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“Mission: a Movement for Improvement,” Sunday of Joy, Third Advent, Dec. 13, 2009

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Sunday of Joy, Advent III – December 13th 2009

Zepheniah 3:14-20 Psalm Isaiah 12:3-6 Phil 4:4-7 Luke 3:7-18

Mission: a Movement for Improvement

I listened to NPR’s Forum program, with Dave Iverson, Friday morning about a certain Greg Mortenson, who promised to build a school for a remote village in Afghanistan, after its people had nursed him back to health. He had failed climbing the second highest mountain in the world, K2, a particularly treacherous peak and wandered lost into their village. What an inspiring story his is! The book Three Cups of Tea describes what he experienced and what he did. Relationships, strong relationships are the key, he said. With the first cup of tea, you are a stranger; with the second, you are a guest; and with the third, you have a relationship, a friend. He did not only succeed in building that school for the village called Korphe, but he has started a movement, where hundreds of girl schools have been built and in the most remote areas of the world.

“Educate a boy,” he said, “and you educate an individual. Educate a girl and you educate, a village, a community.” We men need to look at ourselves. I remember, my sisters would all go into the bathroom together and I could hear them talk and talk. We boys always went into the bathroom by ourselves alone. It was unthinkable to allow someone into our private space and we really couldn’t talk with each other. I wonder why we were like that?

The fellow in Three Cups of Tea started a movement of improvement, that’s for sure. He saw eighty-two children sitting in the dirt that they called their school and they had no teacher. One teacher was shared by two villages. The children sat there without a teacher, scratched their multiplication tables into the dirt with sticks. Some few had slate tablets to write on. When Greg saw that, he promised to build them a school. He came back here to the East Bay, lived in his car, worked until he had 3,000 dollars; school children had emptied their piggy banks to help him, and now hundreds of schools have opened up with the slogan, “Books, not bombs.” If you want to know the end of the story, read the book! (That’s how we ended some book reports.)

What an inspiring story! I’m rather proud that he was a son of Lutheran missionaries in Tanzania, because he started a movement of improvement.

John the Baptizer started a movement as well, as we can see from our passages in the Gospel of Luke. His baptism was a call to repentance. The Jews considered themselves the chosen people. They felt that the Goyim, the Gentiles, they needed baptism, not us Jews. They were unclean and needed to be baptized; they needed to be purified with the washing for becoming fresh new human beings. Or be totally immersed in order to drown the old self and arise up out of the water into a new self. John confronted his own people, the people of his own religion and said, “Don’t tell me you have Abraham as a father! God can call children out of these stones. John was making a pun. The word for “stones” in Hebrew is eben and the word for “son” is ben, so you could get a ben from an eben, so you hear the Hebrew.

But truthfully, we have to challenge ourselves as Christians as John challenged his own. When we have been lying around in the garden of our religion a long while, we can be like fruitless stones, blocking and preventing the growth of the good plants in the garden. As the declaration goes, “We accuse ourselves for not standing up to our beliefs more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, for not loving more ardently” (The Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt, 1945).

When we do not bear fruit, then the ax is laid to the root of the tree. Only because God is merciful, are we not chopped down to the ground. The roots can stand for several things. One way to understand our roots, like Alex Haley, is that they mean our ancestors. The way the Jews said that they had Abraham as their father, we might say, we’ve had Will Herzfeld as our pastor and Julius Carroll. Or we might say, “We’ve been members of this church for a long while.” John lays the ax to your roots and says,” It means nothing if you do not bear fruit.

To bear fruit, we have to have been born of the water and the spirit. Your natural ancestors do not give you the power from on high. Face it, some parents can be natural disasters. But even good parents can hold you back, because to become a child of God, you become conceived by the heavenly Father, become born, nourished, and mothered by the Holy Spirit, and your big brother, Jesus puts his arm around you.

