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Everybody Cares! A Sermon

January 16, 2015

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Baptism of the Lord Sunday, January 11, 2015                  

Psalm 29          Mark 1: 4-11

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. In Mark’s Gospel we know nothing about Jesus before this moment. His story begins with his baptism; nothing else seems to matter. We hear that as Jesus was coming up out of the water “the heavens,” the barrier separating the human and divine realms, are irreparably torn apart. Through this divide comes the Spirit of God in the form of a dove, suggesting perhaps the start of a new creation.[1] It reminds us at once of the spirit hovering over face of the waters at the first creation (as in our call to worship this morning), and the dove returning to Noah announcing a renewed creation. As this dove descends into Jesus, the word mean into him, not upon him, filling him with God’s Spirit, a voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

In his baptism, people witnessed the holy – there, in their midst, active, revealing Jesus as God’s own beloved child.  Rising up out of the waters, Jesus turns not back toward the city, toward his home, toward his people, but instead, turns his face toward the desert.  Mark’s gospel says, the Spirit drove him there.  So in baptism, the holy was not only revealed Jesus, God’s holy purpose was made known to Jesus.  Jesus himself has an epiphany, a realization of God’s purpose, and he heads into the desert.  Joseph Evans writes, “The baptism of Jesus is an epiphany, not only in revealing Jesus, but in modeling what should happen to all of us who were baptized: we should all have an epiphany of God’s purposes.”[i]

In the Presbyterian Church, deacons are called upon to exercise a ministry of compassion, witness and service. This congregation has understood this ministry as primarily involving ushering, preparing the elements for communion, visitation of the sick or homebound, and the seasonal delivery of flowers, fruit and cookies. Most of you are aware that for the past year we have been short on deacons. Last year, at this time, our church nominating committee asked a dozen people to serve as deacons and not one said yes. Though Dwight and Mary D—– offered to serve as deacons during our congregational meeting, we did not install them as the Board of Deacons and the Church Council worked to discern what this meant for our congregation. And so we have had that empty class of 2017 on the back of our bulletin all year long.

Let me be really clear. We do not lack members who visit the sick or homebound, prepare communion, usher on Sundays, or deliver flowers. If asked, David M—– would visit anyone, anywhere, whether he was a deacon or not. David G—– visits with Bill Y—–, who has not been able to be present in worship for many years now, not because David was ever a deacon, but because Bill is an interesting guy. I’ve run into, or just missed, Dwight and Mary in several hospital rooms because they like visiting people. As I said, we do not lack members who visit the sick or homebound, prepare communion, usher on Sundays, or deliver flowers.  In fact, Norma S—– had bronchitis over the holidays that caused her to miss not only Christmas Eve but Youth and Young Adult Sunday. When I emailed her the next day with a copy of my Christmas meditation, she had already received reports from three of you about the impressive leadership of two college students, Akeyla and Mandi, the day before.

Members of the congregation are always reaching out, caring for each other with compassion.  There is no lack of visitation and there is no lack of compassion from members of this church.  We just have fewer and fewer members who want to be members of a board with monthly meetings and minutes.

And that should not surprise us. Those who join congregations today are looking for community, friendship, a path of serious discipleship, and a place through which to serve others – not membership on a board.

The great news is that this congregation is not a church that delegates caring to a small subset of members who have been selected as deacons.  Everybody cares for everybody.  And this is one reason that people are not only drawn to our congregation, but find a home here.  We are there for one another through good and bad.  We pray with and for one another.  We extend help and receive help freely.

As I thought about how this congregation actively engages compassion and caring, it had nothing to do with whether we had a board of deacons or not.  In fact, by letting go of the idea that some were specifically designated to care, it opened the door for more involvement by more members.  You don’t have to make a three-year commitment to monthly board meetings if you’d like to usher or visit someone who is sick or prepare monthly communion!  So over the past year, the council and the deacons and I talked about this and we decided that instead of trying to fruitlessly recruit people to a board, we would instead, offer even more opportunities to serve to everyone.  And in December, after months of conversation, the Council voted to allow the Board of Deacons to quietly dissolve.

That’s right.  You heard that right. We no longer have a board of deacons. But guess what?  Our congregation is just as caring as it ever was!  As we move forward, I hope to offer opportunities for education to the entire congregation.  For example some of you may wish to do hospital visitation but are nervous because you’re not sure how to be most helpful and sensitive.  Instead of simply training a few members, we’re going to equip everyone who wishes to serve.  As we have a number of people engaged in visitation or projects of care, we’ll gather informally from time to time following worship to share what we’ve been doing and to pray together.  Are you interested in helping set up for communion, just talk to me and we’ll show you how and find a time for you to help. This is a wonderful activity for parents and children to do together (as we often see Vinodh and Leah do), or for confirmation students and their mentors.

And we’re going to be even more intentional in sharing stories.  This past year at least five people formally shared their stories of giving and receiving care.  All of us remember the moving testimonies of Caryl and Alice and Leslie in worship.  And those of us who were able to attend the visitation before Jane Scott’s memorial service remember person after person from our congregation standing up to bear witness to how God was revealed as they visited with Jane and as they saw the devotion of Carmen for her mother and for others in the nursing home and beyond.

Through our baptism, we are named as children of God, filled with the spirit, and commissioned for ministry. Even as our savior and brother Jesus sensed God’s purpose and dared to follow, so every time someone is baptized, we renew our baptismal vows, and stretch ourselves in love toward one another and the world.  For baptism is every believer’s calling to compassion, witness and service.  Next week during worship three children and one adult will be baptized. What a wonderful opportunity to renew our sense of God’s purpose among us. So it is with the Spirit of God.

[1] Raquel S. Lettsome, “Mark” in Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament, edited by Margaret Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge and David Sánchez. (Fortress, 2014).

[i] Joseph Evans in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B edited by Ronald Allen, et al.

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