Mountaintop Vision: Mark 9:2-9

Posted February 27, 2012 by Wesley Memorial
Categories: Uncategorized

preached by Rev. Jeri Katherine Sipes on Transfiguration Sunday, Feb. 19 at Wesley Memorial UMC in Columbia, SC

Today is Transfiguration Sunday. We celebrate the Transfiguration of Christ every year though you might not remember it from year to year. It is an oft overlooked Sunday that gets very little attention right before the Lenten season. But in many ways it is the Sunday that prepares us for the Lenten journey. It is the last Sunday in the season the church calls the season of Epiphany, and it is a very important last epiphany, revelation, proclamation or inspiration before the journey of Lent which is a difficult journey down the mountain to the cross, but ultimately a journey that leads to the resurrection. This is a Sunday that reminds us of who Jesus is, a reminder that will give us strength for the journey of Lent, a reminder that we will often need to recall throughout our lives.

Right before our verses today—if you flip back to Mark 8:29, Jesus asked Peter: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter said, “You are the Messiah,” and then six days after Peter’s profession of faith, Peter along with James and John take a hike with Jesus up a mountain, and they have a mountain top experience of a lifetime.  The disciples find themselves on a mountaintop with Elijah and Moses, and then before their eyes Jesus is transfigured; he is changed or revealed truly as the Messiah, the son of God, and if the disciples had any doubt or question who Jesus was after Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white—lucky for them a cloud appeared and the voice of God said it plainly for them, “This is my Son, the beloved.”

I bet up until this point—even though Peter, James and John had witnessed Jesus perform miracles and had sat at his feet while Jesus taught in parables—I bet they hadn’t ever felt as close to Jesus as they did up on that mountaintop with him that day. They probably hadn’t had such assurance of who Jesus is until this mountaintop experience. We’ve probably all had these mountaintop experiences—at least I pray you have been on a mountaintop with Jesus from time to time in your life. Though I admit that I’ve never been in the company of Elijah or Moses and I haven’t seen Jesus physically transfigured before my eyes, but I have had mountaintop experiences where I have never felt closer to Christ, where I have been assured of who Jesus is and what he did for me and what that means for my life. If you remember anything about John Wesley, you might remember the story of his heart being strangely warmed. For Wesley his Aldersgate experience was his mountaintop experience. Wesley famously wrote in his journal, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

This is how I imagine Peter, James and John must of felt. Do you know what I am talking about? Have you had a mountaintop experience with Jesus? Do you remember a moment where you have never felt closer to Jesus and have never been so sure of Jesus life, ministry, death and resurrection? Perhaps it was during a bible study, on a Sunday morning, or at a special worship service, or a weekend retreat, or out in nature hiking and camping, or simply in a conversation with a friend, or reading a book. I hope and pray that you have somewhere in your memory and on your Christian journey been on the mountaintop with Jesus—that you’ve had an overwhelmingly and amazing “holy moment” with Jesus, that you’ve had a spiritual high, if you will.

I’ve had many mountaintop experiences, many spiritual highs throughout my life. As a child and youth we always went to camp or retreats where I felt God’s presence, and I felt so alive and on fire for Christ. As an adult I’ve been to many worship services, retreats, conferences, visited monasteries and been in bible studies where I got that same spiritual high. I completely understand why Peter wanted to build dwellings. He wanted to stay on that mountaintop with Jesus, Elijah and Moses. He didn’t want to lose that spiritual high; he didn’t want that mountaintop experience with Jesus to ever end. Who would such intimacy with Christ to ever end? It seems in these verses if it were up to Peter, Peter would never leave the mountain. He would create a safe bubble where it would be very easy to sustain his spiritual high.

Unfortunately sometimes I think that is where we are today as the church. We are like Peter; we are afraid to come down from the safety of the mountain; we are content to stay in the safety of our cloistered church bubble where it is easy to sustain our spiritual high. But mountaintop experiences have a way of transfiguring, or transforming us. Yes, Jesus was transfigured before the disciples’ eyes, but don’t you think that witnessing Jesus’ transfiguration had a transforming experience on the disciples? How could they leave that mountaintop unchanged? Mountaintop experiences have a way of transforming us, but such experiences aren’t simply for our own amusement and private benefit. The word used here in our verses today for transfigured is the Greek word “metamorpho” which sounds like our English word metamorphosis which means complete change. It is the same word that Paul uses in Romans 12:2 when he writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed, transfigured, or changed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern the will of God.” And again in 2 Corinthians 3:18 Paul writes, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed, transfigured, or changed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”[1]

You see, I don’t think Jesus took the disciples with him to simply reveal who he is. Jesus took the disciples with him—he takes us with him—on the mountaintop so that we might be changed through Jesus’ revelation. Jesus’ transfiguration has a transforming effect on our lives. We are changed. We are completely changed from the inside out. The transfiguration story teaches us that our mountaintop experience gives us a new angle of vision, a new perspective for living. During our mountaintop experience “we ascend the mountain of revelation, the mountain of transformed vision, or the mountain of true seeing.”[2] When we go up the mountain of transfiguration, we are brought into the vision of God. Yes, Jesus is revealed to us and we are assured of his identity as the one and only Son of God, but in seeing Jesus revealed before our eyes, we begin to see ourselves, our circumstance, our friends, our family, and our world through the eyes of the savior of the world. It would certainly be nice to stay on the mountain; it would be nice to stay in our comfort zone, but the truth is that the journey with Christ is a public or shared journey through the world. As scripture says, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him.” God could have stayed in heaven, but he sent his only son down into our sin-sick world to be with us. Part of having mountaintop vision is going back down the mountain into the real world of the valley where we can share our experience of Christ. For Christ and his disciples it is as that cliché goes—what goes up must come down.

That is not to say that we will lose or forget or should abandon our mountaintop experience. No, that is not it at all. Jesus doesn’t want us to leave our mountaintop experience on the mountain; he wants us to take our mountaintop vision with us as we descend the mountain and wherever life might take us. Again the transfiguration story invites us to look at our lives and our world from a different perspective, from a different angle of vision, from the mountaintop vision of God. As I told the children during children’s time, sometimes it is so easy to get caught up in the ugliness, the ruthlessness, the disappointments, the sorrows, the losses, the bad, the ugly and so on that we lose sight of Christ. Down in the valley of life, down in the mundane, every day, ho-hum world of ours it is sometimes hard to see how our lives in Christ and the ministry of Jesus will be sustained. But the transfiguration reminds us of the hope we have in Christ, that having mountaintop vision, that seeing in the light of Christ gives hope to us while we are on the journey or in the valley or wherever we may be in life and whatever our circumstance may be.

