Absolute Certainty

eiπ 

Luke 3:15-22

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John 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. His 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.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and 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.”

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There are some things that you just know. Things that, if you were deep asleep in the middle of the night, and someone shook you awake and asked you the question, without even fully waking up you’d blurt out the right answer. “What’s your name?” “What’s two plus two?” “What color are your eyes?” Things that you just know without even having to think. Here, let’s try that right now – I’ll ask you all a question and you just yell out the answer; don’t be shy. Ready? OK, here we go…. “What city are we in?” “What day of the week is it?” “Who played third base for the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates?” … Well, if you grew up where I did, you’d know the answer to that one. OK, since we’re in Louisville, how about… “What famous horse race takes place here?” “What alcohol is Kentucky known for?” And one last one: “Who baptized Jesus?”

Ah HAH! Not so fast. If you listened carefully to today’s gospel text, at least according to Luke, that couldn’t be right. We read in other gospels that John the Baptist baptized Jesus; that he even protested the appropriateness of him baptizing Jesus, instead of the other way around. But here, according to Luke, Herod had already arrested and imprisoned John by the time Jesus was baptized. So then, according to Luke, who did it? He never really tells us; he just doesn’t seem to think the detail is important. In fact, he doesn’t even give us any details at all; he just reports that it occurred, and he jumps to what follow – Jesus prays, the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and God speaks approval and pleasure with Jesus.

Things like this in the scriptures have always intrigued me – texts that we think say something, because we’ve read them or heard them so many times and we think we know the story, but we’re really melding together in our minds different accounts of the same event, and the separate accounts may be saying something different. Or for that matter, the thought-provoking detail in this story of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus here, at age thirty or so. I mean, where has the Holy Spirit been up until then? If Jesus was the incarnation of God in the flesh in Jesus since his conception, wouldn’t the Holy Spirit have already been present within him? Or is this detail a part of a different theological take on Jesus – that up until this point, Jesus was actually just a ordinary, even if chosen, human being, and his actual divinity, his incarnation, began when the Spirit descended upon him at his baptism?

Well, there are volumes of theological discussions about that particular subject, and it’s an important one, but my actual point at the moment is that this, just like the question of who actually baptized Jesus, is something that we’ll never be completely certain of. But it seems that to Luke, the more important thing in this particular story is the significance of the baptism itself. To Luke, both in this story and considering the theological issues that he plays out throughout his gospel, Jesus’ baptism represents God’s having chosen Jesus – God’s having established a bond, a covenant of love, acceptance, and call with Jesus. And Jesus’ being baptized like other humans is also seen as a sign of Jesus’ – and therefore God’s – solidarity with all of humanity, sharing in the entirety of the human condition; the best and the worst, the blessed and the cursed – God loves and is in solidarity with all.

This covenantal understanding of baptism especially resonates with us Presbyterians, as part of the larger Reformed tradition. This is why we Presbyterians baptize infants and children – the sacrament is not a sign of us being of some magical age of reason and our supposedly making a decision to choose God. Rather, it is, as we say, a “sign and seal” of God’s covenant made with us, initiated and established entirely by God, and not at all dependent upon anything we choose or do or profess. As I’ll often say during a baptism, baptism is not a sign of what we’re doing; it’s a sign of what God has already done. While during a baptism, we, or if we’re children, our parents, will profess faith, just as we’d do in any other worship service, that isn’t what the baptism itself represents or depends on. Baptism, just as was the case with Jesus, and regardless of our age, is all about the reassurance that God’s Holy Spirit dwells with us, and that God has called us beloved, and that God is well pleased with us.

Today, we’ll be ordaining several people to become Ruling Elders. This is a very important thing in the life of the church, and in the lives of the people being ordained. Their journey of faith began in the covenant and call of their baptism, and now, through the discernment of both themselves and the whole congregation, that call from God is moving them into a particular kind of service and leadership in the church. In all likelihood, it will be something they remember for the rest of their lives. I can tell you that I’ll never forget my ordination as a Ruling Elder. Kneeling before God, feeling the presence and love of God, and through the laying on of hands, of those ordained before me, was electric. I’ve only rarely felt God’s presence that powerfully, and unquestionably, in my life.

