“Small Beginnings” A Baptismal Sermon on Mark 4:30-34

Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?  It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” —Mark 4:30-34

When I was a young minister I preached on this text about the mustard seed for the first time. And after the service, as I was shaking hands at the door (I call this the Third Protestant Sacrament) some know-it-all said to me, “You know, the mustard seed is not the smallest seed on earth, nor is its bush the largest.” I don’t remember what I said, but I know what I’d say today, since I’m not as polite as I was back then. I’d say, “Jesus was the Son of God, not a botanist, and his point is theology not plant husbandry.”

So lest we, too, miss the point in the details, what Jesus is saying is that the works of God start with small beginnings and grow to great conclusions. Starting with a small seed we end up with a large bush for shade and bird habitat. The kingdom of God is like that, Jesus says.

Because “God’s ways are not our ways.” We humans like the big moments, the large gestures, the bright spotlight, and the immediate result. God, on the other hand, works quietly, often unseen and unnoticed, in the shadows, behind the scenes.

Jesus was often teaching his disciples about the kingdom of God. He often told them it was near, or even sometimes here. It was “at hand.” It was “among you.” It was “within you.”

Well, where is it, then? Is it in heaven or on earth? If you are confused by what Jesus meant by the kingdom than you are in good company, for the disciples never quite got it, at least not until after Jesus died and was raised.

So let’s take a moment to inquire about the kingdom of God. Simply put the kingdom of God is where God is king. Which is to say it is not a particular place so much as anywhere where the sovereignty of God is recognized and acknowledged.

Since we don’t have earthly kings anymore we often prefer to use the words “realm” of God or the  “reign” of God as substitutes. The Greek word that kingdom translates as kingdom is basilea, which means “dominion,” so it is not a place so much as a political reality.

Now (unlike Mark and Luke) Matthew refers to “the kingdom of heaven.” Why is that? Matthew was too pious a Jew to come out and use God’s name, so he substituted the kingdom of “heaven” for Mark’s (and Luke’s) kingdom of God. But it is a distinction without a difference.

As we shall see one of the meanings of Baptism is a sign of the kingdom of God. Every time Christians gather for worship we pray the prayer of Jesus, which asks God that “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The kingdom of God is where God’s will is done. Every congregation is a laboratory for striving to make the kingdom of God real, “on earth as it is in heaven.” The experiment is never finally successful, but the church persists in trying as preparation for the Day the kingdom finally comes in fullness.

Now this congregation of Christ-followers is the context into which Simon is not only baptized, but where he, with you all, will try to live out your baptismal promises, the ones you just heard.

Now Simon comes into a pretty extraordinary church context, with his Mom as the pastor, and his Dad a theologically educated Christian with a degree from Yale. Is Rebecca Seely here? Ah, there you are. Becca Seeley is  a Lutheran pastor, and a classmate of Alex and Rebecca’s at Yale. She gave the homily at their wedding, and described them famously as “church nerds.” And they come from families of “church nerds.” Simon arrives at his baptism today as just the most recent of a long line of Floyds and Marshalls and their various antecedents for whom faith was taken seriously and church was a second home.

What’s a church nerd? Let me share a church nerd story with you. Did you know that when Alex and Rebecca were picking a name for Simon they came up with some biblical arcana. They named him “Simon James,” which for them has a particular meaning. See if you can stay with me while I explain what they did. The name “Simon” has the same root as the Hebrew word, shema, that means “to hear’ or “to listen, or something closer to “listen up!” And the name “James” is the Anglicization of the Hebrew name Jacob.  I never understood in my English history why the followers of King James II, who wanted to restore the house of Stuart to the English throne, were called Jacobites and not Jamesians. Now I do, and so do you. Jacob in the Bible, as you will recall, was renamed “Israel” after he wrestled with an angel at the River Jabbok. So “Simon James” echoes the great Jewish prayer Shema Yisraelfrom Deuteronomy 6:4-9. “Hear, O Israel!”

