Pentecost, Year B, 2009

This is my final sermon in this pulpit.  How can I do these four years justice?  I could write an epic poem about how much I love this congregation.  I could write and perform a one-woman musical about how wonderful you are.  Or, I could preach from the lectionary text.  Preaching from the lectionary text is not glamorous, but it is how I have preached every Sunday and it just feels right to do that now.

Today we celebrate Pentecost-we remember that day, years ago, when a bunch of terrified disciples gathered in the upper room and suddenly felt the Holy Spirit pour upon them.

But even before that day, Jesus prepared his disciples for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Today’s Gospel reading is a continuation of the long speech in the Gospel of John that we’ve been reading the last few weeks.  Last week, Chuck gave us the background-Jesus gave this speech because his disciples were very anxious about Jesus’ death.  They did not want him to go.  They definitely did not want him to die.

Jesus is orienting the disciples to what life is going to be like after he is gone.  Jesus tells them his Father will send the Holy Spirit to them. The Greek word that John uses here is paraclete, which can be translated as comforter or helper, but here is translated as advocate.  The Holy Spirit may be our comforter and advocate, but the text here says that the Holy Spirit’s job is to testify on Jesus‘ behalf.

Now, why does Jesus need the Holy Spirit to testify on his behalf?  Jesus needs the Holy Spirit to testify for him because human beings have extremely short memories.  Can you remember who won the second season of American Idol?  Do you remember the name of your congressman when you were 15?  Do you remember the middle name of the first person you had a crush on?  We are bad at remembering things that happen in our own lives, much less something a man named Jesus did two thousand years ago.  The Holy Spirit’s job is to remind us about Jesus and what he told us about the Father.

The Father sends the Holy Spirit to help the disciples in Jesus’ absence.  This way, the disciples do not bear the full responsibility of telling the world about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  The Holy Spirit helps the disciples remember the things Jesus said so that the disciples can communicate those words to the world.  In fact, the first act of the Holy Spirit is to give the disciples the gift of languages, so they can communicate the good news of Jesus to people of the many diverse cultures within Jerusalem.

The Holy Spirit is always moving, always extending the good news of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit helped those first disciples tell the people of Jerusalem about Jesus and ever since has helped Christians of every generation pass on the stories of what Jesus has said and done.

When I think of how the Holy Spirit pushed those disciples out of the upper room, into the streets of Jerusalem, and then pushed Christianity out of Jerusalem and spread Jesus’s words and deeds throughout the world, I think of how the Holy Spirit has been pushing Emmanuel.

For years, Emmanuel was a small church in a small town.  Emmanuel was very involved in the community-you can’t hear stories about Lee Marston teaching swimming classes and opening the Greenwood Community Center without realizing how community minded Emmanuel was!  But, the community Emmanuel served had a relatively small radius. When Crozet was established as a designated growth area, you had a choice to make.  You could become insular and focus only on Greenwood, or you could open your arms and welcome newcomers into this parish.  You could take the risk of letting in people who did not know your character, who did not know the Emmanuel Way, who might even risk the very identity of this wonderful church.

You experienced anxiety about the church changing-you may still be experiencing that anxiety-but instead of shutting newcomers out, you opened yourselves up to them and over the last eight years or so have invited more than 200 people to be part of your family.  You spruced up Sunday School classrooms, built a beautiful nursery, cleaned off the playground, beefed up the Christian Education program and invited strangers to coffee hour on Sunday mornings.

This may have seemed like the obvious response to you, but I have to tell you, not every church would have responded the way you have responded.  I truly believe the Holy Spirit was calling this place to open up and to be a spiritual refuge for people in Albemarle, Nelson, and Augusta counties and that you responded to that call.

When you have a chance, ask one of those 200 newcomers what Emmanuel has meant to them.  Your hospitality has opened for them spiritual connection with God, the warmth of community, and a sense of belonging to the universal church.

I cannot begin to tell you how energizing and fun it has been to be a priest in a congregation that is this alive and welcoming and engaged.  I truly believe there is something unique and special about you.  I believe that the Holy Spirit has called you to be a place where hurt people can come for healing, alienated people can be welcomed, and those on spiritual quests can meet God in new ways.

I also see the Holy Spirit calling you to reach out.  I see that call in the ministry of the Bread Fund.  I see that call in your calling to be part of the Disciples Kitchen in Waynesboro.  I see that call in the mission trip going out this summer.  I see that call in the pastoral listening group that started this year.

I think the next year will be really exciting for you.  As you welcome Peter Carey as your new assistant rector, and as you celebrate your 150th Anniversary, the Holy Spirit will call you in new ways.  I don’t know what they are, but I just have this feeling that something new and exciting is in store for you, that you will be asked to push out into the community in new ways.