And in a way, that brings us full circle. Because whether we’re talking about ordination or baptism, they’re both tangible, physical signs of this one fact – that, unlike the question of who baptized Jesus, the reality of God’ covenant – God’s love, acceptance, and claim on us; the reality that God will guide our paths all the days of our lives; and the reality that there is nothing that can separate us from that love, is something in which we can always have absolute certainty.

Thanks be to God.

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Belonging

(sermon 5/13/18)

baptism water

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

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John 17:6-19

[Jesus prayed,] ”I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

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Last Sunday evening, the church staff and their spouses gathered at my place for a little farewell get-together for MB. It was a nice evening, filled with friends, and food, and stories, and laughs and sharing our thoughts about MB, her time here, and her new call. And then, just as we’d had enough to eat and were relaxing a bit, Warren got out of his chair, walked over to the piano, and said, “It’s time.” He sat down and started playing song after song, some requests from us and others that just popped into his head, and we all scrambled to google the lyrics on our phones and sang along.

At one point during that, I sat there looking at the smiling faces, all of us coming from different places, with different backgrounds, different stories, all brought together in this moment, smiling, laughing, singing – and I realized that I was in the middle of one of those very special, almost other-worldly moments that on very rare occasion, we’re blessed to be part of. Surrounded by good friends, and love, and laughter, and music. And it went deeper than it being just an ordinary gathering of friends; this was a group who had been knit together by God, brought together through our common love for God and our desire to serve God, and we were all a part of this truly magical moment. I felt so blessed, and grateful, that I was a part of it, and connected to these people. It was a deep feeling of belonging.

Both of today’s scripture texts deal in different ways with the sense of belonging. In the Acts text, we hear the story of the Apostles naming a new member of the twelve, to replace Judas. They had two equally qualified candidates and basically rolled dice to choose between the two. That sounds pretty arbitrary to our ears today, but even now, every once in a while you’ll hear about an election that results in a tie, and the winner is determined by flipping a coin. Of course, over the years, different parts of the church have come up with different polities, different ways of trying to discern God’s will when faced with making a decision. Some trust the authority of a bishop. Some rely on a congregational vote by the congregation to decide everything. We Presbyterians trust our representative, connectional polity to be the most reliable way of hearing God’s will. The truth of the matter, though, is that whatever the method that we humans come up with to try to hear God’s intentions, God is present in the process, and God will find a way to work within it.

This Acts text deals with finding who God wants to belong to the group of Apostles, and to me that point is important today – whatever the methodology used to hear it, God does call us into being a part of Christ’s Church, and a part of God’s realm. God calls us into this special kind of belonging.

We bear witness to that today, in two ways. Earlier in the service, we recognized the teachers and other volunteers who God has called to a special way of belonging in the life of the church. And in just a little while, we’ll baptize _______, in a sign and seal of God having called him into this special kind of belonging. In his baptism, _______ will begin a lifelong journey of faith, a lifetime of being a part of the covenant, the promise that God has made with us, that we will always belong to the family of God.

But this goes beyond just belonging. Along with that belonging comes the assurance of what Jesus was praying about in the text from John’s gospel that we heard this morning – that _______’s belonging is forever, and that God’s holding and protection of _______ is forever, too.

_______ will grow to know and experience all the joys and sorrows, all the awe and wonder, all the love and loss that this life brings us all. We can, and we do, pray that the laughter will outlast the tears; and that the good will outweigh the bad.  Mostly, we pray that he will always know love – love of family and friends, and church, and most of all of God. However all the chapters of his life will unfold, we all know that through the reconciliation that has been achieved through Christ in his life, death, and resurrection, God has forever claimed him; and that he has been called God’s own and that he will forever be kept in the palm of God’s loving hand – in short, that he belongs. And for that, we can all rejoice, and say

Thanks be to God.

On the Road Again… Again

(sermon 4/29/18)

ehiopian

Acts 8:26-40

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went.

Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.

Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 

As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

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He woke up that morning like any other morning, with a list of things to do that he ran through his mind as he had his breakfast cereal and coffee. But then, God spoke to him. Maybe it was a big, bold vision, with the glory of God, and blinding light, and angels singing and cherubim flapping their wings and knocking all the magnets off the refrigerator. Or maybe it was just a gentle, quiet voice seemingly from out of nowhere that popped into his head that irresistibly convinced him that today, he’d set that list aside, just for a day, and what he really needed was a little road trip to clear his mind.

