Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Sermon, January 22, 2017
Rev. Sally Ann Sisk

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 

Paul writes to the church in Corinth during a time of deep division. Tribes have formed around particular leaders. Believers are following the one who baptized them—Cephas, Apollos, and Paulinstead of Christ, in whom they were baptized. Members of the church in Corinth have turned to their corners and divided into camps.

In the US this weekend, indeed this whole year and this time in history, the state of the church in Corinth sounds too familiar. Many are calling it the divided states of America.We’ve seen a new president inaugurated one day, and millions of marginalized people protesting the next. We’ve heard from two camps that, in some ways, both feel they haven’t been heard in society. Even as diversity continues to increase in this nation made for immigrantshate crimes against people of color, immigrants, and muslims are also on the rise.  

And so this text may be a fitting one for us to read this weekend, but its message is also a difficult one to hear in a divided time. In a diverse world, I know that many families and communities find it difficult to talk about politics for fear of disturbing the peace. There are such intense feelings on both sides of a divided society that it is far easier not to discuss it. If we’re going to talk about our differences at all, there’s a tendency to use Christian unity as a band-aid, a convenient way to smooth things over and avoid the real issues of our diversity. 

But Paul doesn’t let us avoid the issues today. He addresses the issues head on—"what I mean is that each of you says, 'I belong to Paul,' or 'I belong to Apollos,' or 'I belong to Cephas,' or 'I belong to Christ.'  Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you?" The reason I’m going there today is that Paul went there so long ago, calling us to consider his example. To avoid the division in our society today would be to betray the power of Paul’s proclamation and, most importantly, as Paul says, the power of the cross. 

According to Paul, when society is as divided as it is now, when society is as divided as it was in Corinth, it DOES matter that we think differently. We can't ignore it.

I’ve spoken before about my trip to the Middle East in seminary. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately not because of the places I traveled but because of the people I traveled with. It was a bus full of tribes. There were five or so students from five or so seminaries, 35 students preparing to be ordained in the next year, along with a few community members to add to the diverse collection of ideas and understandings of the world that each of us brought. There were students representing the Southern Baptist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Methodist Church, the Unitarian Universalist Church, and the United Church of Christ. The group even included a few agnostics and a person of the Jewish faith, who was also a 70-year-old baton-twirler, I might add. Among these students and community leaders were people of various cultural traditions, parts of the country, sexual orientations, and genders. 

We were a bus full of passionate, opinionated, emotional people, traveling through checkpoints and across walls of hatred and conflict between religions, between peoples of God, in the land Jesus once called home. Needless to say, it was an intense 3 weeks. It was not all roses and unicorns. It did matter to all of us that we thought differently.There were many conversations in which we were deeply hurt by the perspectives of others, and frustrated, asking ourselves if unity in the world was possible at all.

I will always remember a conversation with one of my Southern Baptist brothers in which he tried to rescue me from entering ministry because he worried I just wouldn’t be able to handle it as a woman. He also worried aloud about the health of my marriage because of my career-minded attitude. My African American friends faced some tough conversations as well, as did almost everyone on the bus. There were countless discussions about race, politics, religion, and sexuality. There was really no way of getting around it on this bus for 3 weeks. 

But between the conversations, we shared every meal together. Between the conversations, we shared our stories. I shared my call story and with my Baptist friend. I listened as he shared his convictions about salvation. I listened to the stories of my African American classmates about their experiences of racism in their daily lives and in their preparation for ministry. Upon hearing the testimony of another, I've learned, it's hard to deny the truth and importance of another's story.

In times of division and misunderstanding, the only way around is through. I learned that unity in Christ does not give us permission us to stop listening to one another about what really matters in our lives. When we do take time to see things from an alternate perspective, I believe that in that mess, through the Holy Spirit, we recognize the fact of our unity—we are bound to one another. We cannot retreat into our corners, because the story of one of us matters to the stories of all of us. 

It is relationship, story, conversation,  and sharing that we can experience the true meaning of our unity in Christ. Otherwise, our unity is false unity and our peace false peace.

Martin Luther King, Jr, whose birthday we celebrated this week, said in 1968, 
“We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”

Paul refers to his hearers as brothers and sisters, over and over and over again. Brother can sound like an innocent enough word and idea—we’re family in Christ, and this is a lovely image. But no matter what family we’re in, we can likely all recognize that family relationships are not always lovely and easy. Our family relationships can be the most contentious in our lives. Family members can abuse one another in word or deed, betray one another, and abandon one another. Civil wars are often spoken of as battles, brother against brother. 

We have a blood bond with our families. We love them with everything we are. But when we disagree, we have to reconcile the deep love we have for one another and the pain we can cause one another. It’s easy for brothers to assume they know one another while failing to truly listen. 

And so Paul’s claim that in Christ we are brothers and sisters is not as easy to live out as it sounds. The fact that we are brothers and sisters does not mean we can ignore our differences as we seek God’s justice in the world. It does not mean that we are all the same, but that we are by nature connected…connected in the life of the one who died for us. The cross of Christ is serious business, Paul says, because of the radical unity to which it calls us. 

Christ is undivided, and so, since Christ died for all of us, we are inextricably bound together. The sister behind a wall in Palestine, the brother trying desperately to feed their family in Mexico, 
the brother who just lost their job in Michigan, the sister who waits on death row, the sister trying to find a safe place to escape the violence in their land—we are brothers and sisters. 
We are bound together, like it or not. What impacts the life of one impacts the lives of all of us.
This good news should change our living. With this good news in mind, we have the responsibility as disciples to listen to our brothers and sisters, to listen when one is hurting or hungry, marginalized or oppressed, imprisoned or ignored. We have a responsibility to get into one another’s shoes and to get into the shoes of Jesus, to love who he loves, and proclaim this to the world. We, like Paul, are not called to live in a false peace, but to proclaim the power of the cross in the midst of division. We are called not to speak pretty words that will make everyone happy but profound ones that reflect the depth of our faith.

