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Based on the Scripture reading:
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

2006 January 8
First Sunday after Epiphany
Rev. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Finding All Three

Almost each time that I lead a confirmation group in a church I share a short poem that could encapsulate the entire semester in three lines. I say could, because it takes a little more than this, but almost everything that I teach comes back to these lines. If some of you out there today never made it through confirmation, you can get beginners' credit now, and if anyone out there doesn't want to know the surprise ending of the class, you should cover your ears now. This is the poem:

I sought my God, but my God I could not see.
I sought my faith, but my faith eluded me,
I sought my neighbor, and I found all three.

It's not too complicated; it's only a beginning, but it's not a bad guide.

I guess that I've been thinking about these three lines because as we're beginning not only a confirmation class and a capital campaign and another new year, but also because I've been seeking a way to express what I hope for 2006. So in even fewer words, I can share my resolution for the New Year, and it is: I hope this is a year of finding all three, finding all three. God, faith, and neighbor.

I've been thinking back on 2005 over the past days and weeks, and it would be hard to imagine a year when I could receive more blessings. The birth of a son, the health of my dad and others, my presence in this parish. I haven't had to fight with serious illness or go to war or worry about clean water or anything much more than the price of fuel, which on a global scale in indescribably fortunate and blessed. I look back at 2005 with no deep personal complaints. But you know, I didn't go on a single faith retreat. I didn't ever take a full morning or afternoon or even a two hour stretch just to pray or talk nonstop about God or get myself to anything more than about an hour or so of Sabbath each week. I went to lectures; I led discussions among other clergy and read a few books. I was here virtually every week, and I do love our gatherings here, but if I really seek God -- and why come to church or join a church if you don't, at least sometimes, really seek God -- then I didn't create the true space for that in my own life. Back to topI just didn't, which is not a complaint but a reflection, and I wonder if I can do something about that in 2006?

Now, I did do a bit of faith development last year. I was at those lectures and loved our book studies and I do get to rest and listen when the choir sings here and Yee-Yeon plays, but in my heart and soul I know that Jesus didn't call me and say "if you had faith as big as an afternoon lecture you could move mountains," or "Go, your reading of this book on Christianity has made you well." Jesus said, come away a while, listen, pray, heal, follow: go deeper. Jesus called me, and you, to be seriously counter-cultural, counter-chronological, in the way we pursue faith.

Anyway I didn't mean this to turn into a long confession, but as I sought my faith in 2005, I wonder if I could have done more to help it grow more, because no matter who you are, minister, mystic, or master teacher, your faith always has room to grow. So in 2006, if I want to find all three, God, faith, and neighbor, maybe I need to work backwards: start with the last but then also be more intentional about the first two.

How did you do in 2005? I suspect you wouldn't be here this morning if you didn't do fairly well. And I suspect you wouldn't be here this morning if you didn't want something more, something both familiar to review and unknown to discover in 2006. I think we all want to find all three: God, faith, and neighbor. What does that mean to you?

My wife and I argue as to whether this is always a sure psychological philosophy, but I am inspired by Eric Fromm's claim, which I learned several decades ago and can't quote with specific citation, regarding the way people grow. Fromm said, "We never think ourselves into new ways of acting, but we act ourselves into new ways of thinking." Or, if you want to learn more about theology and inspiration and divine stuff, get to work with your neighbor and see if practicing love and service and charity and inclusiveness and hospitality doesn't lead you to new understandings of God and the meaning of life, once you get involved. If you hunger for God, go do God stuff for a while. If you want to have deep faith developments, picket, contribute, join, serve, pray.

How can you do that in 2006? How can you find all three?

Here's the soft pitch, to myself or anyone else. Take more time in 2006. Read at least one book on faith, such as Marcus Borg's Heart of Christianity. Commit to 24 hours of hands-on mission work in 12 months, or travel on a mission trip with this parish. And you know what? That would be great. Back to topIf we each did that it would be great and good and right. But it is the soft pitch.

A new book out from Richard Lischer, a theology professor at Duke, wonders if we and our culture have time for soft pitches. No apocalyptic fundamentalist, he says we live in a time of "the end of words" -- not worlds but words -- and says there is great urgency for us to pursue a ministry of reconciliation as quickly as we can, which means going deeper than the soft pitch. He says that worldwide terrorism, war, and religious conflict mean that what we do here in this room is terribly urgent in his phrase. He says we have to talk about the way things are, and we have to find ways to listen to each other about the way that things are because we do not live in a culture where people are speaking truth or listening very much. The three hour sermon is now fifteen minutes, a news story about a complex economic principle takes ninety seconds, and children are addicted to Oxycontin in junior high school because it acts so fast. I have enormous blessings in my life, but I also live amidst great pain and in a culture and time of extraordinary pain, and my protected place here in Newton does not separate me from my world and time. There is a terrible urgency that asks for us to tell the truth and listen to the truth and in every way possible assert or restore or discover some confidence in the ways of God and the words of God, such as reconciliation and peace. Lischer asks us, in a phrase that is meaningful to me, to be "conscientious objectors in a war of words." He asks us to pursue Bible basics and push, urgently, for reconciliation and healing and peace in our world.

I don't think that there is a soft pitch satisfaction in any search for God or faith. I don't think that we can take it easy. I don't think that I really want to take it easy in 2006. I do come to church for rest. I do come for restoration. I don't want to hear about more problems than I can handle in adult education or prayer or conversation. But I do come here to go deep. I do come here so that things will be different than if I didn't come, in my family and community and world. And I do trust that this is why God wants me here and wants you here and stays here with us, too.

Often we wonder if a group this small can make a difference. Then Acts reminds us that 12 people started our church, 12 new members got it settled, and one book away we learn that the church in Corinth, the really famous one in a city of 600,000, had just over 100 members. If you ever think that one person's actions or votes can't make a difference, talk to Al Gore, or Rosa Parks, or Marianne Talis. You each make a difference.

How can we find the three things that we seek in 2006? We can follow Jesus. We can listen to truth and speak with reconciliation. We can come to today's after-hour program and make personal resolutions, pledges, for 2006. And we can start now, because this is urgent. If we want to find anything at all in church, in life, in creation: God, faith, or neighbor. It is time to start.

Amen.

Copyright 2006 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.
http://www.nhcc.net/sermons/Sermon20060108.htm
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