Growing Into Our Baptism

NOTE: There will be much talk about Star Wars in this sermon, but NO SPOILERS about the new film.

I’ve never known a world without Star Wars. I was born in the same year that The Empire Strikes Back was released. As a little kid, I saw the movies and played with the toys. My younger brother and I would dress up as the characters. Since I was the taller one, I would put on a football helmet and tie a towel around my neck and become Darth Vader. My brother would be Luke Skywalker. Then our dad would put on his Star Wars disco record (and yes, it was still a record) and we would duel in the living room with plastic baseball bats as lightsabers. As I got older, I would re-watch the movies with my friends and read the novels and comic books. Several of us got together and played a Dungeons and Dragons style role-playing game based on the movies. When I was nineteen years old, I met my wife in the same week that Episode I: The Phantom Menace came out. I won’t lie: I saw it six times in the theater that summer… and I’ve already been to see The Force Awakens three times since it came out last month.

I’m a lifelong Star Wars fan. There has never been a time in my life when these movies weren’t there. Their presence has been a given in my life, and I made their story my own as I grew up. And now, I get to pass them on to my kids as the saga continues in these new films that are coming out.

Tell you this today, not just to gush about these movies, but because I can see in my love for them something about how Christian faith begins and grows in the Church. And my point will be this: faith begins, not with what we do or believe in relation to God, but with what God does and believes in relation to us.

Today we remember the baptism of Jesus by St. John the Baptist in the river Jordan. Scholars generally agree that this event is the moment when Jesus’ public ministry begins. Jesus’ baptism is, in a sense, his ordination. Especially interesting are the words spoken to Jesus after his baptism: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Jesus’ ministry begins with the message, communicated to him in baptism, that he is loved. That love is a given. It’s just there. It’s the foundation upon which the rest of Jesus’ ministry is built. There is no part of Jesus’ life that is not shaped by this love. Because Jesus is loved, and because he knows he is loved by God, everything else he says and does becomes possible: his teaching, healing, forgiving, welcoming, even dying, and rising again from death. God’s freely given, unconditional love is the source for all of this.

The same is true for you and me. Those words, which God spoke to Jesus at his baptism, God also speaks to you in your baptism: “You are my child, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” God’s love is a given. Like the Star Wars movies, it’s just there. We grow up with it. Most of us take it for granted and never stop to think about how amazing it is.

The sacrament of baptism is how we become conscious of God’s love.

The word baptize comes from the Greek word baptize, which means “to submerge or immerse.” Think about soaking in a bathtub, jumping into a swimming pool, or floating in an ocean. When we are immersed, the water surrounds us on all sides, holds us up, and carries us along in its currents. Now, imagine that the water is God’s love: surrounding you, holding you up, and carrying you along. God’s love washes us clean. The water of baptism is a symbolic representation of that truth. The sacrament of baptism is not a religious merit badge or even a rite of initiation. Baptism does not make God love us; it makes God’s love real to us in a physical way.

The Holy Spirit meets us as we celebrate this sacrament and speaks to each and every one of us the same words that God the Father spoke to Jesus at his baptism: “______, you are my child, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

This, by the way, is the reason why we Presbyterians (along with Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, Lutheran, Methodist, and Anglican Christians) have always been comfortable with the baptism of infants. Whenever a baby is born, we believe that God loves and accepts that child before he or she can say, do, or think anything. We believe the spiritual journey does not begin when a human being makes a conscious decision to search for God, but when God makes a decision to search for us. And the good news, the best news, is that God already made that decision a very long time ago. God says in Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I created you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart.”

The promises we make in baptism, to turn away from sin and turn toward Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, are only ever a response to the grace that God has so freely bestowed upon us. This is why we say that baptism is not a merit badge. It is not something we do for God; it is something God does in us.

In the same way, growth in the Christian faith is not about how much we love God; it’s about realizing how much God loves us. Like Star Wars, God’s love is ubiquitous: it’s just there, all around us. We grow up with it, and we grow into it.