Jesus didn’t allow Peter to build any dwellings on the mountain. Peter didn’t build a dwelling for himself, James and John and he didn’t build a dwelling on the mountaintop for Jesus either because Jesus went down the mountain with his disciples. Jesus is always with us. He is always calling us to see life and all our circumstances through him. Mountaintop vision allows us to encounter the living God in our everyday lives. Where in your life do you need a little mountaintop vision? Where in your life are you hopeless, insecure, discouraged, confused, frustrated, angry, or tired? Jesus wants to walk up to the mountaintop with you, and he promises to walk down the mountain with you if you will but let him. Jesus said, “I came into this world that you may have life and have it abundantly.” That abundant life starts on the mountaintop with a complete change, a change that affects your vision. As we prepare our hearts to go beyond these walls of the church, or even as we prepare to serve our church this week and especially during these days leading up to Ash Wednesday and the Lenten journey, I challenge you to revisit the mountaintop with Jesus where Jesus wants to reveal himself to you, where you can’t leave but a transformed, changed or transfigured person with mountaintop vision. Amen.


Discipleship 101: 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Posted February 27, 2012 by Wesley Memorial
Categories: Uncategorized

preached by Rev. Jeri Katherine Sipes on Sunday, Feb. 12 at Wesley Memorial UMC, Columbia, SC

Do you what happens in 166 days? In 166 days it will be July 27, 2012 for those of you who are trying to call up a calendar in your mind. Does that date ring any bells? I’ll give you a hint—it only happens every four years—and no, I do not mean the Presidential election. Do you know what I am talking about? It’s an Olympic year people! Does anyone else get as excited for the Olympics as I do? I am a huge Olympic fanatic. It is only once every four years that track and field gets its due respect! But I am not the first Olympic aficionado. The Olympics have been going on since Paul’s time. Except during the first century A.D. when Paul was living and writing his letter to the church in Corinth, it wasn’t uncommon for cities all over Greece to have their own Olympics. Corinth hosted the Isthmian Games every two years, and people from all over the ancient world descended upon Corinth for the games.  Athletics in the ancient world excited great vigor, passion and devotion. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Times haven’t changed too much; humans have always loved their sports. You don’t have to be a sports fan to recognize the wide love for athletics all around us. Gaye Besly was in the office this week, and we were talking about these verses in 1 Corinthians and she said, “I wonder how many people would have been in church last week if the Super Bowl had been at 11:00.” I only pray that the Gamecocks don’t start scheduling football and baseball games on Sunday mornings; loyalties certainly would be tested.

I don’t know if the Corinth church felt as many churches feel today. I don’t know if they felt like they had to fight for their members’ loyalty, time and resources. It doesn’t seem that way from these verses. It doesn’t seem like Paul was worried about the athletic games getting in the way of church. For all we know Paul could have been an athlete at one time in his life. Paul uses this kind of athletic imagery throughout his letters to churches all over the ancient world. Maybe he was an athlete, maybe not, but what is clear is that Paul recognized the love of athletics and met people where they were; he found common ground, points of connection and used their language to teach about Christian discipleship. Maybe Paul somehow knew that this love for sports would be timeless and only grow in vigor and passion.

You don’t have to be a competitive or professional athlete to know or understand the kind of training and preparation an athlete must subject his or her body. It is a way of life for the professional or any seriously committed athlete. That is where Paul begins, that is where he connects the life of a runner or a boxer or an athlete to the life of a Christian. Christian discipleship is a lifestyle. It is not something you just do, but you live and breathe the way of Christ in all you think, say and do. Such a life takes training, preparation and practice. Before we can go on to any other point about discipleship, Paul wants us to understand that discipleship is a way of life. Athletes are still athletes when they leave the field, or court, or track or gym or weight room. My high school coach used to say to me, “Garbage in off the field is garbage in on the field.”

The best athletes in the world have total dedication on and off the field. Likewise, as Christian disciples we are called to a lifestyle of discipleship at church, at home, at work, with our friends, with our family, with strangers and with those we don’t even like. Discipleship doesn’t start when you come into the church building and it certainly doesn’t end when you leave the church premises. As John Wesley said, “The world is our parish!” Discipleship is a lifestyle characterized by grace. The Bible is clear that faith alone saves; there is nothing we can to do earn salvation, but as good Methodists we believe in responsible grace, a living grace where our faith or professed beliefs are lived out in every area of our lives.

Paul reminds us that athletes have external motivations that keep them committed to their dedicated way of life. Yesterday I was at a conference all day and the question raised during our opening devotion was, “What motivates your ministry and life?” For an athlete, external rewards, titles, glory and praise motivate their lives. But Paul challenges the Christian disciple to a much deeper motivation. The only way to make discipleship a lifestyle even possible is to be motivated not by external rewards and acclamations, but to be motivated by Christ—and the promise of eternal life with the Father in the here and now and the life to come.

So, let me ask you: What motivates your life? Think about it. What is the first thing that comes to mind? A couple of weeks ago Paul Smith emailed me a Max Lucado devotion called “Everything You Need.” Listen very carefully to Lucado’s words: “Are you hoping that a change in circumstances will bring a change in your attitude? If so, you are in prison, and you need to learn a secret of traveling light. What you have in God is greater than what you don’t have in life…How do you fill in this blank: ‘I will be happy when ________________’? I will be happy: When I am healed. When I am promoted. When I am married. When I am single. When I am rich. When I am debt free. When our church grows. When I am…you fill in the blank. How would you finish that statement? With your answer firmly in mind, answer this. If your ship never comes in, if your dream never comes true, if the situation never changes, could you be happy? If not, then you are sleeping in the cold cell of discontent. You are in prison.” Lucado goes onto say that in Christ we have everything we need.  Discipleship takes motivation, and the greatest motivator for a life of discipleship is Christ. In Christ we are offered everything we need in this life; we are offered eternal life—it is a reward that is greater than any temporary reward of this world. Without Christ as our motivation, our discipleship is empty. What is motivating your life?