And you do not need to be anxious about new things.  (Which is something I’ve been reminding myself of a lot lately!) The Holy Spirit will speak to you.  The Holy Spirit will remind you of Jesus’ words.  The Holy Spirit will remind you of who are and what it means to be a Christian.  The Holy Spirit will remind you of what it means to be part of the Emmanuel Family.

I may not be your priest when you get your next call as a congregation, but know that wherever I am, I will always be following what is happening here, praying for you and rooting for you.  I am beyond proud that you chose me as your first associate rector. You have taught me how to be a priest and I promise to take the open, warm and welcoming spirit of Emmanuel with me wherever I go.

May you be as blessed as you have blessed me.

Amen.

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Baptism of our Lord, Year C, 2007

I don’t know how many of you are former evangelicals, but I spent most of my later adolescence as a hand clapping, power point watching, profoundly guilt-ridden modern American conservative evangelical.  It was good times. 

Though now I prefer Anglican chant, complicated motets and authentic gospel music, at the time I loved praise music.  My favorite praise song was based on our passage from Isaiah today.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.
The wind and the waves shall not over come you.
Do not fear, for I will be with you.

and so on and so forth. 

For a nerve-wracked college student trying to figure out what to do with her life, the comforting idea of God’s omnipresence in difficult times was very reassuring.  In fact, I still love an image of a God who is with us, even in our most difficult experiences. 

In the passage from Isaiah today, God is responding to the people of Judah who have been complaining that God has abandoned them because Jerusalem has been destroyed. He reassures them that, despite appearances, He is, in fact, with them.  And no matter what deep waters or hot fires might try to consume them, God will not leave them.

How poignant then, in our Gospel passage today, to see Jesus joining the throng as they are baptized by John the Baptist.  While in many ways, this scene of Jesus’ baptism is familiar to us, there is one key difference between Luke’s account of the baptism and the account of other Gospel writers.

While the authors of the Gospel of Mark, Matthew and John remember Jesus’ baptism as an individual event, independent from the baptisms of the crowds that gathered to hear John the Baptist, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is one of many who are baptized.

But why did Jesus even need to be baptized?  The baptism that John the Baptist performed was a baptism for the remission of sins.  Why in the world would God need to repent of sins?

Imagine with me the setting:  John has set up shop on the banks of a river and hundreds of people of every shape and size are crowded around, waiting eagerly to be baptized.  They enter the water one by one or perhaps as a crowd.  As they are each baptized and washed clean, the water around them gets less clean. The dirt that collected on each person’s feet as they made the long trek to the wilderness, drifts into the water.  The sweat from the heat, joins the dirt.  The sin that has built up over a life time of being human, pollutes the water.

Jesus enters into this murky water, embodying Isaiah’s words.  God is not only figuratively with us when we’re in deep water.  In this case, Jesus actually stands shoulder to shoulder with every sinner who wants to be washed clean.  Jesus does not shy away from the messy, literally dirty parts of these people.  Jesus bathes in them and seeks baptism himself.

Instead of washing himself from sins, in that dark water, maybe Jesus was taking on our sins.  Perhaps he was embodying what he would go on to do his whole life-living as a God completely committed to being human, in all of humanity’s strength and weakness.

We all know that when we experience our baptisms, we become one with Christ.  We change our identity.  We become “marked as Christ’s own forever”.  Perhaps when Jesus was baptized by John in the wilderness, he became marked as our own forever. 

And this is what God blesses.  For just as in all the other Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism, a dove from heaven descends, alights upon Jesus and the onlookers hear the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved.  With you I am well pleased.”

At this moment of utter humility-the moment when Jesus enters a body of water to be baptized for the remission of sins, this moment when Jesus is incredibly vulnerable and human-this is when God chooses to make a public declaration of Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. 

Frederick Buechner, the great Presbyterian novelist and autobiographical author knows this aspect of God’s closeness to us well.  The deep waters he waded through were his father’s suicide when he was a child and his daughter’s anorexia when he was an adult.  At the height of her illness, she became so sick she was hospitalized.  Though Buechner was terrified, He writes,

“I have never felt God’s presence more strongly than when my wife and I visited that distant hospital where our daughter was.  Walking down the corridor to the room that had her name taped to the door, I felt that presence surrounding me like air-God in his very stillness, holding his breath, loving her, loving us all, the only way he can without destroying us.  One night we went to compline in an Episcopal Cathedral, and in the coolness and near emptiness of that great vaulted place, in the remoteness of the choir’s voices chanting plainsong, in the grayness of the stone, I felt it again-the passionate restraint and hush of God.”

Buechner sensed Jesus standing shoulder to shoulder with him.  Buechner knew God was in the deep water with him and would not abandon him.

So, it turns out that the words to that praise song I sang as an adolescent are as true now as they were a decade ago.  God will be with us when we pass through deep water.  God will be with us when we walk through fire.  Our God really is Emmanuel-God with us.  Thanks be to God.