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About nine years ago, we were in the midst of one of those bitterly cold Januarys… not unlike the one we have experienced here!
The snow was falling and the temperature was below zero, but I bundled up that afternoon and went to the local nursing home where I held a monthly worship service.
I really enjoyed this time of worship there. While I rotated with other community pastors for this afternoon time of singing and preaching, I was one of the only pastors who also celebrated communion with these folks. Other denominations were more exclusive about who is welcome at the table. So it was always a joy to walk around the room and share the bread of life and cup of salvation with those dear folk.
On this particular cold day, we shared the same text that we are focusing on this morning. As we heard about how Jesus entered those waters of the Jordan, we remembered our own baptisms.
I carried around the circle a basin of water and invited each one to dip their fingers in and remember that God has loved them and called them each by name.
As I came to one woman, she had fallen asleep, as often happens with that group, and she was gently nudged awake by her neighbor.
Hopefully, you won’t have to nudge your neighbor awake this morning!
I kept working my way around the room and came to another woman who proclaimed with joy, “I was baptized in the Iowa River!”

There was another woman whose name was Grace and all throughout the service, she would interrupt to ask who was going to take her home.
At the end of worship, I had the chance to sit with her and chat and with the bitter cold outside, she kept asking who was going to come and get her and take her home.
She openly began to weep because she had been forgotten and no one was coming to take her home.
I reminded her gently that this was her home now…
this was where she belonged…
But more importantly… I reminded her that she was not alone.
In fact, she was loved.
She was a child of God, blessed by the Lord, and touching those waters a voice from heaven was pouring out upon her, reminding her that she was beloved.

As I listened to Grace’s insistence that she go home, I knew that dementia was speaking loud and clear… but there was something of all of us in her words, too.
Don’t we all want to go home?
Don’t we all want to experience the kind of belonging where we are called beloved?

I said earlier that I really enjoyed worshipping there at Rose Haven in Marengo… but there is another part of me that found those times and moments extraordinarily sad.
Some of the residents were vibrant and full of life, but others were barely functional in mind, body or spirit.
Many had been forgotten by their families.
This was not the highest quality facility in the county… and there were many things that made me pause when I thought about the care that I would desire for my own loved ones.

In that moment of worship, I had a chance to name each and every single one of those residents as beloved…
but I also found wondering how my own community of faith was living out our baptisms…
How did the call of God that poured out in our baptisms invite us to be present in the lives of these people in a different way?

You see, on the one hand, our baptism is an echo of the one Jesus experienced… so we proclaim that each and every single one of us is also called beloved by our God.
You are beloved.
You are beloved.
You are beloved.

But so often, we hear those words falling upon our own heads in our baptism and then we stop listening.
I am a beloved child of God, we hear in our hearts. Period. End of story.

But that is not how Mark tells this story.
No, his version of this tale is urgent and messy.
He starts with John the Baptist at the Jordan River, inviting people to come and be baptized as a sign that they were changing their lives.
Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell reminds us that, “the Jordan river was where people went to wash their dishes and their laundry. It’s where they went to bathe. In other words, the river flowed with [the] filth and muck of human life… this wasn’t water that washed clean, but rather water that acknowledges the muckiness of our communal lives.”
John knew that his baptisms were not the end of the story, but that someone was coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit.
And then Jesus shows up.
This guy from the dump of a town, Nazareth…
A nobody from nowhere…
And yet, the very presence of God in the world.
And as God-with-us, Immanuel, Jesus Christ, waded into those filthy waters of the Jordan River, the very heavens split open.
And in that moment, the ministry of Jesus begins.
The Spirit flows upon him like a dove, names him beloved, and then forces him into the wilderness.

“What are our baptisms for?” Ted Smith asks in his lectionary reflection (Feasting on the Word).
Baptism is not simply something that makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside.
It is also the reminder that God’s power, God’s spirit, God’s life has poured out upon us… the very heavens were torn open and now YOU are sent out, like Jesus, into the wilderness of this life.
Because not only are you beloved… but so is every other child of creation.
No matter where they have come from or what their life has been, they, too, are beloved by God.
Whether they are from a place that is beloved or a place that has been condemned by others, they, too, are beloved by God.
Whether they are surrounded by love or whether they are forgotten and alone, they, too, are beloved by God.
And in our baptisms, the power of heaven itself pours out on us and calls us into the world to act on the behalf of our brothers and sisters.
To create opportunities.
To open doors.
To work for justice.
To call one another to reconciliation and repentance.
To make God’s love real in this world through our worship, through our work, through our play.
It is the call that drove Martin Luther King, Jr. to proclaim the dream that one day the children of slaves and slave holders would be able to sit down and share a meal together.
The dream that children would not be judged by color of their skin or where they were born, but by the content of their character.
That little children of different races and abilities and backgrounds would be able to join hands with one another.
That we can work together, pray together, struggle together, stand up for freedom together.

