Thursday, May 13, 2010

Mother's Day Sermon: Open Hearts

Sermon Texts:
Ezekiel 36: 24-27
Acts 16: 9-15

Sermon Notes:
Open hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors. You’ve most likely heard our church’s tagline and motto on television or the radio, and today, we hear it, or part of it at least, in our lesson from Acts.

Actually, looking over the scripture readings for the next 2 weeks as well, it is interesting to me that the rest of our motto is referenced in scripture as well. We’ll get a little out of order for next week, since it has more to do with open doors than open minds, but the following week, we’ll hear about the Pentecost narrative in relation to the minds that were opened on that fateful day.

Today we hear about the conversion of Lydia, and some other women who started the church at Philippi, which from the letters given to it is said to be “Paul’s favorite church.” With the story today, you can see why such a group of disciples came to be Paul’s favorite—after all, immediately after she and her household were baptized, Lydia provided a home for Paul and his fellow evangelists.

There are three things about Lydia’s conversion that stick out to me, especially in relation to the baptisms and professions of faith that we were privilidged to hear today from Wyatt and Shelby.

I imagine many of you have had similar experiences to me in my own life in that your baptism has been challenged by friends or acquaintances because it wasn’t what they call a “believer’s baptism.” Some of our friends in other denominations insist that the person being baptized must make the decision to become baptized, and it is only by receiving such a “believer’s baptism” that one may be saved.

Today’s baptisms were joined by Wyatt and Shelby’s “profession of faith,” and we United Methodists believe that a profession of faith is important and a necessary part of a journey of faith. We believe it is so important, that when young people who have been baptized as infants reach a certain age, they should go through a period of claiming the name “Christian” for their own, and should respond to their own baptism by making their own profession of faith. When you hear how many United Methodists there are in the world (It’s around 10 million) that is only the number of United Methodists who have made a profession of faith, or who have transferred their membership from another church where they made a profession of faith.

But, we are different from many of our friends and family in that we baptize infants. Sometimes, when a family comes forward to join the church, they want to join as a whole family, and so anyone who hasn’t been baptized thus far is baptized, regardless of the age or ability to answer for themselves. We do this because we think differently about baptism than most of our Christian neighbors here in Morris—and we root that thinking in the scriptures that we have been given to guide our lives as Christians.

You might have noticed today in the reading from Acts that when Lydia’s “heart is opened” to Paul’s teaching, not only she, but her “whole household” receives baptism. The text doesn’t say that Paul goes to preach to the members of that household and they each individually accept the teaching on their own—the text says that Lydia’s heart is opened, and then her household is baptized.

Our practice of baptism dates back to the first converts to Christianity. Our church is the only one in town that holds the same ideas and practices around baptism that were in place at the beginning of the church. “Believers’ baptism” is an idea that came along later in what is called the “radical reformation” that happened in Switzerland about 20 years after the reformation had started in Germany.

Just as an aside, I didn’t choose the first scripture that we heard today to build a defense for our understanding of baptism, I was instead thinking about the part of it that speaks about God giving us a new heart in relation to Lydia’s “open heart,” but just in case you’ve ever been castigated by other Christians because we don’t exclusively practice immersion baptism, you might point your friends who have all that friendly and helpful advice for you to Ezekiel 36:25, where God states, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” This is as adequate and accurate description of baptism as the scriptures that are no doubt flung your way about Jesus going “down into the water” etc. etc.

Secondly, How was Lydia prompted to receive baptism? The text says that Lydia was prompted to receive baptism and join the movement of the Spirit by the “open heart” that God had given her.

Open Heart is all that God needs. God doesn’t need belief. God doesn’t need someone to understand all that there is to know about God in order for that person to be incorporated into the life of faith and into saving Grace. Our salvation only comes by God’s grace. It doesn’t come by our efforts or by our beliefs. It comes through God’s radical act of salvation that we are all blessed to receive. It isn’t about us or what we want or subscribe to. It is about God and who God is and what God subscribes to. Our allegiance to the covenant is and always has been imperfect. God alone abides by the covenant—and if God chooses to start molding us by the covenant when we are only 1 or two weeks old, then, as Peter said last week—“who are we to stand in the way of God’s grace?”

It is an obstruction to the movement of the Spirit to pretend that a person needs to have everything sorted out and all their beliefs in order for them to receive baptism and be saved. Being saved is a process as much as it is a specific moment in time, and thank God for that. God opens our heart, perhaps just a crack—just enough to let a little light in, and we celebrate that opening with baptism.