That was how he found himself on the road leading out to Gaza, looking up ahead and seeing a caravan, obvious even from the distance made up of dark-skinned foreigners, and just as obviously, a caravan of someone important. Any other day, it would have been just something to notice for a moment and then move on, maybe like seeing a vintage plane flying over, or a funny youTube video, or a big, wild Derby hat. But this time, that same voice that told him to forget about the honey-do list told him to catch up to them. See who it is. Maybe strike up a conversation.

He sat there in his chariot, proud of the important government position he held – a Cabinet position; Secretary of the Treasury for the Queen of Ethiopia; traveling with al the pomp and ceremony and security that entailed. He was a powerful man. But he was also all too aware that that power had come at a high price. Only a castrated male – a eunuch – was trusted to work so closely and intimately around the queen. As powerful as he was, it was power with an asterisk – in the Ethiopian culture, eunuchs were considered defective, scarred, unnatural – and in some inexplicable irony, they were considered sexually immoral deviates. So even while the eunuch know power, he also knew judgment, hostility, and rejection.

It wasn’t only his own Ethiopian culture that thought this way. In the Hebrew scriptures, both Leviticus and Deuteronomy call out eunuchs as unnatural, deformed, second-guessing God’s design; as such, they were specifically identified in the scriptures as being ineligible to be part of the assembly of God.

But as he was riding along, it wasn’t Leviticus or Deuteronomy that he was reading, but Isaiah, when he noticed the stranger approaching his chariot. The words he was reading were so intriguing, but so confusing, that he actually waved his security people off and waved the stranger over.

He’d read the words over and over, being drawn to this unknown person being described, feeling a sense of empathy and brotherhood and even some solidarity with this one who, similar to himself, had been led like a lamb to be shorn, and who had endured humiliation for it.

Read this. Do you understand it? Who is this prophet writing about? he asked the stranger. And in that moment, Philip realized why he was there, and he began to explain the fullness of God’s good news for all people. Maybe he even rolled the scroll out even further, showing him Isaiah 56, where it’s written that eunuchs like him will not only be welcome in the house and family of God, but will be given a name even better than sons and daughters. And he explained that in fact, this time had already begun to unfold, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was the one whose life Isaiah, whether he’d realized it or not, had foretold.

So what might this story mean to us today – in a time when the kind of caravan we’re likely to hear about isn’t one of an Ethiopian eunuch, but rather, one of Honduran refugees fleeing for their lives, or Syrians, or South Sudanese?

Well, there’s no question that this passage is a crucial teaching for us that God’s love and welcome and kingdom is for sexual minorities in a society, too. Several stories in the Book of Acts, and maybe this one most of all, speak powerfully to the truth that LGBTQ people are part of God’s plan, too, and have been from the beginning. They’re included in God’s realm, and since they are, they’re to be a welcome and important part of the church. It might have taken us 2,000 years to actually hear and understand that part of this story, but it is there, and it’s quite clear.

But there’s more to this story too. This isn’t just good news for LGBTQ folk. What resonated in the heart and mind of the Ethiopian eunuch was that he could identify with the suffering and injustice that was experienced by the one Isaiah was describing, regardless of its particular origins. Philip explained to the eunuch that God understands what it’s like to be humiliated, to be ostracized, to be pushed aside. To be shamed, condemned, or punished by all sources of intolerance, especially by sinful religious intolerance that uses bits of scripture to justify it.

So this isn’t just good news for the Ethiopian eunuch, and all the sexual minorities who followed after him. It’s good news for *anyone* who has endured shame, injustice, humiliation, rejection, and honestly, who of us hasn’t, in some way or another. Because we know that God understands our suffering, has experienced the same suffering, and walks with us through all of our suffering. So this is good news for you if you’ve ever been told that you aren’t “normal” enough.

Or smart enough.

Or good looking enough.

Or young enough.

Or thin enough.

Or funny or witty enough.

Or rich enough.

Or male enough.

Or straight enough.

Or white enough.

Or American enough.

Or Christian enough.

The good news for all of us who have been rejected for these or any other things is that though Christ, God understands us; and through Christ, God has shown us that all of those distinctions and ways that we humans have come up with to separate and reject and humiliate are *meaningless* in God’s eyes. That Jesus, the cornerstone that the builders rejected, is now the risen Christ who is over all; and in a similar way, those of us who have been rejected in all those ways in this life will be welcomed into God’s kingdom by that same Christ.

