Monday, July 26, 2010

[22] "Children of the Living God" [Pentecost +9]

This is the text I preached off of. It was a draft, and I was tired, so what I actually preached had a lot more editorializing and extemporizing.

When I copied it from GoogleDocs into Word to print out for preaching, it erased the indenting I had put in to indicate notes I probably wouldn't use, so I ended up including some stuff I hadn't initially meant to. I've put those sections in small font and also edited them a bit to better reflect what I actually said (though for the most part I've left the text as-is, not editing it to be a verbatim of what I said aloud).

The Scripture texts (a mix of The Inclusive Bible and the NRSV) are at the bottom.


Proper 12C / Ordinary 17C / Pentecost +9 - July 25, 2010
Hosea 1:2-10
Psalm 85
Colossians 2:6-19
Luke 11:1-13
Children of the Living God

I did not realize, when I agreed to preach this Sunday, that the lectionary would be in Hosea at this point. I am stubborn in my desire to preach on all 4 lectionary texts, though. And I appreciate the way this passage ends:
"Yet the people of Israel will be as numerous as the sands of the seashore that can neither be measured nor counted. And one day, instead of it being said of them, 'You are not my people,' it will be said, 'You are the children of the living God.'"
Even in the stories of judgment, there is a promise of redemption.

This promise of redemption and provision is the theme of all of today's Scripture lessons.

The Psalm opens with a recollection of God's gracious favor -- and I don't mean "gracious" in the condescending sense of patronizing politeness; I mean full of grace. "The freely given, unmerited favor and love of God." God, you were favorable to your land and to your people, restoring their fortunes, forgiving their iniquity and pardoning their sin, withdrawing your wrath.

So where is that grace now?, the Psalmist begs. "Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?" How long, O God, how long?

God, your love for us is steadfast. Grant us, we beg, salvation.

And Paul reminds us that we HAVE salvation.

The law that bound us, all of our sins and transgressions, these have been crucified. And unlike Christ, they are NOT resurrected. Their power over us is dead.

We share in the hope of the Psalmist. For Jesus promises us, just as you would provide food for your child, or a friend who stopped by unexpectedly, or a neighbor who is banging on your door, so much more will the Mother-Father who loves us beyond comprehension give us good gifts to nurture and sustain us.

The Lukan version of the "Our Father" is strikingly brief, at least to me who has grown up with the version complete with doxology.

I make no secret of the fact that I really don't like The Message version of the Bible, but I do kind of like some of how it articulates this prayer.
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
This simplifies the prayer in a way that I think gets lost in the lengthier version I grew up with.

We call God by name -- a name that puts us in intimate comforting nurturing relationship with God. For some people that is "Father," or "Mother," or "Abba," or one of many other names. Jesus' purpose here isn't to give us the One True Name of God (the Jews who were listening to this already knew that name -- it was the Tetragrammaton) but to remind us of the kind of relationship with have with this God, to name that relationship. This name is just as holy as any of the others. The immanent God who is with us in the sticky, bloody, sweaty, muddy, weepy, mess of being human is just as holy as the transcendent God we contemplate in the ivory tower after a good night's sleep in the air-conditioning, when maybe we are comfortable enough to take our bodies for granted, comfortable enough to slip into that sin of forgetting that God created us as embodied beings and called that incarnation Good.

We call upon the God who birthed us and blessed us -- we call upon that same Spirit which moved over the waters at Creation and which moves in us now, keeping our heart beating even when we are deep asleep and not conscious of anything, even when we are so overwhelmed with all the stressors of life that the last thing we can remember to do is breathe. And we recognize this creative, embodying, power as good.

We ask for sustenance for our bodies -- just for today, just enough to sustain us for today, trusting that tomorrow carries enough of its own worry, asking for all that we need to make it through the day, trusting that God will provide.

And just as we acknowledge the needs of our bodies, so we acknowledge the needs of our souls. Earlier in the prayer we asked that God's kindom come -- that God's New Heaven and New Earth break in to our reality, radically transforming this broken world into a commonwealth of shalom, of peace and wholeness. At this moment in the prayer, we acknowledge our role as co-creators of this shalom. Like all Jews, we are called to tikkun olam -- the repair of the world. If we are to live in a world characterized by radical grace and forgiveness -- and who doesn't? I for one have much I need to be forgiven for -- then we need to forgive others as well. This is usually framed as a conditional -- "forgive us as we forgive others" -- which troubles me, because I need far more expansive forgiveness from God than I am capable of offering others ... and it doesn't square with my understanding of a God of grace for me to languish unforgiven until I've grown in spiritual maturity sufficient to be able to forgive others. The Inclusive Bible says, "forgive us, for we too forgive those who have sinned against us" -- forgive us because we forgive others; forgiving others is something even we flawed human beings can do, so certainly God should be able to do it. There's a long Jewish tradition of reminding God, "Hey, you're really righteous -- this threat you're making doesn't square with that -- wanna rethink the threat?" Here we remind God of Her obligation to forgive us -- and we also remind ourselves of our own obligation to forgive others. We are called to be the Body of Christ in the world, and if the heart of Christianity is radical grace and forgiveness, then we are called to forgive others as God would.