The more we realize just how much God really does love us, and how there really is nothing we can do to about it; the more our lives and our ministries begin to look like Jesus’. Everything Jesus did, from teaching, to healing, to feeding, to welcoming, to forgiving, even to his death and resurrection, was based on this core truth that God loves us and there’s nothing we can do about it.

I pray that we, as a church and as Christians in this world, would realize this same truth in our own lives, and that our lives, one day a time, might begin to look more and more like his life.

Your Focus Determines Your Reality

This morning’s sermon from Boonville Pres!

The text is Numbers 21:4-9.

Click here to listen at

Qui-Gon Jinn, Jedi Knight

As most of you already know, I’m a major science fiction geek.  And for us sci-fi geeks, 1999 was a big year.  Not because it was the end of the millennium, but because that was the year that the new Star Wars movie came out.  We had waited sixteen long years since Return of the Jedi.  Beginning with The Phantom Menace, we would finally get the full back story on Darth Vader.  I remember the week it came out in theaters.  I was at a conference that week in Windy Gap, NC.  As it turns out, that was the very same conference where I met my wife for the first time.  I didn’t get to see the movie until I got home.

When I did finally see it, I made up for lost time.  I went to see The Phantom Menace in the theater no less than six times during that summer.  The acting stunk, but the fight-scene choreography was amazing.  Along with most Star Wars fans, I thought that Jar-Jar Binks was the worst thing to ever happen in cinema history.

In addition to all those big things that happened in The Phantom Menace, there was one little thing that stuck with me.  It was a single line that Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn (played by Liam Neeson) said to little Anakin Skywalker: “Always remember, your focus determines your reality.”

I’ve always liked that line.  It sounds like good advice.  It reminds me of the Israelite people in this morning’s reading from the book of Numbers.  Now, the book of Numbers is part of the Jewish Torah, which is part of what Christians call the Old Testament.  The book of Numbers chronicles the journey of the Israelites as they live a nomadic life in the desert before settling in the Promised Land.

Life in the desert was never easy.  They lived life on the edge, never knowing for sure that their next meal would be there.  The text of the Bible says that God provided regular bread, meat, and water for the people through all kinds of unusual (some might say miraculous) circumstances.  But none of it ever lasted more than a day.  There was no such thing as long-term security for these desert nomads.  The only thing keeping them alive on a daily basis was an interdependent web of the grace of God, the abundance of the earth, and the kindness of strangers.

As the Israelite people made their way through this desert, they did not have the best of attitudes.  In fact, they were whining all the time.  They said to Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can hear myself in those words.  I get an especially big kick out of that last part: “For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”  There is no food and I can’t stand this food!  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve paced around my kitchen, with its fully stocked fridge and cupboard, and said to myself, “There’s nothing to eat in this house!”  Has anybody else here ever done that?  What is the matter with us?  Are we blind?

We modern-day people think we’re so advanced and evolved.  We think we’re better than our ancestors with their immaturity and superstitions.  But then you look at this passage and see that we’re just like them.  “There is no food… and we detest this miserable food.”  “There’s nothing to eat in this house!”  We’re just like them.  They were just like us.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

This, by the way, is how I understand the Bible to function for us as God’s Word.  We see ourselves in it.  Some Christians take that to mean that the Bible is some kind of magic book that can never be wrong.  Personally, I take it to mean that our sacred text is like a mirror through which we can get some perspective on who we are and, by extension, who God is.  Another author, Brian McLaren, says that the Bible is a like a mathematics textbook in school.  It’s not useful because all the answers are written in the back.  It’s useful because, by working through the problems, we become wiser people.  God’s Word to us in the Bible is a living word, not a dead list of dogmas and morals to be accepted without question.

