Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
Friends of Jesus- John 15:9-17
I'd like to tell you one of my favorite stories of the late Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock. It is a story that took place on Easter and we are now in the final weeks of the Easter Season. It seems appropriate to share it as a reminder that Resurrection didn't happen just once. It happens all the time. So, hear this story about baptism and love and Christian community. In the year before he married, Dr. Craddock served a small church in East Tennessee in a small town on Watts Barr Lake. That's not more than a couple hours from where I grew up. Dr. Craddock was ordained in the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, a sister denomination of our own United Church of Christ. If you were to worship in a Disciples church, it would seem very similar to our worship services with a few interesting exceptions. One difference is that their lay people pray over and serve communion. In our tradition, someone must be ordained to bless the elements. They also usually have communion every week, which is less common in the UCC. Another difference is with baptism. While people of all ages are baptized in the UCC, many people are baptized as infants or very young children. In Disciples churches, most people are baptized when they are old enough to make their own statement of faith. They are fully immersed in water, either in large baptismal fonts their congregations or in the lakes and rivers near their congregations. This story that Dr. Craddock told took place following several baptisms in the lake near their church.
The church gathered with those who had felt moved to be baptized along the shores of the lake on Easter Sunday evening at sundown. One of the oldest practices in Christianity is to accept new members into the faith on Easter. His church followed this tradition. You know that this story takes place in the South because the lake wasn't still frozen over at Easter. It was probably still at least a little bit chilly though, but, warm enough to be baptized in. He and the candidates would wade out together. One by one, he would baptize the newest members of Christ's body. As they finished, still dripping, they would go back to shore where the rest of the church had gathered. The church would have already built a small fire. They would be singing and cooking some supper to share. The newly baptized would then go and change into dry clothes in little booths that the congregation had constructed with great care for just this purpose. Dr. Craddock changed his clothes, too, and everybody went and stood by the fire.
Up to this point, the story seems very familiar to me. Plenty of churches across time have practiced baptism this way. While the lakeside fire-cooked supper may be a nice addition, I imagine that many Christians would recognize their own church practices in these baptisms. It is the next part of the story that I think makes this little church stand out. They added their own ritual to this ancient one. Dr. Craddock said it always started the same way. Glen Hickey, a long- time member, would introduce the new members. Glenn did this every time. He would say their name, where they lived, and what they did for a living. The new folks would also gather closest to the fire, which was fair since they'd just been in the lake and were undoubtedly chilly. The rest of the church would create a circle around them.
Once all the new folks had been introduced, the older members would begin to go around the circle and introduce themselves in a unique way. They would first say their name and then, they would offer a service. For example, I might say, "My name is Chrissy and if you ever need somebody to come and feed your cats, please call me." Then, the next person would offer their name and how they could help. This would continue all around the circle, with everyone in the church taking a turn. "My name is Earl. If you every need anybody to chop wood, please ask." "My name is Bernice... if you ever need a ride into town, I'm happy to help." "My name is Beverly and if you ever need somebody to sit with someone who is sick, call me." "My name is Jonathan and if you ever need somebody to watch the kids, they can come to our place." One by one by one. A name and a way to serve. All the way around.
Then, they would do the most church-y of activities: they would eat. Food cooked on the fire. Food brought from home. Food from the little deli on the corner. They'd eat all of it. Then, as if that weren't enough, they'd have a square dance. Right there by the side of Watts Bar Lake. They'd dance long into Easter Sunday night. Then, as Dr. Craddock told it, when it was the right time, a man named Percy Miller would stand up and say, "Time to go." They would clean up the food and pack up the dishes. They'd take down the changing booths and carry coolers and camp chairs and guitars to the car. And, they all head home. Percy would be the last person to leave, making sure everything got cleaned up and the fire got put out. Dr. Craddock shared that he was pretty overwhelmed the first time he experienced all this. You see, these practices predated his ministry at the church. He had to learn them just like the newly baptized people did. As he stood with Percy, watching him kick sand on the fire, he couldn't really move. All he could do was stand still and try to take it all in. Percy looked at him and said, "Craddock, folks don't ever get any closer than this." I think Dr. Craddock believed him.
If I ever heard a story that sounded like church, it would be this one. People gathered together to celebrate rituals that were long central to Christianity as a whole and to their own small church in particular. People sharing sincere offers of care and kindness to new comers to their community. Food and song and dance, all in celebration of the Body of Christ growing just a bit bigger on that night. Having people who knew how to lead and knew when to make sure everybody got home. This is what intimacy in religious community can look like when people take seriously this call to be friends of Christ. And, while this story doesn't talk about it, I am certain that this generous spirit was not limited to only the people in the congregation. I do not for a minute believe that it would be easy to be this gracious in religious community without that graciousness leaking out into your relationship beyond church. No, this is the kind of intimacy that give you a space to practice mutuality and service to others so you then extend this loving-kindness beyond the walls of the church.
Part of what is groundbreaking in our reading from John and also so inspiring in this story from Fred Craddock, is the power found in equitable relationship. The graciousness of post-baptism practice at the church is so striking, in part, because every single person participates. Every single person offers care and every single person is a possible recipient of care. No one is understood to be without a gift. Everyone has the capacity to help. Everyone is understood to likely need help at some time. In the Scripture from John, it is incredible that Jesus invites his disciples to be more than servants, to be friends. At that moment, he upends so many social expectations between teachers and students, as well as any sense of how the Messiah might be some mighty military leader. Instead, he posits that an interdependent relationship should really be the divine standard. You become his friend when you follow his commandments. And, he commands us to love one another. The people dancing on that lakeshore in Tennessee loved one another. We can love one another, too.
I've recently started a continuing education class for pastors. In a class earlier this week, our teacher invited us to try praying in a different way to more clearly connect our calls from Scripture to our experiences during the week. Remember how the church introduced themselves to the new people: My name is.... and if you need.... I'm going to invite you to reimagine that practice with the last week in mind. You can write it down on your bulletin. First, imagine what you would tell a newcomer that you could help them with. Second, think about one time in the last week that someone has shown you Christ's loving friendship. Make a promise to pray a prayer of thanksgiving for that person. When we pray together in just a few minutes, if you feel so led, you are welcome to share what you can help with or how you were shown love this week, along with anything else you'd like us to pray for. This is how Christ's joy lives in us, when we act as friends of Jesus. How has your joy been completed this week? And, how will you carry that joy forward in love?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Osvaldo Vena: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3649
Choi He An, "Sixth Sunday of Easter," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, eds. Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, Chalice Press, 2001
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.