Today is Palm/Passion Sunday, the last Sunday in the season of Lent. During Holy Week, we will have readings of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. Today we concentrate on the events of Palm Sunday and the lead-up to the arrest of Jesus. What is striking in these stories is how much attention is given to money. As the world would say, “It’s always about the money.” Even when people say it’s not about the money, guess what? It is about the money. Jesus faces death because of his threat to the economic system of the first century. If our fascination with money masks our fear of death, then we can understand that “Jesus was put to death because he embodied a politics that threatened all worldly regimes based on the fear of death.” How are we to apply Jesus’ attack on the economic system of the Temple and the ruling class of Palestine to our current economic malaise? What does the crucifixion have to do with the stock market?
The gospel reading for today has an interesting phrase: "Some said it thundered." God's messages aren't as clear cut as we often think. These days it is not easy to tell faith and American ideology apart. It is not easy to tell if the Christianity that made us Christian is even Christian. In a world where Jesus is constantly used for petty political purposes, we should become more aware of mixed messages and metamessages. If we develop stronger listening skills we may hear a word from God instead of "thunder" and "noise." The epistle lesson from Hebrews says that "Jesus learned through what he suffered." Even in Lent, this is a scary passage. But then again, in a world where churches seemed determined to make Christianity as easy and painless as possible, First Baptist insists on going against the current. We don't wish to make Christianity easy; we want to make it hard. Take heart. Lent is meant for the learning of lessons, and they are a matter of life and death.
Today is the 4th Sunday in Lent. The Old Testament story challenges us with an odd way for God to save people from a plague of poisonous snakes. The New Testament Epistle lesson from Ephesians 2 claims that we are saved by the grace of God. The Gospel lesson from John 3 tells us that God loves us. In a world of snakes, there’s grace and love. Yet we struggle with our own sense of worthiness and place in the world. The prayer of confession that we pray today will sound strange to our ears, but it represents a time when God’s people lived in a deep consciousness of how awful and how sinful they were. Don’t be surprised if the prayer strikes you as “too much,” but don’t be so quick to dismiss the deep sense of confession in the words of the prayer. No one is ever really free from the struggle of trying to be somebody instead of nobody.
In the gospel reading for the Second Sunday in Lent, Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.” What are we to make of Simon Peter, representative of the disciples of Jesus, representative of the church, of all of us, being told that he is “Satan”? In what ways are we capable of being Satan, the ones opposed to the way and purpose and agenda of Jesus? How do we avoid being Satan? The answer Jesus gives can be mouthed by generations of Christians, but it doesn’t mean that we have often been able to actually do as Jesus commands. This text reminds us that no matter how easy the churches try to make Christianity, it is hard to be a Christian.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent. Lent invites us to reflect on our discipleship and identify with Jesus’ journey to the cross. This is truly “take up your cross and follow Jesus” season in the church. The early Sundays are a wilderness time, an opportunity to go deep into our hearts and the souls of our communities, to recognize all the ways we are less than God intends, and to begin to put things right by changing our patterns and practices. The Old Testament lesson offers us the rainbow of hope at the opening of the Lenten season. The New Testament Epistle lesson imagines Jesus preaching to the spirits in prison, locked away since the days of Noah. The Gospel lesson gives us the baptism of Jesus, the public declaration of the ministry that will lead to the cross.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. The Old Testament lesson from 2 Kings depicts Elijah leaving this earth on a fiery chariot. The New Testament Epistle reading from 2 Corinthians has the interesting phrase, “We proclaim (preach) Christ Jesus.” The Gospel lesson shows Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah (Law and prophet). Our focus today is on preaching and the state of preaching in America. Preaching is the primary responsibility of the church and learning to be a preaching church is one of our major challenges.
Today we are considering our expectations when it comes to the teaching of Scripture about faith and healing. The Old Testament lesson from II Kings 5 contains the story of Naaman the leper. Today we are concentrating on Naaman’s expectations of how the prophet would heal him of leprosy. Naaman mixes his political, patriotic, pagan expectations with the presence of the God of Israel. In the New Testament epistle reading from I Corinthians, Paul describes a set of religious expectations that have to do with self-control and discipline. Two sets of expectations built around faith and church give us the opportunity to consider our own expectations.