This point becomes important as we look at what happens next in this story from the book of Numbers.  It says, “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”  Now, if we take this story at face value, we very quickly run into some serious problems.  It would lead us to believe that our God is the kind of person who would kill someone just for complaining.  It would also lead us to believe that natural events, like snake bites, happen because God wills it as a form of punishment.  If we really believed all that, we wouldn’t support organizations like Church World Service and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance because we would think the victims of earthquakes and hurricanes were just wicked sinners being punished by God.  But we don’t believe that.  We believe that God is love.  We believe that God stands with those who suffer and with those who work to alleviate suffering in this world.  And our belief in that kind of God leads us to go back and read this passage in a different way.

This story may or may not have been based on actual events, but that’s beside the point.  When the text says that “the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people,” I take it to be a reflection of the Israelites’ state of mind.  The snakes are a symbolic representation of their collective attitude and its effect on their communal life.

Have you ever been around people at work or school who just love to complain about every little thing?  I’m talking about the people who always look for the worst in other people and situations.  How does it feel to be around them?  It’s kind of a drag, isn’t it?  Being around them drains your energy.  It’s like a poison that saps the life right out of you.  Hanging around them kind of feels like walking through a snake pit: you’re just waiting for one to jump out and bite you.  So, when I read this story about people and their attitudes, the snake analogy makes a whole lot of sense to me.

When times are hard, it’s easy to focus on what’s wrong with the world.  It’s easy to get caught up in talking about the good old days or the way you wish things were.  It feels cathartic to let your frustration out (which is a good thing) but when the catharsis becomes a way of life, it can be toxic.  Just as much as honest venting, we also need people who can help us to see what’s right in the world.  They empower us to make things better.  They help us to change our focus.

That’s exactly what the Israelite people needed in today’s story and that’s just what they got.  The text says that, “Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”  Isn’t this interesting: the people of Israel had a poisonous attitude of complaining that was sucking the life out of their community.  So, what’s the cure?  Look up, focus on this, and you will live.  Change your focus in order to change your reality.  It’s like they said in Star Wars: your focus determines your reality.

Let’s fast forward to the New Testament.  We also read a story about Jesus today.  In this story, Jesus is compared to Moses’ bronze serpent on a pole.  It’s the same dynamic as before, except that this time, the thing we’re supposed to focus on is not a symbolic statue but a living, breathing person.  Jesus is, for Christians, the primary revelation of God in the world.  When we want to know what God is like, we look at Jesus.  When we want to become the kind of people we’re meant to be, we look at Jesus.  When we need to remember everything that’s good, right, beautiful, and holy in this world, we focus on Jesus.  When we’re ready to be cured of the poisonous attitudes that infect our minds, our community, and our church, we look at Jesus.

We remember the principles he taught us.  We reflect on his deeds of healing and forgiveness.  We reflect on the love that poured through him to every corner of creation.  We do our best to reorient our lives around Jesus’ vision.  When we feel the snakebite and the poison’s burn, we look up to this man who died with forgiveness on his lips for his murderers and we ask ourselves that famous question: “What would Jesus do?”

Your focus determines your reality.  Change your focus and you change your reality.

There is a story I heard several years ago, but I can’t trace it back to its source.  It takes place in a Nazi concentration camp at the end of World War II.  The camp had already been liberated by the allies, but the survivors were still too weak to be moved.  They stayed in the camp for a little while longer to regain their strength.  They were finally being fed real food and treated with medicine.  For the first time, the gates were open and prisoners could come and go as they pleased.  During this time, two former-prisoners were walking together in the woods around the camp.  They came across a small patch of ground with little baby plant sprouts and young flowers poking up out of the earth.  The first man kept walking right over them, oblivious to their presence.  The second man stopped, looked, and stepped around them.  His friend said, “You mean to tell me that, in spite of everything we’ve been through, you still believe in the meaning and value of life?”  The second man replied, “No, I mean to tell you that, because of everything we’ve been through, I still believe in the meaning and value of life.”  Two men lived through the same horror came out with very different interpretations of their experience.