I really like our commercial tagline, “Open hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” It has really become a calling card for people to know what we are all about, and I’m glad that it begins with “Open hearts.” Open hearts conveys that the point of living a life of faith is to approach God and our neighbors with open hearts. Being guarded in our heart leads to cynicism, and cynicism leads to despair. Jesus calls us, even if it hurts us, to have open hearts, and if we ask God for anything, it should be for that gift.

An open heart, as Ezekiel says today, is a new heart. Bearing our hear to God for Him to open is sometimes as significant and radical an act as open heart surgery. And if we recognize what is happening when God opens our heart, it is truly a heart transplant. God takes our heart of stone, and replaces it with a living, beating heart.

Lastly, the gift of the open heart and the gift of the sacrament of baptism that follows in this scripture that we hear today is followed by the gift of hospitality.

In our tradition, we understand baptism to be the incorporation of the person receiving the sacrament into the family of faith. We, as the Christian community, are doing what Lydia does in the text—we are inviting the newcomer into our house.

However, the person receiving the sacrament is doing the same with us. By joining the community of faith, the recipient of baptism is opening themselves to the new family of faith as well. It is a mutual agreement, and it is not only a covenant between the person and God, but between the person and the family of faith. This is why I would never baptize someone alone. This sacrament must include the church.

The gift of hospitality is perfectly illustrated by a story I read in the UM Contact a couple years ago:

By Emily Sims, Weatherford Daily News
On June 5, Mychel Brooke Neuman, a college student in southern California, loaded her vehicle and set out to see her parents in Missouri.
She made it to Oklahoma. A fatal accident on Interstate 40 near Weatherford prevented her from making it home.
The collision introduced her family to members of Weatherford First United Methodist Church, who were there to help in the moment of need.
"We have an inordinate number of fatalities on I-40," Pastor Lynn Brack said. "It makes us sad, but we rarely ever know the story behind the people who were involved. Her family was grasping for straws, someone to help them. Even though they were Jewish, they reached out to us, and we were happy to help them in any way we could."
Father called from Missouri
All of Mychel’s belongings were strewn across the highway, Rev. Brack said. Then the wreckage was moved inside a security fence at a Weatherford business. Mychel’s father, Howard Neuman, reached out to Brack on June 12.
Neuman was desperate to retrieve his daughter’s belongings.
"Mr. Neuman was quite upset," the pastor said. "Everything had been handled very well by all officials in Weatherford involved with his daughter’s death, but he needed additional assistance in getting Mychel’s personal belongings shipped back to Missouri."
Brack learned Mychel was an English major at San Diego State. She was returning to her family’s home in Chesterfield, Mo., after completing her first year of course work.
"Mr. Neuman told me Mychel was also a very talented sketch artist and writer," Brack said. "He told me their home was adorned with her work."
The wrecked car was full of her journals and original artwork, Brack said.
Open hearts
"It was important to the family that as much as possible be salvaged and sent back to them," he said. "Her father searched the Internet to see if there was a Methodist church in Weatherford. Mr. Neuman asked, ‘Aren’t you the open doors and open hearts church? You people do things like this to help others, don’t you?’"
Brack assured Neuman the church members would do whatever they could.
On June 16, several members met at the wrecking yard.
"They sorted through all the belongings with loving care, respect, and dignity," Brack said. "We looked for things that may have been missed, and we found her passport. That’s when this became real. It really made an impact on us."
Using a truck and trailer furnished by member Arlen Hamburger, the group moved the items to the church’s fellowship hall. In all they prepared about 20 large boxes for shipment. At a Weatherford glass company, church members Stacy and Brian Fox stacked the boxes on two wooden pallets and secured them with shrink wrap. Helen Swearengin assisted her daughter, Stacy, with the pallets.
"The Methodist members assisting in the project all signed a sympathy card, with personal messages from each for the family," Brack said. Members also took photos of the project to create a record for the family that showed how Mychel’s effects were treated and prepared for shipment.
"Mr. Neuman has written us many lengthy e-mails" since that time, the pastor said.
Brack continued, "He said, ‘I will think of Mychel every day of my life. I hope at some point I will stop being selfish and allow myself to celebrate her life rather than mourn her death. Your church has helped me very much in the process. But I will always wonder. Why would you do this for complete strangers from Missouri?’
"I told him, ‘That’s just what Christians do for all God’s children."
May we be that church! Amen!

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