Proper 23C 2016

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“We will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.”
Promise 4 of the Baptismal Covenant

With the naked eye,
on a clear night without too much extraneous light,
you and I can see about six thousand stars.
That may be the thing
I miss most about northern Vermont,
walking my dog beneath the twinkling whispers
of the lighted dome above.
The colder it got,
and sometimes it went down to 20 below,
the more spectacularly
the solar system rained down upon us.

But from wherever we look at the night sky,
whether Seneca Lake or Tahoe,
the light from the star closest to our sun
takes four years to get here.

Light from the most distant stars we see at night
has taken up to ten millennia to reach us.
So while we see those sparkling orbs up there
the light we are seeing from them was actually created
between four and ten thousand years ago!

In other words,
we are not actually seeing those stars
when we look up;
instead we are seeing the past.
Think about that, just hover on it for a moment.

What we see is not what it is, rather,
what we see is what was – years and years ago,
and in some cases thousands of years ago.
We think we are seeing those stars and that light
as they are in real time,
but we are only seeing what they once were.
In fact, some of that light
is emanating from sources that no longer exist.
Some of that light
is but the ghostly image of what was
but is no longer exists.

That fact about the stars at night
is a wonderful metaphor for what we say about God.

In other words,
everything we read about God in the Bible
or literature from sages and saints,
including everything we read about Jesus,
is the same kind of light mirage
as the stars we see at night.
What we say
and what we see
is not actually God and Jesus
but what we imagine are God and Jesus.

You already know that,
but I remind us of it
because we are walking through
the Baptismal Covenant,
and we need some humility in order to remember
we are dust
and to dust we shall return.

We need the humility of knowing
we only see into a mirror darkly
rather than pretending we know
all about God and Jesus
because the Bible
and the creeds
and the hymns and the Baptismal Covenant tells us so.

We are too small,
and our information is too limited
for us to truly know what we want to know.

So we begin with that serving of humble pie
as we move into promise four
of the five promises of our Baptismal Covenant.
(This is s sermon series

for those of you that just walked in,
but each week is coherent without the other weeks –
at least in my demented mind).
Promise four is about ministry.

Ministry is one of those churchy words
that, like light from the stars at night,
is a ghostly image of the distant past
that does not automatically shed much light today.
As a general rule,
I do not like to use churchy language.
I try to speak with words about spirituality
that could be understood by people that have never
walked into a church –
and so avoid theological jargon if possible.

But the word ministry,
at least for us and in this moment when
we are talking about the Baptismal Covenant,
is helpful to remember.
The word goes back to the grassroots of our beginning.
It is a word composed of two Greek words,
apostolos, and
Apostolos is, “one who is sent”
and diakonos, “one who serves.”

Ministry, quite literally, means we are sent to serve.

More specifically, in the act of baptism we are sent.
In the promises of the Baptismal Covenant
we share an understanding of how to serve.
That is why we are focusing on the Baptismal Covenant – it is our shared understanding
of how to serve.

So even though the popular culture calls me a minister
everyone who accepts the promises of their baptism
is a minister.
I am a professional minister
because I get paid for it,
but you are no less a minister than I am,
or any other ordained minister for that matter.
So understanding that we are all ministers
and that we share ministry
through the community of Trinity,
is what this thing we do
is all about.

It is not supposed to be about the building,
it is supposed to be about our ministry.

Promise four,
as you can read on the cover of your worship guide,
asks that we “seek and serve Christ in all persons,
loving our neighbor as ourselves?”

Promising to seek and serve Christ in all persons,
indicates that we are universalists.

We do not seek to serve God
in some people –
only those we happen to believe God loves
above and beyond all other people.
We do not seek to serve
in only baptized people;
or only people we think might be interested
in joining us;
or who believe the same things we do;
or who live the same way we live…
rather, we promise to seek and serve God
in all people.

There is no denying the existence
of an extreme version of Christianity
that believes only those who claim Jesus
as their personal Lord and Savior,
and only those who are baptized in a particular way,
are loved and accepted by God.
That does exist
and inn their version of spiritual reality
everyone else is on his or her way to Hell.

That is not our vision,
not our belief,
not our understanding of Christian spiritual wisdom.

This fourth promise of our spiritual practice
says that we both
and serve
Christ in all persons:
If we wanted to be a little less
triumphal and sectarian
we could change that to say
we seek and serve GOD in all persons.

That way we can talk about
divine presence
with Muslims and Jews
or Hindus and Buddhists
without being Jesus-centric
and potentially offensive.
That is the way I prefer to talk about it
but for some people
the Jesus-language is really important.