It is so important to know what motivates your life, because the rock of your motivation will keep you strong during valleys, struggles and obstacles. Discipleship is not an easy lifestyle. Discipleship takes practice. Discipleship is a process of growth. Discipleship does not happen overnight just like the best athletes aren’t crowned with victory overnight. Someone from the General Board of Discipleship in Nashville, Tennessee said it takes 10,000 hours of intentional and disciplined practice to be make discipleship a way of life. And, believe me, during those 10,000 hours there will be some very hard and trying times. There will be struggles. There will be obstacles. There will be temptations of all kinds that pull us here and there and almost make us want to just throw our hands up and quit. But such things cannot and should not discourage you. It is easy for athletes to get discouraged with losses and injuries because such things keep them from competing for their crowns of victory and glory. If I had been wearing this boot on my fractured foot five or ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been such a hopeful or agreeable person because my life was running, and injuries mean no running. I’m not saying I welcomed this injury or the ban to this very uncomfortable boot with a smile and cheerfulness, but I have a new perspective; I have grown. Running is not my all. I was, as Max Lucado said, stuck in the prison of my love of running because I was determined that I would only be happy when I would accomplish x, y, z in track and field. I found out that was no way to live; that there is more than life; that life is too short to allow my mood and my days and my relationships to be dictated by wins, loses, injuries and PRs.

A few days ago I heard on the radio a man talking about failure. He said, “Failure is only failure if you let it knock you down. Failure is only failure if you do not learn from your failure and get back up and try again.” It is so easy for us to focus on those things we don’t have in life or those areas where we fail and fall and feel we are inadequate, but a life of discipleship is realizing that our motivation is not ourselves or others or things or accomplishments, but God. A disciple’s life is centered on God. We are not alone in the ups and downs of this life of discipleship. Remember Christian discipleship is characterized by grace, and it is God’s abundant grace that sees us through and reminds us to put our eyes on Christ, to make our motivation heavenly rather than worldly. So, again where does your motivation for living come from?

When your motivation is clear then it makes living a life of discipleship easier—not easy, but easier. When Paul compares a Christian disciple to an athlete he tells us that such a life takes discipline and again it takes work and practice. Paul is very clear that “the Christian life is not passive, but it requires an earnest, consistent striving that is fueled by grace.”[1] Once again, and please hear me, what we do in this world does not save us; we cannot earn salvation through good or excellent discipleship. But an intentional life of discipleship that is characterized by works of piety and works of charity—to use John Wesley’s words—a life of discipleship that is characterized by faithful and disciplined living in prayer, bible study, fellowship, worship, serving, and so on and so on—opens a deep and rich relationship with God and with others. The “imperishable crown” that Paul talks about in our verses, is not just a future promise. God wants us to enjoy life to the fullest in the here and now. What would you give in life to have to know and live life to the fullest? Many people give their lives to so many things that they think will make them happy, full and content. Paul tells us that athletes strive for perishable awards. This is the difference between Christian discipleship and athletics. In athletics accolades are temporary, but in the life and body of Christ victory is eternal.

And finally getting back to the point of not being alone in discipleship. Look around you. This is our team; these are our training partners. Even athletes who don’t play team sports like running or boxing, know the value of good training partners and having a good team of supporters, coaches, trainers, doctors, and fans. We are practicing discipleship right now. We are being nurtured through God’s word, through song and prayer and fellowship. But discipleship doesn’t have to be and should not be reserved to this hour on Sunday morning or to this church building. There are opportunities for discipleship and growth in discipleship all around us every day. So, this week look around you and ask yourself what is the motivation for your life? Amen.

Have you not heard?! (Isaiah 40:21-31)

Posted February 5, 2012 by Wesley Memorial
Categories: Uncategorized

preached by Rev. Jeri Katherine Warden Sipes at Wesley Memorial UMC, Columbia, SC on February 5, 2011

Remember two weeks ago we said that God’s Word we are called to share with the world is compelling enough to draw people to God and God’s church. Do you remember that lesson from the Gospel of Mark? Well, I don’t know a much better or more compelling way to share the Good News with people than with these words of Isaiah 40. If you don’t know where to begin sharing your faith with others this is a good place to start. This is the message I wish everyone throughout the whole world would hear and understand. How can you not want to worship God or get to know this God after hearing this scripture lesson?! These are Words of hope that give life meaning, purpose and gets us through those hard and hopeless times. These words of Isaiah are testimony of God’s presence with us in the here and now. And at such a time as these when the economy is down, when people are losing their jobs and finding it hard to pay their bills and put food on their tables, when the divorce rate is higher than it has ever been, when politics are anything but civil, when we see and read about violence in almost every part of the world, including our own very neighborhoods, when we are so busy and tired trying to keep up with chaotic schedules and demands, when so often we ask in hopelessness, doubt and exasperation “where are you God?!”—at such a time as these today, these verses from Isaiah 40 is the Good News we and our neighbors and our world are desperate to hear.

At such a time as this, we need to be reminded of God’s greatness and power—just like the people during Isaiah’s time needed to be reminded of the powerful and unchanging truth of God. You see, our days of turmoil, insecurity, violence and doubt can be compared in some ways to the days of Isaiah in 550-515BC. These verses in Isaiah were written at a time when the Jewish people had been violently exiled from their land, their temple destroyed and they are living in captivity under the Babylonians who worshiped all sorts of gods and goddesses.[1] There was violence, insecurity, chaos and doubt; the Jewish people were hopeless; they looked at their world and their present circumstance and in exasperation they asked, “Where are you God!?”

They needed reminding of God’s immeasurable greatness, and throughout the Bible we read about God’s people constantly in need of reminders of God’s immeasurable greatness, and throughout history the great cloud of witnesses including the likes of St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Mother Teresa, Billy Graham and we could go on and on, needed reminding of the immeasurable greatness of God. I need reminding of God’s immeasurable greatness, and I would venture to say that you who are sitting in the pews this morning and many of your friends, family members, co-workers, neighbors and acquaintances need reminding of God’s immeasurable greatness, unconditional love and promises that God is truly Emmanuel; God with us.

I want you to close your eyes and listen again to this Good News in Isaiah. Think about what is going on in your life. What is pulling you this way and that? What are you worries, your anxieties, your sorrows, your fears? Where do you doubt, feel insecure, weak, tired and sad? What parts of your life do you need to turn over to God? This time I’ll be reading these words of hope for our lives from The Message Bible. Listen:

Have you not been paying attention?
Have you not been listening?
Haven’t you heard these stories all your life?
Don’t you understand the foundation of all things?
God sits high above the earth.

So—who is like me?
Look at the night skies:
Who do you think made all this?
Who marches this army of stars out each night,
counts them off, calls each by name
—so magnificent! so powerful!—
and never overlooks a single one?

