There could be people in this room who remember. Back in the nineteen seventies, the neighborhood was changing. We were feeling all the fears, and prejudices, and questions that come with being a white church in a black neighborhood. Church membership numbers were dwindling. Conference Minister Rev. Erston Butterfield came and issued the now famous pronouncement that Church of Peace would be closing its doors by Nineteen Seventy-Five.
There might be people who would hear that as a death knell; the people in this church heard that as a dare.
Accordingly, the church formed a relocation committee to explore leaving Twelfth and Twelfth and moving someplace more affluent, more white. At the congregational meeting in Nineteen Seventy-Five, according to the notes of Reverend Kuenning, somebody in our church said this: “If we were a mission-minded people, we would look for a place where the need is great. We would go there. We would roll up our sleeves and go to work. Well, we are already there! The need is great here!”
There could be people in this room who were there when it happened. The congregation voted to stay at the corner of Twelfth and Twelfth, but not just stay to stay. The decision was to stay and learn to be a good neighbor. Initially, this gave rise to the founding of the Community Caring Conference and the Saturday Ethnic School. Later, this commitment led to the Food Pantry, the Book Nook, PeacePals, Prison Pen Pals, and more.
There could be people in this room who were there when it happened. Back on November Twenty-Fourth, with dreams in our minds and stars in our hands, the people of Church of Peace voted to name Twenty Twenty the Year of Caring and Service. Make no mistake, this was an identity-claiming decision. The vote on November Twenty-Fourth was a referendum affirming the decision of Nineteen Seventy-Five.
We, the people of Church of Peace United Church of Christ, gather at the corner of Twelfth and Twelfth were we value our history and envision our future. We come together to give glory to God. We’re going to stay and be a good neighbor. We’re dedicating Twenty Twenty, The Year of Caring and Service. This is not just a decision about what we’re going to do. This decision proves, we know who we are.
And so it is that we find ourselves at a juncture. On the one side, we are claiming our authenticity and our authority. As a church, we know who we are; we’re in control. On the other side, we don’t know what’s going to happen. We are still learning what it means to be a good neighbor. We don’t know what this year is going to expose in us or what risks will be required. We’re not entirely in control.
On the first Sunday of the New Year, we gather at the corner of knowing exactly who we are and imagining how God is going to change our church. This is the place where our certainty intersects with our wonder. This is the moment when we begin to grow.
This New Year begins with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry from the Gospel of Mark. Now if you look at the first chapter of each of the four gospels, you’ll notice each gospel begins a different way. We get the genealogy in Matthew, the nativity in Luke, a poem invoking the incarnation in John. Mark throws us right into the action. Blink and you’ll miss it! Jesus is already an adult. He gets baptized by John, named the Beloved by God, driven into the wilderness by the Spirit, tempted by Satan, and attended by angels. That’s just the first thirteen sentences!
In the scripture Judy read, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. His teaching astonishes the crowd because he speaks with authority, meaning he speaks with authenticity. Jesus knows who he is. The problem is, the demons do too.
Back when Jesus was baptized by John, when he came up out of the water, the heavens split open and the voice of God spoke: I know you. You are my son, the Beloved. With you, I am well pleased, says the LORD.
This time Jesus is teaching. The unclean spirit spoke through the man it was possessing: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
Here Jesus was found out and called out by a demon. His truth was announced to the world. All through the Gospel of Mark, the question of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah lurks and looms and eventually leads to his death on the cross. But for now, Jesus is stepping into a PR debacle. The demonic spirits are onto him. Even though Jesus orders them not to tell, the truth gets out.
All through these early days of teaching, and healing, and casting out demons, Jesus is finding himself at the creative juncture where certainty meets wonder.
On the one hand, Jesus is making deliberate choices. He taught in the synagogue on his own volition; nobody made him do that. Jesus chose to liberate the man from the unclean spirit, then he chose to bring Simon’s mother-in-law back to life. Jesus volunteered to cure the people who came to the door. He decided to get up in the dark and go off alone. He knows who he is; he’s in control! Except when he’s not.
On the other hand, Jesus didn’t mean to get recognized. He did not mean for the crowds to find him at Simon’s house or hunt him down while he was praying.
When the man with leprosy approaches Jesus, he says, It’s up to you. You could choose to cure me… Some versions of the Bible say that Jesus was moved with pity. Some versions say that Jesus was moved with anger. The Bible scholars can’t tell the difference between pity and anger, and I love this, and oh Jesus, I know who you are. If you have ever found yourself standing in front of someone who’s asking you for help, you might not be able to tell the difference either. When Jesus looks at the man, can’t you just hear him sigh.
Here Jesus’ vulnerability is exposed. His very human frustration is on display, his very human hand is coming into contact with leprosy. That’s not even the biggest threat. The greater threat is that Jesus’ power is exposed. Jesus employs the power of God to let this man go home to his family. Once Jesus does that, he can’t go home himself. He’s forced into hiding.
On the one hand, Jesus set out on this Tour of Caring and Service with clear intentions. On the other hand, things happened to him that were beyond his control. The people saw the truth of his vulnerability, they saw the truth of his power, and you know, what if that happened to us? What if this is precisely what we’re signing up for with this Year of Caring and Service… People might find out who we really are.
The thing about caring and service, it is deeply personal. You and I are volunteering to put ourselves right into the need, right into the pain. There’s no way to do this and not come to that edge where certainty meets wonder. There’s no way to do this without giving up some control. Helping somebody is probably going to take more time than I have scheduled; it’s probably going to cost more money than I have budgeted. I’m pretty sure I will have to face my outrage and my vulnerability, and you might too. You’re probably going to get somebody else’s tears on your shoulder. And that’s not all.
If we’re open to it, this Year of Caring and Service will deepen our faith and lead us closer to Christ. He will look at us and see our power. Then you know —they’re going to see our compassion! Once they do, once it gets out, there’s no going back. The kindness you’re carrying in your being is who you really are. What if everybody finds out…
In some years, we have celebrated Epiphany with star words. Everybody who comes to church gets a star with a word on it. Then this word is supposed to be a light that shines on your whole year. They’re all good words —things like: fortitude, commitment, pardon, simplicity. The idea is that when you receive a word it might be exactly what you need. It might become the word you need the most in the coming year.
Today instead of getting a star word from the church, I’m wondering if we could do the opposite. In just a moment during our silent prayer, I invite you to think of a word that names how you hope to grow during this Year of Caring and Service. Maybe you want to grow in empathy or patience. Maybe you want to grow in courage or generosity…
When it’s time for the offering, I invite you to make this word your offering (you’ll find index cards to use in the pewback pocket). Instead of receiving a word from the church, together we’ll give the church a whole skyfull of star words for the new year. We’ll give to God our intentions for growing, then we’ll see what happens.
May this Year of Caring and Service take you right to the brink where what you already know for sure comes up against what you can only begin to imagine.
May each of us grow into the fullness of our truth. I know who you are, says the LORD, and I love you, and I need your help.
Let us come before God in silent prayer, seeking a word… (silent prayer)
The word of God, for the people of God, thanks be to God. Amen.