The current construction on our road may be a blessing in disguise, because so far it has prevented me from being able to accomplish one of my favorite goals: putting up a wayside pulpit. A wayside, or “street” pulpit, is a large signboard in front of a church that can be changed regularly. It can be used to highlight special services, inspirational quotes, sermon topics, and clever puns. Some of my favorites are:
“As you pass our little church, be sure to plan a visit. That way when you’re carried in, God won’t ask, ‘Who is it’?”
“Honk if you like Jesus. Text while driving if you want to meet him,” and
“Having Trouble Sleeping? Come in and listen to a sermon!”
The question, as one website points out, is “when the Church reaches out with a message to passersby, what are we hoping to accomplish? Is it outreach? Marketing? Witness? Is it a word of encouragement? Prophesy? Admonition? Or is it a variety of hospitality–a way to demonstrate that Christians can have a sense of humor and are a friendly people?” Or perhaps it is simply a shortcut way of letting people know who we are and what we believe.
It seems to me that it is becoming increasingly important for believers to do just this, as definitions and ideas that once seemed clear and indisputable shift more and more rapidly as we move further into the 21st century. Race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status – even our words for the clothes we wear no longer have the same meanings they did just 20 or 50 years ago. (For example, my son recently asked me to check out a pair of “skate shoes” he was interested in and I was really confused when the sneakers he brought over didn’t have any wheels). In this climate of rapid change, it is both arrogant and dangerous to make assumptions about what people think and who they are.
But it’s also hard to know when it’s okay to ask questions – or how to answer them. When I was a child, I was taught that it was rude to talk about politics, money, and religion because those were the topics that caused the most arguments – and polite people try to avoid arguments. Now the internet is filled with sites that exist solely so people can argue with one another, and the most acclaimed television show this year is about a vicious, greedy, double-crossing family – and it’s a comedy. On the other hand, one young parishioner recently told me that she doesn’t talk about church at work for fear of being stereotyped. I can understand. I have a clergy friend who recently went to a bar wearing his collar and someone, mistaking him for a Roman Catholic priest and assuming he was a pedophile, threw a drink in his face. Of course, no one wants to get a drink thrown in their face – or have their co-workers mistake them for someone who believes that God has a preference for a specific political party, but that doesn’t mean that we can afford to be ignorant about or afraid to express and act on our beliefs.
So, who are we and what do we believe? We don’t have to look far to find out. Class, please take out your Prayer Books (that’s the big red book with the gold cross on the front in your pew) and turn to page 858 to the explanation of Holy Baptism. Holy Baptism is the only membership criteria for Christianity. It is the way in which God adopts us and we become members of Christ’s body, the church. Now, turn to page 302 to the service of Baptism, where it tells us what we are asked to do as Christians. At our Baptism (or Confirmation) we agree to renounce both spiritual and worldly evil; fight our tendency to separate ourselves from God and other people, and to put our trust in Jesus instead of earthly treasures. Now, turn to page 304 and look at the Baptismal Covenant. If it is familiar to you, that’s because it is the words of the Creed we say every week broken down into questions and answers. It says that we believe in one God, who created all things. We believe in Jesus Christ, who, like God, loves creation so much that he lived and died as one of us. We believe that God wants us to be one community of belief and that God will forgive us for all of the wrong we do as long as we truly repent of it and amend our ways. It says that God wants us to live in a state of peace, love, and unity forever.
We know that our God is good and that our God does good. Today’s first lesson describes what it means to be a true servant of God. Although many people identify this passage as a description of Jesus, it could also refer to any community or individual who follows his way. Such leaders (or peoples) establish justice. They do not draw attention to themselves with shouting or ranting. They treat broken people with gentleness and kindness. They do not conceal or deceive, instead opening the eyes of the blind and bringing people who are imprisoned by fear and hatred out of darkness and into the light. The servant of God offers hope.
Stephanie Paulsell says, “The prophet offers a portrait of the kind of leadership we should expect from one called by God; patient, nonviolent, merciful. God’s chosen does not ‘execute justice’ by force… Isaiah’s portrait of God’s servant provides a genuine…contrast to contemporary models of leadership” because a real servant of God seeks to share his power with others and to provide the people with the blessing of peace.
The God we believe in does not do wrong things for the right reasons. God’s servant not only is not influenced by his own needs and desires, but willingly empties himself out in order to provide for others. Our God, according to Peter, is impartial. Peter knows this, because in today’s second reading he has just returned from a God-directed meeting with someone that he was deeply and fiercely prejudiced against – someone that Peter had always considered wrong and evil – someone that Peter resisted meeting because he feared doing so would contaminate him. But Peter found that God loves that person as much as he loves Peter – that God loves and accepts everyone who follows his way – that God is, in fact, generous and forgiving to all who ask.
Our God is also humble. Although he himself is worshipped by John the Baptist, Jesus allows John to baptize him to demonstrate his humility and solidarity with humanity. He does not claim the glory and might that are due to him. He does not take the opportunity to break or shake or split any of God’s creation. Instead, he chooses to empty himself of all sinful desires just as we are asked to do. In Jesus, “we catch a glimpse of what it means to be fully human, and in baptism we are offered the possibility of embracing our humanity.”
This is what it means to be a Christian. It means that (with God’s help) we will not just say we love God, but will demonstrate God’s love to others. It means that we will not just hate evil, but that we will actively resist it. It means that we must seek justice and peace not just for ourselves and those we love, but for everyone. It means we try to find and help the part of Christ that is in all persons, loving our neighbors – even those we have been taught to hate and fear- as ourselves. It means we will love and live in a Spirit of grace and humility, knowing ourselves to be beloved by God for and despite who we are. Or, as one wayward pulpit put it, “If God had a refrigerator, she would have your picture on it.” AMEN.
“Wayside Pulpits,” (January 12, 2013), Grace is Everywhere, http://www.graceiseverywhere.net/2013/01/12/wayside-pulpits/
Stephanie Paulsell, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 4, Kindle location 7937.
Steven D. Driver, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 4, Kindle location 8551.