But I should also point out
that clearly we are not merely humanist.

Instead, according to this promise,
we claim the presence of the holy in every person
and distinguish ourselves
from those who think that
the human spirit
and the human mind
is all there is.
We could be Christian humanists
that have a high regard for human potential
and still hold the divine presence
within the human mind and spirit,
but our Baptismal Covenant says we
and serve
God in all persons.
That’s pretty clear.

So we are neither Christian exclusivist’s
who insist that we have the only game in town;
nor are we agnostic
about the presence of God in our midst
and within us.
we seek
and serve
God in all persons.

Promise four is the expression of love as a verb.
It is not a HOW TO
that tells us exactly what love is,
but it is a DO
that tips us off to the knowledge that love is a verb.
If we wish to practice Christianity
rather than just believe some ideas about Christianity,
then we have something very specific to DO:
seek God in all persons
and serve God in all persons –
seeking and serving, by the way,
is exactly how we love our neighbor as ourselves.

Allow me to reach back to the star metaphor.
Holding the idea or belief that God is in all people
without actually putting that into practice
by seeking out
and serving others,
is like that light from a star ten thousand years ago:
it’s unattainable and ghostly.

Having the idea that God is in all people
is nice and fluffy and sounds lovely
but it is meaningless
until we start seeking God
in the people with whom we live and work and play,
and among the people who we don’t think
look, act, or smell like God.
We have to go looking for God
maybe, as the song says, “in all the wrong places.”
We need to go looking for God in other people
for this to become a practice
instead of just a nice idea.

we have to find ways
to actually serve those people
so we can experience the presence of God ourselves.
But I want to suggest it goes deeper than service.

The goal is to build relationships with people
that the economy and the culture keep us away from.
Just serving people
from whom we live segregated lives
allows us to be paternal and maternal
and one-sided in our actions.
We give-they receive.
Not so good.

But to build relationships of mutuality
across boundaries which others keep,
not only enables us to experience God
it also helps to subvert those boundaries.
Subverting boundaries
sounds a lot more like practicing Jesus.
And practicing Jesus
is what the Baptismal Covenant is about.

So seeking God
and seeking to serve God in others
happens best and most often
when we find ways
to be in relationship with other people,

Including relationships that cross boundaries.
Relationships puts legs on
what is otherwise a nice idea,
or allows the twinkle from a star of the distant past
to become actual light.

For those of you who volunteer
at the Linden Exchange,
if you have not already done so,
is there a way to form a relationship of mutuality
with some of your customers?
Can some of those customers be invited
to volunteer and work with you as peers instead of customer only?
Breaking down boundaries like that
is what promise number four is all about.

For those who have not volunteered
with the TAAP program yet,
is there a way for you to do so,
and interact with the children in such a way
that builds a relationship
in which you become a learner with them?

If you support Hillary, or Bernie was your guy,
is there a Trump supporter you can find a way
to be in relationship with,
and grow in understanding will one another?
That will be subversive.

Are you a “Blue Lives Matter” partisan?
How about building a relationship
with a “Black Lives Matter” advocate?
If you are too scared or angry to do so,
it is exactly what is needed in order to serve God
and love your neighbor.

If you do not know where to go
or how to begin crossing such boundaries
and forming such relationships,
the easiest and most accessible thing you can do
around here anyway, is go
to Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church
on Tuesday evenings at 6:30 PM for Tools of Change.
People of all ages, races, ethnicities, and genders
meet there to reach across boundaries
and form relationships.
If you don’t want to go alone,
then ask someone else here to go with you.
I will go with you.

Some of us form relationships across boundaries
every day of our lives
and do not need to go looking for new ways
to seek and serve God.

Some of us have done it in other stages of our lives
and are in a season that requires us emphasis
on one of the other promises of the covenant.

But whatever stage of life we are in,
whatever our work or challenge in life may be,
no matter what we do
or where we do it, we have been sent to serve.
If we were baptized
then we have been sent to serve.

If we take our baptism seriously,
or would like to take it more seriously,
then we know, we have been sent to serve.

If we are interested in the practice
of Christian spiritual wisdom,
then we need to embrace the fact
that we have been sent to serve.

Whether the circumference of our life
is a 20 by 20 foot room,
or we have unlimited mobility and means,
we have been sent to serve
and we can find more and better ways to do it.

That is the challenge and opportunity of Promise number four.

Next week,
which also coincides
with the conclusion of our parish retreat,
we will end with a focus on Promise Five.