Sermon:  “God’s Business”

10 January 2010

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

Baptism of Christ
January 10, 2010

“God’s Business”

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 (pp. 891)
Acts 8:3-25 (pp. 954-955)

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our minds and hearts here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

Before I begin, let me just say, Sally did not make a mistake by skipping that second passage from Acts.  I’ll refer to it today, but I decided not to read it aloud for two reasons: First of all, it’s kind of long and confusing, so I thought just telling the story in my sermon might be more useful.  But also, I didn’t want poor Sally to have to stand up here in the pulpit and read about “the condemnation of Simon the magician” on the same day we announce at the beginning of worship, “Come to Serendippers this Tuesday and see our former pastor, our Pastor Emeritus Des Desmond perform magic!”   But if you want to look it up in your pew Bibles it’s on p. 954.  It’s about the Acts of the Apostles in the early church and how the Samaritans came to receive the Holy Spirit.  And that’s why, I think, it has something to say about how we might do God’s business in the church today.

Will you pray with me?  “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

The Gospel text we heard today, I think is a familiar one for most of us – Luke’s story about John baptizing his slightly younger cousin Jesus?  But because it’s so familiar, and the characters are so familiar, we might miss the almost comical contrast between John and Jesus – the contrast John is humble enough to point out.  “I baptize you with water,” John says, but Jesus will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  This fire thing, it sounds like, is very exciting to John, who is known as quite the fiery preacher himself.  He sounds like he can’t wait for Jesus to come into his power, to get down to doing God’s business – the business of fighting evil, once and for all wiping evil off the face of the earth.  John’s superhero Messiah sounds more like he belongs in “Die Hard” or “Dirty Harry” than in Sunday School: “17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”! Do you get that picture?  That would scare the pants off the kids at Vacation Bible School, wouldn’t it?  Jesus shoving sinners into Hell with a pitchfork!

But then, when Jesus does come, it’s not very spectacular.  Luke says “when all the people were baptized…Jesus also had been baptized and was praying.”  It sounds like he quietly waited in line for his turn, got baptized, and then went off alone.  But then comes John’s long-awaited moment:  “the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a …” like a …. Oh, what’s that creature again that brings the wrath of God on judgment day?  It’s not Arnold Schwartzenegger in “Terminator.”  You know, it breathes fire and flies and … Oh, what is it, Luke, that Jesus looked like when the Holy Spirit came upon him?  Oh yes, here it is: “the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a … dove.”  That can’t be right.  A killer pigeon?  Oh, but wait – there’s more.  This is better:  “And a voice came from heaven,” A VOICE CAME FROM HEAVEN …to say… “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  That’s what Luke says the Holy Spirit looks like on Jesus – a gentle white love bird.  As a corporate logo, I don’t think that’s gonna be good for business.

We thought we knew God’s business once in the church when crusaders and conquistadors carried huge crosses and banners and rode herd on non-Christians and forced conversions at the edge of the sword.  If they’d just bothered to re-read these verses in the Bible they might have been reminded that the bird of the Holy Spirit is not the mighty Golden Eagle of Caesar’s Rome, but the humble dove of peace.  And this is God’s business, what we in the church are all about – what our budget is for – spreading the Good News of the unconditional love and Amazing Grace of God, as it was shared with the world through the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But in the stress of our daily life together, it’s easy to forget that.  In these tough economic times, it’s easy to get discouraged about the costs of doing ministry – the insurance bills, the salaries, the heating oil, the building repairs – some of the heftiest line items in our budget.  It’s not very Golden Eagle powerful or glamorous; it’s more pigeon ordinary and annoying. 