Today is the Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany. The lectionary reading from Deuteronomy tells us that God sends prophets to tell people the truth. The people are to listen to the prophet and if they refuse, they will be held accountable to almighty God. Any prophet that presumes to speak in the name of God will face a terrible judgment. Even though we often speak with a sense of dead certainty, it is a presumptuous thing to claim we are speaking for God. The reading from I Corinthians contrasts love and knowledge. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” I Corinthians 13 is a good passage to help interpret Paul’s teaching here in I Corinthians 8. The church is filled with those who claim knowledge is everything, as well as those who claim love as emotion, passion, and a deep feeling in the heart for Jesus is everything. Charges and counter-charges fly in the church over knowledge and love. The Gospel reading shows Jesus taking on pure evil and undoing its power. “What is this?” the people ask. “A new teaching – with authority!” Perhaps we are not as smart as we think we are. Then again, maybe we are not as loving as we say we are.
The scripture lessons this morning describe two tales of responding to God’s call. Jonah tries to avoid God and finds himself in the belly of a big fish, but leaves that fish after three days to proclaim a message of repentance to the city of Nineveh, as God had asked. In Mark, Jesus comes upon a group of fishermen, and he also calls them to leave their fish to follow him. They do, and become Jesus’ disciples in proclaiming the kingdom of God. Our attention today is riveted on Jonah and the city. Nineveh was “an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. A preacher and a church can be overwhelmed by such a city, disconnected from so many challenges. How does a church respond to the challenges of the city?
Welcome to First Baptist Church Dayton on the 2nd Sunday of the Epiphany Season. The color is green and our theme for Epiphany is hearing God’s call to bear prophetic witness to our city. Today we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. Dr. King, a modern prophet, standing in the line of Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, John the Baptist, and Jesus, forever changed America for the better. Prophetic witness struggles to find a voice in the church, and many church members would prefer not to have a prophetic witness. Yet God stubbornly keeps calling people to take up the mantle and speak. That happens in the reading from I Samuel 3 – today’s Old Testament Lesson – and it happens in the Gospel reading from John when Jesus calls disciples. Add the reality that “prophets” are listed among the gifts of the Holy Spirit and offices of the church, and we are face-to-face with whether or not First Baptist Church bears prophetic witness. If we are prophetic witnesses, how well are we doing? How do you feel about having a prophetic witness in our midst? Would you rather have easy listening, soft, and undisturbed status quo rather than a meddling, upsetting, demanding prophetic witness?
Scripture speaks to economic upheaval, injustice, and inequity. Can we discern an overall message from Scripture of how God expects rich and poor to relate to one another? The Gospel lesson today allows us to overhear an intimate conversation between two women, and they are not discussing clothing, make-up, or Sex and the City. In fact, they sound much like liberated women of intellectual substance and spiritual insight. Such political and theological words on the lips of women of the first century must surely have scandalized the male-dominated society. Mary and Elizabeth are rejoicing and marveling at the wondrous works of God. The big question for us: Are they talking about us?
A new world is coming. The scripture lessons for today carry a theme of promise and hope. The words of Isaiah speak tender words of comfort along with hope and promise that the Israelites’ time of suffering is over, and a new day is coming. Every valley shall be lifted up. The second letter to Peter emphasizes God’s enduring patience and his earnest desire that all come to repentance. Mark’s gospel focuses on John the Baptist, who was sent to prepare the way for Jesus. In Advent, we remember that all our waiting, yearning, and hoping for God is met by God’s waiting, yearning, and hoping for more of us.
Judgment is a term we rarely associate with freedom. Yet Deborah’s wise judgment and guidance of the unfaithful Israelites ultimately enabled them to be freed from their oppressors. In Matthew’s parable of the talents, the master has harsh judgment for the slave who horded his coin rather than risk investment and growth. Sometimes judgment calls us to honest reflection and frees us to be a people who take risks for the growth and flourishing of the kingdom.
