Sunday, October 11, 2015

"The Call." A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Mark 9:3-37 on a baptism Sunday.

“The Call”
Mark 9:30-37

Last week as I was driving somewhere I heard part of an interview on NPR about the history of fraternal organizations and lodges  During the interview, someone said that people don’t join groups as much as they used to.  He mentioned Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which was published in 2000—about the time social scientists started talking more about a trend of declining in-person social relationships and community,  which became more of a trend from around 1950 on.[1]  
            I’d read Bowling Alone when it was first published.  The title of the book came from a trend in bowling:  the number of people who bowled had increased between 1970 and 1990, but the number of people who bowled in leagues had decreased significantly.  If people bowl alone, they don’t participate in social interaction and civic discussions that might occur in a league environment.
            I think the trends Putnam and others were identifying fifteen years ago are even more evident today, in the aggregate loss in membership and number of volunteers in Parent-Teacher Associations, Women’s Clubs, any number of civic organizations, and the church.  Our leisure time has become much more individualized, via television and internet. 
            We live in a culture in which individualism and consumerism are prominent values.   As I was looking through my notes on this scripture passage, I came across a commentary Kenneth Woodward wrote in Newsweek some time ago, in which he said that one of the most common theological questions asked in our society is “What do I want?” [2]
            In that article, Woodward described a kind of  “mix-em, match-em, salad-bar spirituality."
            You know how salad bars work.  You take what you want:  the mixed greens, the cherry tomatoes, the potato salad.  You leave behind what you don't want:  the sprouts, the pickled beets, the broccoli and cauliflower.  Woodward says a lot of people today assemble their spiritual lives in much the same way.  He cites a contemporary seeker who declares, "Instead of me fitting a religion, I found a religion to fit me." 
            "What do I want?"  is the question we might ask standing in the door of an open refrigerator.  Have you ever done that?  I feel this strange, vague hunger inside me.  I know I want something. 
            "What do I want?" is the question we ask standing in the shopping mall, or the car lot--  hoping something we buy might make us feel whole or happy...  or just better.
            "What do I want?"   When that becomes the only question—or the main question--  religious faith is no longer seen as the center of life and an integrating force holding our lives together--  but rather as just one more thing added into the life we try to put together for ourselves… or something to take or leave, depending on what I want. 
            The thought that religious faith is only about getting what we want can be pretty attractive...  seductive.

            By contrast, Jesus' words in today’s gospel lesson are anything but pretty, when he talks about how he will have to suffer…be rejected…and die.
            Though the way of Jesus sounds strange--  there is also something strangely appealing about it.  Jesus speaks so confidently about the new life he offers:  life so abundant that if you give it away you only find more of it.  Life so precious that it can't be bought--  but only received as a gift.  The gospel is paradoxical and counter-cultural.
            The popular culture gives us strong messages about who we are and what we’re worth and what life means.  We’re bombarded by commercials on T.V. that tell us that we’ll be happy if we use the right products to keep up appearances…if we have the right look for ourselves and our homes.  Even young children are targeted by advertisers who want to sell toys and junk food.
            The way of consumerism invites us to grasp and grab...  and work and toil, never satisfied, always wanting more....  always trying to fill some deep emptiness which can't be filled with anything less than God.
            When we have ears to hear, we’re invited to choose the way that leads to life and abundance.  As Christians, we’re challenged by our faith to repent—to re-think, to open ourselves to be transformed by the good news of the gospel.            