Yesterday, for example, when we were trying to have our Church Leadership Retreat and the furnace was out in Brooks Hall and we had no heat, until Dave Goral a few service men managed to get things up and running again.  They probably weren’t thinking about it like this, but they were doing ministry – they were helping our church spread the Good News of God’s love just as much as our guest speaker, Patsy Bjorling, our retreat leader on from the Connecticut Conference office in Hartford.  See, what Jesus would say, what the Gospel makes clear, is that we in the church don’t recognize ministry the way the world might do that – evaluating a leader’s success by crowd appeal and razzle dazzle.  So many of us serve Christ’s church as our Church House volunteers do, as our Sunday School teachers do, as so many of you committee members do – quietly and in the background, without a lot of fanfare or expectation of reward.  And many of us give our money to the everyday work of the church the same way – without expectation of goods for services or return on investment, as you might do in a secular business or organization.  When God’s business is running smoothly, we are giving what the pope calls “the deposit of faith” away – not selling any tangible goods or services.  That makes it challenging to evaluate our effectiveness by the world’s standards, or to measure our profits or losses. 

But in today’s text from Acts about the conversion, baptism, and repentance of Simon the Magician, both Simon and the Samaritans who come to him for his spectacular and entertaining healing miracles get a lesson from the disciples about what it means to do God’s business in the world.  As I said earlier, this story from Acts is very obscure – I doubt you ever had a sermon or Sunday School lesson about him – a man who was essentially a faith healer in Samaria.  He actually called himself “Simon the Great Power of God,” so for us today, he’s a familiar type, I think.  He’d do spiritual tricks for money, selling his services to the same sort of desperate people who invest today in the flamboyant healing ministries of self-promoting televangelists and all kinds of other New Age gurus you might see on the internet or TV, with their DVDs and books and spiritual programs for self-improvement.  Simon was very successful, and when the disciples of Jesus came through Samaria – preaching the Good News of God’s love, casting out demons, healing the sick, and baptizing huge crowds of new converts – he saw in their miracles a new business opportunity.  He saw what the Holy Spirit could do, and he offered Peter cash to buy it for himself.  And Peter, as you might imagine, gives him a piece of his mind.

20Peter says, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! 21You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. 22Repent therefore of this wickedness….”  Poor Simon!  But this is why I love Peter so much – he really blew up and “lost it” with this new convert.  He was so very human, as he is throughout all the Gospels.  He often doesn’t quite “get it” when Jesus tries to teach him.  You remember?  Peter wants to walk on water like Jesus, but he sinks like a stone.  Peter is the one who causes JESUS to lose it, there on the road, when Jesus gets frustrated with Peter’s rejection of God’s plan for the Messiah to go to Jerusalem to die and rise again.  Peter wants to try a more conventional business strategy – one that is more conventionally successful – where the hero rides in on a white horse to become king, not where the hero rides in on an ass to be executed like a criminal.  When Peter doesn’t get it then, Jesus snaps and says those famous words of rebuke, “Get behind me Satan!”

What I love about Peter most in this story is that – what do they say? – “it takes one to know one.”  Peter had messed up enough by the time we get to Acts, after apprenticing for 3 years with Jesus, that when he saw the profit motive in Simon the Magician, he was ready to stamp it out.  God’s grace has never been for sale – it is freely given by God to us, and we are the lucky stewards of that treasure who get to give it away. 

So at this time of year, as we launch our Nominating and Stewardship seasons, it’s important to remember that a church budget is unlike any other budget in the world, just as God’s business is unlike any other business.  We volunteer our time over and above our paying jobs – and that’s true for staff as well.  Like so many of you teachers, church staff often pitch in their own money for things the budget can’t cover, or put in time well above a 40-hour work week.  But God’s business literally could not run without everyday church members, beloved by God and blessed by the Holy Spirit – volunteers who do a million chores around the property, participate in choirs, welcome our visitors, invest our money, serve meals, help lead worship, plan our budget, pay our bills, help our refugees, sit on committees.  All of us have a passion for doing God’s work around here.  We are deeply invested in God’s business, literally.  And we are so blessed to be called to do it.

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.



Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Acts of the Apostles 8:3-25

3But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.

4Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. 5Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. 6The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, 7for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. 8So there was great joy in that city. 9Now a certain man named Simon had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. 10All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” 11And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. 12But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.

14Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16(for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 18Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! 21You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. 22Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.” 24Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.” 25Now after Peter and John had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, proclaiming the good news to many villages of the Samaritans.




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