Feb. 21, 2016

The Word In Song

 Sermon

“In the midst of life I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the path.” These are the words with which Dante begins The Divine Comedy, and they are true to each of our lives.  We can wake up where we had no intention of going and find ourselves disoriented among the shadows, feeling lost, just groping our way from moment to moment.  Unexpectedly, however, those places of darkness can be the places where we are more apt to encounter God at work in our lives.  And sometimes that presence is announced by flashes of intuition or an awareness that we are not alone. We call these times “light bulb moments,” or “a-ha moments” Moments of clarity when we have hope for new direction or new insight.

In ancient times, the voice of God was often associated with lightning and thunder, as the passage from Job clearly illustrates. Since our forebears in faith were much more capable than we of appreciating the poetry of scripture, they conveyed the majesty and power of God through the metaphor of the storm. The voice of God thunders; the wisdom of God blazes like lightning. And we who are observers of it, or more likely participants in it, experience momentary flashes of intuition, have our imaginations awakened, and find ourselves enlightened.  We can be thunderstruck!

Mia’s baptism is one of those opportunities to be thunderstruck and we have experienced it together today. Her baptism reminds us that even in times of darkness, there is light, a light that the darkness cannot overcome.  This is something worth remembering, for we can easily forget when we are in the midst of turmoil or crisis, that above it, beneath it, within it, and around it the light of God is always present. The psalmist says “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Ps. 139)

The Sacrament of Holy Baptism can give us a template for traversing the dark wood of our lives and show us where to find light in the darkness that surrounds us.  First of all, baptism is not a private; it is corporate. We don’t baptize ourselves; none of us stands alone, not even at this first moment when we come before the baptismal font.  Chad and Jamie stood here today to speak for Mia before she can speak for herself. They took serious vows for her. And you as well, as the congregation that will nurture her and watch her grow, took vows and answered questions too. We are all in this together.

We often refer to our growth and maturing in faith as a journey, one filled with twists and turns, some not of our own making. These surprises often come from the sources identified in the questions of baptism. The language of the liturgy may seem antiquated, but it comes from ancient ritual, and is designed to move us, to give us that moment of insight that shows us the way of life. Questioning characterizes baptism just as it characterizes our journey of faith.

The first question asks “do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?” We don’t talk much any more about wickedness, much less sin. We use words from law or from medicine to describe a whole range of behaviors that characterize our fallibility as human beings and some of the ways we can get lost. But we know what is being asked – will you do your best to walk in the light, find your way out of the darkness, turn from what is destructive and evil for yourself, for your community, or for your world?

We also ask the question “will you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” These issues have forced many people and groups of people into a dark place, and our calling is to find our way through it and to help as many others as we can to find their own way. Resisting evil and injustice and oppression isn’t easy; it sometimes means doing unpopular things, standing against the crowd or the culture; seeing the light in a different place from where the majority is looking, and moving toward it even if it means moving alone for a while.

The last question asked is for a confession of Christ as savior, and a surrendering in trust to Christ’s grace rather than depending on our own wit and ability.  That’s hard to do, maybe the hardest thing to do, because it’s about ego, and about control.  We like to keep our options open, so we wait for the next grand idea, we put qualifications on how far we will trust, how far we will go.  Like Job, who demanded answers from God, we want to go one on one with God to debate the questions and argue the answers.  And if we’re not careful, we can spend our whole lives going round and round in this dark wood looking for the next best answer, never hearing the thunder, never seeing the light because we are too busy talking and listening only to ourselves to notice it.

Baptism serves as a template for our journey through the dark wood not only with its questions, but also with its affirmations. In baptism, God makes promises to us just as we do to God. We know sometimes we are not so great with keeping our promises, but we have the assurance that even when our love fails, God’s does not. We can, as the old hymn says, “stand on the promises of God.”

Today also Mia’s identity as a child of God was proclaimed, and in her baptism we are all reminded that we belong to God and God knows our name; we have been claimed by God whose steadfast love will never let us go, will never forsake us, never forget us.  Like Martin Luther, we too can claim during our dark and difficult times, “I am baptized,” and this truth can give us strength and courage that it gave him to continue on.

As much as we might hope for Mia today a life uncomplicated by darkness and shadow, a life only full of joy and success and happiness, we know that is not the reality of life. Even as an infant, she already knows that life has its ups and downs – an unchanged diaper, an empty tummy, an unreachable toy, waking in the dark  – can all be cause for tears of frustration, fear, anger, sadness, loneliness.   And she has already learned that her mom and dad and brother – not to mention her grandparents and other family –  will respond to her cries of distress; they are there for her.