Why would you ever complain, O my people,
or, whine, my children, saying,
“God has lost track of me.
He doesn’t care what happens to me”?
Don’t you know anything? Haven’t you been listening?
God doesn’t come and go. God is everlasting.
He’s Creator of all you can see or imagine.
He doesn’t get tired out, doesn’t pause to catch his breath.
And he knows everything, inside and out.
He energizes those who get tired,
gives fresh strength to dropouts.
For even young people tire and drop out,
young folk in their prime stumble and fall.
But those who wait upon God get fresh strength.
They spread their wings and soar like eagles,
They run and don’t get tired,
they walk and don’t lag behind.

I don’t know about you, but fresh strength, renewal and being able to run and not get tired sound pretty good to me! However, when things get hard in our lives these things of God seem impossible to believe, but in a moment, as the writer of Isaiah 40 says, we notice the stars or something in nature, or someone reminds us of God’s greatness—in these moments we are reminded that the presence and power of God are utterly impossible to deny.[2] This is the kind of tension we live in as humans or as mere grasshoppers as Isaiah 40 calls us. Sometimes we feel so small and insignificant and hopeless that we can’t imagine or we don’t believe that the Creator of the whole world—the Creator of you and me who knit each one of us together in our mother’s womb, who knows our name and every hair on our head—actually cares about the intimate happenings of our lives. But this Creator God whom we worship calls all the stars by name we are told in these verses. How much more, then, does God care about what happens to you and me and all the other grasshoppers? God is great and God is big, but God is also in and cares about the tiny, most intimate parts of each of our lives.[3]

Who is the God you came to worship today? Who is the God you worship every day? If you look at God through your circumstances, God will look small, removed, distant and uninvolved, but if you look at your circumstances through the eyes of your faith in God then the perspective of your circumstances change, suddenly your present circumstances seem smaller and easily handled if we put our circumstances in the hands of God as Isaiah 40 encourages us to do.

The powerful truth and promise of these verses today is that throughout the up and down changes in our lives, throughout the good and the bad, throughout the unpredictability of life there is one constant and that constant is the everlasting God and his love for us. God is present and in control even when things in our lives and world seem out of control.[4] God has promised time and time again to take care of each one of us, but time and time again we limit God; we take power from God and try to do everything ourselves. We live in a hurry up and wait world where waiting upon the Lord seems so difficult. But hear the Good News those of you who are tired, worn out, hopeless, weak, full of doubt, worry and insecurity—God invites each one of us to exchange our weakness, our fatigue, our worries, our troubles, and our sorrows for God’s power.

It is so easy to read about God’s greatness—his power, love and mercy—week after week, but throughout the Bible, God tells us to do more than speak and read the Word of God. God tells us to write the Word of God upon our hearts. The truth and promise of God’s greatness spoken in Isaiah 40 does not describe the past, but the promises we read today is a living truth and a living promise spoken to our lives in the present and meant to be lived in faithful trust.

When I was a child we used to sing a song that went like this: “My God is so great/so strong and so mighty/there’s nothing my God cannot do; the mountains are his/the valleys are his/the stars are his handiwork too; my God is so great/so strong and so mighty/there’s nothing my God cannot do.” As children many of us grew up singing these kinds of songs and hearing stories of God’s greatness, but as we grow older and become adults we forget; we doubt, or we, ourselves, try to embody God’s greatness—where only God can be great.

But today is a new day, and every day is a new day and each moment is a new moment and a gift from God. We all need reminders from time to time. We have heard the promises of God spoken in Isaiah 40, but even these verses cannot capture the depth of God. Isaiah’s verses are words of hope, but they are also an invitation to start living life a different way, to start living by faith, trusting God and allowing your heart and life to be open to discovering our God who is without limits—and yet even in God’s omnipresence, omnipotence, in all those omni- words that describe God—even in God’s greatness, he meets us where we are. You have once again heard this good news; you have been reminded of the God we worship and live for—so, now, how will you live your life knowing the kind of God who loves you and calls you by name? Amen.

[1] John Holbert, “Listening to Our Inner Job,” February 3, 2012,

[2] W. Dennis Tucker, Jr., “Commentary on Isaiah 40:21-31,” February 8, 2009,

[3] Ibid.

[4] John Holbert.

Community Outreach: Hand Middle School Program

Posted February 2, 2012 by Wesley Memorial
Categories: Uncategorized

Wesley Memorial is in transition. We are revisiting our mission and vision statements, trying to focus and find God’s calling for our church in our community. A lot has changed for the people at Wesley Memorial over the last two decades. We have seen a significant decline in membership–both through deaths and a lack of interest from our surrounding community. We seem to be in prime location, but like many churches we have a barely sustainable membership; we are struggling financially because our wonderful facilities sap so much money each week. Some weeks it really is hard to keep our doors open. It doesn’t sound good for the people of Wesley Memorial, and I would give up and ask for a reappointment if it weren’t for the fighting spirit of the fifty or so folks who are dedicated to growth—even if that means changing some of our current ways of being and doing church together. I have come to love the people of Wesley Memorial and their never-give-up attitude. In the year and a half since I have been here they have shed their we’re-dying attitude and opened themselves up to truly rethinking church–especially rethinking how church can daily be lived out in service to our community.

Realistically to financially sustain our church building and a full-time pastor we need to grow in number, but before we can welcome new members in to our church, we have to be willing to grow deeper spiritually so that we are a healthy, though perhaps small in number, church. In Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner hears, “If you build it, he will come.” I believe that if we build ourselves up spiritually and we faithfully and whole-heartily do what God has called all churches to do then people will come; people will be drawn to our church–drawn to the living and intimate relationship we share with one another and God, drawn to our service-oriented hearts. Unlike Costner’s character in Field of Dreams, we do not have to do any literally building. We have great and much underused facilities already, but where we need building is in our individual and communal spiritual lives of the people we call church.

One of the things I have challenged Wesley Memorial to do since coming in July of 2010 is to engage our surrounding community. Last year we supported and volunteered at 12 different local ministries, non-profits or charities. At the end of 2011 I wanted to challenge my church to deeper outreach. I challenged them to do a windshield observation of our neighborhood, to take note of an unmet need in our surrounding community. Several moms approached me soon after that challenge. They said they noticed many middle school students roamed the neighborhood streets after school–especially on early release days. They thought we should start some kind of free after school program for the middle school that sits just two blocks from our church. I took that idea and quickly ran with it. I visited the principal at the middle school, brainstormed and then before I knew it we had 12 middle school students at our church from 1:00pm-5:30pm. We had 5 dedicated volunteers from our church give up their afternoon to entertain, tutor and feed these 12 students. Wonderful ministry moments happened during those 4 hours of outreach. 12 kids lives were touched. 12 kids had a safe place to go while mom and dad worked. We learned that many of the 12 students came from single parent families. Some lived with grandparents or siblings. Some never knew their parents. Some kids were not guaranteed supper when they got home. Some came to us hungry. Some had more education than their parents. As all of the students were leaving they said they could not wait to come back to church again. And the parents and guardians were so thankful that a church would be so thoughtful to provide a warm and welcoming, safe place for local students–especially for free. Many said that their minds were at ease knowing their child was safe with church people.