Two years ago, I had the difficult honor of being both friend and pastor to a young couple who suddenly lost their newborn daughter.  I can’t think of anything else in this world that does more to upset our perception of the goodness and natural order of the universe.  Through that time, I watched this family struggle, question, doubt, cry, and mourn their loss.  As a pastor, I had no answers for them.  In spite of all the Bible and theology I had learned in seminary, nothing could prepare me for that horrible moment.  I could only be there with them in that deafening silence.  There’s just nothing you can say in a moment like that.

What amazed me, as time went on, is how they clung together as a family.  They focused on their love for each other and, through that, found their way back to faith.  In time, this turned into compassion as they reached out to support others in pain. They have been part of support groups for grieving families, they have volunteered to assist the homeless in Utica, and they’ve walked in the March of Dimes in their daughter’s name.  Their compassion has become a point of focus for them.  Through it, their pain has not been erased, but it is being redeemed.

Your focus determines your reality.  When people think about what it means to “have faith,” they usually think about the various beliefs associated with a particular religion.  Faith, they think, is about believing that Jesus walked on water or was born of a virgin.  But those dogmas mainly have to do with what you think.  Faith, as we’re talking about it today, is about how you think.  Do you see the universe as hostile or friendly?  Will you approach life as meaningless or meaningful?

May we, as Christians and people of faith, in seasons of conflict and tragedy, learn to shift our focus to the one who came to show us a vision of what life can be.  May you become an agent of healing from the poisonous attitudes you encounter at home, school, work, or church.  In this soul-sucking culture of toxic vision that only sees what’s wrong with the world, may you be inspired to become a life-giving beacon of faith, hope, and love to all the people around you who so desperately need to hear what you have to say.

Who Wants To Be A Jedi?

Star Wars as a Modern Myth

Yesterday, I was having a lively after-class discussion with my students in the coffee bar at Utica College.  The topic: Star Wars as a modern myth.

While I have nothing but disdain for George Lucas as a megalomaniac and director, I have to tip my hat to him as one of the most brilliant cinematic storytellers of the 20th century.  He intentionally wrote Star Wars according to the mythical pattern laid out by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With A Thousand Faces.  Campbell applied Jungian archetypes to the study of comparative mythology.  He argued that all the major myths of the world’s religions conformed to a pattern that he called the monomyth.

While Campbell specifically mentions the stories of Prometheus, Osiris, Buddha, and Christ, we can identify the monomythical pattern in the more recent works of L. Frank Baum, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and yes, even George Lucas.  Thus, Dorothy Gayle, Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, and Luke Skywalker are all basically the same character.  What makes Star Wars different from the others is that Lucas was directly inspired by Campbell and intentionally wrote Star Wars as a “modern myth” according to Campbell’s pattern.

The Jedi as a Religion

Given that Lucas intentionally designed Star Wars as a myth, it shouldn’t be surprising that an actual religion has arisen around it.

The Jedi have been objects of admiration by many (including myself).  Part monk, part Samurai, and you get to carry a lightsaber.  Who wouldn’t want to convert?

In fact, you can.  The Universal Life Church will gladly ordain you as a legal minister over the internet and, for the low price of $10.99, you can order a certificate that identifies you as a Jedi Knight.  I’m not kidding.  Click here if you’re interested.

For those who are looking for a little more commitment, check out the Jedi Church website.

Around the time that Revenge of the Sith was released, science fiction legend Orson Scott Card published an article on the Jedi as a religion.  The question that Orson Scott Card asks is, if we take the Star Wars movies as the foundational texts for the Jedi religion, what kind of religion can we expect to emerge?  Are the Jedi, as presented in the films, the kind religious order that we would actually like to see?  Card has some fascinating things to say about it.

Click here to read his fantastic article, No Faith in this Force

Elements of Worship: Service

This week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.  Part 3 in a series of 5.