Our baptism is the foundation of every single thing we do as a church. Because this is not my place of ministry, but ours.
You are a beloved child of God.
The heavens were tore open as you were baptized and the Holy Spirit sends you out into the world to share the life you have found here with others.
On this day, let us shout with joy for the presence of God is in this place, leading us, calling us, shoving us out into world and reminding us with gentle words that every person we meet is a beloved child of God.


I have posted on here many times that home visitation is not my strength. And if I’m to be honest with myself, even though it is the number one priority of my PPR, it’s not as high as it should be when I sit down and schedule myself for the week.

And reason #1 – I’m a huge introvert. We’ve been there and talked about this before.

These past two weeks, two very active people in the congregation fell (at different times) and have required surgery. And one of these people in particular is the woman who does SO much behind the scenes that no one even thinks about, until she wasn’t there. My own grandma (Babi) was also having her knee replaced.

My own ability to visit them was compromised by the fact that I was at School for Ministry and then came home with the crud… but I discovered/remembered some amazing things about my congregation and my ministry in the meantime.

1) Yes, the PPR puts visitation as my number one priority, but they also have it as the main priority of the congregation.

2) The people in my church know how to look after one another. They have made countless visits and delivered countless meals without being asked and simply because that’s what they do.

3) At SFM, some colleagues helped me remember that my calling/vocation gives me permission that no one else has to “intrude” on people’s lives – that if the congregation has made that a priority, they are in many ways inviting me to know things others don’t know and to see them in vulnerable situations.

4) sitting for 2 hours in a waiting room with someone – even if you have nothing to say – is rewarding ministry.

5) I have never lived in a community or family where people stopped by to visit if you were sick. Living in the country, we weren’t that neighborly – at least as kids. There were regularly scheduled Sunday evening visits to my great grandparent’s house, and we always came and went from Babi’s, but I never learned the art of “dropping in”

6) I was blessed to sit with my Babi for well over four hours in the hospital. I didn’t want to leave in part because it was good to catch up and spend that time with her, but also because I didn’t want to leave her there alone.

7) I really don’t want to leave my church family “alone” either. It is part of my calling to drop in and help them to know that they aren’t alone – that we are thinking about them and that God loves them.

8) everytime… and i have to keep reminding myself of this… everytime I “drop in” I am blessed.

Good Dirt

(a sermon for Earth Day, Stewardship Week, and in response to a youth auctioned sermon on the theme “soil conservation”)

It seems like everyone and their brother is talking about “going green” these days. We can buy “green” organic food at the Big G. We can get rebates and incentives for buying “green” appliances and lightbulbs for our homes. “Green” cars are now a commonplace site, even on the streets of Marengo. With all of this recent emphasis in the world on the environment, you might get the impression that this protecting the Earth idea is a new one. But it’s not. From the very beginning of time – in fact, from the first pages of our bible, care for this world that we live in has been the core of our Christian tradition.

We already heard the familiar story of the creation with our kids this morning. This world was made by our God – and God declared it good. And then, that very same God formed us from the dust of the earth and gave to us a precious task… to care for the world God had made. From the ancient Israelites to the early followers of Christ, caring for the Earth was an important means of offering thanks and praise to God.

The General Board of Church and Society for the United Methodist Church has put out some wonderful resources for churches to us as we celebrate God’s Creation. They remind us that the “ancestors of our faith lived amid cultures that worshipped many different gods who were thought to control all aspects of nature, from fertility of the land to ferocity of the seas. Communities celebrated local gods that tended to their own particular climate systems and conditions.

But as the Ancient Israelites moved throughout the land, they encountered many climates, many different communities and religions. And as they saw the connections between all of those different environments, they began to realize that “the natural world was controlled not by many competing gods, but by one God who could be revealed through the unity of nature.”

“Along with their insights about God, the Ancient Israelites observed the ways in which interdependent systems work well when they are cared for and fail when they are damaged or neglected. In response to their understanding of God and the natural world, they created an ethos for living in healthy relationship with God, the Earth, and one another. People of the church today often refer to this ethos as ‘stewardship.’”

In the wider world, stewardship of the earth is also seen as just good old common sense. In fact, the National Association of Conservation Districts has established a National Stewardship Week – this year beginning on April 26th – in order to celebrate and remember the importance of protecting our natural resources.