Jesus actually speaks of hating your mother, father, sisters, and brothers. Jesus’ family thought him to be crazy and wanted to take him home. “Who are my mother and brothers and sisters? Those who do the will of my Father in heaven.” Jesus responds. At one point in our journey that detachment becomes necessary, because natural families want you to be rooted in them rather than in God. But we have to be rooted in God, if we want to start a movement of improvement.

Some parents are in the right place and are very Christian. Yet and still a person has to be born of the water and the spirit for him or herself, like, you can’t stay in the nest and grow up too. A chick has to break out of its shell to start out in life.

When you have become a child of God, then you can rightly love, respect, and honor your parents, too, because you’ve become a good plant in the garden. By giving you a natural birth and natural relationships of nurture, your parents want for you, what in the end only God can give you, and that is, the upbringing of your life, the wonderful new life in which we grow and mature as children of God in the stature of Christ. And bearing fruit is our mission, and a mission is a movement for the improvement of this sorry war-torn and violence-riven world.

Let’s take another metaphor. When we are baptized we enter the song of our salvation. At best naturally, each generation is one new verse in the same family song. Some families, however, suffer six generations of alcoholism. The little rhyme goes, like father, like son, an awful second verse, a little louder, a little worse. That goes for daughters too, of course. But in the power of our baptisms, we are translated out of a song of addiction or destruction and into the song of salvation that Isaiah sings about.

What must we do to be saved? If Bethlehem stood before that voice crying in the wilderness, the way John first hurled insults at them, imagine if he hurled those insults at us? – saying, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee the wrath that is to come?” How would we respond? I don’t know if I could take it. In boot camp, the drill sergeant calls the new recruits, “You maggots!” They break down the human being and put together a soldier, who takes orders, is ready to kill and be killed, or so they hope. As Christians we have to become the new selves who give life, penetrating through uniformity to inner unity. We have to get through the uniforms and into the heart!

With shaking knees, we’d have to go down before John the grizzly Baptist, into the cold water and feel like it was going to snuff the dear life out of us, then just surrender and go all the way under, and see all the bubbles float up over our head, and know that we are lost; then lo and behold, the right hand of God lifts us back up out of the water into the fresh new risen life of being a Christ to our neighbor. Baptism is a movement of improvement, that’s for sure.

So Bethlehem, too, goes up to this formidable figure in the wilderness and asks, What must we do to be saved? Surely we are saved by grace. We see what God has already done for us and there was nothing we needed to do there but let it happen to us, go through it, face the music that let God take us out of our old existence and straighten us up in our new one. But while this is the first thing, our baptism, it is not the last thing. Now that we have been changed and we have the freedom of Christians, what will we have the freedom to do? Greg Mortenson, the fellow who bore so much fruit, was free to live in his car, and go back and build that first school, then another and another.

When the people asked John what they should do, he answered mostly with economics. If you have two garments, give someone without any, one of yours. Now, giving our clothes is not too much of a need here. We had so much trouble giving away all the clothes we got. So that is not the need here. John says, if you have food, do likewise. Really the poor are helping the poor in this story. If you gave away one garment and you had only one left, then you were still cold, but your neighbor would now no longer die of exposure.

There are more and more people going into poverty among us and we have to have three cups of tea with some people before we discover their real needs and be able to be of real help. The secret is forming relationships and learning to listen to each other, so that the lives and needs of others become visible to us and shared by us. Greg Mortenson learned to see with the eyes of his heart. We have to remember where we came from and what we went through when we were having hard times. Remember when we were young and needed a job? They said we needed experience and no one gave a person a job to get experience. Or you ask a group of older people, when do you plan to retire? They answer, “We’re unemployed, what job can we retire from?” We have to give people a break, young and older, people need another chance and we have enough backing from God and all our blessings to do that. Thank God, some leaders in this congregation have had the courage to give someone another chance. It can be sheer suffering to do it, when a person fails again, but that all adds to the music of our witness! Compassion never leaves us without suffering. It is suffering with someone else, bearing with them until they are borne.