Unity in Christ means that we have to get out of our corners, listen, and share. This is no small task—this is hard work in such a divided society. But Jesus' ministry and his death were no small matters either. 

On the last week of our trip around the Middle East, our group arrived at Jerusalem’s city gates
and stopped at the Church of St. Anne. The church is an ancient landmark, built in the 1100s over the supposed birthplace of Mary. The church is known for its acoustics, but as we entered we were not in the mood for talking, too tired of debate. After several minutes of silence, though, three of our group members got up calmly and stood at the front of the church, facing the chancel with their backs to us. 
They were the three singers in the group, but also three who had hurt one another time and again on the trip, so many times, I guess, that they seemed to know what the others where thinking as they got up and started singing together. They sang in perfect harmony. Their voices were different, but they sang in perfect unity, looking up to the high ceilings of the old stone church. For over 30 minutes we listened. Travelers from all over the world who stopped into the church while we were there sat in silence too and listened to this unlikely singing group from three different corners of our bus.  

The fact that Christ is undivided means that we are brothers and sisters. It means that we are responsible for being in relationship with one other, especially with those who are different from us, even at the expense of our own comfort. We follow a God who did this in life and in death, Showing us the radical nature of our unity.  


Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Snow Day Devotional

Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, a day when we celebrate both the person and the purpose of Jesus Christ at the beginning of his ministry. But today we are not in the Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church sanctuary—hopefully, we are safe and warm for a Sabbath day at home as we wait for snow to melt outside our windows!

This a prayer service for us to read from home today. Separated from one another in body, we remember the one Lord, the one Holy Spirit, and the one baptism that unites us in spirit today. Though this doesn’t replace the experience of worshiping together, it invites us to reflect individually on the scriptures for the day and the meaning of baptism, for Jesus’ ministry and for us today.

Opening Sentences 
This is the day the Lord has made.
Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

Prayer of the Day
God of new life, your voice thunders above the sound of loud waters. You sit enthroned above the floods of life. As Jesus heard you speak to him in his baptism, may we also hear you calling us your beloved, through Jesus Christ, your son, our brother, Amen.

Psalm 29  
A Psalm of David.
Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
 Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name; worship the LORD in holy splendor.
 The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders,                            
the LORD, over mighty waters.  
The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.  
God makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness;
the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.
May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!

Gospel Reading Matthew 3:13-17
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River marks the beginning of his ministry. In Jesus’ baptism, God names him as God’s Son, the Beloved. This is a name that gives him an identity and a purpose.  He belongs to God. He is beloved by God. He is also commissioned to be God’s Son in his life and ministry. He is ordained for service, and his life’s work is begun in water and the Spirit.

Today baptism can easily become nothing more than a rite of passage, an event that happens and is over. But baptism is a powerful recognition that our whole lives will be shaped by water and the Spirit. Each morning we are named again as God’s very own beloved ones. Each day we are called again to live into our baptismal ordination as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Baptism is just the beginning. May we remember this beginning again and again as it continues to shape our lives of faith here and now!

Questions for Contemplation
1. Do you remember your baptism? If so, what was most memorable about it? If not, what does it mean for you to remember your baptism?

2.  Reflect on your journey of faith.
If baptism was the beginning, where are you now on the journey?
Has it been a straight, winding, or circular path?
Where are the places you’ve been lost and found along the way?
Where has your journey led you, and where do you think it will lead next?
What is your prayer to God as you continue this journey of faith?

3. The Apostles’ Creed is the baptismal creed of the Church. It unites us in faith across many Christian traditions and backgrounds. When we recite this creed, we not only profess our individual faith, but we also join with all the saints in recognizing our unity as one body in Christ.
Do you remember how you learned the Apostles Creed?
Who in the great cloud of witnesses has helped you to grow in faith?

The Apostles Creed
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
      creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
      who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
      and born of the virgin Mary.
      He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
      was crucified, died, and was buried;
      he descended to hell.
      The third day he rose again from the dead.
      He ascended to heaven
      and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
      From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
      the holy catholic* church,
      the communion of saints,
      the forgiveness of sins,
      the resurrection of the body,
      and the life everlasting. Amen.

Prayer of Thanksgiving for Baptism
God our Mercy and Might,
We fear death and doubt your promises.
  Though we are made of earth, we plunder it.
Though we are made in your image, we abuse it in one another.
Yet in our baptism you have borne us in love,
bound us to mercy,
and turned us from the power of sin
to your reign of life.
Buried with Christ,
Risen with Christ,
We give you thanks.

In Jesus Christ you pursue us, forgive us, and unite us.
You are abiding mystery,
abundant paradox,
unending freedom,
infinite grace.
You are the rainbow in the rain,
the hope of the ages, most faithful God.
We are children of your covenant.
We trust your promises.
Buried with Christ,
Risen with Christ,
We give you thanks.

By your Spirit you ordain us to breathe in as we remember
and to breathe out as we live your dream:
a well for the thirsty,
a banquet for the hungry,
a name for the forgotten,
a home for the exiled,
a voice for the silenced,
a vision for the hopeless,
a new heaven and new earth.
Buried with Christ,
Risen with Christ,
We give you thanks.

Hear the good news!
In baptism we were buried with Christ.
In baptism also we were raised to life with him,
through faith in the power of God
who raised Christ from the dead.
Anyone who is in Christ
is a new creation.
The old life has gone;
a new life has begun.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding,
keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

— Rev. Sally Ann Sisk