The lives of those from Wesley Memorial who volunteered that day were touched. They told me they want to do more to help the kids of our neighborhood. So often it is in giving that we receive. The eyes of some of our volunteers were opened. How could there be unfed children in our neighborhood? What parents in our neighborhood don’t find safe places for their kids to play? How can parents just let their kids roam the streets alone? There were a lot of whys and hows and what can we dos.

The same day we provided our first after school outreach, the state newspaper had an op-ed about investing in our youth. Their reasons were economic, but I believe investing in the youth in our community is our call as Christian people. We are called to care for the “lease of these,” and who else is more vulnerable in communities everywhere than children–especially children during those middle school years when they aren’t quite considered little kids, but not yet the “big” kids and definitely not adults. I think Wesley Memorial may have found its calling in our immediate neighborhood. I pray it is a calling that we can live into and will grow.

Op-Ed 1/29/12: Investing in Kids

Gone Fishin’: Mark 1:14-20

Posted February 1, 2012 by Wesley Memorial
Categories: Uncategorized

preached by Rev. Jeri Katherine Sipes on January 22, 2012 at Wesley Memorial UMC, Columbia, SC

Opening Video:

The sad truth we learn at the very beginning of Mark’s gospel is that there used to be a time when Jesus simply announced the Good News—when Jesus simply said, “Now is the time! God’s kingdom is near! Change your hearts and lives and believe this good news!” and people dropped what they were doing…they dropped their nets as we see Simon, Andrew, James and John do and immediately follow him. So often today in many of our churches we talk about the “good ol’ days” when our sanctuaries were filled and our Sunday school classrooms were abuzz with life and eager learners and happy fellowship. But the real “good ol’ days” are captured here in Mark 1.

Mark is very different from Matthew, Luke and John. The other Gospels give you time to warm up to the idea of following Jesus, but not so in Mark.[1] In Mark you jump right in! Unlike Matthew, Luke and John, in Mark there is no birth story, no long list of Jesus’ genealogy, and no theological explanation of Jesus’ identity. We are only in the first chapter and only fourteen verses into Mark and already Jesus is gathering disciples, already Jesus is saying, “Follow Me.” And people are dropping their nets and following Jesus. It takes Matthew and Luke four chapters to get to this point. The closest to Mark is the Gospel of John. In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus does call his first disciples, but it is after John has said much, much more than simply, “The Kingdom of God is near! Change your hearts and lives and believe this good news! And follow me.” There is no build up in Mark as there is in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  In just sixteen chapters Mark uses “immediately” or “straightaway” forty times.[2] That seems to be the theme of Mark’s Gospel. Everything is urgent and everyone seems to respond to Jesus immediately.

The message of Christ has not changed. The message is still “The kingdom of God is near.” But unlike the disciples in Mark who did not know Jesus’ future, we know the full story of Christ; we hear a more complete Good News that Jesus died and was resurrected for us. So, in a way I would argue that the message we hear is more compelling than what Simon, Andrew, James and John heard. And yet, while most of us admire what these disciples do, and while most of us really love this story and love the catchy phrase “fishers of people,” few of us would actually consider following these disciples “drop-everything” example, few of us would do what they did.[3] So what would make you drop everything and begin an entirely new life? “What would prompt you to leave everything you know for something entirely different?”[4]

I may be “preaching to the choir” as they say. After all y’all are here in church and so many people don’t even bother to go to church any more. It is a well-known fact that churches everywhere are dying. We spend a lot of time these days talking about church growth and church revitalization and what is the latest method for bringing in people. Perhaps fishing for people is just a lot different today than it was when Mark wrote his Gospel. Like the video at the beginning of the sermon, it seems that fish today want to be entertained and won over and lured. The radical message of God’s good news is no longer compelling enough perhaps. That is very sad, and I do not believe that is the truth.

We spend so much of our time, effort and resources looking at what is wrong with people today, and we spend a lot of time asking, “What would bring more people to church?” We look at demographic reports of our surrounding neighborhood and we have conversations about how we can make God’s church more attractive, how we can provide programs to reach people in our area to draw them into our church, and how we can make God’s church more compelling. Jesus didn’t say, “I’ll make your life easy,” or “I’ll give you a bigger salary,” or “I’ll make you famous,” or “Come, to my awesome show.” Jesus simply said, “The Kingdom of God is near. Follow me.” Yes, Jesus’ message is the same and his call for us to follow him and be made into fishers of people is still the calling of all of Jesus’ followers, but I think it is obvious that we haven’t been the best fishers. Perhaps instead of focusing on what is wrong with everyone else, what is wrong with our church and why aren’t people coming to church…or instead of asking how can we make church more compelling maybe we need to just get back to the basics.

Maybe we need to take a hint from these four fishermen in Mark and drop everything ourselves and follow Jesus. How can we be fishers of people when our lives don’t reflect the beliefs we profess? How can we be fishers for Christ when we aren’t willing or ready to drop everything and follow him? How can we be fishers of people when church is secondary, when church is no more than another obligation or activity in our already busy schedules? Who wants to be part of more busyness? When we begin to live as though God’s church is life-transforming and a good, meaningful and relevant way of life—not a part of life—but a way of living, then and only then will people be drawn to who and what we have come to love so much.

There is no secret to church growth or to bringing more people into God’s kingdom. Jesus lived it for us. The message of Christ is more than compelling enough. But to be bearers of this good news we have to do more than speak it; we have to live it; we have to embody it in all we do and wherever we go. We have to walk like Christ—not only on Sundays, not only ten-percent of the time, not only when it is convenient, not only when the future is certain, not when we feel one-hundred-percent ready but always and everywhere we have been called by Jesus. You know that is what the New Testament Greek word for church means. Church or ecclesia means “called-out,” so we need to actually live as though we have indeed been called out for a purpose.

