February 19, 2017 | Matthew 28:19 | Rev. Wade Lifton –
Is the Universe a Friendly Place?
Let’s begin with a quote from Albert Einstein:
“I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.”
His words are prophetic for the moment we find ourselves in.
“If we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly.
“But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives.”
Is the universe a friendly place?
Is life inherently good?
It’s easy enough to say, ‘Yes the universe is a friendly place.’
We want to say yes.
But what is our particular yes to the goodness of life?
What takes us deeper than sentiment,
into the work of relationship and understanding that Einstein talks about.
In Buddhist tradition, the practice of compassion meditation
is a particular yes to the friendliness of the universe.
Yes to developing that goodness and loving-kindness in ourselves and in the world.
Now we have the scientific ability to scan the brains of Buddhist monks
while they are practicing compassion meditation,
and various areas of brain activity were off the charts from anything ever recorded.
Meditation is the Buddhist technology for this work of understanding and developing goodness.
In Christian tradition, the way we talk about the friendliness of the universe,
the goodness of life, is grace.
And one of the particular ways we say yes to grace is the practice of sacraments.
Sacraments are our technology of grace.
What is a sacrament?
A sacrament is a sign of God’s grace made visible.
Ordinary things that we touch and taste become a sign of God’s love.
One way that I think about grace is that God’s response to most of our questions
is the same: You are loved.
Am I good enough? You are loved.
How will I make it through this? You are loved.
Why is there so much suffering in the world? You are loved.
Each and every one of you.
Grace does not offer straight forward answers to our questions.
It disorients our questions.
It reframes our questions.
As we heard in the Song of Faith, we have two sacraments – baptism and communion.
Jesus’ ministry begins with his baptism in the Jordan river by his cousin John,
and in the last days of his ministry he shares communion,
the last supper with his disciples.
His ministry is bookended with these two sacraments.
Let’s talk about communion, the eucharist.
Grace made visible in the bread and cup,
a ritual of feeding on grace, taking it into our bodies.
At the table we always hear the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
It is love that is rooted in the paradox of brokenness and wholeness, death and new life.
In the great diversity of Christianity,
we would hope that the communion table, the feast of grace, would be a place of unity.
But the diversity of ways that eucharist is practiced
can be one of the stickiest places of division in the church.
There are theological differences in the words spoken
and what the bread and cup represent.
Out of these theologies there are practical differences of using either wine or juice, wafers or bread, drinking from a common cup or small individual cups
or intinction, which we often practice here,
sometimes referred to as rip and dip.
Another major difference is who is welcome at the table.
Sometimes only baptized and confirmed Christians,
or Christians of a particular tradition.
In some churches children can receive communion,
in others they receive a blessing.
In the United Church we practice an open table,
inviting all who would like to receive the grace of eucharist.
I appreciated studying at Vancouver School of Theology with students of different denominations, learning about the boundaries set within each tradition,
and the values those boundaries express.
When it comes to communion, I learned the most from my Anglican friends,
who have clear priorities about how they practice eucharist.
Once the bread and wine are blessed, Anglicans are very clear that it either needs to be consumed, or returned to the earth in specific ways.
Often this meant that students would gather around the communion table after worship and feast on the leftovers.
One week the student who was responsible for cleaning up found that there was more wine left in the chalice than usual after everyone had left,
she disposed of it in the way that she knew how to.
And realized as she sat down in her afternoon class
that she was a little drunk on the spirit.
An important learning moment for me came at the end of an intensive course
and I was planning communion for a closing worship.
I asked an Anglican friend, “I know that you’d prefer wine, but some people will only take juice, and managing two cups in this small of a group will be challenging.
What do you suggest?”
My friend was very clear that they preferred wine, but in a small setting like this,
sharing a common cup was more important than the preference for wine.
I so appreciated that there was a clear prioritization of what matters most.
I often wonder how often we might apply that practice in communities
where we have differences with other –
sharing a common cup is more important than personal preference.
Baptism is the way we welcome someone into the Christian community
in a committed and ritualistic way.
We picture a cute baby, maybe in a sweet little gown.
Everyone’s happy on a baptism morning.
One part of baptism is the commitment to Christian faith being made by the person being baptized, or adults on behalf of a child. Because it’s a personal commitment, some churches only practice adult baptism, which is the origins of the sacrament.
In the United Church baptism is offered for people of all ages.
A youth or adult who was baptized as a child may choose to make a re-affirmation of faith, and that re-affirmation of faith is a requirement to become a member.
Baptism is also a commitment made by the church community,
a covenant with this person, a promise to walk with them with love and support.
The congregation makes this promise on behalf of the wider Christian church.
Water is a basic element of life, an essential need,
so it is an ideal symbol of God’s grace.
When I think of this font as being full of grace,
I wonder about the way we sprinkle a little water on the forehead.
Maybe there’s something in full immersion baptism,
going down to the river or the ocean and being dunked in grace.
But we also trust that grace is immeasurable,
that a sprinkle is abundant.
To be baptized into the Christian community is to join a worldview of grace.
Is the universe a friendly place?
You are loved.
Of course there will be times when we doubt that universe is a friendly place,
that life is inherently good. Of course we will not always trust that we are loved.
But baptism means that we are held in that truth by a community,
even when we don’t believe it.
Grace is for Everyone
The line of scripture that we heard this morning is part of Matthew’s great commission,
the words spoken by the risen Christ to the disciples.
Go and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
The problem and the risk of these words is when they are interpreted as
‘Go and make everyone like us.’
The beauty of these words, is that this grace is for everyone!
‘Go and share it with everyone!’
Grace is for people of all nations, all political parties, all personalities.
Sharing a common cup is more important than our personal preferences.
The waters of grace are for everyone.
That’s what is beautiful in this commission.
The disciples have just watched the worst of what humanity does to each other.
The universe is not a friendly place.
And then they experience the Easter mystery,
the great testament that the goodness of life is greater than suffering and oppression.
It’s in this grace-filled moment that they’re instructed to go out and baptize.
As we watch the anguish of what humanity does to each other,
We are compelled to draw on our most grace-filled moments –
When the goodness of life is made visible to us
When we can feel it and taste it –
That’s the moment in which we’re offered this instruction:
Go share this with everyone.
Go make grace visible.