Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
This past Monday evening, the Board of Elders of our church had an interesting discussion about our 2010 operating budget, the one that is about to be proposed to you for your approval. I don’t guess I’m saying anything surprising when I tell you that this difficult economy has all of us concerned about what’s ahead. Many of you are involved with non-profit, service organizations that are struggling to make ends meet at exactly the time when needs are increasing significantly. Some of you live in households where you’re struggling to make ends meet. It’s happening in our household, too. To honor the commitments that are most important to us, like tithing to the church, and financially supporting some of our loved ones, Warren and I are paring back on some other things. It’s an interesting process. Once we get past the feeling of being deprived, and detach ourselves from the tentacles of the advertising industry that has addicted our culture to new, ready-to-dispose-of things, we’re finding that spending less is kind of rewarding. Of course, we’re still going through that process from a position of significant privilege. Our cars, home, and conduct are all insured, as are our bodies. I flew out to Minnesota to visit my family. Warren is flying to Florida soon to visit his. Our house is warm and when we called a furnace service person the other night, one came quickly, fixed the problem, and left a bill, extending automatic credit. We’re a little concerned about my tires so we’re going to get new ones tomorrow. When I flip a switch, the lights turn on. When I turn the tap, warm water flows out. We have enough unread books on our shelves to last all the rest of the winter. I have enough fabric, yarn, and quilt stuffing to keep me in crafting bliss for years. In other words, cutting back hasn’t deprived us of much at all.
Still, like the Board of Elders, we fall prey to the anxiety swirling around us that money is scarce and we’re living on borrowed time.
My brother and his wife live in a very large home in St. Paul. Their children are grown, living in their own homes, and my brother and sister-in-law are employed in secure jobs that pay very well. My sister-in-law’s sister however, is in financial trouble. Her marriage ended, and she has a son, unhappy and underemployed in another part of the country, and a daughter just starting college. She lost her high-paying job and since then, her car, her house, her health insurance, and her savings account. She now lives in my brother’s home, looking for work and, if she finds it, building herself back up to where she can live independently again. And she will do that, a guest of my brother and sister-in-law’s hospitality and generosity. But the thing that makes this interesting to me, is that for my brother, this was not a decision. It was just a routine offer to share without thinking about the long-term repercussions, like picking up the tab at a restaurant or offering a ride on a cold morning. She may be living with them for a long time. Nodding, my brother would be waiting for the rest of that observation. Yes, maybe, and…?
Dartmouth is on the brink of announcing some draconian budget cuts. Lots of people are worried about it. No doubt some people, maybe lots of people, will lose their jobs. Some services will be cut back. Some programs will be eliminated or delayed which will mean some people will take on more work for less pay. More costs will be shifted from employer to employee. No decisions have been announced yet – just that the cuts will be significant. God bless Dartmouth for its process. The mighty green giant has created a culture of anxiety, hostility and dread, and none of us are immune. I don’t mean that we are all going to be personally affected by the economic repercussions of the cutbacks. We are, however, all affected by this atmosphere of dread. Dartmouth is not solely responsible, of course. The future looked a little grim before Dartmouth announced its apparently transparent budget cuts. Still, the waiting is unnerving.
While I was in Minnesota, I visited my sister, too. She’s a teacher in a small, conservative, western Minnesota community. The night before I got there, she was picketing with a few other teachers outside the building where union negotiators were negotiating teacher salaries. They’re hoping for 6.5%. That sounds excessive to a lot of people in her town. You’re complaining about 6.5%? But the 6.5% is for the total package, and with a high increase in insurance premiums and shifting more and more costs over to the school employees, 6.5% may actually mean a lower take home pay than last year. The teachers in her union are probably going to accept that, but it goes down hard, especially because the superintendent in her town is receiving a 20% increase, and that’s why they were picketing on a below zero night.
Today’s gospel reading from Luke puts us on the banks of the Jordan River where John was baptizing people. Some of the Jews wondered whether John might be the Messiah. No, he told them. The Messiah to come will be much more powerful. He will baptize with Spirit and fire. He will clear the threshing floor. He will burn the residue in an unquenchable fire. The winnowing Messiah will cleave the oppressors from the oppressed, the righteous from the false prophets, the holy from the profane, the faithful from the opportunists.
But do not fear. God is with you. You have been redeemed. You have been called by name. You belong to God. The author of the section of Isaiah’s prophecy Sally read a moment ago is clear that the exile in which the Israelites were living was a situation of their own making. Faithlessness had caused their dire straights. But, even though you brought this down upon yourselves, God has not abandoned you, not forsaken you. In spite of whatever you have done, you have already been redeemed.
It’s a strange juxtaposition of passages today. Jesus was anointed by God at his baptism and we are reminded by the Scriptures that pre-date Jesus that no matter what we have done or what will happen to us, God is still with us. Both texts speak of judgment and harsh times. The day of God’s coming, the signs of God’s presence will not be sweet. Whatever protection comes with baptism, will not protect you. The shield of God will not keep terrible events from occurring. We will not be spared trial, suffering, sickness, betrayal, even death. Jesus was not spared those things. Neither will we be spared those things. The shield of God’s love will not keep us from the experience of being human. The anointing of God’s blessing will not protect us from enemies. The embrace of Christian community will not keep the community free of the nuisances, squabbles and short tempers of communal life. And it won’t guarantee fiscal health.
You know, life is one particular moment of time after another. At a particular moment in time, a sperm and egg collided and we were each created. At a particular moment in time, we were knocked down on a playground. At a particular moment in time, our brains lit up with the understanding that black strokes on a white page coalesce into words and stories and formulas. At a particular moment in time, we fell in love, and maybe we are still in love with that same person or maybe that particular moment in time was doomed to disappointment but still, it was pretty fun during those first romantic, sexy, giddy weeks and months, wasn’t it? At a particular moment in time, we felt the need for a community of faith, a group of people who were seeking, like us, and struggling to make sense of mysterious things, and join us in the struggle for justice and peace. So, when we were created at conception, was that the last time something miraculous happened to our bodies? When we were knocked down on the playground, was that the last time we stood up again and dusted ourselves off? When we first understood all about Dick and Jane and Spot, was that the last sentence that struck awe in our minds at the wonder of the written word? When we first fell in love, was that the last time we ever experienced love? When we were first called into the church, was that the last time we needed to be with each other, working together on our faith?
At a particular moment in time, Jesus was baptized. At a particular moment in time he was betrayed. At a particular moment in time he was murdered. Are those the only meaningful experiences we know of our Savior?
Life is full of particular moments. Some of them are magnificent. Some of them are excruciating. Most of them are just life, the taste of oranges, the warmth of an afghan, filling the car with gas, going to the hospital for one thing or another, taking out the recycling, writing notes to friends, going to class, either to teach or to learn, humming a favorite song, walking the dog, helping kids with homework, preparing budgets, practicing the piano, napping, reading the newspaper, shoveling your neighbor’s walk, cleaning your kitchen, taking a walk, recovering from a cold, meeting with your book group. This anticipation of Dartmouth’s budget cuts is a particular moment in time. This recession is another one.
We will make what we will of every particular moment in time. So will God. I think that’s what Luke was trying to say when he told us that the heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” At that particular moment in time, God loved Jesus so much, that Jesus couldn’t help but do God’s will. At this particular moment in time, God loves us in that same passionate way. I wonder what we will do with this particular moment. Amen.