The text is Matthew 16:21-28.

Click here to listen to this sermon at

Star Trek's George Takei (Mr. Sulu). Image by Gage Skidmore.

Did you know that there’s a civil war going on in our country right now?  I’m serious.  There is.  It’s been happening for over thirty years.  Unlike the last Civil War, this one isn’t between the North and South.  You might be thinking, “He means the war between the political Right and the political Left.”  Nope.  Black and White?  Nope.  Haves and Have-nots?  Not even close.  Right now, I’m talking about the bitter divide that exists between Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans.  The geeks and nerds community is a house divided against itself.  My fellow Americans, this cannot be!

I feel so torn in this conflict.  The fight between Star Trek and Star Wars runs right through the center of my own heart.  I dream of one day being beamed aboard the starship Enterprise so that I too can “boldly go where no one has gone before.”  At the same time, I also fantasize about trained as a Jedi by Obi Wan Kenobi.  How can they ask me to choose sides between these two epic artifacts of science fiction lore?

Fortunately, there is one person out there who has issued a call for “Star Peace” and it’s none other than George Takei, the original Mr. Sulu on Star Trek.  He’s calling for a “Star Alliance” of fans from Star Trek and Star Wars who are willing to put aside their differences and fight the real threat to good science fiction: Twilight.  You may have seen the Twilight books and films being advertised in recent years.  For those who haven’t experienced it, Twilight, in George Takei’s own words, is all about “Vampires who sparkle and mope and go to high school.”  In Twilight, according to Takei, there is no “sense of heroism, camaraderie, and epic battle… There are no great stories, characters, or profound life lessons to be had… In Twilight, the only message that rings through loud and clear is: ‘Does my boyfriend like me?’”

Now, I don’t actually care if people like Twilight.  So why am I telling you this?  Why am I taking time out of my sermon to drag you down this wormhole into the darkest depths of the nerd kingdom?  Because I’m very intrigued by the way in which Mr. Takei has criticized Twilight.  Let me give it to you again in his words:

Gone is any sense of heroism, camaraderie, or epic battle.  In its place we have vampires that sparkle and mope and go to high school… there are no great stories, characters, or profound life lessons to be had in Twilight.  No.  In Twilight, the only message that rings through loud and clear is: ‘Does my boyfriend like me?’

What Mr. Takei is saying, in so many words, is that good stories are always bigger than the people in them.

As it is in science fiction, so it is in real life.  Imagine those who live entirely selfish lives with no connection to anyone or anything other than that which maximizes their own personal profit.  The thrill of financial stability lasts for a little while, but wears thin eventually.  Who can’t think of tabloid headlines depicting any number of celebrity scandals brought on by conspicuous consumption and wanton indulgence?  Despite its material benefits, I think most of us can agree that such a life does not sound ultimately appealing.  Something deep within us longs to be part of a bigger story than that of our own little lives.

We’ve been talking about the Elements of Worship these past few weeks at our church.  On the first week, we talked about the Word of God as an Element of Worship.  Last week we talked about Prayer.  If you missed either of those sermons, you can listen to them on our website at  In coming weeks, we will discuss Sacrament and Relationship as Elements of Worship.  This week, we’re talking about Service as an Element of Worship.

“Service” is a word that we use a lot.  If you go out to a restaurant where the staff is friendly and the refills keep coming, you’re probably going to say, “Wow!  This place has really good service!”  And what will you do next?  You’ll probably leave a bigger tip.  Isn’t that interesting?  A waiter brings his whole self to work, welcomes customers with genuine personal warmth, and people just naturally respond with generosity.  Remember that point because it will become important later.  Here’s another example: When a person is a soldier or sailor in some branch of our country’s armed forces, we say that she is “in the service.”  In other words, she dedicates her whole self to the cause of national defense by risking her life in a combat zone.  We tend to respect that, don’t we?  A lot of people wear yellow ribbons that say, “Support the Troops.”