And we are there too as her church family. We are all familiar with the saying “it takes a village to raise a child,” but honestly, doesn’t it take a village throughout our lives?  Is there anyone of us who can forever and always go it alone, never needing anyone or anything, capable always of providing for our needs, and not willing or able or even aware of asking for help?

There will be times in Mia’s life as there have been and are in our own lives when she will be asked to choose between the darkness and the light and when she will need to find the courage to renounce the powers of this world and to follow the promise of grace and love offered by Christ.

And maybe in one of those times she will remember something – remember you, remember something you said, or did, and then she’ll know what to do.  Following Christ is not an easy road; and she will need our support along the way just as we need each other. We can be thankful today that Mia is part of a community of people who have stood and taken a vow before God to support her in her life in Christ. We can be thankful that she is a part of a community that will pray the questions with her for a long, long time. So she will know that through good days and through dark days, ordinary ones and extraordinary ones that God’s promises are forever, that she is God’s child, known, beloved and celebrated, and that she never walks alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: “God’s Child Now”

God’s Child Now
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Dec. 28, 2014
Luke 2:22-40 and Galatians 4:4-7

The birth of a child is an occasion that calls forth family, religious, and social traditions. Announcements are sent; sometimes a rose is placed on the altar or communion table in honor of the child’s birth; in some families a baptismal gown is handed down from generation to generation; parents bring the child to the church for baptism. There is something about bringing an infant or small child to the place of worship, and there offering the child to God and receiving God’s blessing in return.

In Luke’s gospel that we just heard, Jesus’ parents responded to his birth by attending to the religious obligations of their Jewish faith. Their ancestral traditions were a reminder to them that Jesus was born into the covenant established between God and God’s people Israel. Since the time of the Exodus, the first born son was to be given to God, and was to belong to God in a special way and dedicated to serving God.   When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple, Luke’s first audience would have remembered another mother who took her son to the temple. Hannah, who had been unable to have children, prayed for a son, and she vowed that she would give him to God for all his days. And so after Samuel was born, she brought him to the temple and “lent” him to God for life, and he would grow up to be the high priest, the one who chose and anointed David as the King.

Thus, when Joseph and Mary present Jesus to God in Jerusalem, they are in effect consecrating his life to God’s service. The angel Gabriel had told Mary that her son would be “holy” and called the “Son of God,” thus this story sets the stage for Jesus’ life to be devoted fully to God. And Luke tells us at the end of today’s reading that from the earliest of days, Jesus grew in wisdom and was favored by God.

Two thousand years have passed, and today Emily and Ryan have brought Cara for baptism. And although separated by centuries, and indeed by our understanding of God that has been revealed to us in Mary and Joseph’s son, there are similarities we can note that draw us together in very special ways with our spiritual ancestors.

First, of course, we share a sense of identity. In the epistle reading that Sharon read earlier, Paul says we are “adopted sons and daughters of God,” and since we are sons and daughters, we are God’s children now, and heirs through God.   When we are born, we enter into our individual families, and when we are baptized, we enter into the larger family of faith. It is this family then that helps us hold on to our true identity as God’s child, when a multitude of external forces bend and shape us this way and that – things like what we do, where we go to school, who we know, or where we live.

Martin Luther is said to have reminded himself in times of despair, “I am baptized.” By stating his true identity, he was able to restore balance and proper perspective in stressful times. Perhaps for all of us, when nothing else seems to be going right on any given day, we can at least remind ourselves that we are baptized, that we are part of something much larger, much deeper, and much richer than ourselves that will outlast our current difficulties.

Second, we also share the need for community. Joseph and Mary took Jesus to a public place, the temple, and there they were encountered by Simeon and Anna, both of whom had been waiting for that day. Simeon held Jesus in his arms, and thanked God for the opportunity to see this child. Anna praised God and told everyone around her about the baby.

Earlier, you as Cara’s church family, took vows to live “according to the example of Christ,” and to” surround her with a community of love and forgiveness.” You are the Simeons and Annas of Cara’s life; the ones who will see how special she is; who will smile with welcome when she comes to Sunday School, and who will encourage her and show her how she too may grow in wisdom and in favor with God.