“In contemporary understanding, All Saints commemorates all Christian people of every time and place. ‘The saints’ in New Testament usage refers to Christians collectively, and it is with this biblical understanding that celebration of this day has been rapidly spreading among Protestants in recent years." (from The New Handbook of the Christian Year)
Feeling God's presence and pleasure may sound a bit out of the ordinary for us, but then again, we are talking about the Holy Spirit - a Spirit definitely not under our control. Today we will consider the sincere desire of Moses to experience God's presence and pleasure. Isn't it a natural desire? In what ways do we feel God's presence? What is the capacity for feeling God's presence and pleasure that we possess? What are we to make of God hiding Moses in the cleft of a rock?
The Bible often portrays the fickleness of humanity. Too often the people of God fail to recognize the precious gift of the invitation God extends. In Exodus, while Moses is on Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the Israelites gather gold to fashion a calf idol. They easily fall into worshiping their wealth and the creativity of their own hands. In Matthew’s gospel, a king has extended a gracious invitation to an abundant wedding banquet, but having no sense of the value of the invitation, the guests do not come. In Philippians, Paul is confined to prison, and he encourages people in their worry by assuring them that the peace of God is near if they are willing to receive it.
World Communion Sunday - celebrated the first Sunday in October - is one of the most venerable of "special Sundays." The day has taken on new relevancy and depth of meaning in a world where globalization often has undermined peace and justice - and in a time when fear divides the peoples of God's earth. On this day we celebrate our oneness in Christ, the Prince of Peace, in the midst of the world we are called to serve - a world ever more in need of peacemaking. World Communion Sunday (originally called World Wide Communion Sunday) originated in the Presbyterian Church (USA). In 1936, for the first time, the first Sunday in October was celebrated in Presbyterian churches in the United States and overseas. From the beginning, it was planned so that other denominations could make use of it and, after a few years, the idea spread beyond the Presbyterian Church. The Department of Evangelism of the Federal Council of Churches (a predecessor body of the National Council of Churches) was first associated with World Wide Communion Sunday in 1940 when the department's executive secretary, Jesse Bader, led in its extension to a number of churches throughout the world. Today, efforts to promote World Communion Sunday are carried out by participating denominations, including the American Baptist Churches USA. (from www.ncccusa.org)
Wrestling with authority is an ongoing crisis. Over the last two hundred years, the loci of authority has frequently changed. At one time the church was the center of authority. Then the institution was replaced by a book - the Bible. Today, authority is rooted more often in the individual - in how we feel, perceive, and decide in our own hearts and minds. The idea of individual authority can be a little scary. And yet even in church, we tend to cry, "Don't tell us what to do!" In today’s lesson from Exodus, the Israelites challenge Moses’ authority over them because their needs aren't being met in the wilderness under his leadership. In Matthew’s gospel, the chief priests question Jesus’ authority as he teaches in the temple. The lesson from Philippians orients disciples to a new way of being—that they take on the mind of Christ. In this, Paul argues that every knee will bend and every tongue confess the authority of Jesus as Lord. The church is one place where people may wrestle honestly, openly with issues of authority.
Both scripture lessons today portray the people of God grumbling against God. In Exodus, the Israelites have been released from slavery, but in the midst of the desert wilderness, they long for the security and routine of their life in Egypt. In Matthew, Jesus tells the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, each of whom is paid the same daily wage despite having worked a different number of hours. In both Exodus and Matthew, the frustration of God’s people is met with God’s generosity and provision, as God rains manna on the Israelites and reminds the laborers that their anger grows out of his generosity, not any injustice they themselves have received. God's generosity faces human greed.