Never forget that the eternal God of the universe understands you, has felt the same kind of rejection that you’ve felt, and that you may be feeling even now. Know that God stands with arms open wide in love and acceptance. Guilt left behind. Shame left behind. Injustice, humiliation, discrimination, rejection, all left behind.

And knowing that we have that kind of love and acceptance and welcome from God, we’re called to offer the same to others.  We’re called to welcome them into the church, to have places and voices and seats that God has reserved for them long ago.

But before we can welcome them into our churches, we need to welcome them into our communities. We have to offer the same kind of love, welcome, and acceptance that God has given us, to all those we encounter on the road. To Ethiopian eunuchs. And to Honduran and Syrian refugees. And to homeless LGBTQ youth whose parents have thrown them out of the house. And to families torn apart because a parent, or a spouse, has been deported. And people of color who just by virtue of living west of Ninth Street are told their lives are worth less than others’.

We offer that same love and welcome and acceptance – in both church and society, because wherever it’s church or society, it’s all God’s world, and all God’s people. The truth is, once we’ve received that love and acceptance from God, we become Philip.

“So look!” the eunuch said. “Over there; there’s some water. What’s to prevent me from being baptized? What’s to keep me from being a part of the family of God?”

Philip looked at the man, and he carefully took stock of the situation. Here was someone who was from the wrong religion, the wrong country, the wrong sexuality, and whom the scriptures specifically excluded from the kingdom of God.  And it was only because he was being led by the same voice, the same Spirit, that had gotten him out on the road to begin with, that Philip was able to answer him, “Nothing – absolutely nothing.”

Thanks be to God.

Repossessed

(sermon 1/28/18)

baptismal font-resized

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “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.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.  – Mark 1:21-28

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It happened more than ten years ago. I had just started pastoring this little country church about an hour south of Columbus, a brand-new Commissioned Lay Pastor, on the job for about a month, maybe two, ready to set the world on fire and do the very best I could for this wonderful little congregation. On this particular Sunday morning, I’d just taught an Adult Sunday School class, part of a series, about how the Bible came to be, and what the best available scholarship could tell us about who may have written various parts, and when, and why. When the class was over, as we moved into the sanctuary just before the service began, we noticed that we had visitors. They weren’t hard to notice, sitting in the sanctuary that held maybe forty or forty-five people on a normal Sunday. Four visitors, actually – a husband and wife, and a son, maybe 13, and a daughter, maybe 12. In other words, the supposed demographic gold mine for churches looking for visitors and potentially new members, especially for a congregation that hadn’t likely seen a new member in a number of years, and we were all pleased and excited to see them. They sat there in a nice row, each of them with their very own personal copy of the King James Version of the Bible with matching brown leatherette zip-up covers. The preaching text that morning was from the Second Letter to Timothy – and wanting to make some connection between the sermon and the Sunday School class, I’d wanted to say that even though the text of the letter says it was written by Paul, most scholars today agree that it wasn’t actually written by Paul, but rather, it was likely written by one of Paul’s followers, but ultimately that wasn’t important; what mattered was the content, the point that the words were making.

That was what I’d intended to say, anyway, but I never quite got all that out. As soon as I said that Paul likely hadn’t written the letter, the husband in this family jumped up out of his seat – it was so fast, so instantaneous, that you’d have thought the pew was spring-loaded and he’d just been ejected into the air. And within a split second, the three others sprung up, too. And the man started pushing his family out into the aisle while waving his finger at me and yelling at the top of his lungs, “Shame on you! Shame! Blasphemy! This is the Word of God! Paul wrote it or he didn’t; he wrote it or he didn’t! Shame on you! Shame! You’re a blasphemer!!!!” And he kept right on yelling as he marched his family up the aisle, and out the door, and SLAM! They were gone.

Well, my CLP training had prepared me for a lot of things, but this wasn’t one of them. I vaguely remember standing there in the pulpit looking as shocked and surprised as everyone else, but then, after a moment of fumbling around both verbally and physically, I regained my stride and we went on with the service.

Well, the following Sunday, the loud, spring-loaded visitors were still on everyone’s mind. Now in this church, there was a sturdy old oak office chair that sat along the back wall of the sanctuary, just inside the main entry vestibule. And every Sunday, a man named Joe, who was sort of the unofficial head usher, sat in that chair. So this Sunday, with people wondering what I might say about the events of the week before, I stepped into the pulpit, cleared my throat, and I looked to the back of the sanctuary and said, “Um, Joe, would you lock the door?” And we all laughed, and life went on.