“Simon James.” And to make it even more rich, or “thick” as we say in theology, Jesus himself quotes the Shema in Mark 12:29-31. Remember when the scribe asks him which is the greatest commandment? Jesus, being a good Jew, answered him, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ And Jesus adds from Leviticus 19: 9-18: “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Shema Yisrael. Simon James!

So, yes, Alex and Rebecca are church nerds. That’s what you get when you have two Yale Divinity School graduates marry and have children.

So today’s sacrament is for little Simon James, but Simon isn’t embarking on the Christian life alone. He’s got myriad Floyds and Marshalls in his corner, many of whom are here today. Auntie and Uncles, Great Aunties and Uncles, Grandparents and Great Grandparents. And he’s got Jennifer and Charlie as Godparents, and I want to say a word about them.

Charlie was Alex’s best friend at Yale and his best man at his wedding. And Jen is Rebecca’s best friend from Pittsfield High School and was her Maid of Honor at her wedding. In their days as bachelorettes, before they met Alex and Matt, they joked about living out their days together if they couldn’t find suitable spouses, which happily they did.

So it is entirely appropriate that they are the ones Alex and Rebecca chose to be Simon’s godparents. And they are both practicing Christians who take the faith and the church quite seriously.

And here is something else that I think is really cool and gladdens my ecumenical heart. They are both Roman Catholics. And that may not seem unusual to the younger ones among us, since we have always had godparents from a variety of Christian denominations. But some of us older types recall a day when Protestants and Catholics were often estranged.

In fact, some of the overheated rhetoric used against immigrants today echoes precisely the language used against Roman Catholic immigrants by Protestant nativists in the late 19thcentury.

And the feelings went both ways. Friend of mine who was raised Roman Catholic recently told me that when she brought her Baptist boyfriend home to meet the parents things didn’t go well. She told me, “You would have thought I brought home a jihadi terrorist. ” Happily things were smoothed out long ago with the arrival of grandchildren, which often seems to trump doctrinal disagreements.

So back in and before the 20thcentury Protestants and Catholics lived in separate silos, even while sharing a common faith. This kind of tribalism still exists in our country and we are worse off for it, but today the presence of Charlie and Jennifer here as Godparents of the child of a Protestant pastor is a wonderful sign. It might even be a sign of the kingdom of God, which as you recall, Jesus tells us, is “at hand.”

And the reason Charlie and Jen are here is not only because they are Alex and Rebecca’s best friends, but because, as they told me, “they are the two best Christians that we know!”

And so Simon has these splendid Godparents added to all the family members in his corner.

But wait, there’s more, and that is where all of you come in. Especially in the Congregational tradition the local congregation serves as corporate Godparents to help raise the baptized as a Christian, to live out the baptismal promises with him. You’ll do this in many ways. By supporting his parents, by providing quality Christian education in your terrific Sunday School. By teaching him about God and Jesus, prayer and worship. And by supporting him as you watch him grow up. And that will happen fast, since it seems like yesterday that I baptized his mother!

And there’s even more. This baptism is carried out in the presence of a great company that also includes the communion of saints, that great cloud of witnesses of the church across the generations and ages.

So let me talk a bit about the meaning of baptism. Baptism is a sacrament and sacraments are often referred to as signs, but they are not just signs such as a stop sign that points beyond itself to something else. Sacraments participate in what they are pointing to. For example, baptism doesn’t merely remind us of the new life that Christ offers as a past reality, it confirms that offer in the here and now. The initiative in the sacrament comes from God; the gifts of grace given to us are given by God, and the sacrament represents them and makes them real for us. I like to say that the sacraments show what the Word says.

There are several meanings to the sacrament of baptism. In January 1982 over one hundred theologians representing virtually all Christian traditions, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Baptist, Pentecostal, Evangelical, Eastern Orthodox and others, met in Lima, Peru under the auspices of the World Council of Churches and drafted an historic statement called Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. They arrived at a five-fold understanding of the meaning of baptism.

Let me share them with you.