The God of scripture is one that encounters us in community, even if that community is frail and complex. The gospel lesson gives guidance for how to live faithfully in the midst of community. The people of God are called to authentic listening, honest candor, and empathy. Yet we struggle with forgiveness. It sounds so matter-of-fact on the lips of Jesus, but we usually find the road to forgiveness riddled with pot holes, detours, and dead ends. And what does Paul mean when he says, “Welcome the weak.” Who are the weak among us? And do they feel welcome?
Have you ever considered that the writings contained within the Bible were largely generated out of conflict? Our Gospel Lesson for today is a prime example of scripture that indicates that there was/is/will be some kind of conflict; and where there is conflict, a decision/judgment has to be made in order for it to be resolved. Often scriptures like this can sound harsh in passing judgment (and sometimes they really are as harsh as they sound), but we must always remember that the goal is always to keep us together; not tear us apart by casting people out. For all of our judgments, we must remember Jesus’ assertion that it is not the will of our Father in heaven that one…should be lost. Not one.
The call of God to Moses in Exodus 3 raises the question of how God communicates with us. In what sense are we called? Does God only call preachers and missionaries? What does being called have to do with our sense of vocation? By what authority does one claim to be called to speak for God? In the Gospel text Jesus makes it clear that his calling is a calling "unto death." Peter objects so much that Jesus calls him, "Satan," and "a stumbling block" to the purpose of God. Then Jesus calls all of his followers to a life that is "unto death" but yet leads to life. Perhaps it is not such a bad idea to have serious questions when God calls.
The Gospel text claims that Peter is the rock upon which Jesus will build his church. More has been written about this text than any other biblical text. Putting aside the interminable debates about whether it is Peter or the faith of Peter that is the rock, let us consider how we are responsible to build on the rock so that the gates of hell will not destroy the church. The Romans passage gives us practices designed to withstand the assaults of hell and to build the church. The Exodus reading shows us how two women stand up to the power representative of evil with an act of civil disobedience.
Today is the 9th Sunday after Pentecost and the color of the season is green. The Old Testament lesson shows the vulnerability and pain in the relationship between Joseph and his brothers. In fact, every person or group in this ancient story is vulnerable and somehow we are to believe that this vulnerability is a good thing. We really struggle with being vulnerable because we have grown up in a country that promotes a power that makes us invulnerable - the Superman, Captain America syndrome. We often play our cards close to the vest, with that poker face, that refusal to commit, to go all in, to show our feelings. We are the strong, silent individual, captain of our own fate, in charge people. The story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew's gospel shows how desperate need makes a person vulnerable. When our child's life is at stake, we don't think about standing alone, or standing on protocol, or dignity, or anything else in the world. We are willing to be completely unmasked, and we will ask anything of anyone. What if vulnerability is a good thing and we need more of it if we are to have actual relationships with God and with one another?
Today is the 7th Sunday after Pentecost. In the reading from Genesis, Jacob struggles with God, and we are reminded that we too are limping into the future struggling over our understandings of God, faith, church, and nation. In the reading from the Psalms, the psalmist cries to the Lord, "Weigh my heart." What an interesting concept that God, with the scales of justice and mercy, can weigh our hearts to discover if we are a people with big hearts. The reading from Romans 9 is a gut-wrenching prayer of a man broken-hearted for his people: "I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart," prays St. Paul. The passage from Matthew shows, on the one hand, a group of disciples who are paralyzed by a sense of scarcity and a Savior who demonstrates abundance. All of these readings can be gathered into the question, "How Big Is Our Heart?"
This is the 6th Sunday after Pentecost in Ordinary Time. The reading from Romans 8 promises that the Holy Spirit is present in our weakness. In other words, our every day lives, with all the complications, all the missteps, all the confusion, is surrounded by the presence of God. The reading from Matthew's Gospel reminds us that the kingdom of God exists in the most ordinary ways: a mustard seed, yeast for bread, hidden treasure, a merchant trying to make a living, and a net cast by a fisherman. While we often get caught up in the macroscopic issues and yearn for radical change to systems that are destroying the world, we lend our bodies and minds to a number of efforts and causes that seek such changes. Yet in today's lessons from the Scripture, we are asked to consider that the locus of our energies and visions for projects that will change the world can only be nourished in the "textures of relational care for the radical ordinary." In today's sermon Dr. Kennedy will ask us to struggle with the intense efforts of attention, nurture, and struggle that is required for us to live out our Christian witness in the radical ordinary, the liturgies of every day.