In today’s gospel text, we heard about a similar kind of unexpected disruption and challenge to Jesus as he was teaching in a synagogue very early in his ministry. Of course, he handled his situation more decisively and with more authority than I handled mine, but, you know, that makes sense because he’s Jesus and I’m not. But just picture that scene. There’s Jesus, preaching and teaching and the people are amazed at what they were hearing, until Jesus is interrupted by this man that Mark tells us was possessed by an “unclean spirit.”

If you’re like me, you get a little uncomfortable with scriptural stories of spirit-possessed people. I mean, we’re living in an age of advanced knowledge of all sorts, and we also know that any number of perfectly understandable, non-supernatural mental illnesses were described in the pre-scientific culture of Jesus’ time as having been possessed by an unclean spirit. On the other hand, we know that we are beings of both body and spirit,  inherently, as part of our being human. We know that there is certainly a spiritual realm to the universe. So what was really going on with this disturbed man in this story?

I guess to me, the question of whether the man was possessed or suffering a mental or emotional illness is as unimportant as whether Paul wrote Second Timothy or not. The important point, to me, is the agony, the despair, that the man was feeling – and that he was apparently feeling it because of what Jesus was saying. Jesus was proclaiming the gospel, the good news of God’s love for all people. He was proclaiming the arrival of God’s good news for the poor, the sick, the lame, the hungry, the widow and the orphan and all those who have been pushed aside in this world.

And somehow, this was apparently bad news for the man. Clearly, whatever the details of his condition, he was miserable, but at least there was familiarity and comfort in his misery. He knew what he could count on, and what he couldn’t. But now, this new message from God, delivered with power and authority, meant that all that the man had come to depend on was being tossed out. Now there would be new rules, and undoubtedly change, and uncertainty; and for him, that wasn’t seen as gospel, good news, at all, but rather, it was very bad news, even with the love that the message came embedded in.

In response, Jesus speaks powerfully to the man; harshly, even. This actually becomes a recurring theme in Mark’s gospel, Jesus from time to time speaking with real harshness,  even anger, and virtually every time it happens, it’s a case like this – where Jesus is essentially rebuking someone or something in this world that was working to keep people from experiencing the full, abundant, loving, and yes, risk-taking, life that God intends for all of us. In this story, whether the man is literally possessed or not, Jesus is essentially “repossessing” him, whether he likes it or not; reclaiming him from being a child of misery and hopelessness, and reclaiming him as a child of God, belonging to God and God alone, and deserving of so much more than the limited, and limiting, way of living that the man had become accustomed to.

In just a little while, we’ll be baptizing Matilda. In a way, baptism is a sign of this kind of repossession that’s occurring in this story – this idea of God clearly, decisively, and with power and authority claiming a person as belonging to God, and being a part of God’s covenant, and deserving of that same full, abundant life that Jesus wanted for the man in this story.

On this day, when we celebrate this new baptism, let’s think about our own baptism, and what it means to us – both the grace, the love, the acceptance; as well as the challenge and the responsibility, because in the realm of God we never get one without the other.

As far as yelling and shouting, if there’s to be any yelling today, let it be shouts of  joy and gratitude for the good that God has done in our lives, and that God promises to do in Matilda’s life. If there’s to be any jumping out of seats today, let it be to jump up and give Matilda a standing ovation as a sign of God’s love, and of ours.

Thanks be to God.

 

Milestones

(sermon 1/7/18 – Baptism of Jesus)

Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the Jordan River (mosaic) - Ravenna, Italy
Baptism of Christ, mosaic detail, Ravenna, Italy, circa 451 CE

Mark 1:4-11

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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I remember when I was very young, for some reason, for most of the big annual events in our family – Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries and so on – we usually gathered at my grandparents’ house to celebrate. When we did, you could be sure that at some point, my grandfather would drag out his 8mm movie camera to make sure the gathering would be recorded for posterity. That was fine, but back then, cameras really didn’t have low-light capabilities, so whenever the camera came out, so did the big lighting attachment that came with it. It was a metal bar that held two great big incandescent floodlights that, when lit, were about as bright as the sun and twice as hot. Really, as soon as he hit the switch, it scarred the retinas of everyone in the room. You could practically feel the moisture being evaporated out of your skin, paint started to peel off the walls, and the plastic flowers stuck in the ceramic black panther planter started to melt and drip down onto the table. And of course, right after he threw the switch, while we were all feeling like we’d just experienced a thermonuclear blast, the first thing my grandfather would say was “All right, now, everyone SMILE!”

dl 1967
“Okay everyone, SMILE!”

Well, thank goodness that over time, cameras could do better and better with less and less light, and we went from 8mm film cameras to Super-8, then on to the big video cassette recorders that rode on your shoulder like a boom box, and then camcorders got smaller and smaller, and now, when most of us want to record something, we just pull out our phones.

Whether we record them or not, these kinds of events that my grandfather was thoughtful enough to record way back then, and the similar ones that we all experience today, are milestones in our lives. They’re mileposts that commemorate and help us to understand the whole arc of our lie’s journey. First words. First steps. First bicycle ride. First love. Eagle Scout ceremonies. Graduations, initiations, maybe ordinations. Marriages. Births. Deaths.

Today, we heard the story of one milestone in Jesus’ life – one that most of us have also experienced, the milestone of baptism. In this passage from Mark, we hear how Jesus came to John the Baptist to be baptized. Now, for the most part, we don’t know much about what Jesus was doing up till this time, but it appears that he’d been engaged in some kind of trade, apparently making a living as some kind of builder or craftsman, and he’d likely been doing so since he was maybe 14 or 15, so now at age 30 or so, Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of a completely new direction – it’s the beginning of what’s essentially a second-career call for him. So when I read this story, I try to imagine what must have been going through Jesus’ mind as he was being baptized. How much did he know, and how much didn’t he know, about what the next few years were going to bring? Did he wonder how this would change his life? Did he wonder where God would lead him, or if God would protect him and provide for him? Did he wonder if he was even doing the right thing at all? All the questions that any of us might wonder as we start something new. But then, as Jesus is coming back up out of the water, he hears those amazing, validating words, “You are my Son, my Beloved; in you I am well pleased.”

Jesus’ baptism is a visible sign of his acceptance by God, that God blessed him and his ministry, and that he is an integral part of the overarching covenant that God made with humanity.

For us, baptism means much the same thing. It’s an outward sign and seal of the great truth that God has claimed us, and calls us God’s own; that we’re also a part of that same covenant that God has established. That being part of this covenant is in some way that we can’t fully understand made possible through Jesus himself. Through baptism, Christ asks us to call ourselves by his name, the name Christian, and to have the peace of mind that comes from knowing that through him, God forgives our shortcomings and failures in our relationship with God and one another. The waters of baptism symbolize that God chooses to consider those shortcomings, that sin, to be washed away. Baptism is the milestone that marks the beginning of our journey of faith in Christ, a journey that ultimately comes to its conclusion in our death.

This is a time of milestones for us here, as a church, too. Today, we all mourn the death of Dick, our beloved family member. At the same time, we celebrate the reality that he has completed his own journey that began with his baptism, and that he is now living life whole, healed, and in the presence of God. We also celebrate today because we’re welcoming Teresa as a new member to our congregation, and because of the news that Edwin will soon be starting as our new Coordinator of Youth Ministries. And we look forward to the great milestone of Matilda’s baptism, which will take place during worship on the 28th of this month.

The new year is going to bring a lot of milestones for us – milestones in our personal lives, in our national life, in the political realm, and our congregational life together, too. Who knows what all this year will bring? At the beginning of 2017, could we have imagined what the year would bring? Now, as we begin 2018, it’s exciting to imagine what will unfold this year for all of us.

Some of our milestones this year will probably be easy to recognize as they’re happening. Others will probably be more subtle – they won’t be marked by clouds rolling back, or descending doves, or the booming voice of God, or even the glaring lights of a movie camera. Some of them might only be recognized in hindsight, after we’ve had time to think about them. Whatever milestones do occur, though, and whether they come wrapped in joy and laughter, or fears, or even tears, we can experience them all with the assurance that God is journeying through it all together with us, alongside us, strengthening us; and that, just as was the case with Jesus, we’ll be kept in God’s loving embrace, whatever unfolds.

Thanks be to God.