There is much we can learn from these four fishermen in Mark.[5] Their story can help us begin to be better fisher of people in our world today. I am not a fisher woman. I have grown up fishing from time to time, but I do not know too much about the fishing world beyond the basics. But I would consider myself an athlete or a woman of many hobbies, and I think there are certain marks, or traits, or characteristics, or qualities of anyone who is taken up with a sport or a hobby or a job they love to do. First, and I already hinted at it, you have to love what you do.[6] Do you love the church? Do you love being a disciple of Jesus with your whole life? Does your life reflect your love for Jesus? If you do love Jesus and your life reflects your love then you are a natural; you will be a good fisher of people.

Love or natural talent carries people a long way, but any profession athlete, musician, artist, or whatever will tell you that to be really good takes a lot of practice; it takes dedication.[7] You have to be willing to fully immerse yourself into the teachings of Jesus and the life of the church. The church is much more than a social club; it is a place we come together to worship, study, pray, fellowship and experience God as God’s people. Part of the good news we share with the world is that we are not alone. But unless you fully and without restraint invest yourself in the life of a church and unless you practice growing in your own faith daily, how will you ever be able to draw more people into God’s church?

To be a good fisher man or woman you also have to “know the fish.”[8] This is what Paul called being “in the world but not of the world.” It is not our job to pass judgment on people, but to meet people where they are, to build relationships with people as we see Jesus do throughout the Gospels. How are you connecting with your neighbors? How are you listening to their needs, their pains, their sorrows? Building the church begins with building relationships outside of the church. You have to remember that you may be the only witness of Christ that someone ever sees or meets. How are you getting to know all the different kinds of fish around you? And how or are you sharing the good news?

And finally, to be a good fisher of people you have to be patient. Sometimes we meet Simons, Andrews, Jameses and Johns who immediately respond to the message of Christ, but then sometimes you meet people who are not so immediate in their response or who might even be hostile to God’s message. But God called us to fish and part of fishing, as any fisherman will tell you, is patience. Van, my brother-in-law, once said to me after we were out fishing with the family for nearly 3 hours with only two catches, “There’s a reason they call it fishing and not catching.” Jesus has called us to fish, but the good news for us is that we can leave the catching up to God. Having patience means not giving up, and that is a very important part of being a fisher of people for Christ.

Love what you do, practice, know the fish and be patient—these are all marks of good fisher men and women.

There is hope for God’s church, and the hope is you. That is the message of Mark 1:14-20. The hope of God’s kingdom in this world relies on a partnership with all those people who call themselves followers of Jesus. We have all been called fisher of men and women. What are you waiting for? Don’t you think it is about time we go fishing? Amen.

[1] Alyce M. McKenzie, “Ready or Not: Reflections on Mark 1:4-20,” January 17, 2012,

[2] Ibid.

[3] John A. Stroman, “Drop-Everything Discipleship,”

[4] Ibid.

[5] Edward Markquart, “Fishing for Christ,” January 20, 2009,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

God’s Calling, Are You Listening?: 1 Samuel 3:1-10

Posted February 1, 2012 by Wesley Memorial
Categories: Uncategorized

preached by Rev. Jeri Katherine Sipes on January 15, 2012 at Wesley Memorial UMC, Columbia, SC

If you hang out with our vintage folks, as we have come to call our older or chronologically gifted folks, here at church and around the community long enough, you’ll soon accumulate many, many jokes because for whatever reason, I have observed, that when you hit a certain age, you start to talk in the language of jokes—especially vintage men. This is not a judgment or a condemnation, but merely an observation that I think can help my sermons, or at least loosen us up to be ready to hear what God has to say to us today.

For example, I recently heard a joke that goes very well with our scripture lesson from 1 Samuel 3. There was once a preacher who titled his sermon, “The Danger of Falling Asleep in Church.” For several weeks in a row there was one particular man who fell asleep during church every single Sunday, so the preacher thought he would make an example out of him for the rest of the church. Just as the preacher stood up to preach, he noticed the man was already comfortably asleep in his pew.  So, the preacher asked his congregants to please stand if you want to go to heaven. Everyone stood except the sleeping man. There were snickers and a few gasps, and the man kept on sleeping. The preacher had everyone sit back down, and then with a bang of his fist on the pulpit and with a loud voice the preacher said, “Stand up if you want to go to hell!” That loud commotion from the pulpit roused the sleeping man; he stood, and he looked around and said, “Preacher, I don’t know what we’re voting on, but it looks like it is just you and me are the only ones for it.”[1]

There are dangers sleeping in the church, but as one pastor pointed out there is just as much danger or many unexpected surprises by simply being in the church or being the church.[2] Just read Samuel’s story and you will understand. Even before Samuel was born the life of his family was centered at the temple or the church of their time. Samuel’s parents were Elkanah and Hannah. And Hannah like her ancestors Sarah and Rachel was barren; she could not have children and yet her prayer every time she was in the house of the Lord was for a child of her own. And every prayer of her husband, Elkanah, was for a child for Hannah. Like Sarah and Rachel, Hannah was beyond child-bearing age when the priest Eli told her God would give her a child. Hannah was so filled with joy at this great miracle and gift that she promised God her child would grow up in the temple with the priests to be trained as a minister of the Lord.

If we fast forward 12 or so years from Samuel’s conception and then birth, we meet the child Samuel asleep in the temple in our verses for today. Samuel is not like the man from the joke; he is not bored with church and sermons and songs and prayers and probably all the activities of a church. Back in Samuel’s day when children were promised for the service of the Lord, as Hannah had promised Samuel before he was born, when the children were weaned from their mothers they went to live at the temple with the ministers who would train them to be ministers. Obviously when children are baptized or dedicated in churches today we do not do that. Some of you parents might be thinking, “Hmmmm…sounds like a tradition we should revive.” No. Sorry. I will have to ask you to stop that thought there. Wesley Memorial’s minister and more importantly her husband are not willing participants in reviving this tradition. I will be more than happy to be involved in the life of your child in your home or in Sunday School and VBS, but we are not currently taking Samuel applicants at this time. The good thing for you is that you are United Methodist so give it a couple of years and you’ll have a new pastor to try to convince to revive that tradition.

But getting back to the point—the danger of being in the church is that soon you will hear God calling you. It doesn’t matter if you initially came here because your family came or comes, or you came with a friend, or you came because you wanted your children to be raised in the church because you were raised in the church, or you came for the awesome potlucks, or because that’s what families just do at 11:00 on Sundays in the south. Whatever reason or reasons you started coming to church, if you spend enough time here and with the church people you will begin to hear God calling your name as God called Samuel.