According to the NACD resources, many people believe that had farmers and landowners “chosen to band together and implement proper agricultural practices, demonstrating good land stewardship, the devastation of the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s could have been somewhat diminished. The good news is that Americans have learned from the past, and since the 30’s there have been severe droughts, but the same devastation has not been repeated because good stewardship practices have been taught, learned and implemented on the land.”

The goal is good soil. And good soil isn’t just something that farmers and gardeners care about. Soil makes our lives possible. How many of you slept on soil last night? Well, where do you live? What is your home built on?

How many of you are wearing soil today? Cotton grows in soil! Just check the label on your clothing.

What about eating soil? Just think about all of the foods that you have eaten this week that were grown in the soil, or medicines that were taken from the ground, or water that we have drank that has flowed through and been cleansed by the soil.

When the Ancient Israelites noticed that everything in this world is interdependent, this is what they are talking about. The dirt and the air and the sun and plant life and our lives are all interconnected and this beautiful system God created works – as long as we take care of it.

Jesus knew this too – and he used many parables that talked about the earth because they are grounded and real. Everyone can touch the ground and feel the dirt between their fingers or toes. Everyone knows what Jesus was talking about when he talked about the soil.

Our challenge is to figure out what it means to protect the soil and make it good. And in doing so – we might learn a little bit about what it means for this little plot of ground that is our church to also be good soil – ground in which we all can put down deep roots to grow and produce fruit.

First: good soil needs to be protected by roots (strength to tell stories)

This is the number one thing that we can learn from the Dust Bowl. With all of the vegetation stripped away due to the drought, and without roots to hold the earth in place, the wind blew away an estimated 850 million tons of topsoil in the Southern Plains alone. Roots hold the soil together and help prevent erosion and they also loosen up the soil so that oxygen can filter through the ground.

Basically, roots are like fingers. They dig down deep into the ground and give the earth the support it needs.

In the church – we need roots too. Without roots, we will be tossed to and fro by the winds of change and the latest fad. But we have plenty of things within our tradition that ground us and help us to find the stability we need. In the United Methodist tradition, we especially think of four deep running roots: the scriptures, the tradition of the church, well-thought reasoning, and the experiences of the saints. As we gather together and share all of these stories, we find ourselves firmly rooted in the past, and yet also able to grow and mature into our future.

Second: good soil must be abundant and unified (strength to accompany, convene)

This is not something that we often think about, but one little clump of dirt can hardly do much. All by itself, that clump of dirt would become dry and would not have the room for anything to take root within it.

But when one clump of dirt is surrounded by millions of other little dirt particles, then, it is something to be reckoned with! We know that the outermost layer of our planet is soil… but did you know that five tons of topsoil spread out over an acre of land would only be as thick as a dime? We need soil and lots of it to have abundant life.

In the same way, Christians can’t go it alone in the world. We need one another to help us create abundant life. That is the message that we get from so many of our scripture readings from this morning. In Acts especially – it was when the believers came together, with one heart and one soul sharing what they needed that tremendous fruit came forth.

While this may sound cliché – people need people. We were created to be in relationship with others. And as the church, we are invited to walk along with others through the difficult and the joyous situations in their lives. We accompany one another through times of illness, injury, death, birth, marriage, loss of jobs, and marital problems… and together – together – we can have life and life abundant.

Third: good soil is alive (strength to bless)
We think about dirt as dead matter, but in reality it is organic – full of both living and dead organisms. Fungi and bacteria help break down matter into soil and animals such as earth worms churn and nurture the earth. Without all of that living and breathing of the soil – life as we know it would cease.

In the same way, our congregations are alive and they are living and breathing things. In a world that is so damning and critical, the church is a place of blessing and acceptance for all. The diversity of silt and clay and minerals within the ground all have a purpose, and within the church, we can only be the living body of Christ if we affirm the gifts that every single one of us bring to the table. Some of us are teachers, some of us are prophets, some of us are evangelists – and all of us are needed within the body.

Fourth: good soil needs nutrients and moisture ( strength to connect – sharing resources)

Good soil cannot give life to plants without being full of nutrients and minerals and moisture. In fact, 25% of our soil is water, while only 5% is organic matter… which means that it has a lot to give to thirsty plants and hungry critters. But when the waters dry up and the nutrients are taken out of the soil, then the ground is not good for growth. Just ask any farmer who employs crop rotation in order to keep vital nitrates in the soil!

Our church too needs to be filled up before it can be poured out. The Holy Spirit brings us the refreshing waters of new life through baptism. We are fed by the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation – grain and grapes from the land. We are nourished by the Word of God. And as we find ourselves blessed and strengthened, we can share of our abundance with the world. The church has the ability to bring together the resources of our communities and peoples to help life to come forth out of the darkest places in people’s lives.