Have you seen The Blind Side with Sandra Bullock and Quinto Aaron? He’s the big guy, I think. There is a triumph of compassion in the very courageous response that Sandra and her family show in the face of real human need. There were times in the movie, where we could not prevent our tears from streaming down our faces. Why do we flee from need rather than facing and responding to it?

Once I invited a needy person into our house, our foster house, like that. He was a very strange fellow, and he walked through the dark rooms of the house in the night with a large kitchen knife and scared us all half to death. The mother told me that if I let somebody crazy overnight again like that, I’d have to leave.

Never imitate, you always have to respond in a God given way, the way for which God gives you a talent. But respond you must. In Luther’s words, “[Faith] is a mighty, active, restless, and busy thing, which immediately renews the person, gives a second birth, and leads the person into new ways and into new being. It is impossible for this same self not to do good works continuously, spontaneously without interruption” (WA 10.3:285.24-30). When your baptism takes, you can’t help responding.

Mostly John answers the people with Old Testament Law and with Christ, we have to ascend up into the Gospel for life. As our commentary says, “Even judgment is good news, when forgiveness and repentance are available” (Crossmarks). As in football, every play is supposed to be a touchdown, so everyone who is baptized is supposed to become a Christ to his or her neighbors, just like Greg Mortenson, who is building schools all over the world.

Now what makes a man live in his car and work to fulfill a promise to build a school in a remote village filled with poverty? He saw the need. He shared three cups of tea with the people, formed a genuine relationship with them by listening hard to what they were saying. We need to pray that God reveal to Bethlehem the needs of the people who are in this place, then take up a mission, and formulate a mission statement that everyone can take to heart and do.

If Bethlehem does not have a mission now, will it have one with a new pastor? Will it ask the new pastor if he or she has a mission? If you have no real mission, won’t Bethlehem just flounder even with a new pastor? Pastor Richard’s word “membership-driven” is a good one. We are the priesthood of all believers, remember? Thank God some leaders of Bethlehem are responding powerfully. But the members of this congregation need to do evangelism and stewardship. Are you leaving that to the new pastor? But how will a church get members if it does not have a mission? We have to discover a need and respond with mission and then we will receive the vision, in which we will see our way. Without a vision, the people perish. Mortenson had a mission and his whole purpose in life concentrated on fulfilling it.

John said that he was not the Messiah to come. He baptized with water, but the Christ would baptize with wind and fire. The word for “spirit” Ruach in Hebrew, can also mean breath, wind, and spirit. When I read that I thought of the fires that rage in the hills here and the wind storms that make them rage and swallow up one house after another in a raging inferno.

Christ is a firebrand come to set our hearts on fire! Have you heard Natalie Merchant sing, “Your house is on fire”? The Holy Spirit is a creative fire, like the fire that Moses saw in the burning bush that did not consume the branches, but called and created the people of God. This is a fearful fire full of love and compassion that caught up in the wind of the Holy Spirit can engulf one house after another here in Oakland and the East Bay, beginning with the Flatlands this time and not the skyline hill tops. Can’t Bethlehem start that loving and gentle fire and don’t we wish it could already be burning? We need such a fiery movement of faithful improvement.

Now in whatever way God is calling and baptizing each of us, because God is not finished with us yet, know that when we repent, receive forgiveness, our response sets God and all the angels rejoicing. Listen to the Prophet Zephenaiah: God will exult over those who repent and respond, so that the feet of our God will set to dancing. God will burst into song. It is God loudly singing for us, over those who stride into their divine nature as children of God, who are born not of the blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of human will, but born of God (John 1:13). God bursts into the song of those who did not put a new verse into an old song, but sang the new song of joy, the song of salvation, because the Lord of Song, is rejoicing over the new born children of God and all the glorious fruit they can’t help bearing with the strength that comes down to them from on high. Amen.

Communion Blessing: We’re saved! How come? We are baptized!


Written by peterkrey

December 13, 2009 at 11:22 pm

Posted in Selected Sermons

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