God is always calling out to each one of us all the time—no matter if we’re in church or not. God calls and that is a fact, but sometimes I think our days are very much like the days of Samuel when the “Word of the Lord was rare and visions were not widespread.” Just to make it clear for you…that is not a good thing. There are several places in the Bible that when the word of the Lord is not heard and visions stop bad things follow. Proverbs 29:18 puts it plainly, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” The Word of the Lord certainly does seem to be rare and visions do not seem to be widespread today. And I think it is safe to say that our world is spiritually unhealthy and in desperate need of God’s Good News, but I don’t think this is because God has ceased to speak, or to call or to reach out to us. I think it is because we have become spiritually hard-of-hearing.[3] We are not attuned to the ways of the Lord because we have become more in tuned with the ways of the world. We busy ourselves with calls and expectations of others that we do not make room to hear God, or even sadder we do not even expect God to speak or call to us like we read so often in scripture. Like Samuel, we don’t even consider God calling an option.[4] We are so readily available when people—our friends and family—call us, but not so available or willing to acknowledge when it is God who is really calling us.[5]

Perhaps we are spiritually hard-of-hearing because we are so busy and we fill our lives with so much, but perhaps it is also because God’s call can come at very inconvenient times and God’s call on our lives might not be what we want to do or it might not match up with our lives’ plan. Samuel was called in the middle of the night. Personally I can’t think of a much more inconvenient time. I like my sleep. I don’t like to be disturbed when I am warmly tucked in my bed with my feather blanket all tucked around me and I’m in the middle of a deep sleep, but sometimes God’s call comes when we are most comfortable and don’t want to be disturbed, and well sometimes that can just be so inconvenient, can’t it!? So we don’t even listen.  We brush God off like we don’t even hear him.

The title of this sermon, as you may have read, is “God’s calling, are you listening,” but I think before we can even listen, we have to pick up the phone. I envision God to be that Verizon wireless guy who keeps asking, “Can you hear me now,” as he moves closer and closer and closer to the person. Just like that God moves closer and closer to us, and he asks, “Can you hear me now?” God is hoping that one day we will pick up the phone and say, “Yes, yes. I hear you. What do you want, God?” First, before we can even begin to listen to God, we have to acknowledge that God speaks to each of us. God calls each of us. God speaks to our world, to our church and to people today through scripture, prayer, song, sermons (we hope!), worship, fellowship, church and the ways God speaks to us cannot be limited. God speaks. God calls. Before we can ask, “Are you listening,” we have to ask ourselves and each other, “Are you even ready to listen?”

Just as there is a danger in coming to church because you might hear God calling you, there is a danger in opening ourselves up to listening to God. We didn’t read the rest of 1 Samuel 3, but if you know the story, or if you have time to go back to read it, you will see that God called Samuel to a very difficult task and what would be for years a very difficult life. God does not always call us to an easy way of life, and because of that we don’t always want to listen. Sometimes like Samuel that might mean to challenge your leaders, or change something about yourself—which is never easy.

But this is where trust in the Lord comes in. We have to trust that God has plans to bring about good. We have to trust and know that we have all been called to be ministers for God—ordained clergy are not the only ones who are called to serve the church and share the good news of Christ. We are all called to witness God’s presence in our world with the variety of gifts God has given us. We have to trust that like Samuel God has great plans to use each of us in mighty and transforming ways.

Are you ready to listen? Are you listening? If you are, and you respond “Here I am, Lord” as Samuel did then the next question we must ask ourselves is, “How am I surrounding myself with people who will help me discern the will of God for my life?” Who are you are the people surrounding you who will help you live into God’s calling for you? Samuel had Eli and the whole community at the temple. He also had faithful parents—Elkanah and Hannah—who helped him grow into his calling. Having people around us who can help us discern God’s call for our lives is very important. People keep us accountable, challenge and encourage us, and they don’t let us forget the ways in which God is calling. If we surround ourselves with other people who are seeking God’s will, if we surround ourselves with others who are listening to God then we will move from merely answering God’s call to actively living God’s call for our lives. Without the support of such people like a church family or a healthy community of faith, we cannot fully live into God’s call.

Each of us as the body of Christ has been called in different ways. Each of us has been made by God’s own hands with different gifts. When one doesn’t answer God’s call, the body is not complete, the body of Christ does not work properly. We need each other to live into our call. Samuel’s story teaches us that.

So, this week as you go throughout your week and you read and pray and fellowship ask yourself: Am I ready to listen to God? Am I listening to God? Who in my life can I go to help me discern God’s call for my life? And finally find some space and time where you can be quiet and truly listen for the voice of God. We do not have to be a time and place where the Word of the Lord is rare and visions are not widespread. Our future is not fixed; rather God is calling to us today and every day, calling us to turn and return to him so that he can do mighty things through his people. How will you respond? Amen.

[1] David E. Leininger, “The Voice: 1 Samuel 3:1-10,”

[2] Ibid.

[3] John C. Holbert, “Hello, is this God? Reflections on 1 Samuel 3:1-10,” Jan. 12, 2012,

[4] Beth Tanner, “What it means to be called by God,” January 18, 2009,

[5] Ibid.

Untamed Disciples: Mark 1:4-11

Posted February 1, 2012 by Wesley Memorial
Categories: Uncategorized

preached by Rev. Jeri Katherine Sipes on January 8 at Wesley Memorial UMC in Columbia, SC

Let’s take a quick hand poll. How many of you have been baptized? Don’t worry, I’m not taking names. I don’t have a pencil in hand. I’m not going to aggressively confront you after church and pressure you into being baptized. I understand. The decision to be baptized takes time. I went through three confirmation classes one before baptism and two afterwards just to make sure, so believe me I really understand that such a decision as baptism can be a lengthy process—all in God’s timing, right?

Most of your hands went up. Good, but now, another hand poll—how many of you remember your baptism?  I do. I was 10 when I was baptized, and my dad baptized me—the Baptist-way according to many of my fellow United Methodists. I was immersed, dunked, submerged, or plunged—which ever you prefer to call it; I was baptized by more than I couple drops or sprinkles of water. I distinctly remember the way the cool water completely washed over me as my dad lowered me into the water. I came up out of the water literally feeling renewed, washed cleaned and made new. It was a powerful feeling; it was a transformational experience that changed my life. I felt God’s presence all around me, embracing me fully and it has been a feeling I haven’t been able to forget.