Today's off-lectionary Gospel Lesson is Matthew 20:1-16. In this parable, the landowner (i.e., God) is seen by many as unfair, paying every worker the same wage regardless of the amount of work each has done. Does this image of God offend you? Is God unfair? Perhaps the kingdom of heaven (i.e., the kingdom of God) has less to do with fairness and more to do with God's generosity...
The church year now moves into a period which gradually becomes "ordinary time" because there are no great festivals of the faith for which we are preparing or from which we continue to draw specific spiritual insight. This season of the church year, however, is sometimes called "After Pentecost" and reminding us that there is much to be gained by "walking in the spirit." Let no one grow “weary in well doing”, but instead let us use this time for renewal of our relationship with the Risen Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Today we celebrate Pentecost (the Greek word for the “fiftieth day”). The origins of Pentecost reach back to the Jewish festival of Shavout, which fell fifty days after the Passover. Shavout is connected to the season of the grain harvest, and also to God’s giving of the law on Mt. Sinai. Both of these seasons evoke joy and gratitude for the presence of God in the people Israel. Pentecost marks a new season of joy and gratitude as the Church is filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit fifty days after Easter. The children and youth of First Baptist Church carry streamers in the procession which represent the holy flames of Pentecost.
Today is Ascension Sunday. The concern of the early church was with how Jesus would continue to be present after he ascended to heaven. Jesus promises to give his people the Holy Spirit. He also gave his church worship that includes word and table. Preaching has been called the Protestant sacrament, and this is true. More than that, Baptists need to struggle with whether or not we have made a theological mistake in excluding the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament that should occur each Sunday with the preaching of the word. Word and table make for wholeness in worship. One without the other seems something less than what Jesus intends for his church. While we are not considering the celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Communion every Sunday at FBCD, let us at least give our serious attention to whether or not we are allowing our celebration of the Lord’s Supper to have the depth of meaning and significance that it deserves on the first Sunday of each month.
Paul's preaching before the philosophers at Athens is a remarkable sermon because he never talks about Jesus. Does this strike us as odd? Aren't we supposed to bear witness to Jesus? What does this suggest to us about talking to others in a secular world? Should we pay more attention to the audience than our message? Should we adapt our message to meet the audience? If so, how do we make sure we are being faithful to the Gospel? In our culture, there's a sense that smart people no longer believe in God. Indeed, some of the brightest people in the world identify themselves as atheists. How do we preach the gospel to smart people?
What does it mean to be a Church? Our scriptures reflect on this question. The lesson from Acts describes the martyrdom of Stephen, which reminds us of the ultimate meaning of "faithful witness." In the John’s gospel, Jesus describes himself as the way, the truth, and the life, as he invites his disciples to participate in the way. In 1 Peter, the church is pictured as stones who will be gathered and bound together for the building of a spiritual house—the Church. Peter's astounding claims are welcome words in our time: Chosen, race, royal priesthood, holy nation, God's own people. Churches are not simply bricks, stained glass, and pews. Churches are not just architecture but an assembly of God's people. The stones of the ruined Coventry Cathedral, pictured on the cover of today's bulletin (the rebuilt cathedral stands next to these ruins), continue to cry out in living testimony to cross and resurrection.
When it comes to our questions and experiences of the risen Christ, many of us can identify with the disciple, Thomas, popularly known as “Doubting Thomas.” It was a challenge for Thomas to believe in a resurrected Jesus with no evidence, save the testimony of the other disciples; and it is a challenge for us to do the same. Thomas wanted evidence, he wanted proof; and honestly so do we. Thomas got his proof. And although Jesus tells Thomas and all who read John’s gospel that “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe,” many of us still want our proof. So where is the evidence, the proof? What gives us the confidence to say, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”?