Baptism is a community undertaking, not a private event; it is a welcoming service. We are saying “this is your family; this is your home.” But what has been done here this morning is not simply a lone Sunday morning event because faith is a lifelong process of learning and growth. All of us are still learning, still growing. And our purpose here is to nurture, challenge, and deepen one another’s faith through our shared communion with one another. Together we develop our vision, our mission, our values, and our identity as children of God. And in difficult times, when any one of us has trouble remembering our core identity, our relationship with one another reminds us of our relationship with God, and reminds us that we are never without family.

Finally, we share an attitude of hope. Anna tells anyone who will listen that the redemption of Israel is near and Simeon thanks God that through many years of waiting he has finally seen God’s salvation. We believe too in the hope given to us through the Christ child. This hope allows us to testify that through Christ, God has given us the tomorrow that makes it possible for us to endure all that has happened to us yesterday. Life is not a simple straight journey from point A to point B. It holds many twists and turns, some doubling back, and repeating. But through its meandering path, we have the hope that we affirm each time we celebrate our other sacrament, the Lord’s Supper, and we say Christ has died – which admits that yesterday was pretty terrible; Christ is risen – but things have turned around now; Christ will come again – a great tomorrow awaits us. . With baptism we are connected to Christ and we receive the power and hope for all our tomorrows, a hope we are called to remember for ourselves and to share with others.

Today is a special day; Cara was named and claimed as a child of God. We welcome her to a journey that will take her whole life. Today wasn’t the end; it marked the beginning of God’s work in her life.   The God who claimed her before she can understand, gives us and gives her hope for a future that is known only to God. What God will make of her, we do not know. Where God will take her, how God will surprise her, we cannot say. But this one thing we know for sure – just as Mary and Joseph knew about their own son that day so long ago in the temple – the God who has given Cara this promise today will be faithful to her throughout her life and beyond. In all times and in all things, God is with her and will be with her always. Thanks be to God.

Sermon: Freed for Service

Freed for Service
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Matthew 20:20-28, Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Sept. 28, 2014

 Audio not available for this sermon.

For the past several weeks we have explored what it means to be the people of God, using some of Paul’s letters to the early churches that were also trying to figure out who they were, who they should become, and what they should do. In Ephesians Paul claims that it takes imagination, allowing the Spirit of God to work in us and gently lead us to dream and to envision beyond where we have been or where we are now to where God is leading us to be. In Philippians he states that it takes compassion, the willingness to draw close to another and to enter in to their situation. And in Romans he writes that it takes creative maladjustment, the ability not only to define and call out what is wrong, but also to be able to live into the solution even when it is uncomfortable, inconvenient, and difficult.

In the letter to the Galatians, Paul tells this little church that it takes asserting the freedom given to them by Christ. This is a particular kind of freedom. Not the freedom of autonomy, of self-rule, to do whatever they want to do, free from the restraints of anybody or any law; not a freedom they have won through their own efforts or their own merit. But it is the gift of freedom; the freedom to serve, to give up autonomy for the sake of others. Freedom to love and to be in relationship and to act responsibly towards others.

That’s a hard sell. It is countercultural now; it was counter cultural then. Two up and coming disciples, James and John, had all kinds of leadership potential. You could just ask their mother! And in case Jesus hadn’t fully recognized her boys’ potential, she went to Jesus to ask an itsy bitsy favor. And he was nice enough to listen to her request. Then she laid it on him – “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Upward mobility! Promotion to the head of the class! Be first in line! It must have seemed like a good time for the request because Jesus was headed towards Jerusalem and would soon make his move and put his plan into action, so it’s now or never to take the opportunity before Peter and the others made their own claims for leadership positions. After all, they believe, there’s not a lot of room at the top; there won’t be enough glory to go around, so they’d better get theirs first. James and John had spent a lot of time with Jesus; they’d left their family and work behind to be his disciples. Using their mama as their spokesperson, they were looking forward to the payback. Their unspoken question was “What’s in it for me?”

And Jesus answer was not what they anticipated. “You do not know what you are asking . . . Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” “To drink the cup” is a colloquial expression, an idiom that was used occasionally in the Old Testament to refer to accepting one’s inevitable destiny. In other words, to drink the cup would be to accept the same fate that Jesus was about to accept—his self-emptying, sacrificial love, giving his own life for others. Jesus would later use the same phrase in the Garden of Gethsemane when he struggled to accept his imminent death, and prayed to God: “remove this cup from me.”

