As a community of faith, we are being invited to soften our focus on life, to blur the hard edges of our lives, to see the whole picture with our hearts, to train our hearts to love as God loves, and to look at life through the reflections of the sacred.
December 4, 2022
“Reflecting the Sacred”
Matthew 3:1-2; Romans 15:4-13
Rev. Dr. Heather W. McColl
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’ ” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region around the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore, bear fruit worthy of repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
That’s exactly what Jesus did. He didn’t make it easy for himself by avoiding people’s troubles, but waded right in and helped out. “I took on the troubles of the troubled,” is the way Scripture puts it. Even if it was written in Scripture long ago, you can be sure it’s written for us. God wants the combination of his steady, constant calling and warm, personal counsel in Scripture to come to characterize us, keeping us alert for whatever he will do next. May our dependably steady and warmly personal God develop maturity in you so that you get along with each other as well as Jesus gets along with us all. Then we’ll be a choir—not our voices only, but our very lives singing in harmony in a stunning anthem to the God and Father of our Master Jesus!
So reach out and welcome one another to God’s glory. Jesus did it; now you do it! Jesus, staying true to God’s purposes, reached out in a special way to the Jewish insiders so that the old ancestral promises would come true for them. As a result, the non-Jewish outsiders have been able to experience mercy and to show appreciation to God. Just think of all the Scriptures that will come true in what we do! For instance: Then I’ll join outsiders in a hymn-sing; I’ll sing to your name! And this one: Outsiders and insiders, rejoice together! And again: People of all nations, celebrate God! All colors and races, give hearty praise! And Isaiah’s word: There’s the root of our ancestor Jesse, breaking through the earth and growing tree tall, Tall enough for everyone everywhere to see and take hope! Oh! May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope!
Sacred People Matthew 3:1-2; Romans 15:4-13
To be honest, I had a completely different sermon planned for this morning. But that sermon never seemed to come together. No matter how much time I spent with it, no matter how much gnashing of teeth and throwing of wadded up paper balls I did, that sermon never felt right. It felt hollow. It felt shallow. It didn’t do justice to where the Spirit of God was moving among us.
This became clear to me when I ran across the prophetic words of Thomas Merton in which about “fifty years ago, he warned us about what can happen when all words have become alike. Merton cautioned us that when this happens, we will no longer be able to presume that even our most sacred words will still have meaning or value, that instead our sacred words will be seen as everything else in our world. They will be seen as marketing tools to get people to buy into empty promises and useless hopes. Merton even commented that “these days to say God is Love, to say ‘“Created in the image of God’ is like saying ‘Eat [Your] Wheaties…or in more modern day terms, “Like a Good Neighbor State Farm is There.’”
Fifty years ago, Merton said that the words we say in our worship services, the words we say out in the public square, fifty years ago, Mertaon said that no one will take the promises behind our words of faith seriously. Instead, they will simply become just another thing we Christians say or another thing we Christians do because…here’s the kicker….we have forgotten their implications for our mission and ministry as the Church, because we have forgotten their life transforming meaning for us, because we as people of faith have forgotten how to translate that knowledge into living out our faith as the people of God.
Fifty years ago, Merton cautioned us as communities of faith, that once we reach this point, this point where the promises behind our words, words like God is love, words like Created in the image of God, once we reach that point that these words simply become marketing tools and not the words which shape us and guides us, then once we reach that point, as people of faith, we will no longer have room for the creative life giving power of God to come into our lives. We will no longer invite it to bring new beginnings for God’s people any more. Once we reach that point of letting the promises of God simply become marketing tools for our communities of faith, then we will be in the darkness and in the darkness we will remain.
I’ve thought a lot about Merton’s prophetic words this week, and wondered if we have reached that point, especially as we take a look at such familiar texts. From the Gospel of Matthew. John the Baptist is calling us to repent, to turn around, to refocus our attention, to reclaim our narrative as sacred people. Yet I wonder if we can still hear this call or it is lost in the cacophony of tweets and pings which constantly blare from our phones. In the midst of all the noise which fills our lives, can we as people of faith still hear God’s voice speaking to us, calling to us, reminding us who we are, reminding us whose we are. Can we hear this call to reconnect in the midst of all that noise which pulls us away from the sacred in our midst?
