Last year when 3 inches of snow fell on Nashville, Connie and I donned our winter gear and walked through the winter wonderland. Falling snow mixed with Christmas lights or even a streetlight makes for everyday magic. We watched children playing in the snow, pushed a few cars from some slick spots, and even offered a driving lesson to a stuck new-to-snow driver. As we walked home, we lamented that we had given away our six sleds upon moving to Nashville. Then I remembered that we had saved the Flexible Flyer for a porch decoration. The next evening our neighborhood roads deteriorated into a slick, hard, ice-packed mess perfect for the steel blade steerable sled. After some runs down the bunny hills, we walked to the steepest, longest, curviest hill in our neighborhood. Frankly, I had forgotten the exhilaration of careening into a turn, bouncing down on an icy racetrack with your nose 6 inches off the ice. We pledged to sled again the next day. A slight midday melting and evening refreeze, made our icy track even faster. The next day, our 50-year-old necks and backs reminded us that we were lucky to have avoided a trip to the ER or the dentist. We decided to let the neighbor’s children enjoy our sled after that!
Two years into this pandemic, it has been easy to forget some things or to lose some spiritual muscle memory. Social distancing, added parenting demands, and isolation have just made it harder to exercise the spiritual disciplines that sustain us. Some of us have not worshiped inside our sanctuary for 23 months. Without daily and weekly spiritual routines, it is easy to start to forget who we are, who surrounds us, and how deeply God loves us. Our cries fly up to God, “How long will it last, Lord? Remember how short my time is!” (Psalm 89:46) One of our immune compromised members confessed how Covid has awakened their inner monk, their home becoming their cloister, books their daily exercise, the livestream an opportunity to hear a song a second time or listen to the sermon again with an open Bible. Over Christmas, three families who live hours away shared how our livestream helped them find our Belmont community during this pandemic. Still, for many of us these past 23 months have been the most difficult season of our lives. Spiritually, it has been easy to lose sight of each other, to feel the distance, fall into easier patterns, and forget the spiritual disciplines that remind us who we are.
On Christmas Eve, I slid into the pew with my family on the final hymn. I lifted my candle and sang “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” I had forgotten how wonderful it is to lean into others so as to blend your voices with those you love. I stopped singing for a moment to gather myself and hold back tears; I wish I had just kept singing with tears rolling down my face. It is easy to forget the beauty of habits that sustain us. In the story of the prodigal child, there is this beautiful line about remembering who God is and who we are. Far from home, broke, broken, and alone the child remembered who they are. Luke writes “when they came to themselves” they decided to go home. Perhaps, such remembering is the deepest kind of repentance. God runs down the lane and embraces the lost child with tears and dancing!
On this Baptism of our Lord Sunday, we remember who we are. We rehearse the vows that remind us who we are. These vows strengthen our spiritual muscle memory like a trip to the gym, practicing an instrument, or googling a forgotten lyric. Daily times of prayer and scripture paired with weekly worship and discipleship remind us who we are. Today, as we begin a new year, we remember our baptism. We repeat the Good News that God loves us; God loves the world. We will dip our fingers into the water, make the sign of the cross on our foreheads, and repeat the ancient invitation: “Remember, your baptism and be thankful.” Remember who you are; remember you are beloved by God. Remember the Red Sea, Exile, Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, and Damascus Road. Remember the Beatitudes, Greatest Commandment, and to forgive 70 more times. Remember the kin-dom of God and how Jesus provided healthcare, fed people, and flipped over unjust tables. Remember, even when we are apart, that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Picture your beloved saints, I see my dad and mom, Moses and Mother Teresa, cheering us all on. (Hebrews 11-12) Remember your baptism and be thankful.
It would’ve been easy for Philip and the others to forget who they were and stop practicing their faith when scattered and enduring a terrible season. Hear the context, “…the church in Jerusalem began to be subjected to vicious harassment. Friends buried a martyred Stephen deeply grieving over their lost mentor. Saul began to wreak havoc against the church, entering one house after another, dragging off both men and women and throwing them into prison.” The scattered church might have taken the safe route of self-protective silence and spiritual inactivity. Instead, Luke tells us that “those who had been scattered moved on, preaching the good news along the way;” I love that line. Scattered, fleeing, moving on, and they offer good news to others. Scattered- they did not forget who they were!
The pandemic has hit hard. It scatters us and pushes us into new ways of moving. Will we move on remembering the Good News? None of us is quite sure when the post-Covid-normal will emerge or what it will look like. Philip and the scattered others did not know when the persecution would end. They adjusted to a new way of being the church. We often want to go back to seemingly better days, but we can not. The day after sledding, our five decades of living, reminded us that we can’t go back! We loose people and new people enter our lives., even as technology, culture and innovation are always moving us into a new normal. The scattered first century followers of Jesus moved on embracing and including Samaritans, eunuchs, and Romans.
Philip travels alone to Samaria preaching the gospel along the way; we do not know why Phillip travels alone. Paul traveled with Barnabus, Luke, Silas, and finally Timothy. Priscilla and Aquila planted a church together, upholding the two-by-two preaching tradition initiated by Jesus. (Matthew 10, 12) Perhaps, Phillip goes it alone because the church was slow to include Samaritans, Ethiopians, pagans, or eunuchs. Even as Philip traveled alone, he remembered his baptismal identity and widened the circle of God’s Love.
Verse 12 tells us that “Philip preached the good news about God’s kin-dom and the name of Jesus Christ.” Phillip proclaims a two-part message and teaches about the liberating love of Jesus Christ. We need that “name of Jesus” personal sense of salvation, but that is not all there is within Christianity. Phillip preaches about God’s kin-dom on earth as in heaven. Our baptismal vows remind us that we belong to God, each other, and to a mission to Love the world!
So scattered twenty first century friends, we are moving into a new unknown normal with Covid, yes, but also with technology and culture. As we move along, let us remember our baptism, remember the name of Jesus, spoken over you, the grace declared to you at your baptism. Remember that God has washed away our sins, and that God longs to clothe us with love and righteousness throughout our lives. Remember the Resurrection, the life of Jesus, and that love wins!
Remember we belong to God, we belong to one another and we belong to a Jesus movement: we are siblings united by Jesus, the Christ. We confess Jesus Christ as our Savior, and we put our deepest trust in God’s grace. We find our deepest identity not in our achievement but in our Baptism. We are shaped by water and the Spirit; we are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation not because of anything good or bad we have done, but because God delights in us…“All of this is God’s gift offered to us without price.”
We remember our promise to build Christ’s kin-dom: to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sins! We accept the freedom and power God gives to us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression wherever it shows up. We promise to serve Christ as our Lord, in union with the Church which is open to all people.
As we begin this new year, though scattered and maybe alone, we promise to nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and care for one another. We ask God to help us proclaim the good news and to live according to the example of Christ, so that we might surround one another with a community of love and forgiveness and grow in service to others. Why do we do this church work? We do it so that we might “build (and belong to) a community of love and forgiveness”, that may be my favorite Methodist liturgical line! We pledge to pray, be present, give, serve, and bear witness, so that we might help others live as true disciples of Jesus Christ and together we might all walk in the way that leads to life.
So, as we move through this hard scattered season, let us resolve to practice the spiritual disciplines. Let us, remember our baptism, and be thankful. Amen!