“Despite our earnest efforts, we couldn’t climb all the way up to God. So what does God do? In an amazing act of condescension, on Good Friday, God climbs down to us, becomes one with us. The story of divine condescension begins on Christmas and ends on Good Friday. We thought, if there is to be business between us and God, we must somehow get up to God. Then God came down to the level of the cross, all the way down to the depths of hell. God still stoops in your life and mine. Condescends.” (WilliamWillimon, Thank God It's Friday). The Gospel has a downward direction. In Philippians we read, Jesus "emptied himself." In Ephesians we read that Jesus descended to the lower parts of the earth. This downward direction has always been tough on upwardly mobile folks like us.
Christians believe in the power of God to breathe life into places of death. The scripture lessons today testify to God’s transformative power. In Ezekiel, the people of Israel are grieving. Jerusalem has fallen, and they feel hopeless in the face of death. But the passage of the dry bones is God’s promise that they will be restored—the skeletons will take on flesh and be brought to health and vigor. The story in John’s gospel of the resurrection of Lazarus is also a story of new life. Lazarus was dead for four days, and yet Jesus called him out of the tomb, in a foreshadowing of Easter morning.
The woman at the well in Samaria offers such a picture of the sheer compassion of Jesus. Chances are the woman at the well is completely bereft of all female companionship. She comes to the well at noon – alone. The other women of the village came to the well early in the morning – for conversation, for recreation, for gossip, to complain about their husbands. In a community of outsiders, people excluded from the people of God, this woman was an outsider to them. She was triply an outsider: a woman, a Samaritan, and a Samaritan woman excluded by her own people. Does the church need a season of Lent to consider all the ways that we create outsiders? Should we repent of all the ways we have excluded people from our little groups as far back as elementary school? More importantly, can we feel the total lack of judgment in the words of Jesus: “You have been married five times and the man you now live with is not your husband.” The church has a sorry record in all matters sexual, and this story at least forces it into the open where repentance is a possibility.
In the second Sunday of Lent, the scripture lessons emphasize faith and obedience. In Genesis God calls Abraham from his home to be a blessing to the earth. He follows this command, even in the face of uncertainty. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again. Perhaps no biblical teaching has been more misunderstood than the theology of being “born again”. Jesus teaches Nicodemus, though he’s a leader among the Pharisees, he does not yet understand true obedience which grows from loving trust in the living God. There is always a radical obedience attached to being “born again”. To miss that is to have an emotional experience without substance or meaning.
Today is the First Sunday in Lent. The liturgical color for Lent is purple. The Genesis passage and the Gospel passage demonstrate that the game plan of temptation never changes. What is at stake is whether or not we possess the practices to overcome temptation. Adam – Every Man – and Eve – Every Woman - fail the test. They allow suspicion, mistrust, and bad choices to disrupt life and turn it upside down. Jesus– the New Adam and Eve– resists temptation and thus points in the direction that God always intends our lives to go.
Beauty is more than superficial. To reduce beauty to the pretty, the merely decorative, or the inoffensive pleasant makes of it a visual sophistry. On this the 8th Sunday after the Epiphany, we will consider the advent of beauty as the declaration of God’s goodness and glory, and to see, in the attractiveness of the beautiful, that creation is invited to partake of that goodness and beauty. “Consider the lilies of the field!”
Last Sunday, we suggested that the church can't exist without confession. Failure to confess shuts us off from truth. Today, we are commanded by Jesus to be perfect. Of all the commands in the Bible, surely this is the one that we automatically shrug away: "Nobody's perfect," we say. What if we are wrong? What if perfect has little to do with moral sinlessness and everything to do with forgiveness? This means we are now captured in the possibility that perfection has everything to do with confession and forgiveness within the context of the church.
