Noticing the Blessing

Well, hello there! Thank you, David, for that introduction. And please let me just start off here by saying what a joy it is to finally be amongst all of you. Here we are at the beginning. I’ve been thinking and dreaming about this moment for a while now – standing up here and looking out at all your faces. And it’s exciting to look out on faces that are already beautiful to me and which very soon will be beautiful faces that I know and love.

I’m so grateful to be here that I would be remiss not say thank you to a few people.

First, to my wife, Bonnie Mohan, who is here tonight and who has always been so supportive of my ministry and calling. Thanks, hun.

To Pastor Campbell, and also to Pastor Brown, and all those others who came before me, thank you, thank you, wherever you are on earth or in heaven for the good work you did in this place and for making it possible for us to be here today.

And overflowing gratitude to the amazing staff of Broadway United Church of Christ – what a crowd of talent you all are blessed with here. How lucky am I to be working with two other ordained clergy people, Tessa and Victoria, who are here to do ministry every bit as much as I am. And to be working with Douglas, who is such an incredibly talented musician and who obviously knows how to make music do ministry to our hearts and souls. They’ve been so welcoming and supportive of me and I will preach better today than I could have without them.

I cannot forget our wonderful office volunteer, Benevolence, and our Treasurer, Donna, both of whom have been so helpful in the office this week in getting me paid and on the right page.

Thanks to the whole Board of Stewards, especially our President, Jared, for saying yes to my deep desire to be your interim pastor.

And most importantly of all, thank you God for this congregation – for all of you who make this place a church and who have offered me this wonderful opportunity to walk with you through the transition time that is the interim period.

I can see perhaps a question sparkling in some of your eyes. “How long a walk do you suppose it will be, Pastor Jeff, through this interim period? Because, boy, let me tell you, we’re about right up to here with transition – we’ve gone in less than two years from one building to another, and from two beloved pastors, down to one, and down from one beloved pastor to – no offense but – you. And we just don’t know if we can do any more change. And some of us are thinking maybe we just skip this little journey and come back ‘round once the – no offense – real pastor gets hired.” Was anybody thinking that? I’m not gonna be mad! I hear you! I hear you.

You know, it’s about 18 miles from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to the closest spot on the Jordan River traditionally considered to be the site where John baptized Jesus. That’s 18 miles if you’re going straight, and you good people know, the path from where we are to where we’re going is hardly ever straight! Right?

And for the people in those days who traveled that winding route past the Temple, over Roman roads, and then along sheep paths, and finally through the unpopulated wilds where the only way to find the Jordan River was to keep the setting sun to their backs and to walk into their shadows – well, who knows how many miles they would have walked in total, right? 25? 30? Easy.

For the young and the brawny, well rested, traveling light, not headed out in the hottest part of the year, and if they knew exactly where they were going by having been there before, that 25 miles was still no less than a full day’s journey. And if these pilgrims were just a little older, or walked with a limp, or were dragging their kids along, or if they were unwilling to sleep on the cold ground without a blanket or a tent, if the weather went bad, or if the directions they got telling them how to get to one specific spot on a river that’s 156-miles long were just a little off, and they had to wander up and down the Jordan searching, searching… perhaps the journey there could have taken two days... three? Maybe more.

Keep in mind that for the people from the whole Judean countryside, west of Jerusalem, the journey would have taken even longer. And with every step they took toward the Jordan, they were descending down into a desert. For every third mile they traveled to east, the annual rainfall dropped by two inches, every breath a little drier, every step a little dustier as the world went from lush and green to harsh and brown. Along the way, there would have been real risks – bandits and slavers, poisonous vipers, ravenous wild animals, foreign mercenaries, and imperial thugs.

And don’t forget that after all that – after “arriving” – you weren’t really even halfway done with the whole journey. And the trip back home – that was uphill. Seriously.

And for what exactly? On the rumor that there was a bug-eating Wild Man wrapped in damp camel skins who would hold you down underneath the water? This wasn’t exactly a trip to Fire Island we’re talking about here.

For what exactly? To have your sins forgiven? Forget about it. That’s what the Temple in Jerusalem was for. The Temple Mount was the largest holy site in the world – one of the largest construction projects in human history – an astounding wonder rising up from the middle of a great city. People came from all over the ancient world just to marvel at it. The Temple had style – gold fixtures and seven-ton blocks of stone, animal sacrifice and fire and smoke, a whole market to service every penitential and bodily need, a Roman garrison for security, a whole tribe of priests – literally – to get you good with God, and plenty of pools – mikvahs – dug into the stone, filled with fresh, clear, running water coming down Roman aqueducts in which you could dip yourself for the rites of ritual purity. It was metropolitan, sophisticated, centrally and conveniently located, and designed to meet the needs of thousands and thousands of travelers coming in search of forgiveness.