I like the way The Inclusive Bible rewrites the traditional, "Ask, and you shall receive," in the latter portion of Jesus' speech. Traditionally, it feels rather like magic words -- ask for anything and God will give it to you ("Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?"). And if God doesn't give it to you, it's because you don't have enough faith or whatever. But here, Jesus encourages persistence. I was initially somewhat uncomfortable with the story -- your neighbor (God) may not give what you need just because you're friends, but if you pester enough you'll wear her down. Though, okay, the Complementary reading today (we're in the Semi-Continuous) is Abraham bargaining with God -- moving God from, "I'm going to destroy this entire city," to, "Okay, if there are even ten righteous people in the entire city I'll spare the whole city."

But here, Jesus says, "Keep asking and you'll receive; keep looking and you'll find; keep knocking and the door will be opened to you." This is less about beating your head against the same door over and over again, and more about a spirit of persistence. The seemingly obvious places we look first may not provide us with what we seek, but God will provide. We may have to look in unexpected places, but we will find what we need.

The Psalmist describes in detail what the kindom promise looks like:
10Love and faithfulness have met;
justice and peace have embraced.
11Fidelity will sprout from the earth
and justice will lean down from heaven.
12HaShem will give us what is good,
and our land will yield its harvest.
13Justice will march before you, HaShem,
and peace will prepare the way for your steps.
"Justice will march before God, and peace will prepare the way for God's steps."

We are called to prepare the way for God.

The NRSV says, "Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet. Righteousness and peace will kiss each other. God will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase." Righteousness will go before God, making a path for God, leading God to us -- and us to God.

But while we are co-creators, we are reminded that we are not solely responsible for this. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task ahead of us -- building God's kindom of Shalom? Possibly above my paygrade.

Here I think Paul is useful.

Paul is responding to a situation in a church where new leaders have come in and set up all sorts of rules about how we are to be "good enough." Paul says, No, you have all you need in Christ.

Paul talks a lot about circumcision -- in his Jewish lawyer way. I'm going to talk about baptism.

In our baptism, we were buried with Christ. The first sermon I preached was on baptism -- on Jesus' baptism specifically -- and I talked about repentance, about turning away from our old life and turning toward God, about starting over. But Paul is much starker here. We die to who we were.

All that separated you from the love of God has been nailed to the Cross -- it is dead and has no power over you.

But we, we have been resurrected with Christ. And NOTHING can separate you from the love of God in Christ.

The fullness of Deity dwells bodily in Christ, and we have come to fullness in Christ.

So we are called to grow in Christ. Do not let anyone say that you are not worthy. All you are called to do is to grow, nourished by the lifeforce of the universe.

The NRSV phrases the end of Hosea as: In the place where it was said to them, "You are not my people," it shall be said to them, "Children of the living God."

"In the place where it was said of them..."

The places that have rejected you, that have said you are not worthy, that have said you do not belong... they will be transformed by the radical lifechanging grace of Jesus Christ.

We are empowered to help in that transformational process, and we are also blessed with communities that meet us right where we are, that love us for who we are and who we are becoming.

The good news is that we have communities that will provide for us.

The challenge is that we are called to BE that community.

My best friend's pastor once said that "church is not the place we pretend to be well."

We bring our whole selves, and together we are the wounded, resurrected Body of Christ. We show each other our wounds, and we remind each other of God's resurrecting power and grace.


