“Free to Take Hold of Life”
Thanksgiving weekend was more than a month ago, and we are beginning to think about and anticipate Advent and Christmas. But our American friends are just getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving this week. It is an interesting recapitulation that today’s Gospel passage is the same one that we read and studied on our Thanksgiving Sunday, just as our neighbours are coming to their Thanksgiving.
Jesus invites us to set our worries aside, and to think about today instead of fretting about tomorrow. On Thanksgiving Sunday, I suggested that thankfulness might be the opposite of worry, and I encouraged us to let our hearts be filled to overflowing with gratitude so there could be no room for anxious worrying.
But just a couple of weeks after I preached that sermon, I found that some of our Board and Session members were indeed worrying. They were worrying about our church finances, and worrying that if we didn’t do something to change our course, we might end the year with another deficit that could cause us some significant problems for the future.
Now, you might assume that the reason for this month’s Stewardship-themed services is a desperate attempt on our part to boost offerings and avoid a deficit. But, in fact, the Stewardship Committee reviewed the Stewardship materials and decided to use them way back in the Spring before we knew where things would be at in November.
Of course we need people to give to the ministry and mission of the church in order to keep on having a functional church with paid staff, programs, and a building. But that’s not why the Stewardship Committee exists, nor is it the reason we decided to focus on stewardship in our worship through most of the month of November.
We actually believe that stewardship is a vital aspect of our Christian faith. We believe that generous giving from our resources of time, talent, and treasure is the way of life to which we are called as followers of Jesus. We believe that it is in giving ourselves away for others that we will discover the true, meaningful, purposeful, and full life to which God has called us. And that is why we are talking about stewardship all through this month.
At our Synod Conference a few weeks ago on the topic of Church Revitalization, our keynote speaker, the Rev. Dr. Ross Lockhart from the Vancouver School of Theology suggested that churches should start making baptism and church membership much more difficult.
He noted the fact that many congregations receive new members and conduct baptisms with very little preparation for the newcomers and very few requirements before they are formally received. And he recommended that we should be taking baptism and church membership much more seriously because following Jesus is serious business, a life-changing decision, and a call to give up our lives in order to take up a new life in Christ.
When I preach about baptism, I enjoy celebrating that baptism is an initiation and a welcome into the church family. And as I pour water over the head of an infant or an adult, I am very aware of the grace of God that continues to wash us clean from our sin and equips us to be Jesus’ faithful disciples. It is a privilege to speak the name of a beloved child of God at a baptism, and to remember the promised gift of the Holy Spirit in that child’s life to bless, and encourage, and guide her all the days of her life.
But last month when Clara Beauregard cried and cried through her baptism, I commented that it was a very appropriate response to such an event. Perhaps she knew what her parents were getting her into… that the way of Jesus is not easy, or simple, or convenient.
Baptism by immersion makes it much more obvious that what we are doing by choosing this way of life is a big deal. Presbyterians tend to keep our rites fairly simple and straightforward, without too much fuss or messiness. I remember when I was a teenager and my minister was preparing to conduct a fairly rare adult baptism. He confided to my mother (who worked as the church secretary at that time) that he was a bit worried about it. He had noticed that the woman he was going to baptize wore quite a bit of make-up, and he was concerned that if he used too much water he might mess up her face.
Well, it seems to me that if becoming a Christian doesn’t even disturb your make-up then it can’t be much of a change. It can’t be too big a deal. And that just isn’t true.
Baptism by immersion might be messy, and awkward, and a bit of a hassle, but it definitely highlights an important meaning of baptism. “Living Faith,” the little green booklet in the pews, provides a Presbyterian perspective on the meaning of baptism that would be shared by most Christians and Churches. Section 7.6 begins with this paragraph:
“Baptism is a sign and seal of our union with Christ
and with his church.
Through it we share
in the death and resurrection of Christ
and are commissioned to his service.”