Going to see John would be like planning a vacation to New York City and skipping the cathedrals and the skyscrapers, skipping 5th Avenue and Wall Street, skipping Hamilton and Jean-George, and instead walking through the Lincoln Tunnel to somewhere way out in Jersey to meet a homeless hippie said to be taking a bath somewhere in the Passaic.

But Mark tells us that that’s exactly where God was calling the people to go – from Jerusalem, from the Temple, from the whole countryside, and from as far away as Nazareth in Galilee, they were making the journey out to John. Why? What could have possibly have motivated you to make that journey?

We have the benefit of hindsight now to know that this thing was pretty cool – not to be missed – but if you were living then? What would it have taken? What must they have been feeling to draw them so far out? What? Did they all do something reeeeally messed up and so they all felt that the luxuries and convenience of the Temple were just too good for them? Maybe there were some people who walked through the wilderness carrying that burden. But I can’t imagine that guilt or fear alone would’ve been enough to make anyone give someone like John, somewhere like the Jordan River, a chance. No, when I imagine the long walk east, I imagine we’d only walk the walk, and make it there in decent shape, if we were carrying at least a little bit of hope along with us as well.

What about you? What burdens and what hope have you carried here this evening as we discern together whether or not we’re going to dive in to this longer journey – this interim thing? Maybe this evening you’ve got more doubt than hope. And you don’t wanna go to the Jordan. That’s fair, beloved. I hear you and I get it. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. And I’m sure you’re not alone tonight. But I want to encourage you, when you are ready – days, or weeks, or months from now, not to check out of this transition period, but to check back in to this time, to pay attention in new ways to your church, your community, and to join in the work of the hopeful migration to the east to discover what God has in store for us.

Because it wasn’t just the forgiveness of sins that John was offering to those who were being baptized in the Jordan, was it? There was more – there was a promise. “This isn’t about me,” said John to the dusty travelers. “Don’t get confused. I am not the main attraction.” And John pointed straight off toward somewhere in the future. “How long?” asked the people, “How long?” “Not long,” cried out John from the wilderness, “Not long.”

“Well, John, if it’s not going to be too long, what are we all doing out here? Let’s go home and wait for the promised one to show up. Why the time, why the effort and expense, why the risk of coming so far?”

John replies: “To prepare the way.”

When God does show up, uniquely in the person of Jesus, to be baptized by John, the way Mark tells it in our reading this evening, we’re not entirely sure who knows what, who sees what, who hears what. Read it one way and it seems that only Jesus himself sees the heavens torn open, and Jesus hears the voice of God whispering in his ear alone. Read it another way and Jesus and John and the whole multitude saw the Holy Spirit diving to Earth in the form of a dove, and every person on the river that day would have felt the vibrations of God’s voice rolling like thunder through their bodies and over the desert in praise of God’s beloved child.

Which one was it? Maybe some folks noticed nothing more than the sun peeking out from behind a stray bit of cloud, a pigeon flying overhead from one rock face to another, the babbling the Jordan always babbled on its way down to the Dead Sea. And maybe others – those who were the most ready to go, the most hopeful, the most dreamy – were graced to experience something more.

Maybe this is the best metaphor for the interim time, the time of transition, we’re now entering together – a time to take comfort and hope in the promises of God, in the healing of the Gospel, and in the ministry of Jesus Christ which is set before us. It’s a time to pay attention – to notice the blessings that are all around us, blessings that may have been muted recently by so much change and upheaval. It’s a time to gather together and have a party on the shores of the Jordan, to lay our burdens down together, and to remember who we are and who we are becoming as a baptized people.

How long? Really not long. The interim period that we have ahead of us is a precious time that comes around to this congregation on average only once every 17.8 years. This is the only the tenth time in the history of this church that you all have had the opportunity to prepare in this special way for the future ministry of Jesus Christ in this place. It’s not just about the new pastor! It sure ain’t about me. It’s about who God is calling you to be – as a church, as a community. It’s the walk to the Jordan on the hope and promise that God’s gonna show up.

You’re a congregation that’s 178 years’ strong – we’ve got this. And if you do this together, if you pay attention to this transition time, if you submerge yourself in it, rather than just dipping your toes, God promises an opportunity to start seeing things in a different way – the heavens may just open up, God just might swoop down into our midst, and Her holy voice will lead us all into our future.

Please, pray with me:

Thank you, God, for Broadway Church – for its long and courageous history, for its caring people, for its commitment to this great city, for its daring to exist, with or without a building, for its trust in the guidance of your Spirit. Help us, each one, to do our part – in strengthening the bonds of love and understanding, in keeping the focus on our mission in the world, in sharing in the joy of regular worship, in praying each day for one another, in being the church in this time and place. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.