Hosea 1:2-10

      2When HaShem first spoke to Hosea, HaShem said, "Go! Marry a prostitute and beget children of prostitution! For the land is guilty of the most hideous kind of prostitution by forsaking her God."
      3So Hosea married Gomer bat-Diblaim, who conceived and bore a son. 4Then God said to Hosea, "Name him Jezreel, for soon I will take my revenge on the house of Jeru for the slaughter at Jezreel, and I will destroy the dominion of Israel. 5On that day, I will smash Israel's bow in the valley of Jezreel."
      6Then Gomer conceived again and bore a daughter. God said to Hosea, "Name her Lo-ruhamah--'No Compassion'--for I will no longer hold dear the house of Israel, nor will I forgive them. 7But I will hold dear the house of Judah and will rescue them--not by the bow or by the sword or by battle or by horses or riders, but by HaShem their God."
      8Once Gomer had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived again, and bore another son. 9God said:
      "Name him La-ammi--'Not my People'--for you are not my people and I will not be your God.
      10"Yet the people of Israel will be as numerous as the sands of the seashore that can neither be measured nor counted. And one day, instead of it being said of them, 'You are not my people,' it will be said, 'You are the children of the living God.'"

Psalm 85

1HaShem, you were favorable to your land;
you restored the fortunes of Israel.
2You forgave the iniquity of your people;
You pardoned all their sin.
3You withdrew all your wrath;
you turned from your hot anger.
4Restore us again, O God of our salvation,
and put away your indignation toward us.
5Will you be angry with us forever?
Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
6Will you not revive us again,
so that your people may rejoice in you?
7Show us your steadfast love, HaShem,
and grant us your salvation.

8Let me hear what you have to say, HaShem--
for you will speak peace to your people,
to those who turn to you in their hearts.
9Your salvation is near for those who revere you
and your glory will dwell in our land.
10Love and faithfulness have met;
justice and peace have embraced.
11Fidelity will sprout from the earth
and justice will lean down from heaven.
12HaShem will give us what is good,
and our land will yield its harvest.
13Justice will march before you, HaShem,
and peace will prepare the way for your steps.

Colossians 2:6-19

      6Since you have received Christ Jesus, live your whole life in our Savior. 7Send your roots deep and grow strong in Christ--firmly established in the faith you've been taught, and full of thanksgiving. 8Make sure that no one traps you and deprives you of your freedom by some secondhand, empty, and deceptive philosophy that is based on principles of the world instead of Christ.
      9In Christ the fullness of divinity dwells in bodily form, 10and in Christ you find your own fulfillment--in the One who is the head of every Sovereignty and Power. 11In Christ you have been given the Covenant through a transformation performed not by human hands, but by the complete cutting off of your body of flesh. This is what "circumcision" in Christ means. 12In baptism you were not only buried with Christ but also raised to life, because you believed in the power of God who raised Christ from the dead. 13And though you were dead in sin and did not have the Covenant, God gave you new life in company with Christ, pardoning all our sins. 14God has canceled the massive debt that stood against us with all its hostile claims, taking it out of the way and nailing it to the cross. 15In this way, God disarmed the Principalities and the Powers and made a public display of them after having triumphed over them at the Cross.
      16From now on, don't let anyone pass judgment on you because of what you eat or drink, or whether you observe festivals, new moons or Sabbaths. 17These are mere shadows of the reality that is to come; the substance is Christ. 18Don't let those who worship angels and enjoy self-abasement judge you. These people go into great detail about their visions, and their worldly minds keep puffing up their already inflated egos. 19These people are cut off from the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.

Luke 11:1-13

1After Jesus had finished praying one day, one of the disciples asked, "Rabbi, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples."
      2Jesus said to them, "When you pray, say,
'Mommy-Daddy God,
hallowed be your Name!
May your reign come.
3Give us each day
our daily bread.
4Forgive us our sins
for we too forgive everyone who sins against us;
and don't let us be subjected to the Test.'"
      5Jesus said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, a neighbor, and you go to your neighbor at midnight and say, 'Lend me three loaves of bread, 6because friends of mine on a journey have come to me, and I have nothing to set before them.'
      7"Then your neighbor says, 'Leave me alone. The door is already locked and the children and I are in bed. I can't get up to look after your needs.' 8I tell you, though your neighbor will not get up to give you the bread out of friendship, your persistence will make your neighbor get up and give you as much as you need.
      9"That's why I tell you, keep asking and you'll receive; keep looking and you'll find; keep knocking and the door will be opened to you. 10For whoever asks, receives; whoever seeks, finds; whoever knocks, is admitted. 11What parents among you will give a snake to their child when the child asks for a fish, 12or a scorpion when the child asks for an egg? 13If you, with all your sins, know how to give your children good things, how much more will our heavenly Parent give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?"

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

[Easter 4C] Shepherding Community

[This is the text I preached off of -- though definitely not the verbatim text that actually came out of my mouth; for that, click the mp3 link at the bottom if you want. The Scriptures were all an adaptation of the NRSV and The Inclusive Bible -- with Annie playing Marty Haugen's "Shepherd Me, O God" for Psalm 23 -- and are at the bottom, just before the audiolink.]

