Baptism of the Lord, 2019
Not long before he died in a 1988 plane crash on the rim of the Grand Canyon, Episcopal bishop Wesley Frensdorff wrote a poem he titled, “The Dream.” Bishop Frensdorff was involved in a movement known as “total ministry” which was a strategy for living out fully our baptismal covenant.
One of the claims we make each time we baptize is that God has sealed us, all of us, into the body of Christ and joined us to Christ’s ministry of love, peace and justice. In his poem, Fresnsdorff sought to draw out what that means for the Church.
The poem begins: “Let us dream of a church in which all members know surely and simply God’s great love.” This first line of the poem calls to mind a metaphor that Martin Luther used in the sixteenth century: “Can a rock that has been in the sunlight all day not fail to give off warmth and heat at night?”
In other words, “Can a Christian who has lived in the sunlight of God’s love not fail to give off warmth and love?”
The answer is no. But we can’t radiate God’s love until we’ve opened our hearts and let it in. We can’t expect ourselves or anyone else to simply start loving each other and be nice. We must first live in the sunlight of God’s love. We need to bask in the sunlight of God’s compassion. We need to absorb God’s light, allowing it to replace all those parts that are not God within us—all of those hurts that take up inner space and block out God’s life-giving light. Once we allow God’s love in, we can then begin to give off that love. Let us dream of a church that radiates God’s love.
Thirty years ago the Bishop dreamed of a church unafraid of change. Is church any less afraid of change than it was thirty years ago?
Probably not. Given all that has transpired in the world and in the church over the last three decades, the church may be even more afraid. That’s understandable. Our world is changing so fast that sometimes a changeless church might seem the only refuge in a world that may be almost unrecognizable from what we used to know.
So we cling to what was, for comfort. But in doing so we cut off the growth of new generation.
A woman tells the story of how, when she moved to a house in Connecticut, she decided to trim back the wisteria vines on the front of the house. The vines grew with abandon and flowered prolifically. In her attempts to shape it up a bit, and redirect it, she went out and bought some electric shearers. Later she described this as a big mistake. Not being an experienced gardener, she began to cut and cut and cut. The wisteria never flowered again.
It didn’t die, she explained. It was still alive. Sort of. It lived as a brownish stalk that would only shoot a few weak green bloomless tentacles each spring. She later learned that wisteria only produce flowers from the previous year’s new growth. Those few weak green shoots were unable to capture the nutrients needed to produce flowers. Let us dream of a church so vital and alive that it grows and flowers with abandon.
Thirty years ago Frensdorff wrote in his poem that he dreamed of a church “so salty and yeasty that it really would be missed if no longer around.”
Let us share that dream and envision a bold church that exists beyond its walls, a church that fearlessly speaks out against the unjust structures of society. A church that doesn’t always choose the safe route. A church that will not tolerate the intolerance of bullies, or the privilege of the few. A church that is nimble enough to continue to be relevant and responsive in our rapidly changing social context.
A church that is not satisfied with feeding its members pablum, but instead takes risks, speaking out, and acting, regardless of consequences, against those things that are not of God. A church where the members are so on-fire by their own conversion experiences that they can’t help but reach out and share the good news, both with people “like” themselves and people who are very different. For they are all. God’s people.
Have we lost our salt? Let us, as Frensdorff did, dream of a salty church.
Thirty years ago, the bishop dreamed of a church where “each congregation is in mission and each Christian, gifted for ministry; a crew on a freighter, not passengers on a luxury liner.”
Let us dream of a church united by a common vision defined by Christ’s teachings. A church where the mission of the church is the mission of Jesus Christ, and each member, regardless of status in the congregation, is part of the one crew.
Fernsdorff’s vision was that each member was part of the crew of a freighter. But when we look at the church universal, with 38,000 denominations, when we look at the fractured Presbyterian and Reformed traditions, even when we look at the dynamics within individual faith communities, it’s hard to see one freighter. Instead there appear to be thousands of individual life rafts floating adrift.
Let us dream of a church where each member is part of that crew on that one boat with a common vision. How much more could we do if our forces were untied?
Fernsdorff concluded his dream with a vision of a playful church, a church that takes its ultimate goal seriously, but itself, not so much!
Let us dream of a church that acknowledges we might have a lot to learn. That we don’t know all the answers. And that we fall short, corporately and individually. A church where the members are blessed with hearts that forgive, and a sense of humor. That worships a God we know forgives, and who, we pray, has a sense of humor.
Consider the image of God meeting you at the gates of heaven. God welcomes you and reminds you of the baptismal covenant. Your post-earth stomach is churning as the conversation proceeds. The conversation turns to mercy and God says: “My child, you tried. Sometimes you even came close to getting it right. But at other times, well, you missed the mark. Sometimes you fell a little short, and sometimes you got it really wrong. Sometimes your efforts were actually silly-- they gave us a good laugh. But you tried, my child. Your heart was in the right place. You are forgiven. You are loved. So come on in anyway.”
Let us dream of a church that is serious about God’s love, and just maybe, not so serious about itself.
Today we celebrate the baptism of our Lord, of Jesus. And we remember all baptisms, throughout the church. So as we do, and as we consider baptisms to come, let us ask ourselves what kind of church will we bring new members into?
Will it be the kind of church we dream it could be?
Will it be the kind of church Bishop Frensdorff dreamed it could be?
Will it be the kind of church Jesus dreamed it could be?
All of us have a part in shaping the answer. What kind of church will we be?