Jesus says, "Don't swear at all!" He's not talking about common cussing, but about learning how to tell the truth in a world of lies. Our problem, in the world of "truthiness," is not being able to tell when "Yes" means "Yes." In the movie, A Few Good Men, Colonel Jessup, testifying in court, snarls, "You can't handle the truth." Is that it? Ill-equipped, untrained in the truth, we have settled to live in a world of partial truths, a world where even regulating advertising doesn't stop the lies. We use words like weapons to accomplish nefarious purposes. We twist words into gnarled pine knots to hurl at our enemies. Somewhere there's been a pact signed with the "father of lies." That means folks believe they have been given permission to lie. But Jesus says, "Be careful with how we use words, language, and arguments." No scheming. No subtle use of words to establish superiority. "To learn to speak truthfully to one another requires that we learn to speak truthfully to God, that is, we must learn to pray."
Today is the 5th Sunday After The Epiphany. In Isaiah 58:1-12, the prophet makes it clear that righteousness involves more than pious practices, such as fasting. In fact, Isaiah redefines fasting as justice-making: loosing the bonds of injustice, freeing the oppressed, sharing bread with the hungry and our homes with the homeless poor. Isaiah's words conflict with all those who would divorce faith from justice. For the prophet, justice-making is a spiritual practice.
Today is the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany and the liturgical color is green. In the Sermon on the Mount, we see the church performing at her best. Jesus names as “blessed” those who are part of his faithful, witnessing community—those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, pure in heart, peacemakers, and those who suffer persecution. Here we discover how a community of faith is different from the world. Contrast the beatitudes of Jesus with the beatitudes of the world: Happy are the pushers: for they get what they want. Happy are the hard-boiled: for they never let life hurt them. Happy are the complainers: for they get their own way in the end. Happy are the slave-drivers: for they get bottom line results. Happy are the trouble-makers: for people have to take notice of them. Happy are the successful: they get all the trophies.
Ask any sort of church member if she is following Jesus and the answer will be "yes!" Yet, look at the church divided, fragmented, and confused. How can everyone be following Jesus when so many of us are going off in all directions. "Is Christ divided?" asks Paul in our New Testament Epistle lesson. For Paul, the answer is "Of course not!" When it comes to us, we are not so sure. The gospel reading tells the story of Peter, Andrew, James and John leaving home and job to follow Jesus. What can it possibly mean in our ambiguous world to follow Jesus? What is all our talk about choosing and freedom turns out to be an illusion? What if following Jesus turns out to be a particular kind of following rooted in peace?
This is the second Sunday in the season of Epiphany. The liturgical color is green. We are also celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. Dr. King was America's prophet. He stands in the line of the great prophets of the Old Testament. He dreamed of an America that could be better than it was. Some portions of his dream have been fulfilled. Yet we are a pilgrim people and we keep having to fight battles we thought were already won. There is an atmosphere of violence in our country and rather than pointing fingers or trying to gain political advantage, the church needs to trumpet a deep and lasting commitment to non-violence. This is much more difficult than "playing nice" or having a more polite dialogue. This is the tough, prophetic work of changing a culture's propensity for violence. Our calling is to participate in the work of God. As we pay tribute to America's prophet, let us commit our lives to a better America.
Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. The liturgical color is white. All Sundays that center of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus use white as the color of the day. Perhaps Jesus showing up at the Jordan River and asking to be baptized is one of the most shocking events in the New Testament. There are so many questions surrounding the baptism of the Lord. Yet this event is also filled with meaning for us. Today we will not only consider the baptism of Jesus, but also remember our own baptism, and invite others to come to the waters and be baptized.
The Christian calendar is centered around three great festivals of faith: Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas. None of them are celebrated in a single day. Rather they usher in seasons of the soul in which we are called to meditate on the great spiritual truths they announce. In some traditions, today would be known as the "Second Sunday of Christmas." However, we are also reminded that Epiphany (January 6) often passes without notice. So the Common Lectionary, with appropriate scripture passages, invites us to celebrate Epiphany in advance. The word "Epiphany" literally means "a light shining through." Although the coming of the Magi to worship Christ as a young child is central in the observance, Epiphany focuses on our need to receive new insight about our faith.