Then in Romans, Paul is reminding us that welcoming one another is something deeper than exchanging pleasantries or a general appearance of hospitality, that it is about being in a relationship with God, that it is about being in community with one another as God’s Beloved Community. Paul is reminding us that extending welcome to one another is about being the people of love and grace God created and calls us to be. Yet I wonder if this reminder is lost in the larger narrative which constantly tells us how divided we are in a society, how divided we are as a culture, if it is lost in the larger narrative which constantly tells us there is no hope for us to ever find common connection as humankind. Is this reminder to be the Body of Christ lost in all the noise of politics and policies?
Fifty years ago, Merton cautioned us that no one will take the promises behind our words of faith seriously, not the people who have been hurt by the church, and maybe not even the people who faithfully attend. Fifty years ago, Merton cautioned us that no one would take the promises behind the words of faith, words like God is love, words like Created in the image of God, that no one would take the promises behind these words seriously, that instead they would simply be marketing tools with no relevance for the mission and ministry of the wider church.
As I read Merton’s words, as I sat with these familiar texts, I wondered if we had reach this point in our history as communities of faith. Have we forgotten the promises behind the words given to us by the one who showed us a different way to be in relationship with one another? Have we taken all them for granted? As I sat with these familiar texts, I wondered if our life changing, our life transforming call to become God’s sacred people has become something we have turned into a routine, into something mundane, into something we go through the motions forgetting their implications for our ministry and our mission? Have we truly forgotten how to embrace the invitation ito see the sacred reflected in each other, to make the paths straight so that the Kingdom of God comes here on Earth just as it is in Heaven? Have we truly forgotten how to repent, to reclaim our prophetic call, to welcome one another? Have we truly forgotten how to be the sacred people challenged to bring healing and wholeness in a world which is crying out for hope and grace?
I don’t have all the answers to this yet but let me answer these questions this way…All week, I encountered people whose hearts are heavy with grief. All week, I encountered people whose lives have been turned upside down by life’s events. All week, I encountered people who are trying to figure out how to find their footing from one day to the next. And all week, I noticed that every time our conversations turned toward the religious or the spiritual, almost every single person had a story about how the church had hurt them, how they had left the church dismayed and disillusioned. Almost every single person had a story about how the church failed to believe and practice the promises which it proclaimed.
Please hear me say I’m not saying this is all churches. And I’m not saying it was all done intentionally or that it was all the church’s fault because we all know that there is always more to the story than what we get in five minutes of conversation.
What I am saying is that maybe as we are figuring out our way in this new reality where nothing makes sense anymore, maybe instead of trying to create something new, we take a moment and repent. We take a moment and reclaim our faith narrative, no longer turning it into marketing tools to get people to help us fill the pews and give to support our budgets. But instead, we take a moment and start practicing what we preach, that we believe the promises behind our words of faith, words like God is Love, words like Created in the image of God and invite them, embrace them to shape and transform our ministry and mission.
Because as sacred people, we know that we worship a God who is still at work in this world. We know that since the beginning of time, God has moved across the chaos, creating something new, bringing forth life, calling the Light to shine in the darkness. And we know that the absolute most beautiful thing is that we ordinary, imperfect, yet created in the image of the Divine are invited to join in that bringing forth new life. We are invited to join in this work of bringing healing and wholeness by …. Are you ready? coming to know [the Word becoming flesh] in the very cells of our body, by seeing it in the cells of all bodies, which each carry the same divine DNA of their Creator”.
That’s it. That’s what John the Baptist is talking about when he calls us to repent. That is what Paul is talking about when he calls us to live in harmony with one another, to welcome one another so that we experience the Kingdom of God in our midst here and now.
Because the fact of the matter is…Saying that one and all is created in the image of God, saying that all are Beloved Children is not something we say to get people into the pews. It is how we show the world, how we show ourselves who our God truly is…A God who is faithful from generation to generation, A God who is steadfast and generous, a God who loves us more than we will ever know. May it be so.
See also: Theology Tuesday for Sunday, December 4, 2022 – Sacred People Matthew 3:1-2; Romans 15:4-13.