Through baptism, we share in the death and resurrection of Christ. A sprinkle of water on the head may not feel like death, but being pushed down under the water comes closer. That descent into a place where we cannot breathe, where we cannot live, represents our dying with Christ.
And then when we are pulled back up into the air and light above, we rise with him also, and begin a new life in Christ… a life of service, a life of living for God’s purposes, a life of giving our gifts and ourselves for God’s mission in the world.
Perhaps you remember the passage in which some of Jesus’ lead disciples start asking about getting to sit in prominent positions next to Jesus in his kingdom. In that case, Jesus asks them if they are willing to drink the cup that he is going to drink – if they are willing to go through the kind of suffering that he will experience for the sake of his mission. And he asks them if they are willing to be baptized as he will be baptized.
He isn’t, of course, asking them if they want to participate in a nice, clean, simple church ritual with some sprinkling of water, prayers, and songs of blessing. He is asking them if they are willing to give up their lives. He is asking them if they are willing to die as he will die.
In his letter to the Roman Church, the Apostle Paul makes it clear that baptism is about the dramatic reality of dying and rising with Christ. He asks: “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
In Paul’s description, it is our old life that is dying… our old life in which we were enslaved to sin, and selfishness, and evil desires. In our new life in Christ, we are free. We are free to serve God. We are free to give generously. We are not afraid to risk, or to sacrifice, or to give ourselves away for the sake of God and God’s mission because we trust and believe that we will always be in God’s care. No matter what happens… because Christ was raised, we will be raised.
When Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, which we also read from this morning, he was suffering and struggling in prison. He didn’t have the problem of a possible deficit in the church budget, but he had the problem of trying to be a church leader from prison, with the looming possibility that he might be put to death.
But rather than worry, and rather than get focussed on trying to get help for himself to solve his own problems, he kept on giving his life for Christ’s mission, and doing the work of an apostle by writing letters of encouragement and advice to the Christian Churches.
And he told the Philippians to rejoice. He said it twice, just to make sure they knew how important it was: Rejoice! He told them not to worry, but to pray instead. He told them not to dwell on their troubles, but to focus on what is good, and true, and pure, and pleasing, and commendable, and excellent, and worthy of praise.
He told them to keep on doing the things that they had learned from him… things like loving God and one another, things like sharing the good news about Jesus, things like caring for the poor… And he told them that they would experience the peace of God. He didn’t suggest that all their problems would go away, or that everything would go well for them… but he promised them peace.
In a few minutes, we will present our gifts and offerings to God as we do every Sunday. But today, we’re invited to do it in a distinctly non-Canadian way. Like our sisters and brothers in many African churches do regularly, we are invited today to dance our offerings to the front of the church as we sing together.
If the idea of this is too much for you, or you’re unable to make the journey to the front, you can feel free to pass your offering to a neighbour to deliver to the offering plates at the front of the church.
But don’t worry if you don’t have a money offering to present today, or if you give through PAR and don’t have an envelope. I want to invite you to think of this offering as an offering of your whole self – your body, mind, spirit, gifts, talents, and time – for Christ’s mission in our church and beyond.
Perhaps there is something that you’ve been holding back or holding on to out of fear or worry. Please use this time of offering, and this physical act of singing and dancing your offerings to the front, as a way of committing yourself to give whatever it is that you are holding on to and guarding for yourself.
Perhaps it will be a more generous percentage of your income for the ministry of our church and Christ’s mission in the world. Perhaps it will be a commitment to take time for weekly worship, daily prayer, or regular study of the scriptures. Perhaps it will be a promise to share God’s love through a volunteer role, or to share your faith with your family, friends, or co-workers. Perhaps it will simply be a way for you to declare to God that you want to spend more of your energy and attention on looking for ways to serve others than on serving yourself.
May you experience the freedom that comes from taking hold of the life that truly is life – for you have died and been raised with Christ to live in freedom and peace. Amen.