Marks of our church, “Wonder” (sermon, 5.5.13)

First Baptist Church, Lawrence, Kansas
Revelation 21.1-6

A few months ago I offered an invitation to wonder. It was on Epiphany – the entrance from the season of waiting into the season of light. We wondered together at a story of bright stars guiding strange men to a baby. We wondered at the absurdity of the conclusion of our nativity story. We wondered together at strange gifts, from strange men, for an even stranger occasion.  We wondered together at what it means to hear all of this and return home by another way.

I would like to invite you to wonder again – this time, in the context of being church together.

Wonder is something that comes pretty easily, pretty naturally to children. All you need to do is to sit down, eye-level with a small child and watch the world through wondertheir eyes for any amount of time. As they discover the icy-cold of snow for the first time, the sour punch of a lemon for the first time, the beauty of butterflies on a spring day. Or as you introduce them to your favorite books, movies, characters – the wonder and curiosity with which they approach the world gets lost on us pretty quickly.

I invite us, though, to think about the ways that we can claim and re-claim a sense of wonder into the very life of our church – how do we understand wonder as integral to our faith?

I challenge us today not only to think about wonder within these walls, but to reclaim childlike wonder in all that we say, think, and do. How will we approach our lives with a sense of awe? Are we seeking mystery in the world – are we open to the mysterious ways that God has created, God is present, that God is at work in our lives and our world?

We could have done this with each of our marks so far, but there was intention in attempting some clear distinctions between Welcome, Worship, and Work. By some way of conclusion, I would like to illustrate briefly how Wonder permeates all that we do. In some sense, wonder indicates the posture in which we begin all of what we do – as God’s children, we begin with wonder.

Welcome:

By beginning with a posture of wonder we welcome the divine into our midst, even in the most surprising ways. In some sense, when wonder infuses our entire being – as individuals and as a community – we are never surprised to find that the Spirit of God is moving among us in all that we do.  In our welcome to others, we also welcome a spirit of wonder, as we seek to get to know them, and welcome them as family.

We are not a community that lives by rigid doctrines or creeds – some of that is through our Baptist identity – but I believe that is also the character of the church. We welcome wonder in our midst – in the form of questions, in the form of openness to God’s leading, in the form of doubting. Most of all, I believe we introduce and foster a sense of wonder in how we welcome and tell stories. There is no greater means of wonder than in the embrace and wide-eyed hearing of story. And whether this be the biblical story, our own stories of faith, struggle, joy, grief – we welcome story among us. We wonder together at the story that God continues to write among God’s people gathered as First Baptist Church.

Worship:

Wonder is an act of worship. Not only ought we come to our worship each week with a sense of wonder, but outside this room, outside this building, whenever we approach our world with a sense of awe, a sense of curiosity, that is worship. When we reflect on our own lives in wonder – and sometimes this wonder is sorrowful, sometimes it is joyful – we are worshipping. One of the church fathers, St. Anselm approached his theology with the phrase “faith seeking understanding” – meaning that we don’t approach our faith from a purely intellectual assent. Nor does our faith assume complete certainty. Rather, in our action of loving God, in our faithful response to God’s grace, we seek understanding – to understand ourselves, who God has created and called us to be, and the world around us.  When we echo the cry of the Gospel: “I believe, help my unbelief!”[1] All this seeking, this wondering is an act of worship.

Work:

It takes effort to be okay with our questions. It takes effort to be honest with ourselves, with each other, and even with God – to tell the truth and tell our stories with integrity. It seems counterintuitive, but it is easier to seek certainty, to ask questions expecting concrete answers. But the work of being human is resting in the wonder of acknowledging the world is vast, that God is ineffable, and yet, God cares about each one of us; God created each one of us.  As scripture promises, we are all fearfully and wonderfully made.

I love stories of God’s creation and God’s re-creation. Genesis is at least my second favorite book in scripture for this reason. Likewise, the passage from Revelation is one of my favorite passages in scripture. And not because I have some kind of strange fascination with the end-times.  (I don’t.) This passage is commonly used in funerals, as a comfort in times of grief. And certainly its promises of an end to death, an end to pain, mourning and crying, the promise of God wiping all our tears away – are immensely comforting words.

But wonder with me at the totality of the promises here.

