This post is adapted from my recent sermon at Pasadena Presbyterian Church in Pasadena, California. I was their Associate Pastor from 2010-2013, and last week, they extended a wonderful opportunity for me to travel back to California, connect with their community, and preach in both of their worship services.
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Luke 3: 10-14, 18
And the crowds asked John, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even the tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” . . . So with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
My dear friends, it is an absolute joy to be with you this morning. I am grateful to be standing in this sacred space once more, and it is a gift to be surrounded by you, so many beloved people. Thank you for the opportunity to be here.
This entire week in California has been a great gift. You have. . . sun! Do you know this? SUN! It’s wonderful.
Actually, thanks to the El Niño weather pattern, the winter in Michigan has been remarkably tolerable so far. Folks in Michigan are enjoying two days in the 60s this weekend. Ian is back there, soaking in that warmth, but he’s also grading for his class which is much less exciting than what I’m doing today. He misses you very much, and he sends his greetings as well. I want to pass that along.
Now what I’m about to say next is pretty dorky, but when you’re a pastor who preaches regularly, it can be exciting to go to a website like textweek.com to discover, “Which scriptures are coming up next in the lectionary? What’s on the menu this week?” Of course, I did that very thing a few weeks ago when I learned I would be back in Pasadena with the meaningful opportunity to preach here once again. “What’s on the menu for December 13?” I wondered. As I looked at the list of lectionary scriptures, I saw Philippians 4:4-8. . Yes! That’s one of my favorite scriptures of all. The language is so beautiful and comforting. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Those are beautiful words. They are powerful words.
But then, I figured I should probably preach from the Gospel text this week since it is Advent, and we do tend privilege those texts at this time of year.
“So let’s see. . . what’s on the menu for December 13?” I wondered. Oh, right, it’s John the Baptist. . . And oh, right. .. he’s kind of yelling. . . Well, this should be fun, I thought, because nothing quite says gratitude and “thanks for bringing me here, PPC!” like beginning a sermon with John’s words: “You brood of vipers!”
So here I am, standing before you this morning with gratitude in my heart and a deep desire that you will truly learn to be anxious about nothing, and I am deliberately choosing for us all to experience these tough words that John the Baptist cries in the wilderness. I wonder, can we experience those words this morning with intention but without anxiety? Let’s try that because I think John has something vitally important to say to us this morning.
John’s words, without question, are hard. He does call the people “a brood of vipers!” And he follows that greeting with a harsh question about their intentions, wondering how it is that they came to this moment. “Who warned you to flee the wrath that is to come?” he cries out. John undercuts any attempt for them to justify themselves. “Don’t begin to say, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for God is able to raise up from these stones children to Abraham.” And then, as he closes this controversial address, he casts an evocative image. “Even now, the ax is lying at the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” This is how our Gospel text begins this morning.
It is fiery.
It is passionate.
It is challenging.
But something good – something powerful – must have happened as the people stood before John in the wilderness. They were cut to the heart. They were convicted. And soon, John’s call with all of these challenging questions turns into a refrain of more questions, questions from the people themselves. Over and over, they respond in the same way, “What should we do?” they ask. It seems that they are wondering, “How should we practice the way to new life?”
Each time, John answers in a particular way:
He redirects their attention toward those who are suffering. He invites people to place their intention toward those who don’t have their physical needs met and those who have little access to power. And he turns the moment into the possibility of extension, calling the gathered assembly to recognize the humanity of the people who exist beyond their own community. John calls the assembly standing before him, and he calls us, to go out and be with these others. “Share your extra coat,” John says. “Share your food.” “Stop extorting money from people.” “Be satisfied with your own wages and don’t threaten those of others.”
Give of yourselves.
Go and be with these people.
This is John’s challenging message in the wilderness.
And this is John’s challenging message to us, the Church.
There are portions of our scriptures that are hard to hear, and yet, we dare to call them Good News. They might not be the most comforting of texts, and they might not be the most endearing. But often, the most challenging scriptures of all are Good News because they tell us exactly where we should be looking. It’s where God is looking. It’s where God is loving. Scriptures like this one tell us where to place our vision. We are invited to see very people that God chooses to see. Scriptures like this one tell us where to place our presence. We are invited to value the beloved people of God who exist beyond our own church walls and beyond our own assembly. We are called to add our presence to theirs. We are invited to follow God’s gaze into Good News, and we live this Good News when we add our vision and presence to others with all that have and all that we are.
John points us in this direction. And if we follow John’s gaze in the wilderness, we will see the One John sees – the very One who calls us into this way of life. John says, “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.” When John speaks these words in the wilderness, Jesus on the verge of beginning his public ministry. Jesus is coming into this ministry, and when he does, he will turn the world upside down:
He will speak truth to power.
He will uplift the downtrodden.
He will eat in full communion with the ‘outsiders.’
