June 12 — On Baptism, Wild Geese and Hunger Walks

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp. –Numbers 11:24-30

I want to begin by thanking Dean for preaching last week. . . .

Part of the responsibility that I have toward you, for having that Sunday off, is to report to you a bit on what happened.

A couple of quick bullet points:

  • Barbeque
  • Old friends and new

I now know a good many of the people who attend these meetings.  I am sad to say that in fact, I did not take the time to make any new friends.  I met a few new people, and I suspect we’ll become friends over time, but when you’ve got so many other people to connect with, it’s difficult.  Anyway, I mention this, because it does seem important to have colleagues around the state who can join in the conversation about our common efforts, and by them find inspiration and encouragement.

  • worship

Worship for me, at the past several annual meetings, have been affairs of patience.  They attract some people, I am sure.  But I find them gimmicky.  It’s the old theory of “Let’s do something really over the top and impress all the audience, most of whom are fellow worship preparers.”  In their effort to impress, they go overboard and the worship becomes stilted and forced.  Divorced from the New England sensibilities of so many of us.  This year, our preacher was measured, smart, engaging and insightful.  He never raised his voice, or his hands.  He told stories that made a point and he exegeted his scriptures, which means that he took them seriously by examining the context, history, transmission and historical relevance before asking what it had to do with us.  More interestingly, he asked the question — from his own experience and right sense of it — what does it mean to be a spirit filled and led church in the 21st century?

I’ll talk more about that in a moment.  But suffice it to say for now that he was tired of and frightened by the kind of “Getting the Spirit” that so many of those past worship experiences at the annual meeting tried to foist upon us.

  • Ned Davis
  • Bicycle Ride

Geese and gooslings in front of the Hubbardton church.

The wild goose embodies the untamable and unpredictable nature of the Spirit and is a reminder that the Spirit is disturber as well as comforter. It is a symbol for the Holy Spirit used by the Celtic peoples of Ireland and Scotland.  I’m not entirely sure why it is this is so.  I do know that when geese fly over head, flying free without a map, and honking for what seems like joy, and in a common formation, their beauty makes me want to join them.  The Holy Spirit, for all the weirdness that gets associated with it, has long been the expression that God is dangerous and yet also intimate — persuading us to join in a holy enterprise that has the potential to stir up our non-migratory, and ordered lives.

  • Ned Davis

And did I mention Ned Davis — speaking of inspiration?!  “I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.” — Jeremiah 24;7

The stated theme for the annual meeting was “A Faith Worth Living For.”  The implied question is not a safe one.  Our text for the week was Jeremiah — it could have been Numbers –Thus saith God,  “Do I not want all the people to speak my word?”

Our preacher last weekend, the Rev. Ben Guess, was clear — Not only does God indeed want all the people to do the work formerly safely tucked away in the hands of boring priests and pastors, God seems to be saying that the stuff worth living for is discovered in the very ordinary stuff of quotidian life.   When Jesus speaks he does so not with images from the theologians head, but with stuff from the life of a Galilean peasant — seeds and soil, wind and water, sheep and goats, weeds and vegetables, flowers and rain.  When we baptise, do we look to discover somewhere, somehow some kind of change in the children?  As though who and what they are is not enough?  How sad it is that when the church baptises, it speaks not of the joy of discovery and welcome, but of sin and abomination.

A baptism worth baptising is an opportunity for us to celebrate the good that we do, the positive influence of the church on the communities in which they are situated, a chance to say with God and for God — the creative unfolding of the future is still a thing worth living into, still something worth preparing ourselves for, still something worth modeling to each other, young and old, as vibrant with possibility.

Ben Guess noted that it is easy to become discouraged.  He reminded us of a statistic we all know — our numbers are dropping.  But he reframed that statistic.  As I have been trying to do — can we measure church vitality in other ways?  Let us no longer measure the strength of our churches by the number of babies we have saved from hell by doing proper baptisms, let us instead see these baptisms as powerful instances of God’s voice — The church I care about is not measured in baptismal fonts or stained glass windows.  The church I care about is measured by the intensity of the spirit, taking its people on a migratory journey to do justice wherever there is pain or injustice, taking its people on an eye-opening joyfilled trip to the places where people are crying out for wonder and hope.

In New Orleans, after Katrina, the UCC lost most of its churches, experienced great setbacks at its UCC College, Dillard University.  Now that University is roaring back with a $500m capital campaign and a renewed sense of community connection and academic responsibility.  Most of our 13 UCC congregations have not reopened, but over the last 5 years, some 7000 UCC members (including 15 from Waterbury, VT) have worked to rebuild not just UCC hopes and dreams by the lives of everyone along the gulf coast.  That translates into 168,100 volunteer hours and more than $3.6 billion in donated labor.

We do hunger walks not because God told us to get up and do hunger walks or else  . . . We do them because God’s spirit cannot be confined to the four walls of the church within which a baptism happens, we do them because God’s spirit is on the move, honking and winging its way to the hearts of people as they are longing for a long drink at the well of God’s grace, longing to be permeated by the spirit, conscious that these feelings are part of something immediate and important.



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