Luke 3:15-17; 21-22 (NRSV)
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
So, what did you think about last week’s annual meeting? Wasn’t the food great? No surprise there. Weren’t the table conversations wonderful? No surprise there. Weren’t the larger conversations about budget and pastoral salary issues depressing? No surprise there? Perhaps this was one of the more unusual annual meetings you’ve experienced in a while.
From my perspective the reality is that it is all great stuff. Even the hard parts are a blessing with sticky issues out on the table to be talked about, thought about, fretted over, and prayed over. That’s all part of the messiness of this interim, soul-searching time in the life of First Christian Church in Las Cruces, New Mexico – facing hard and difficult times.
It’s no wonder we don’t like change. Change and growth can be challenging and messy. Church decline can be challenging and messy. Growing pains can also be challenging and messy. This discernment time is challenging and messy – that is a reality. You have looked back to where you’ve been and how you got here and that was by making the best decisions for First Christian Church with the information you had that brings you to the now where you are realistically and faithfully looking toward to the future of this congregation.
You’ve looked at financial resources this year and the decline in pledges and income is a shock that is raising fear in many of us. How will we manage? Do we need such a large facility? How will we get more members? What can we do to keep afloat? What does a minister really do with all his or her time? These are all important questions, yet these may not be the most significant questions to be asking at this time.
Your walk into the future need not be hinged on declining membership or money. Your walk into the future need not be a walk in fear and worry. Maybe we can we reframe these things to ask: What happens when you walk into the future in faith, prayer, discernment and expectation? So, perhaps the more significant question for discernment at this time is what is your mission? Why are you here? Many of the table conversations you had last Sunday focused on looking at what you already do: what you do with this wonderful campus and all the ministries you support; what you do to support both denominations; what you do within the community of Las Cruces; and what you do on a much broader scale. Does what you actually do – your mission – reflect your vision statement? It appears to me that it does. It appears to me that you not only say what your mission is, but you also do it. You actually walk the talk.
Perhaps you’ve heard that quote from SWC minister, Bill Lyons, that “money follows mission”. And you may remember from a recent sermon that saying God loves you is not what brings people to church, but how you reflect God’s love through what you do – your mission – has much more potential. So the statement that money follows mission is hard to realize when you’re looking at a tough budget. It’s hard to realize that you already have all the resources you need to continue to be successful in your mission. It’s hard to realize that miracles do happen and that budgets are met when you continue to walk the talk by looking outward rather than inward.
Faith is also a part of this journey into discernment. Discernment is the ability to judge well, and with a view to obtaining spiritual guidance and understanding. Discernment is not the time to rush to a decision but is a time of reflection and prayer, asking for God’s guidance and light to be shed before you. And that is what you are doing – slowing down and taking the time to make wise decisions as a community of faith.
I know you are anxious to hire a new pastor to settle down together and that person to help guide you into the future. That will happen. Maybe in God’s time rather than in your time. And during this time – to quote a Dr. Seuss book title: Oh, The Places You’ll Go! through this time of discernment and prayer and questioning in your hearts, not by ignoring realities but facing them and working through them and knowing all will be well – whatever you decide – all will be well.
Another part of today’s scripture that caught my attention is the fact that on the day Jesus was baptized the people were filled with expectation trying to discern who this Jesus was. A discernment time also brings with it a sense of excitement and hope. Expectation is a wonderful word. Expectations can trigger our imagination to what can be – many vision statements reflect a great sense of expectation based in hope and faith. The down side is that sometimes we expect things to be or happen in a certain way.
So sometimes when our expectations are not met we are faced with the sense of disappointment. We all know that sense of being disappointed with the weather, or in a movie, a meal, a situation, a person, a relationship. But expectation also brings with it hope – hope for the present and hope for the future. What expectations are you filled with today? What are the hopes that you hold now and carry into the future? And how is your faith engaged in the process?
And speaking of expectations, there is one expectation myth I’d like to dispel through this process. It’s one that even Kim Fields-Haley and I had a conversation about this during our time together this week. It is the expectation that the new minister will take care of all these worries and bring in oodles of new people and “save” the church. That is not how it works and is really a burden to place those expectations on a minister’s shoulders because then if these expectations fail, the minister is seen as being at fault. The role of the minister is to help guide and equip you – the congregation – in concrete and faithful ways to fulfill the mission of the church. You are the key – not the minister.
Maybe you remember the story I shared quite a while ago about the woman who could see in me something I couldn’t see in myself? No, I don’t have a crystal ball, but I see you and the potential is there – you’ve got what it takes. So as you pray for God’s guidance for this congregation, pray for your own spiritual stamina as well.
Today’s scripture focus is on Jesus’ baptism. Those present that day were filled with expectation and needed to discern for themselves who this Jesus was. One commentator (Ernest Hess; Feasting on the Word; year C, vol 1) noted that this expectation was not new then or now. The following commentary was written 10 years ago in 2009 – not yesterday. Hess wrote: “The hope for someone who can lead the people out of their current difficulties is a recurrent theme in human experience and history, especially when elections are at hand, economies are down, or nations are at war.”
As far as a savior goes – Jesus is the real deal. The superpowers of the comic book, fiction, and movies are not. Elected officials including presidents of countries, are not. Presidents of corporations, are not. Ministers, are not. Ministers, however, try to faithfully do the work entrusted to us by congregations. Our faith and trust – all of us – rests in God – Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. “And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In his Baptism by John, Jesus did not cut in front of the line asking for special privileges – but humbly stood in line waiting his turn. His posture at the time of baptism was one of quiet and prayer – a spiritual practice of leaning toward God in all things.
Can you hear and embrace that God the Creator, God the Christ, and God the Holy Spirit is talking to you when you hear these words: “You are my son, you are my daughter, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
As you continue to walk and work through this murky process, may you affirm the gifts you have been given in this place and in this time. May you recognize that you are continuing to fulfill your mission even as you discern the “what next” question as you walk into the future. And most importantly know that whatever that decision is – that God loves you and walks with you now and always – because you are the beloved. Amen.
Copyright DMC, 2019