At 10 years old I thought, “This is my new beginning. This is my new life.” And at 10 years old I naively, or with the innocence of a child, thought that somehow baptism would prevent me from sinning—that baptism would actually make it hard to sin. Go on laugh. I know, it is a bit ridiculous. After more life experience than just a mere 10 years I know that is not quite how baptism works. I have fallen or backslidded as John Wesley would say many times—more times than I am probably willing to admit. I am far from perfect as I have admitted many a time from this pulpit. But I like to think that part of that little 10 year old girl is still a part of me today. I want so desperately that 10 year-old girl who expected Christ to make her whole, new and perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect to still be part of me. It is easy as adults to forget our baptism in the busyness and daily demands of work and family; or to live as nothing ever happened; or to remember our baptism and feel a sense of guilt or failure that we have let God and our church down because we have backslid or strayed far, far away from those promises we made at our baptism. Can I take another hand poll? How many of us have been there? I have many times.

But Mark has good news for all of us backsliders today. We didn’t read verse 1 of our chapter today, but Mark begins his gospel this way, “This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, son of God.” Unlike the other Gospels, Mark does not begin with Jesus’ birth story. There is no genealogy list, no angels, no shepherds, no Mary and Joseph, and no manger. Mark’s gospel begins in the river—a dramatic beginning of Jesus’ ministry that begins with Jesus’ baptism. “Old John the Baptist with eyes wild and penetrating, hair and beard shaggy and unkempt, dressed in a long, coarse camel-hair shirt, probably dusty and sun-burned, eating wild honey and locusts, and who preached hell fire and brimstone out in the middle of the desert was at the Jordan river baptizing a crowd of people when Jesus walked into the waters.”[1] Of course Jesus was sinless, blameless, already perfect as his Father in heaven, so he didn’t need to be baptized. But when Jesus came into the river among all the other sinners, he—God incarnate, God who is fully divine and yet fully human—identified with them, identified with the sinners, identifies with us today. We have been baptized by the same waters and by the same Spirit that baptized Christ.

The world is a different place because of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection, and that was made clear at Jesus’ baptism. When Jesus waded into the waters of the river Jordan that day, the heavens tore apart—the heavens did not merely open up as a door or window opens, but the heavens were torn apart.[2] When we open something like a door, a window, or a jar we expect that we can easily close it again. But when something is torn, it cannot be so easily repaired, fixed, mended or sewn perfectly back together again. Are you with me? Something that is opened is meant to be closed. We all learned this when we learned our opposites as little children, but something that is torn is not necessarily meant to be put back together. When Jesus was baptized that day the heavens were torn apart because God never planned to close the heavens back up. Nothing would ever be the same again. God was among us in human form, walking, talking, eating, and being baptized, and God never planned to leave us. The world not only was a different place because of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection, but every time we celebrate a baptism, or remember our own baptism we remember that the world is a different place because of Jesus Christ, who is Emmanuel, God with us.

We are different people after being baptized by the same waters and Spirit that baptized Christ. At least that is what baptism calls us into—a new life, a new people, a new identity. Jesus’ baptism inaugurated his earthly ministry among us. It is very fitting that the story of Jesus’ baptism comes at the beginning of every New Year when everyone is making resolutions and trying to better themselves in the New Year. As Methodists we only believe in being baptized once, but yearly, monthly and even daily we can remember and renew our covenant we made with God at our baptism. That day when the heavens tore apart, God’s Spirit descended and God’s voice said, “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”—on that day God was making a new people; God was partnering with humanity unlike God had ever done in the past. God was making a new people for himself, but this time the people, you and I, have to choose to be people of God. The world is a different place because of Jesus, but through our baptism we have been called to live this difference for our world.[3]

One of my least favorite quotes I have read in any book—I can’t remember which book now, but just a two-word phrase that terrifies me, and that is: “tame commitment.” Tame commitment is the same as passive participation which isn’t really participation at all when you think about it. Tame commitment means watered down, lukewarm, docile, subdued, and even disinterested, and we all know what the Bible says about being lukewarm. God says, “Because you are lukewarm, neither hot or cold, I will spit you from my mouth.”[4] This scene at the Jordan River in Mark 1 is anything but tame and as we read throughout Mark and the other Gospels and even the whole Bible the people of God have anything but tame commitment, anything but tame faith—we are often told that God’s people are people of bold faith. The folks we read about in the Bible are probably there because of their untame-ness. This scene of Jesus’ baptism is just the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but it begins in a very dramatic way, only foreshadowing the kind of uninhibited, untamed, and unbounded life Jesus lived while he walked among us.

I doubt Jesus ever worried about what other people thought. He knew from the beginning that he had been called God’s child. Likewise, I am definitely sure John the Baptist didn’t care what others thought. A man who eats locusts, wears camel hair, never cuts his hair and tells people to repent is not the kind of man who cares what others think. John knew he had been called by God for a purpose, that he too was a beloved child of God. Sometimes I think we live too cautiously; we worry too much about what others think of us; we live tamed lives of faith that do not reflect the fact that Jesus’ life and especially Jesus’ life in ours continues to make a difference in our world.

God is a radical, passionate, and dramatic kind of God who wants to shake things up in our world. But the God who freely gives his gracious gift of his son wants us to decide fully to be part of God’s grand plan. The heavens have been torn apart, God’s Spirit is still among us, and God is still telling us all today that we are his children, his beloved, with whom he is well pleased. The calling of our baptism cannot be contained to an hour on Sunday morning, or a few hours during the week. God wants all of us. He wants to use us in mighty ways where people least expect it, but we must make the decision to be untamed disciples who show radical love, hospitality and forgiveness, who make known God’s presence among us today.

We are part of God’s story. Through baptism we have been made one with Christ. Through our baptism we are a part of God’s kingdom; we have been washed by the same water and Spirit that Jesus was washed in. In a minute we will sing Blessed Assurance. In Christ we have our assurance, so what are we waiting for? That assurance is just assurance of eternity, but as the song says in the here and now we can have a fore taste of glory divine. Don’t you want the whole world to have such a taste of God’s radical, untamed and unconditional love? If you answered yes, then today is the day you start living your baptism without reservations or fear or inhibitions. Being baptized into the church is more than joining a bunch of committees or classes, and it is much more than a list of do’s and don’ts. Being baptized into God’s holy church is life transforming not only for the one who is being baptized, but for the whole world. But it is up to you and me to choose what kind of baptized person we want to be—a passive participant with a tame faith or an untamed disciple with bold faith. We daily get to decide who we will be, so today as we remember Jesus’ baptism who will you choose to be? Amen.

[1] Keith Nickle, “Out of the Ordinary: A Sermon for the First Sunday After Epiphany—Baptism of the Lord,” Journal for Preachers (1987).

[2] Donald Juel, “Markan Epiphany: lessons from Mark 1,” Word & World (1988).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Revelation 3:16