In the same way, when we talk about service as an Element of Worship, we’re talking about more than this one-hour-per-week ritual that we do on Sunday mornings in this building.  We’re talking about more than the cash we fork over in the collection plate.  We’re even talking about more than the time and energy that so many of you tirelessly volunteer for our various church projects during the year.  Just like that waiter or soldier, real service happens when you offer your whole self to something bigger than you.  Service, as an Element of Worship, is a self-offering.

As Christians, we see our self-offering as connected to and growing out of the self-offering of Jesus.  His life, death, and resurrection provide us with a lens through which we can come to understand what it means to give ourselves as an offering.

First, his life.  Jesus gave himself as an offering in two ways.  He offered himself to God and he offered himself to others.  These two ideas cannot be separated.  Jesus believed that God is Love, therefore you can’t love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength without loving your neighbor as yourself.  If you try to do one without the other, you’re going to end up very confused about what love is.

Jesus’ commitment to love (in this dual sense) got him into trouble on more than one occasion.  He exposed the hypocrisy of the powers that be.  He threatened the security of religious and political authorities in ways that no terrorist ever could.  Leaders in the public and private sectors alike were so frightened by what Jesus stood for that they even temporarily put aside their mutual hatred for each other in a grand conspiracy to have him killed.

Under these circumstances, no one would have blamed Jesus for mounting a defensive strategy in order to ensure his own survival, but that’s not what he does.  It says in today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”  Jesus walks straight into the belly of the beast, knowing full-well what the beast is about to do to him.

Jesus was not so caught up in his own ego that he wasn’t willing to offer himself.  He knew that his personal story was part of the universe’s bigger story.  Sure, he could pick up a sword and fight for his own survival, but he knew that survival isn’t everything.  His fellow Jews were fighting for their survival every day and, ironically, it was killing them.  “Those who live by the sword die by the sword,” he said.

So, instead of the path of survival, Jesus opted for the path of self-offering.  He lived his life of love as an offering to God and others.  When that love brought him into conflict with powerful forces that wanted to kill him, he walked the way of the cross and let them do their worst.  But that’s not the end of the story.

What happens next is the best part.  We celebrate it every year at Easter time.  The offering turned into a miracle.  Early in the morning, on the first day of the week, three women found an empty tomb.  And an angel asked them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here.  He is risen!”  This is where the big story really gets going.  Death itself starts to unravel like an ugly old sweater.  The powers that be were vanquished by the power of love.  Christians remember this event annually as our most sacred holiday.  We celebrate it weekly in order to remind ourselves of what we really believe in.  As Christians, we don’t believe in survival; we believe in resurrection.  That is the true meaning of service (self-offering) as an Element of Worship.  Jesus taught us that.

What does this look like for us?  That’s a great story about Jesus, but how can we live lives of self-offering and resurrection today?  Jesus said to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  The way of the cross is a path, not just for Jesus, but for all of us as well.  We who claim to follow him must decide whether we will choose survival (like the world) or resurrection (like Jesus).

When we choose to follow the way of the cross, we become part of a story that’s bigger than us.  We say that we are willing to jeopardize our survival for something more important.  It’s a dangerous move to make, but if we move in faith, we see miracles.  I once heard someone say that, until you find something worth dying for, you’re not really living.  Are we really living?  Are you?  What are you willing to die for?  What is this church willing to die for?  When we find an answer to that question, we’ll learn what resurrection is really all about.  Like George Takei was saying: there we will find heroism, camaraderie, and epic battles.  There there are great stories, characters, and profound life lessons to be had.