We often think about heaven as being ‘out there’ – above us – in some other realm. God’s home is in the clouds, with the angels.  Listen, though, to John’s vision. Instead of us being raised to heaven, heaven comes to us; God descends to us. John’s vision is that God’s home will be among mortals – here, on a reconciled and redeemed earth. This is good news for all of creation. We could perhaps use this as an opportunity to expound on the implications that John’s vision has for our concern for the earth – how we ought to take care of it, to participate in God’s redemption of the entire created order.  And there is some of that here.

But let’s sit down for a bit and observe John’s vision. Let’s pull up a chair and take in all the promises that God has for us.

Wonder at how these words – some of the last words in our scripture – bring the entire biblical story into beautiful conclusion. In the beginning God spoke the entire world into being. God put the humans among animals in a garden – and God called all of it good. We know how that piece of the story went. We know how our own desires for power, control, knowledge, our own desire to possess the future, each other, the world – those pervert and destroy God’s good earth and the goodness God intends for us in relationship.  And yet we know how throughout scripture – throughout the story of God in relationship with people – that God remains faithful. God continues to enter into loving covenant relationship with us. We celebrate the story of a God who became human, a God who called us friends, and calls us to follow into the ways of love, grace, compassion. We proclaim hope and faith in this story.  And here, in John’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth, we observe the covenant, promises, love of God come to completion.  Once again God speaks this new creation into being – in verse 5, God proclaims, “See, I am making all things new.” It is a promise of relationship once again – this time we are redeemed, the world is redeemed, and we have the assurance of living fully united with our Creator.

Wonder with me at this vision – John invites us to ponder a world made new. He invites us to bear witness and trust in this vision.  Wonder with me at this God we worship – the God who creates and re-creates – and marvel that this same God seeks to make a home among us.  This is a life-sustaining message. Wonder with me at how we might be changed and assured if we truly claim this message for ourselves.

Do you see yourselves as part of this story? You are; we all are. We are in the midst of a story, and we proclaim that God is the author – God is the author of our lives, our deaths, our salvation, and our re-creation. God’s story is a story of resurrection. Hear the power of resurrection in a new earth – where all things and all people are made new. Wonder at the mystery of God’s story – as we hear the story drawing to an end in the book of Revelation, we marvel that God’s ending is just another beginning.[2]

Do you understand the world we live in as in process of being redeemed? It takes a holy imagination – an imagination “…nourished by the word and sanctified by the Spirit to connect what is visible and invisible – the reconciliation of heaven and earth – seeing the past, present, and future of all things through the light of God’s glory in Christ.”[3]

This holy imagination helps us envision of a new earth – the promise of Revelation that God will choose to descend – to bring heaven here – and make a home among us once again.  It is our sense of wonder that does, in fact, acknowledge this vision. It drives us to put work into maintaining our Food Pantry, and providing our Deacons Fund, and hosting Family Promise.  We imagine a world where all are fed, all have homes, all are safe and secure – so we work to contribute to that vision of God’s Kingdom – not after death, not in some other realm, not “up there” – but here, on earth. On earth God will make a home among us.

Sacrament

The proclamation and promise of God’s Kingdom on earth comes near to us today as we celebration communion.  I see no better opportunity to talk about wonder as a mark of the church than on a day when we share together in the bread and cup of God’s covenant with us. One way we can do this is to talk about the idea of sacrament.

We Baptists tend to run pretty far away from talking in terms of sacraments – we prefer language of symbol, memorial, maybe ‘ordinance’. We tend to approach the idea of sacrament with no small amount of suspicion, trading ideas like transubstantiation for mere symbol.

But what if we didn’t? What if we reclaimed some of the theology behind the idea of sacrament? I would like to challenge us to hold the idea of sacrament a little closer today. We tend to cast away this language partly because of our Reformation heritage – Reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Zwingli, rejected the Roman church’s perversion of grace and sanctification – rejected the idea that salvation can be sold or that we needed mediators to the divine. Lost in some of that Reformation language, as it has been traced down to our own Anabaptist heritage is the language of sacrament.

The word sacrament has a couple of derivatives – one is thanksgiving – in our practicing these actions, we find demonstrable ways to return thanks to God – for presence, for grace, for love.  Another, is from the Greek mysterion – meaning mystery.  We practice the sacraments – the actions that trace back thousands of years – and acknowledge the mystery of our participation.  Sacraments, by many theologians’ rendering, are a visible sign of an invisible grace – meaning they are the ways that we participate in, that we take action, to remind ourselves of God’s grace – to experience God’s grace.