And he will empower these very people to take his message of worship, passion, and justice to the ends of the earth.
Jesus – God in human form, found to be with us! – will add his presence to ours, and he will baptize us with the Holy Spirit.
God incarnate will move into the human neighborhood, 
and all people will see the salvation of God.
Jesus calls us to follow him into the human neighborhood. This requires commitment, but along the way, we are invited to cast all anxiety aside and follow him with joy and boldness. “Do not worry about anything, but by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
These days, I spend a lot of time with local churches. And these days, I spend a lot of time in online forums with pastoral leaders all across our country. I see an enormous trend that is unfolding before us. The trend is this: I see churches profoundly anxious about the future.
Churches are anxious about demographic shifts which are affecting church membership and attendance.
Churches are anxious to discover how they can maintain those ministries and programs that are struggling,
And churches are anxious to bolster budgets which are diminishing.
I see this happening everywhere.
This immense, heavy anxiety is so understandable. It deserves compassion and care.
But at the same time, I see the kind of damage this anxiety can do when it begins to take on a life of its own. Here’s why: In the midst of this kind of anxiety, churches can become remarkably insular, and soon, every act, every desire, every talking point, and even every invitation toward others can become motivated by a desire to secure institutional survival and avoid change.
Now, of course, we know it’s good for churches to move toward health and sustainability. I’m not critiquing that. But when institutional survival becomes our primary motive for ministry, it can quickly become all about us. We know it can be faithful to invite others into worship, membership, and even stewardship, but these must invitations must be motivated by a desire to serve Jesus Christ, as we participate in sharing the knowledge of God with others and doing the very things that God has called us to do –
caring for those who don’t have their physical needs met,
advocating alongside those who don’t have access to power,
and revealing the love of God toward people beyond our church walls –
Because perhaps. . .
no one has ever told these people that they have worth and value.
And they have infinite worth and value.
This is our call to ministry.
As the church worries so intensely about institutional survival, we can easily begin to chase a ministry model that is exclusively vertical. In this model, we attempt to build up this ever growing cathedral of membership and resources.
We can certainly give thanks for membership and resources, but more than ever, today we need church that spills outward. We need to build a Horizontal Cathedral.
. . . a Horizontal Cathedral of neighborhood connections.
. . . a Horizontal Cathedral of relationships,
. . . a Horizontal Cathedral of compassion,
. . . a Horizontal Cathedral of justice,
. . . a Horizontal Cathedral that says, “I will be with and for you, because I have been baptized by the Holy Spirit, and I have been commissioned to follow Jesus Christ into the human neighborhood.”
Our buildings and our resources are important. Let’s care for them with our very best stewardship.
But let’s also remember that they are not the church. We are the church, and we are called to serve.
It makes me wonder how Pasadena Presbyterian Church can do that. . . It makes me wonder how you will do that in 2016 as this new year presents itself with new possibilities.
I know that I saw a taste of it last night at the Candlelight and Carols concert. When I sat in this sacred space, the beautiful, new lights aided the choirs in proclaiming Good News. I know that these gorgeous, new spotlights illumined a ministry of good news rather than serving as a lightshow for themselves.
Last night, I saw three languages projected on the wall. This is something you may have gotten used to in your ministry together, but please don’t forget how rare that is, especially in a church community. You are daring to say that all people are welcome in this fellowship. In that spirit, how then can that ministry of welcome spill outward as you take your presence into the very communities who speak those languages, so that you will come to know their names and stories? So that you will strengthen your connections as a Horizontal Cathedral of human relationships?
I know this: I can issue the challenge because I know you’re people who are up to the challenge. And I know that you’re up to the challenge because more than anyone I’ve ever known, you are the ones who have taught me to live this way. You are the ones who have taught me most deeply to follow Jesus into the human neighborhood and love the people on the ‘outside.’ These people are absolutely worth loving.
So keep on doing that great work, PPC! Follow Jesus into the human neighborhood with joy and boldness as you cast off any and all anxieties. Build that Horizontal Cathedral. Go and do it with joy! And know that you and I are always connected in it, always united in this love. I love you, and I thank God for you.
Be anxious about nothing.
Thanks be to God,
 I am borrowing this language from The Message, Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible. Peterson uses the language of God moving into the neighborhood as he translates John 1:14: “The Word of God became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.”
 It has come to my attention that Diana Butler Bass has also been discussing the ‘horizontal’ dimension of faith in new and exciting ways. Though I have not yet read her newest book, I look forward to exploring its ideas. I recommend that we all read Grounded: Finding God in the World – A Spiritual Revolution soon.
The description of her book on Amazon articulates this conviction: “[A] shift, from a vertical understanding of God to a God found on the horizons of nature and human community, is at the heart of a spiritual revolution that surrounds us – and that is challenging not only religious institutions but political and social ones as well.”