Easter 4C - April 25, 2010
Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30
Shepherding Community

Will you pray with me?
Jesus, three times you said to Simon Peter, the rock on whom you built your Church: "Do you love me? Feed my sheep." May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be filled with love for you and for each other, may they be food that will nourish and sustain us. Amen.
I promise not to rehash Sean's sermon from last week; I just love that particular bit of lectionary.

I'm not actually going to talk about sheep at all. When I first read today's lectionary, they seemed the obvious connecting thread -- except for the Acts passage -- and I think maybe my literature major self got stuck there. My friend Sophia, in contrast, after I'd told her about my lack of inspiration, read through the assigned lectionary texts and said: "I feel like there's something there, but it's sort of scattered and hard to get at beyond the obvious bent of the lectionary towards 'Jesus shows She is God by healing people, restoring them to community, and freeing them from fear and sorrow, and then bestowing on Her followers the ability to do the same.' "

I kinda just wanna leave it at that and sit down now 'cause that preaches all on its own, but that's a bit of a cheat. So let's dig into this idea a bit more.

Jesus restores people to community and empowers Her disciples to do the same. Okay, that's not exactly what Sophia said, but it's equally true.

At Lenten morning prayer this year at First Church Somerville, UCC, we read through most of the Gospel of Mark, and so when I read, "Tabitha, get up," in today's reading from the Book of Acts, my first thought was of Jesus saying, "Talitha, cum" -- "little girl, get up" (Mark 5:41).

That story is actually strikingly similar to the Acts story we read today. In Mark we read, in part:
They came to Jairus' house and Jesus noticed all the commotion, with people weeping and wailing unrestrainedly. Jesus went in and said to them, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping." At this, they began to ridicule Jesus, and Jesus told everyone to leave. Jesus took the child's mother and father and those who had come with Jesus and put them outside and entered the room where the child lay. Taking her hand, Jesus said to her, "Talitha, koum!" which means, "Little girl, get up!" Immediately the girl, who was twelve years old, got up and began to walk about. At this they were overcome with amazement. Jesus strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat. (Mark 5:38-43)
Both times, those who loved the deceased woman are weeping and mourning, and someone begs a healer to come, and having arrived, the healer sends everyone else away and invites the deceased to rise -- as if she had only been sleeping. The healing occurs one-on-one, in private. But after the person is restored to life, the rest of the community re-encounters her. Being restored to life means also being restored to community.

Tabitha, or Dorcas, is identified as a disciple, and my HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible says that this is the only time in the entire New Testament that the female word for "disciple" is used. That's kind of a big deal.

But restoration to community doesn't only happen to "good" people.

The Acts passage last week was the story of Saul's conversion. In persecuting those perceived to be heretics, Saul was serving God the best way Saul knew how. But God appears to Saul in a vision of the Risen Christ and says, "You're persecuting ME."

Christ doesn't just convert Saul on the spot, though. Christ incapacitates Saul and then sends the disciple Ananias to heal Saul.

Ananias, knowing Saul's history of persecuting followers of the Christ, says, "Are you kidding me? This person has authority to KILL us and you want me to not only bring myself before this person but also to bring this person back to full capacity?"

And Christ says to Ananias, "Go anyway. Saul is the instrument I have chosen to bring my Name to Gentiles, to rulers, and to the people of Israel" (The Inclusive Bible).

The resurrection of Tabitha comes in between the story of Saul -- who after his conversion will continue to declare his strong Jewish credentials in many of his letters -- and the story of Peter's vision of clean and unclean food -- the beginning of Peter's ministry to the Gentiles.

Joppa is one of the oldest port cities in the world -- now known as Jaffa, in Tel Aviv.

Port cities are liminal places, right?

Tabitha is singled out both in the Book of Acts and in the lectionary as someone whose discipleship is particularly remarkable. So in some ways we could see her as an "insider" in the early Christian movement.

But she's also identified with both an Aramaic and a Greek name. My friend Sophia wondered whether she was mixed-race, or mixed-identity in some other way. What liminal spaces does she occupy, living here on the edge of the land, known by two different names? Sophia suggested, "There are lots of ways for her to have trouble communicating her whole self to the people around her."

In my reflection the first week of Easter, I reminded us that resurrection changes things -- the risen Christ is not the same as the human Jesus who was crucified. Coming out is also a resurrection idea. We emerge from the oppressive darkness that has kept us from full life and we are transfigured, able to be transparent to the ground of our being, to shine with the light of divine love.

