Sermon at St. Paul, Salem, Oregon

June 7, 2009

I get to see some remarkable communities of faith in my travels, people of many different languages and tribes, cultures and traditions. A couple of weeks ago I worshiped with a Hmong congregation in Minnesota. They joined the Episcopal Church as a group of about 300 people, because they didn’t think their former church home was doing an adequate job of loving them.

Several months ago I was in Boston where the cathedral provides space for a Chinese student congregation and a ministry that feeds the homeless, each community cared for in loving ways. Last Sunday in Mobile, Alabama, we baptized an 11 year old boy, the child of addicted parents, who came to church on his own, found a loving home and substitute family, and insisted on being baptized. After the service we went to dedicate a Habitat house for a Sudanese refugee family who have resettled there. All over this church there are communities telling and being good news to people who need to hear that they’re loved, and who are offered that love in concrete ways. The people and communities who feed the hungry and house the homeless and welcome the hurting and heal the sick are doing that work because someone challenged them to love others the way they’ve been loved. Those Episcopalians aren’t loving their neighbors because somebody told them what wretched people they were.

The Christians who show the world what love looks like don’t do it out of fear. As Romans says, the spirit leads us into awareness that we are children of God – and it’s not a spirit of fear, but of love. John’s gospel is pretty blunt about it. The version called The Message puts it like this, “God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.” The gospel is about the good news of God’s love. And when we really and truly know we are well-loved, we begin to be able to respond in kind.

In 1928, the bishop of Alabama heard that there were some Indians living out in the woods northeast of Mobile. He sent a missionary out to see who was there. The missionary did indeed discover a band of Creek Indians, in a place called Poarch. Their ancestors had hidden themselves away during the great removal in the 1830s, when the US government tried to eliminate all Native Americans in the southeast by sending them to Oklahoma. Most of the Creek people endured that Trail of Tears, along with the Choctaw, Seminole, Chickasaw, and the Cherokee.

The missionary discovered people who needed food and clothing and education during the Great Depression, and he helped mobilize the larger church to respond. He settled in and discovered a people who bathed in the creek every morning (which is where their English name comes from), and prayed to the Great Creator as they turned to face the four directions. As those Creek people learned about Jesus through the concrete experience of love, they also heard some parallels with their own experience of the Great Creator. They began to ask to be baptized. The missionary baptized many, in the same swimming hole where they had long said their morning prayers. And the missionary recorded all those baptisms, and the births and marriages and deaths in the community, and his successor continued to write down names and dates.

In 1977 the Poarch Band of Creek Indians applied to the US government for formal recognition, and in 1983 it was awarded, mostly as a result of all those parish records, substantiating relationships and an ongoing connection with the land in Poarch. The church also gave a piece of land to the tribe, 17 acres that became the first part of the Poarch Creek reservation. Today about 1700 members live on reservation lands, a checkerboard of about 450 acres in southern Alabama. They also have a casino that seems to be doing very well, and out of the proceeds the tribe provides health care, housing support, and scholarships for any member who wants to pursue vocational training or higher education.

Without the willingness of someone to go to rural Alabama 80 years ago, this group of people would by now almost certainly have lost its identity. I was in Poarch last Saturday, and it was immensely humbling to hear the elders speak of the work of this Episcopal Church with such reverence and gratitude.

That reality of new and more abundant life is the result of somebody being willing to go and share the love that he already knew. Today we’re reminding a number of people about their own belovedness, for that’s what happens in baptism. We hear God saying to us what God said to Jesus at his baptism, “you are my beloved, and in you I am well pleased.” Confirmation and reception are an opportunity for adults to claim that belovedness in a conscious and public way – to claim that love and commit to living in a way that shows and shares that love with the world. Those five promises we make are about how we intend to live in the world. Baptism and the rites connected with it are what Jesus called “being born from above” and being “born of water and the spirit.” They are an invitation to see the kingdom of God, the world in which love is the way we relate to each other. Love as the way we relate to each other is a reflection of the God we know as Trinity. It’s a way of saying that God in God’s own self is social, relational, and loving. When we show love to the world, we become the image of God, the presence of God’s love.

Yesterday at the Cathedral in Portland we heard four people talk about how they show love to the world. It was a workshop on baptismal ministry, or loving service. One young woman talked about going to coastal Mississippi right after Katrina, and spending six months doing whatever she could to be useful – mucking out houses, organizing canned food, hammering nails. Another fellow talked about the 30 years he spent working in a butcher shop, trying to evangelize his buddies. He said he finally learned that his job wasn’t to get somebody to say a verbal formula about accepting Jesus as his personal lord and savior. His.job was to make a space that was safe enough for others to say what they really think and feel. A retired woman said that her way of being love in the world was to be mindful, to be aware of the person right in front of her, and the opportunities for hospitality and kindness. And the last one, a 26 year old woman, said that hers was to meet people at their deepest vulnerability – whether in her work as a home visitor for child protective services or in the Spanish worship service at her church or among the spiritually hungry people she meets who are simply looking for a connection. Each one of those people was talking about being love in the world. That’s what it means to live as beloved child of God.

I saw a small example this morning when I was running along the riverfront. The riverwalk is paved with bricks that have donors’ names on them, and the small decorative tiles made by children – surprising bits of color and creativity in the long stretches of paving. Both are small, sacramental signs that somebody loves you enough to make this a more beautiful place.

How will you be love in this world? There are as many answers as the people in this room – each unique, each part of the infinite creativity of God. How will you be love?