            One of the great joys of the Christian life is when parents present their children for baptism.  This is their public declaration that they want their child to be a part of the church and to have a ministry in it—even before the child is old enough to be fully aware of all the love that surrounds her or him. 
            For some of us, our children can be the reason we begin to participate more faithfully in the life of Christ.  In my own life, I’d been turned off by some experiences in the church I grew up in, and so I left the church when I went away to college.  Part of what drew me back into the church some years later was a feeling that I wanted my son to be nurtured in a church family.
            Because of my own experience, I identify with the story of a woman named Karin in Nick Taylor’s book Ordinary Miracles: Life in a Small Church.[3]   Karin had been baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church, and defected as a teen to the Methodists, who had a better youth group.  Then, after high school, she fell away from church.  “I graduated from nursing school…and went to work.   There was no time for God in my life.   But our God is a patient God,” she wrote.
            Soon she was living her version of the American dream.  She had a husband who loved her and whom she loved, a house in the suburbs, a station wagon in the driveway, two kids, the dog, the whole nine yards.  The material things were all there.  But something was missing.
            Karin realized she was looking for God in her life when she brought her children to church and made baptismal promises for them.  She said, “God was calling me back, and I finally heard….”
            At St. Mary’s, she found a loving community of people trying to live as Jesus taught.  The congregation welcomed her and her husband, and later her husband decided he wanted to live his life as a follower of Jesus.
            Karin made a discovery about the essence of her spiritual journey as she was making a trip she’d been dreading, when she delivered her first baby into a new life away at college.  Her daughter had stayed up most of the night at a farewell party, and she was sleeping in the seat next to her.  Karin wrote, “I had so many things to say to her.  There’s a saying that your children aren’t yours to keep, but God loans them to you for a while.  It was time for me to step to the sidelines.
            Karin reflected:  “God has blessed [us] with our daughters.  That morning on the long drive, I thought about the past eighteen years and how different my life has become.  Would I be the same person I am, if not for this sleeping young woman next to me?   Again, I realized God had put Susan and her sisters into my life for a reason.  In making sure they had a religious education, my own knowledge and love of God has been deepened immeasurably.  The void I felt so long ago has been filled.”
            When parents bring their children for baptism and promise to raise them in the faith, it can be a new beginning for the parents—and for all of us-- as well.
            Baptism is central to our identity as Christians.    As we live into our baptism, we learn who we are and whose we are.  We are nurtured to see ourselves as beloved children of God, and that can make all the difference!
            Baptism is a life-changing, transforming event in our lives.  The baptismal font stands at the front of sanctuary as we worship God every Sunday, reminding us that we’ve been initiated into this congregation, as well as into the universal church of Jesus Christ.  It reminds us that we’re an important part of the Body of Christ—marked and identified as a disciple of Christ.  The church is where we grow in faith and learn over a lifetime what it means to follow Jesus Christ. 
            In our Presbyterian and Reformed tradition, our understanding of baptism emphasizes God’s initiative.  God reaches out graciously to us, and offers us the gift of life in the kingdom as a free gift.  We respond by dedicating our lives to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and committing ourselves to follow him.  Baptism is the beginning of our life in the church…a first step in a journey that takes a lifetime.
            When we baptize children, we promise to teach them who they are in the light of God’s truth.  We promise to teach them what makes them different as part of a holy people…a royal priesthood…consecrated to God’s service.  We’re called to tell the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ…and to show in our lives how God has saved us by calling us out of darkness into God’s marvelous light.[4]
            When parents present their child for baptism, they promise to live the Christian faith themselves, and to teach that faith to their children, by word and example.  When we baptize a child, the whole congregation makes promises to nurture that child in a variety of ways, and to teach them the faith.  To grow up in the faith, we and our children need to worship and learn together—in our families, and in the faith community which is the church. 
            Each time we baptize a new Christian, we’re inviting that person on a journey that will take a lifetime.  Today, we’re inviting Leah to be part of the great adventure we call church.
            What God will make of Leah’s life, or where God will lead her, we don’t know.
            But what we do know…what we can say with certainty-- because we have God’s promise—is that God is with us every step of the way.
            May God bless Leah and her family…and all of us on our adventure as we discern our call further into the life God is offering us!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
October 11, 2015

[1] Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000).
[2] Kenneth L. Woodward and others, “A Time to Seek,” Newsweek (Dec. 17, 1990), page 50.
[3] Nick Taylor, Ordinary Miracles: Life in a Small Church (1993).
[4] 1 Peter 2:9


[1] Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000).
[2] Kenneth L. Woodward and others, “A Time to Seek,” Newsweek (Dec. 17, 1990), page 50.
[3] Nick Taylor, Ordinary Miracles: Life in a Small Church (1993).

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