"The Assurances We Need"

Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

The First Congregational Church, Columbus

January 11, 2004 -- 1st Sunday after Epiphany

Rev. Ronald Botts, Preaching

Have you heard the story about the cowboy who was out riding on the range? When he came upon two buffalo he got down off his horse, went up to one of them and said, "You are the ugliest, dirtiest, smelliest animal I have ever seen." Then he remounted and rode away. Whereupon the one buffalo turned to the other and said, "And I thought out here we were never supposed to hear a discouraging word."

Well, we often do hear discouraging words or feel discouraged whether anything is said or not. Everyday we have a whole lot of things on our "to-do" list. Some of these are big tasks; others are rather small. For some items it doesn't matter much how we do them; in others, it makes a great deal of difference. The difficulty for most of us is that we don't have a very good way of knowing just how well we've accomplished the matters at hand. It can leave us rather uncertain and uneasy as to whether our efforts have been adequate.

Some tasks are routine and measurable and, with these, we have a better sense of how we've done. For example, if you get a bookcase that is one of those do-it-yourself pieces, and if you follow the instructions, and if it looks right after you've put it together, and if it doesn't fall apart in the first month-- then you can pretty well figure that you've done a decent job.

The problem in life, however, is that much of what we do is so not objectively defined. The outcome of most of our work is much harder to determine. We walk away from many of the things we tackle in life not really sure how we've done. And it's hard to build the future on such an uncertain past.

I recall in my first church after ordination we had a difficult time getting a quorum for our council meetings. It wasn't unusual for us to sit and wait ten or fifteen minutes after the scheduled time to determine if we would have enough members to conduct our business. That was really very frustrating.

One Monday evening early in my tenure we had our regular problem with attendance, so I went to my office and made some quick calls before it got too late. I got hold of Jim, but Jim was sick. Ann's phone rang and rang, and since she was almost always early when she did come, I didn't out hold much hope for her. Frank's wife said he had to work late and not to expect him.

So I had one last chance for a quorum: I telephoned Homer. As I dialed I knew that a lot was riding on this call. We had some very important business before us that really couldn't be delayed another month. Failing to get a quorum would necessitate calling another meeting for next week and going through this all over again.

Two rings, three, but no answer. Five rings, six, and no one picked up the phone. Eight rings, nine, now ten and I was just ready to hang up when I heard a click and a breathless "Hello."

"Homer, hi, this is Ron Botts. I didn't think I was going to reach you."

"Oh, well, you almost didn't. I was halfway out the door."

I sighed a breath of relief. "Great," I said, "we're here at the council meeting waiting for a quorum. Can you be here in about ten minutes?"

"Gosh," Homer replied rather hesitantly, "I just got a call asking me to substitute at the bowling alley tonight. Sorry, but I won't be able to come to the meeting."

Well, by my final year at the church the situation was better, but still we had our problem with quorums periodically. All the time I was there I kept agonizing over this situation. Even with changes in our council membership, the result was always the same-- we just never had good attendance at our meetings. That really concerned me because it took away from our effectiveness as a congregation.

Regularly I questioned my leadership and whether this was a serious deficiency in my ministry. Was it my fault? Their fault? Both our faults? I took the attendance problem very personally and internalized that doubt. When I left that church I felt that I had tried hard to do my best. I felt good about many things that had been accomplished, but I questioned my administrative abilities.

Perhaps that was part of the reason that I went from there to a non-parish ministry for the next two years. The uncertainty about my ability to motivate people in church to take elected responsibility seriously still plagued me, but now it wasn't a factor in what I was doing. Only in my next church call I was to find the answer to that nagging question.

I went to my first council meeting at Columbus St. Paul's rather apprehensive. I did come prepared, however, with a list of all the members and their home phone numbers. I was determined that I wasn't going to be caught short.

As it was I got delayed a bit in traffic and only arrived at the church a few minutes before the start of the meeting. It was awfully quiet as I walked down the hall toward the council room and thoughts of the past raced through my mind. When I turned the corner I heard voices and then I couldn't quite believe what I saw: twelve people sitting around the table, all the seats filled, save one chair left for me. And it wasn't even 7:30 yet!