  1. Baptism is participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. In baptism, Christians “die with Christ” so that they might be raised with him in newness of life, free from the power of sin and death. In the early church the baptismal candidate was immersed three times (once for each person of the Trinity). This going under the water was a powerful ritual for dying, and as the newly baptized emerged from the waters they experienced the new life in Christ as a turning away from their old life and often from their participation in pagan religion.
  2. Baptism is conversion, pardoning, and cleansing. The ethical implications of baptism are symbolized by the washing with water as a sign of the cleansing of the heart of sin. The promise of new life in baptism is also the promise of the Holy Spirit to give one a new ethical orientation. The baptized person remains a sinner, that is the human condition, but the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work will now go on throughout that person’s life.
  3. In Baptism the Christian receives the gift of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is at work in people’s lives before, during, and after their baptism. God gives his Spirit to all the baptized as the first installment of their inheritance as his sons and daughters.
  4. Baptism is incorporation in the body of Christ. It is a sign and seal of our common discipleship. “Through baptism, Christians are brought into union with Christ, union with each other and with the church of every time and place”(BEM, p. 3). Baptism is an important sign of Christian unity and calls us to overcome the divisions that separate the church (Ephesians 4: 4–6). It also has profound social implications as it binds together people of “all races, tongues and ages.”
  5. Finally, as I said earlier, Baptism is a sign of the kingdom of God. Although we live in the present world, baptism has already begun in us the new life that is the reality of the world to come. The baptized are those who pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” and anticipate the day when every tongue will confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11).

There’s that phrase again, “the kingdom of God.” The parable of the mustard seed reminds us that, in God’s economy, great things grow from small beginnings. And one of the tasks of the church is to discern where God is at work and be involved with him in plantings and waterings. So today as we made our several promises before God about our Baptism and Simon’s let us think of those promises as being like seeds, small beginnings that may grow and thrive and flourish, and bear fruit as God moves in our lives.

And God will move in our lives! It may be in big moments, but more likely, quietly, as we strive and struggle to be Christ’s faithful followers, trying to do God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen.

(I preached this sermon at The United Church of Little Compton, Rhode Island, on June 17, 2018 at the occasion of the baptism of my grandson.)

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Gabriel J. Fackre (1926-2018) A Remembrance

I head down to Cape Cod this weekend to mourn the death and celebrate the life of my friend Gabe Fackre. Gabe was very important to my life. I knew him first as my seminary teacher, then my mentor, later a faithful colleague and a life-long friend. Most of all he encouraged me again and again in my ministry. Continue reading

“Cheering for Jesus!” A Daily Devotional

chering“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” —Hebrews 13:8

My friend John, an ophthalmologist and former congregant of mine, led several dozen trips to Ecuador on “eye missions.”

I went with him on a couple of them. Our team worked together with area churches, and one day he introduced me to a local pastor, who immediately invited me to preach at their Sunday evening service. Continue reading

A Tribute to Meredith Brook “Jerry” Handspicker 1932-2016

Jerry(We had a beautiful and moving Service of Celebration and Thanksgiving for the life of Jerry Handspicker this afternoon at the Second Congregational Church, UCC, of Bennington, Vermont. The Pastor, the Reverend Mary H. Lee-Clark, presided and delivered a fine homily. Jerry was Professor of Practical Theology at Andover Newton Theological School for 36 years, my former teacher, colleague and a family friend. I was asked to give one of the remembrances. Here are my remarks:)

I’m Rick Floyd. Jerry was my teacher, my colleague and my friend. I knew Jerry for 45 years through many ups and downs and changing experiences of life.

I met him when I arrived at Andover Newton in 1971. That very first week I applied for a field education position, running a coffee house (that dates me!), at the Newton Highlands Congregational Church. There were two token youths on the search committee, Amy Handspicker and her best-friend Martha Talis. By Amy’s telling they judged I was hip enough for the job, and convinced the skeptical grown-ups that I was their man.