I heard a story this week from Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, the senior minister at All Souls’ Unitarian Church in Tulsa, OK.  He said their church made a rather controversial decision several years ago.  They decided to take all the money that came into the church through their collection plate (about $20,000 per year) and give it away.  People were scared because that’s a lot of money.  The church depended on that money for their operating costs.  But they decided it was the right thing to do, so they amended their budget and went for it.  In that first year, rather than the $20,000 that usually came in through the collection plate, they raised $150,000 and gave it all away.  Now, you might say, “That’s great, but it’s too bad that they couldn’t meet their budget.”  Actually, according to Marlin, they did meet their budget that year.  They even took in about 10% more than they needed.  “Generosity begets generosity,” Marlin said.  Remember what I said about the waiter?  When somebody serves from the heart and offers him/herself, aren’t you just naturally inclined to leave a bigger tip?  Generosity begets generosity.

Let’s find another example, maybe one that’s a little closer to home.  I’ve mentioned this already, but I can’t help bragging on you folks again.  You remember this past Christmas Eve, right?  We heard about a crisis in our community where the county government was cutting funding to daycare programs.  Hundreds of kids were being affected and some of the most reputable and affordable daycare agencies were in danger of closing.  And the elders of our church voted unanimously to take the collection from Christmas Eve, our single biggest worship service of the year, and send the whole thing to one of those struggling daycare agencies.  Did you know that, with what came in that night, our little country church was able to cut a check for $1,000 to Thea Bowman House?  We’ve never taken up a Christmas Eve collection that big!  Generosity begets generosity.  Did you know that there are people in the community who noticed what we did and decided to join our church because of it?  That’s resurrection in action.

One more story about you folks.  Last summer, controversy was in the air as New York state was making a decision about legalizing same-sex marriage.  I drove down to Albany that week and stood in the halls of the state capitol building.  I saw the crowds of people shouting and holding signs with Bible verses about hellfire and damnation.  During that time, our little church took a stand.  We stood up and said, “All God’s children are created equal: black or white, male or female, gay or straight.”  At a church supper only two weeks before that happened, one of our own long-time church members came out of the closet to us at a church supper.  He shared his story with us.  And I remember the first thing that anybody said, after a long silence, was, “Well, God don’t make no junk!”  Our church took a stand.  We made a statement that this is a welcoming church.  We told the world that this church is a place where the law of love trumps the letter of the law.

Sure, it was a controversial thing to do.  It still is.  Our survival instinct might tell us to keep quiet and not rock the boat, because we don’t want to lose church members to controversy.  But you all chose resurrection instead of survival.  Did you know that people in the community noticed what we did?  On the very next Sunday after the legislation passed in Albany, a news crew surprised us during our morning worship.  They had TV news cameras set up right here in the sanctuary.  People heard about our little country church and said, “What?  A church that accepts and welcomes gay and lesbian people?  A church that believes that God loves everybody?  We’ve got to check this out!”  In the past few months, families have driven in from as far away as Utica to visit our church.  We didn’t lose people by being controversial, we gained them!  That’s resurrection in action!

And let me tell you what: we’re going to keep doing it.  We’re going to open the doors of this church so wide that the whole world will know it’s welcome here.  There are a lot of churches in Boonville, but there’s not very many where people can go and know they’ll be loved and accepted no matter who they are.  But people know they’re welcome here.  This sermon is being played on the radio, so even more people will know after this week.  I know it’s controversial but I don’t care (and neither should you).  Just like Jesus, we are offering ourselves to God and our neighbors.  We are choosing resurrection over survival.

When we go downstairs after worship today, we’ll be hearing our annual reports from all our different church committees.  We’ll be voting on this year’s budget and deciding our thoughts together for 2012.  As you look at the paperwork and hear the reports, I want you to remember what service and self-offering are really all about.  I want to invite you to look past your ego-driven instinct for survival and look to your God-given faith in resurrection.  That, more than anything else, will make a difference for the future of our church.  Like George Takei was saying: here we will find heroism, camaraderie, and epic battles.  Here there are great stories, characters, and profound life lessons to be had.

Here is a video of George Takei’s call for Star Peace: