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Sermon: Sunday, January 8, 2017: Baptism of Our Lord

Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9  +  Psalm 29  +  Acts 10:34-43  +  Matthew 3:13-17

First words are significant, not only for babies but for adults as well.  First words create first impressions, which set the tone for new relationships.  When learning a new language one of the first things you’re taught is how to introduce yourself correctly — because we all know, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

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“Baptism of Jesus” by artist, He Qi

In today’s gospel reading we hear the first words spoken by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus comes to be baptized by John, who is scandalized by the idea that the one to whom he has been deferring in his ministry comes to the river and would defer to him.  John says, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  Jesus replies, his first words, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:14-15).

Jesus speaks for the first time, and he speaks about righteousness.  Righteousness will be a major theme in Jesus’ teaching throughout this gospel, so it makes sense that Matthew’s gospel uses his first statement to establish this idea.  Right from the start, a question is introduced: what is righteousness?  On face value the word means “carrying out the revealed will of God, acting in accordance with moral or divine law.” We see that definition operating here, as Jesus will be revealed throughout his life as the one who carries out the will of God, and who reveals God’s will for all of creation.

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Baptism or Our Lord, detail, stained glass

It’s hard to use phrases like “God’s will” however, without introducing all sorts of other questions.  Questions like, “What is God’s will for all of creation?” and “What does it mean to act against or outside of God’s will?” and “What happens to those who act against God’s will?” which in turn often leads to, “Who are you to tell me what God’s will is?”  Discussions of God’s will get scary because they are so often paired with people claiming to speak for God, placing God on their side.  That kind of moralism can be terrifying.  Preaching in the wilderness about the righteousness of God, John the Baptist drew people to the River Jordan to be baptized after they’d confessed their sins (Mt. 3:6).  Baptism became for them a sign of being washed clean of their various failures.   And, having been made clean, they felt more comfortable looking around at all the “dirty” people of the world and calling them to righteousness.

One of my best friends from childhood is now married with three children.  Shortly after the birth of her first son, she confessed to me over a couple of beers that she didn’t plan to have him baptized.  “When I think of baptizing him, all I can think is that these people are judging my child.  That they think he’s tainted with some invisible stain.  That he’s already somehow a sinner, and that he needs to be baptized to be saved.  But I gave birth to him, and I look at him – even when he’s crying or making me miserable — and I don’t see a sinner.  I see my child and I’m filled with love.”

I have to admit that this made me sad.  Less so that her child wasn’t being baptized and more that, to her, baptism was evidence of the church’s judgment of her child.  That the church is a community of people who would only see her child the way she sees him, through the eyes of love, if he conformed to the church’s rites and rituals.  To see the church this way is to see a community not so much made righteous by the gift of baptism but made self-righteous by the assumption that they possessed something everyone else needed to come to them for. Sad, because baptism isn’t something that the church owns and dispenses at our own discretion.  It’s not our righteousness being shared with the unrighteous. It’s the righteousness of God being shared freely with the whole world.

In this morning’s reading from Acts we hear Peter preaching one of his great sermons as the meaning of his baptism becomes clearer to him.  In the chapters preceding this one Peter has come in contact with a Gentile named Cornelius and his family – people that Peter would not have eaten with, much less baptized, as a matter of religious law.  But Peter receives a vision from heaven along with the command, “what God has called clean, you must not call profane.”  In response, Peter baptizes Cornelius and his entire family and forever changes the church’s understanding of baptism.  No longer for the people of Israel only, for the ritually pure, for the insiders, Paul explains his actions beginning with the words, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…”

baptismfontThis is the gift God offers to the world — and to you. Despite our preoccupation with who has more and who has less, baptism is the sign that God shows no partiality. The same rain that falls on the just and the unjust alike (Matt. 5:25) fills the lakes and streams that feed the fonts from which we baptize. When we bring our children to these fonts, we are offering them up as living sacrifices to a vision for the future in which we all belong to each other the way we already belong to God. When we come as adults to this font, we are making a public statement about our deep longings to participate in the reign of God, to live lives of righteousness and holiness that make us family with those the world denies and rejects.

The righteousness of God, which sounds like fire and brimstone to some of our ears, which sounds like judgment is, in fact, God’s mercy made tangible, given to us in ordinary things we can see and touch and eat and drink.  The righteousness of God is love and mercy opened wide for all to experience.  The righteousness of God brings an end to fears of not measuring up to other people’s expectations of what it means to be a good Christian, or a good parent, or a good spouse, or a good child.  The righteousness of God means setting all that aside and being made new – a new body that is all of us together, a new family that is the whole world.

Jesus enters the waters of baptism and receives the gifts of God, the blessing of the Holy Spirit, just like so many of us have — at the hands of imperfect people, people like John the Baptist (or even me !) — and that is, as Jesus says, proper.  It is proper that we receive the gifts of God from the hands of ordinary people, made holy by God.  That is the meaning of Jesus’ first words about righteousness.  He is saying something to us about how we are to see each other, the way God sees us, the way my friend sees her baby boy, like parents who are falling in love with their children.  With hearts that tender.

Jesus uses his first words to declare and describe the righteousness of God.  God rushes to the waters to hear these first words of the child, bursting with pride that the child has heard rightly, that the child understands the righteousness God has sent this child to give away.  God says to this child, and to you, and to me, “this is my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Two short months from now it will already be Lent and we, along with churches throughout the world, will walk with those preparing to be baptized at Easter. Today, as we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, it is my duty and my delight to offer this invitation to all who have not yet received the gift of baptism: May we baptize you? Not because you are any more dirty or fallen or prone to failure than the rest of us, but because you — like every human being — are beautiful and good and God’s. May we baptize you?

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, November 27, 2016: First Sunday of Advent

Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5  +  Psalm 122  +  Romans 13:11-14  +  Matthew 24:36-44

You know the feeling, when you’re suddenly woken up in the middle of the night by an unexpected sound. The moment when half of your mind still sees the figures from the dream you were dreaming and the other half has flipped the switch on all your alarms. Your heart is beating, the adrenaline is rushing, your breath is held as you strain to listen for any further sound that might clarify what’s going on. Is that a creaking floorboard in the living room? Was it a dish slipping into a new position in the sink?

“Wake up!” you whisper, if there’s anyone to whisper to. “I heard something.”

I’ve lived through that moment dozens of times. I’m sure you have as well. I’m fortunate in that I can report that the sound has always turned out to be a dish, or a car door out on the street, or a cat knocking something off of the counter. Or maybe it was just the dream itself, interjecting a sound so real my sleeping mind could not tell the difference between the fiction in my head and the facts of the real world waiting on the other side of waking.

What a frightening comparison Jesus makes between the coming of the Son of Man and the violation of our homes by a thief as we sleep. No wonder we so often skim right past this image on our way to the concluding command: “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Mt. 24:44) Like a major chord at the end of a melody in a minor key, we instinctively move to resolve the tension presented by this disturbing image.

So here I tread lightly, because I know that sometimes the sound that wakes us from sleep is real, the shattering of glass, the door forced open. Sometimes our homes are invaded and the things most precious to us are taken away and never recovered. That is not God, and it is not part of some divine plan that we suffer theft or violence to our homes or our bodies. When God gives the law to Moses humanity is commanded to neither covet nor steal, and not to kill. When these things happen they are a sign of the sinful brokenness of human community. Still, it is precisely because of the emotional power of this image, of a thief coming into our homes as we sleep, that Jesus uses it to shock us into reconsidering what we imagine God’s advent in the world will be like.

If the fullness of Christ’s reign were coming on my terms, I could pretty quickly sketch out some major changes to the world as it is. Recounts and election results would barely scratch the surface. I would take an eraser to the map of the world and be done with nations once and for all. I would see social goods like housing, education, and healthcare treated as human rights instead of commodities to be bartered in exchange for labor. I could go on, and you’ve heard me preach long enough that you could probably go on for me. Then you would have lists of your own, agendas you would set for God’s advent in the world.

The point is that God is not coming on my terms, or yours, and God’s arrival will not feel like the vindication of my personal or our collective grievances. Rather than coming to enforce my vision for the world as it ought to be, Jesus hints that if I knew the hour of his coming, I would stay up late and bar the doors against his entry — because the changes that are coming will feel to us like loss, not gain.

moral-inventory

So, let’s try a different exercise. Rather than making a list of all the projects you’ve been waiting for God to come home and get started on, let’s try this instead: let’s take an inventory of your life, a variation on the kind you might turn in to your insurance company so that they would know how much to reimburse you in case of a theft. Let your mind’s eye wander through your home, noticing the items you cherish. Not just the obvious ones, but the hidden ones. Is there anything there you’re attached to in unhealthy ways? Things that own you as much, if not more, than you own them? Bottles, pictures, pills? What hangs in your closet, what’s parked in your garage? Where were they made and by whom? What do you find in your cupboards or your refrigerator? How did those items get there? How far back can you trace their history from production to point-of-sale? How many hands, and whose, touched them on their way to your home? What do you know about those people’s lives?

Turn your gaze toward your calendar, the one on your phone, or in your day planner. The one you keep in your head. Who and what gets your time? Who and what doesn’t? What actually fills the spaces between the appointments marked in pen and pencil and pixels? Do the ways you spend your days match the story you tell about your life? Is there a relationship you imagine you still have time to mend? Is there a dream, a calling, you’d like to think you still have time to pursue?

Quickly scan the last dozen conversations you’ve had with family, friends or acquaintances. To what topics do you keep coming back? What complaints do you keep rehearsing? Who are you arguing with in your head, where no one can hear what you really want to say?

Pretty quickly we realize that we are holding on to all sorts of things that simply have to go if there is ever going to be room for something new to be born, in us and in the world. For some of us it is habits of consumption that feed an economy that is killing the planet. For others it is habits of addiction that are slowly killing our bodies and our relationships. For yet others it is habits of speech or habits of silence that keep us from acting on our deepest desires or most strongly held beliefs. For each and every one of us there are false stories about who we are and where we come from that hold us back from being fully, truly human — stories of White supremacy or internalized racism, gendered stories of dominance and deference, class stories of wealth and worth, sexual stories of normalcy and deviance, national stories of sovereignty and exceptionalism.

As the itemized list grows longer and more abstract, as our analysis gets broader and less precise, we realize that we don’t entirely understand how we got here, how we became who we have become, what’s ours and what is not. So we keep our heads down and preoccupy ourselves with “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,” (Mt. 24:38) laboring in our respective fields, working side-by-side, if not arm-in-arm, hoping we can get to the finish line without too much more being taken away from us.

Wake up!

You know what time it is. The very fact that you can make the list, that your soul intuits the things you suspect the Lord would take if Jesus broke into your life to make space for a new creation to begin again in you right now is all the evidence you need. This is why Paul can direct the church in Rome to “live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.” (Rom. 13:13) You may not know the hour of Lord’s coming in judgment and glory, but you know at least some of what would need to change if that hour was now. So live as though it is, and help move our broken present into God’s promised future.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Our Lutheran heritage has, at times, become so preoccupied with the heresy of “works righteousness” that we’ve stripped discipleship of any mandate to amend our lives. Let me say that in a slightly different way. In an effort to prove that we understand that it is God’s work in Christ Jesus that saves us, not we who save ourselves through our actions or beliefs, we have settled for doing very little at all and then called that a virtue. We each struggle with this in ways that are products of our history and particular to our nature. Some of us show incredible discipline in our personal lives and relationships, but struggle to connect our faith with the plight of the world in powerful ways. Others make heroic sacrifices for the sake of societal and systemic change, but are ruled by unchecked emotions, compulsions, and reactions.

As we begin a new year in the life of the church, and particularly as we move from the gospel of Luke to the gospel of Matthew, we will notice a renewed emphasis on the positive function of the law and calls to “righteousness,” which for Matthew signal a continuity between the newly emerging church and the Jewish tradition out of which it is being born. This means our faith comes to expression in actions, not just beliefs, opinions, and convictions. We beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. We study non-violence. We speak peace to our relatives and friends and we actively seek the good of our neighbors. We live honorably, avoiding the forms of excess that mock the poor and disrespect the gift of the bodies God has given us.

It is not easy, waking up, being woken up, staying awake. Even in moments like these most recent days, when the news rings out stories more alarming than any clock, still we long to get back to “normal.” To go back to bed. To hide in our dreams. But the time for that is behind us. Now is the moment for a new commitment, a new accountability, an active, costly discipleship that will take things from us we do not want to give up.

But in their place, friends. In their place, salvation. For our bodies and our lives. For our families and our friendships. For our neighborhoods, and the nations, and the planet. Salvation is coming, and is nearer to us now than it has ever been.

Get ready.

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