Thus began a long association with that congregation, where Jerry was the associate pastor, and with the Handspicker family. Jerry and Dee embodied what today we would call “radical hospitality,” and I had many a dinner with them and Amy, Jed and Nathan. I once briefly lived in their attic! (And I wasn’t the only one.) Continue reading

“He’s Back!” A Christmas Story with a Happy Ending

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My friend and former Pittsfield colleague Karen Gygax Rodriguez is the Pastor of the Federated Church of Green Lake, Wisconsin. On the Second Sunday of Advent, December 6, the baby Jesus figurine was stolen from the church’s nativity scene.

The police investigated, but had no leads. They speculated that the thief was from outside Green Lake, since “everybody knows everybody here, and it would have been returned by now.” Continue reading

“The Cross and the Church: The Soteriology and Ecclesiology of P. T. Forsyth”

Forsyth(Note: This article first appeared in the Andover Newton Review in 1992 (Vol 3, No. 1). It is the fruit of essays I wrote for my tutor the Revd. Donald Norwood during my 1989 sabbatical at Mansfield College, Oxford. I want to thank Professor Max Stackhouse for inviting me to submit it. This is the first time it is available on the Internet. RLF)

Part 1 The Church and Our Redemption

 The British Congregationalist P. T. Forsyth, 1848-1921, is above all a theologian of the cross, and it is this soteriological focus that dominates his understanding of the church. The church was created by the saving work of Christ, and, therefore, for Forsyth, it has no other principle or foundation. Everything in, of and about the church is informed by the work of Christ; questions of polity, ecumenism, church and state, ethics, the ministry, the sacraments, all these are seen through the lens of Christ’s atonement. Since Forsyth’s view of the atonement is profoundly corporate and universal, so too his understanding of the church is corporate and universal. This understanding of a corporate and universal church created by a divine act in the atoning cross of Christ gives Forsyth’s theology a truly catholic and truly evangelical character and accounts for his continued appeal to several branches of the church as a significant ecumenical theologian for our time. Continue reading

“Better Late Than Never” Reflections on women in ministry.

C of EI find myself profoundly moved at the news that today the Church of England has consecrated their first woman bishop, Libby Lane.

I am old enough to remember when there were few women in ministry. In fact, in the Episcopal Church of my youth there were none. No bishops, no priests. Not one.

When I was in seminary, one of my teachers was Emily Hewitt, one of the first women “irregularly” ordained into the Episcopal Church, a very inspiring presence. I recall thinking, “This brilliant women is teaching me about ministry, and people are telling her that she can’t do it herself.”

As a young man I migrated to the United Church of Christ, which had done better on this issue, but still I had few women colleagues early in my ministry. I remember with great affection and respect two pioneering women ministers in the UCC: Gladys York from Maine and Catherine Chifelle, from Massachusetts, who later became a congregant of mine in Pittsfield. They served small congregations where they were faithful and well-loved.

My second call was to be the associate minister at Hammond Street Church in Bangor, Maine, where Ansley Coe Throckmorton was the senior minister. I don’t know whether it was true or not, but we were told that Ansley was the first woman senior minister of a “tall steeple” church in the UCC. I was proud of serving with her, and got to see close up some of the challenges she faced from folks who didn’t want to recognize the authenticity of her ministry.

This year is the 40th anniversary of my ordination. I would mention all the wonderful women who have been my ordained colleagues through the years, but I might forget somebody. I also supervised several women seminarians in field education, much to my benefit. I give thanks for them all.

Then several years ago my own daughter came home for Thanksgiving and announced that she was going to seminary to discern a call to ordained ministry. She is now ordained and inspires me all the time.

The church is an intrinsically conservative institution. That is not all bad. We don’t move too fast most of the time, and that is both the beauty and the bane of the church.

But it took, it has taken, way too long for the church to recognize the God-given gifts of the women among us. And there are still wide swathes of the church where women’s gifts are undervalued, unappreciated and unrecognized.

Thank God that is changing. I pray it will change more and more.

Today the Church of England took an important step. The truth is that it has come very late in this particular game. And it is not the last step that needs to be taken. Not by a long shot.

But perhaps today we should all just celebrate and be glad at what took place.