The idea of sacrament was originally intended to convey the “presence and purpose of God make known in Jesus Christ.” Through the formation of church doctrine, we have the idea of sacramental presence – the presence of God in the world, embodiments of grace – codified into sacraments –actions or observances that are intended to enact grace.[4]

Therefore, I do not think we are mistaken to consider baptism, communion, ordination, baby dedications, weddings, as sacramental actions, as sacraments – though perhaps we are committing a specific breed of Baptist heresy.  These are visible signs of God’s grace.  If there were not something powerful in the immersion under water, in the breaking of bread and drinking from the cup, in the laying on of hands, in blessing and committing to care for the youngest among us, in the exchanging of rings and vows, if there were not something powerful, some grace felt in these actions, then why perform them at all? Why participate? We do them, not because of mere symbol, but we do them because they connect us in powerful ways to ancient tradition, and to the mystery and ineffability of God’s free grace. Through participation in these moments, in these ceremonies we bear witness to the working of God’s Spirit among us – in much the same way that God’s spirit has been at work through the ages. These are actions of the church that weave together the thanksgiving and the mystery – they are at once our response to God’s grace and God’s call to be community, and they are operative: in our participation we become grace-filled communities created by God, redeemed by Christ, and sustained in the Spirit.

How do we take this idea of sacrament and let it inform our everyday lives? We can shy away from language of sacrament because it sounds too Catholic, but I believe we lose a significant piece of the mystery of our faith when we do that.  To live sacramental lives opens us up to the presence of Christ in our midst. And in being open to that, we open ourselves up to be sacraments – to be the presence of Christ in the world.  This happens any time we are open to the grace, love and compassion that marks the Way of Christ. Any time we live and move in the world out of grace, love, and compassion, however imperfectly, we too become sacramental presences in the world. Take a moment and wonder at the power of that. If we really believed that, if we really behaved in that Spirit, how much might we be transformed? How much might the church be transformed? How much, then, might our world be transformed?

In a few minutes we will gather around the table and re-tell the ancient story. We will speak words that remind us why we gather around the table – we talk about Jesus taking, breaking, blessing, and giving bread to his friends. And likewise sharing the cup. We call it the body of Christ and the blood of Christ.  Of course, again, as Baptists, we mean this symbolically.

However, I would like to challenge us, at least for this day, to re-claim some of this sacramental theology in our observance of communion. I would like to challenge us to wonder at the mystery of breaking bread together, of sharing a cup together. Wonder together this day at a God who chooses to dwell among people, and who chooses to call us ‘friends.’ Wonder together at a God whose primary motivation is love, compassion and care – and who calls us, empowers us, to the same. Wonder at a God who demonstrates these things most clearly through a meal. Wonder with me at the power of this meal we share together – but not only in this loaf of bread and this common cup, but each time we gather together around any table to share a meal with others – that we meet Jesus in the faces of one another – that we recognize God’s care for and God’s love for all of us. We recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, and we recognize Jesus as we feed each other.  Reclaim with me this day the wonder of that mysterious grace, and that mysterious community.

What if we believed in the things we proclaimed from the table – that like the bread and the cup, we ourselves are taken, broken, blessed and given – that we are made new, wrapped up in God’s covenant together, sent out to be the very living presence of God in the world? It’s hard to believe because it takes a sense of wonder. It would require reclaiming some of the childlike openness.  It takes a holy imagination. How would we approach this table today, in all its awkwardness, and crumbs, and drips, with a sense of wonder, expecting to receive something of the divine Spirit? Moreover, how would we leave this place today, ready to participate in Heaven on earth, trusting that God makes all things new – that God’s very self seeks to make a home among us – God’s beloved?

Rabbi and Mystic Abraham Heschel once wrote: “Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and [God] gave it to me.” The entry point, he writes, to spiritual awakening, to deep and lasting experiences of God’s working in our lives, is not in worldly means, like success or fame, though the world often tries to convince us otherwise. Rather it is in keeping our eyes, our hands, our hearts open to the wonders that God is working, everywhere, in the mundane, in the ordinary, turning our lives into an integral part of the sacred story that God is writing.

This day may we ask for wonder.


[1] Mark 9.34

[2] Eugene Peterson, quoted in Michael Pasquarello III, Feasting on the Word, Year C, volume 2, 467.

[3] Pasquarello, 467.

[4] Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing, 2004. pp. 274-282.

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