We averaged better than 90% attendance during the time I was at St. Paul's, even as different members cycled off and on the council. People just rarely missed. There was a whole different attitude there about meetings from that of my previous congregation.

It took a number of years and a change of pastorates before I could quell the doubt I had in my mind. I had to personally experience a contrasting situation before I could release my uncertainties and know that poor attendance at meetings was not something I was responsible for, any more than sickness or the flat notes the choir hit with some regularity.

What I lacked until that time was perspective. I had no vantage point to see the situation objectively. It might have been helped if some in that first church had simply said, "Well, pastor, you'll find that basically we're good folks. We get along with each other for the most part. We'll treat you well and be here faithfully on Sunday morning, but don't take it personally if we can't muster much interest in meetings. That's the way it's been for the last fifty years, and probably will be for the next fifty as well. Love us just the same and accept us for both the good and bad you find."

Charles Schawb, one of the big names in business, once remarked, "I have yet to find the worker, however exalted his or her station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism." And you know, that's true. A little bit of positive feedback goes a long way. Not insincere words, but an honest appraisal of our work and a compliment when it is deserved.

I think we get some of that, but most of us don't get enough. How often do we hear, "You did a great job taking out the garbage this morning. Nothing spilled, the downstairs wastebasket wasn't forgotten, and you even showed a certain jaunty flair in the way you backhanded the bag into the can." Or how often do we receive compliments for clearing the table, feeding the animals, paying the bills, reading to the kids, or parallel parking the car.

How often at work do you hear something positive about your neatness and accuracy at filling out time or mileage sheets, your willingness to instruct new co-workers, accept overtime, or adjust your vacation days? How often do you even get sincere thanks for taking on all those extra things in order to do the best job you can?

It's no wonder we have doubts. Even where you would reasonably expect to find more sensitivity and expression, we sometimes find it missing-- in our families, from our spouse, here at the church. How often do we go up to a choir member and say, "You're doing a great job and I for one appreciate it." How often does our treasurer get thanked for the reliable work he puts in week in and week out? How often do our custodians get a compliment for a job well done?

It's easy to think to yourself how nicely one of our young acolytes did their task this morning and never let our sentiments go any farther. Who's told Carolyn Watkins recently that she's the right person for the job as Church Moderator? It's only human to forget and overlook, and actually I don't feel we do all that bad at First Church, but maybe we can all be just a little bit more expressive to each other.

We all want to know that what do in life is both worthy and worthwhile. We all want to get some recognition from others. Mostly it's not to feed our egos, but just to gain some indication as to whether our efforts are on the right track. We need a perspective on what we do and often can't provide that for ourselves. We can, and should be, that mirror for each other. It makes a critical difference.

Our passage today from Luke, and echoing a prophesy in Isaiah, tells of Jesus coming to be baptized by John in the River Jordan. It says, "Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him…. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." I believe that this event, this assurance, sustained and carried Jesus all the days of his life-- through the good times and bad, in strength or in temptation, in joy or in agony, in living or in dying. It told him who he was.

So, too, for us baptism is our assurance from God that we are each loved and valued. More than a compliment for what we do, this approval is more fundamental: it is acceptance for who we are. God proclaims that we are loved despite our imperfections and that this love is so powerful and ever-present it will take us through all of life, that it will lift us over the hardest places and, in the end, bring us surely to where God is.

Baptism is an outward and visible sign that we are affirmed as we are. It underlies our faith and fills us with a confidence that sustains us when human words of approval fail to come. Baptism is the starting place from which we truly grow as the sons and daughters of life. Baptism is the Lord's way of telling us us that, most essential of all, we are children of a loving and compassionate God… and never forgotten, never overlooked.

If you're like me, baptism occurred when I was an infant. I was too young to experience it directly. Sometimes I envy those who, as an adult, have made the decision to be baptized, then experienced directly the power felt in this act of being born anew. Yet, that is exactly what we can know whenever we choose to enter again into our baptism by reconnecting with what was done for us. Anytime we wish we can spiritually place ourselves at the font, feel the water on our forehead, and receive the love offered there to us.

Knowing where we begin gives us perspective on all that we can become. In the water of baptism we encounter God and find the assurance we need to live today and look forward to tomorrow.

Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church

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