Immersed (sermon 1/11/15)

submerged

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”   – Mark 1:4-11

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It was one of the worst days of his life. His stomach was in knots; it felt like someone had punched him and he was almost physically ill. He was distraught; he felt a mixture of worry and fear and anger and confusion. And it all started the night before, when his teenaged daughter told him that she was dropping out of her Confirmation class, because she’d looked at the profession of faith that she’d be asked to make at the end of the process, and she couldn’t in good faith make that profession.

He was crushed. He felt like he’d been hit by a tractor-trailer. He was a person of very deep Christian faith, and at least according to his personal theology at the time, this meant that she was choosing to be condemned to eternal hell. This beautiful young girl who he’d watched being born, who he loved more than he loved his own life, was going to be separated from him forever. It was more than he could bear to think about. All he could do was pray. And so, with his head in his hands and tears in his eyes, he poured out his heart to God.

And that’s when it happened. Suddenly, he was experiencing something he never had before; it was an experience that he tried countless times to put into words later on but there were simply no words to really describe it. The closest he ever came to explain it was that he felt as if he was being covered, head to toe, with a warm, all-encompassing feeling of love and compassion and acceptance. Gradually, the feeling covered him completely; every square inch of his body could feel it; even in the webbing between his fingers and toes; eventually he even felt lifted out of his seat, completely surrounded on all sides, completely immersed in what he could only describe as liquid love. And at the same time, he heard in words that weren’t really words but were still words just as real and just as audible as my words that you’re listening to right now, in response to his prayer of fear and distress, “It’s all right. Everything will be fine. I love her, and I love you, absolutely and completely. She will be fine, and so will you.” He had never felt so loved and so completely at peace at any other time in his life. He knew, beyond any doubt, in some way he couldn’t ever explain, that in that moment, he’d been in the very presence of God.

It really only lasted less than a minute, but it felt like it could have been an hour. But in that moment, he was changed. His understanding about God, and God’s relationship with us, and his understanding about faith and salvation, changed forever. At the same time, the experience made him understand much more deeply the words he’d heard so many time in the past, that in our baptism we’re baptized into Christ’s death, and coming out of the waters of baptism we’re given new life. His experience was very much related to his baptism, and he felt in a very real way the new life, the new beginning, that it represented. Through his experience, he gained a new beginning, both in his own understanding of the faith, and also in the way he related to his daughter.

He knew that even if he never had that same experience again, he would never question the existence of God, or his belief in God, again. But in fact, he did have that experience again, two other times since that first one. One of those times was a couple of years later, when he kneeled down in the aisle crossing of his church and was surrounded by ordained ministers and elders, laying their hands on him as he himself was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. In that moment, through God’s Spirit moving through those who had laid hands on him, he felt that same extension of the seal and the call that he’d received in his baptism, and he felt the same all-surrounding, all-encompassing experience of love and acceptance.

That’s something to think about today, Baptism of the Lord Sunday. It’s a day when we think about Jesus’ baptism, but also our own, and the understanding that through it we’re sealed into God’s covenant community of faith – and not just sealed, but called, to some form of ministry that God has in store for us. So today, I’d invite all of you who have been baptized and called this way to think about that again, and I invite you to recommit yourselves to that call, whatever it might be. And I invite all of you who have been ordained in any way to a particular form of ministry, to reconsider that call, and recommit yourselves to it, also. And to those three of you who are being ordained today, I invite you, too. I invite you to recognize that this is a very special for you. This is the day that begins a new way of you engaging in the ministry God has set in front of you. It’s the beginning of a new way that you will live in witness to our Lord Jesus Christ, a new way of living as his disciple. I don’t know if you’ll experience the same feeling that that man did when he was ordained. I hope you do, but if not, I hope you feel it at some time in your lives if you haven’t already. I hope that you understand, whether you feel it today or some other day, that in your baptism, and now extended even further in your ordination, you are absolutely immersed in God’s love and acceptance, and you’ve been equipped for what God has in store for you. But beyond that, if I have any advice, any prayer for you, as you go about your ministry of compassion, both to the members of this congregation and to the people of our community, it would be this: You will indeed be very involved in ministries of social justice, and helping with social needs of people. But recognize that this isn’t just a “job;” it isn’t just being part of a run-of-the-mill social service venture. You will be involved in this form of ministry specifically to witness to Christ in the world, to spread and illustrate his love. That’s my prayer for you this day.

Amen.