Also, in Jesus’ time, baptism meant more than the cleansing of sin and the renewal of life that it has come to mean for us. It literally meant being overwhelmed, drowning, dying to the old life before rising to the new. When Jesus spoke of his coming baptism, he was referring to his death on the cross. The baptism into which he was baptized was the burial of the old world with its obsession with power and prestige and position – Just what James and John were after – and the rising of God’s reign of justice, generosity, and joy.

Jesus spelled it out for all of the disciples, “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you, must be your slave.” To have honor and privilege in the kingdom of God means being a servant. Leaders sacrifice, give themselves away for others. Leaders drink the cup; get to be baptized; get to die.

This is what Paul is trying to teach the Galatians who didn’t understand any better than the disciples did. Freedom is not about moving to the head of the line, be first, being in charge, making all the decisions. Freedom comes through servanthood. Freedom comes through loving and helping others. It is being liberated from the prison of the self, to be able to act and to move beyond the self into the risk of love and the gift of service without thought of status, power or safety. Just the opposite of what we have been taught by the world to believe.

What does this mean for us today as Oconee Street United Methodist Church, to this relatively small band of disciples trying to be faithful here in this corner of God’s world? What does it mean for us as we try to discern where God is leading us in this new phase of our lives together ? A couple of things come to mind.

And it starts close to home. Before we can serve folks out there – in whatever mission effort we as individuals or as a church seem to fit our gifts and graces and abilities, we have to serve one another. Paul stresses the difference between a life of selfishness and a life of selflessness and how we can choose to be led by the Spirit or be entrapped by the desire to get our own way all the time. I am truly thankful for how our building committee, our church council, and our congregation acting as a church conference, as well as in all our other interactions with one another, we have been able to work through various issues with love and with patience. There have been times of stress, times of disagreement, times of misunderstanding, but as I read Paul’s letter I can see evidences of what he calls the fruit of the Spirit at work in you, and I give God thanks for it. Beth read earlier (from The Message) what this looks like: affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity, a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. He says, “We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”

JoBeth said it best in the poem she wrote and read to us on Friday night:

We are comfortable with who we are, comfortable in our skin,
Comfortable even when we are uncomfortable
Because we can dialogue through adversity
Because we are a family with ties stronger
Than political, theological, or even budget disagreements.
We are the hands, feet, and body of Christ.
We experience God’s love and try to live it
By listening to each other,
By listening to the cries of those in need
By stepping in and stepping aside.

This kind of commitment to each other enables us then to move out of our doors and into the community as we look at ways to be the body of Christ for the world. This love that we share, this desire to serve rather than be served opens our hearts and minds to find ways to make a difference, to be, whether we verbalize it this way or not, the tangible embodiment of God’s unconditional love. I don’t know anyone in this church who would respond as one member of an Atlanta Presbyterian church is reported to have said that he was willing to be of service anytime at all as long as what he was asked to do did not involve physical effort, financial aid, or moral support!

Next week we will have our Missions Fair. As the time gets closer, I am getting more excited about it. We will have the opportunity to re-visit some of the representatives who have spoken to us throughout the past year; we will meet some new people who will bring information about other areas of service, and we will be reminded of what our church is doing through our United Methodist Women and United Methodist Men’s groups to make a difference in the lives of people near and far. I hope that your imagination will be kindled and you will find something that you would like to give yourself to.

I believe that God made us as one human family and that we are bound to one another in God’s heart and mind, so that the need of the other becomes our own need and the suffering of another is in a real sense our own suffering. The writer Frederick Buechner has said that “if you have not cried for someone other than yourself in the last year, then the chances are you are already dead.”

Crying is a good place to start, but then it’s time to actually do something to make whatever has touched our hearts better. As Paul says, the only thing that matters is faith working in love as freedom and responsibility work together in our lives individually and as a church.

Even though our cultures tells us that we have to beware of giving too much of ourselves away, If you’ve ever volunteered for anything, you know as well as I do, that you sometimes feel that you have received much more than you have given. It seems like a contradiction, but when our aim is to serve, we find we are being served. It really is true that we receive more when we concentrate on giving. And that is what Jesus showed James and John and you and me – how to receive by giving, how to lead by serving, and how to find our lives by losing them for the sake of the people around us that God loves so much. Thanks be to God. Amen.