I don't think that any of us are empowered to literally bring people back from the dead, but we are empowered to help people communicate their whole selves to those around them.

In our Welcome here at Cambridge Welcoming Ministries, we often say: "You are welcome here not 'in spite of' who you are, but because of who you are." We invite you to bring your whole self, and hopefully the practice of doing that every week here strengthens us to do that out in the world the other six and a half days a week -- to be honest about our whole selves and to be open to the whole selves of other children of God, including the parts we maybe don't personally like so much in ourselves and in each other, to create a safe space where people can BE their whole selves.

A pastor recently commented to me that being present with people is the essence of pastoral care. Reflecting on that later, I thought about how being present with people in a truly genuine and loving way enables them to be their authentic selves, to live into the fullness of who God created them to be.

And so in these resurrection stories, the healer is genuinely attentively present with the other person, and is empowered to restore them to individual life and to community life, and I think implicitly to a life that is richer and fuller than the one they had before.

In today's Acts passage, we hear that because of Peter's action, many came to believe in Jesus Christ.

They didn't come to believe in Peter -- who was the one who actually showed up in the flesh and raised this woman from the dead. They came to believe in Jesus Christ. They saw the power that Peter had, the power to restore to abundant life, and they gave their hearts to the Source of that power and love. For "credo," which we translate "believe," doesn't mean an intellectual assent to a set of propositions but rather to give one's heart to.

The Mark story I recalled for us earlier contains one of many instances of Mark's Messianic Secret -- Jesus saying, "Don't tell anyone about this." There are a lot of possible explanations for Mark's Messianic Secret, and one of them is that Jesus wanted the focus to be on the good work that was being done, not on the particular human being who was doing it.

In some ways, I think today's John reading echoes the Messianic Secret. People keep hounding Jesus to proclaim, "I am the Messiah," and Jesus says, "You don't get it, do you? You seek declarations in words, but my deeds testify to who I am. It's not about the titles bestowed on me, but about what I do."

Throughout Eastertide we read excerpts from the Acts of the Apostles. Not the "statements of belief" of the apostles. Not the "codified doctrine" of the apostles. But the Acts of the apostles.

In the book Loving Jesus, Mark Allan Powell proposes that "The mission of the church is to love Jesus Christ; everything else is just strategy" (178). And last week's lectionary reminds us that we do this by feeding each other.

A commentary I once heard on the 23rd Psalm that really stuck with me was on the ambiguity of "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies." That the intuitive interpretation is that you get to have a table prepared for you while your enemies look on, displeased at your good fortune, with an implication that your enemies are not partaking of this bounty -- because they're the defeated foe. But what if you were all at table TOGETHER?

This table here, this Communion table, is open to ALL.

That table over there, those tables we will bring out for dinner after our worship service is over, those tables are open to ALL.

There's a quotation I'm always attributing to Corrie ten Boom, but the Internet informs me that the correct attribution is Joanna Macy, a Ph.D. in comparative religion. The quotation is, "The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe." Apparently the source is a meditation exercise she developed to help people respond to the world's pain. Describing an exercise called "Breathing Through," she writes, "If you experience an ache in the chest, a pressure within the rib case, that is all right. The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe. Your heart is that large. Trust it. Keep breathing."

Have you ever had that feeling that you feel like your heart is so full -- be it with sorrow or with joy -- that it's going to break your very chest open?

I wonder if that's what God feels like all the time.

God so loved the world that God Incarnated to be with us more fully, and the Incarnate God suffered as humans suffered, even unto death, and conquered death so that we might all partake of the abundant life that God has always desired for us. This is the joyous mystery we celebrate every Easter, every Sunday, and every day. And part of this mystery is that we are empowered to continue Christ's work -- to conquer the forces of death and bring people, ourselves included, into life abundant.

Today's Revelation passage originally says, "washed in the blood of the Lamb," which I suspect you already knew. One of the things that this church, with its discomfort with blood atonement theology, has taught me is to swap out "love" for "blood" in, for example, hymns. You might be surprised at how little this changes the meaning. For God, in the incarnate person of Jesus the Christ and always, pours out abundant love for us.

And Divine Love is sufficient to make anything new -- to make clean and fresh that which has been stained by suffering and pain.

And there is a way in which divine love is poured out like blood shed, because God suffers with us. When we are wounded, God is wounded, too. This reminder both comforts us when we feel alone and also reminds us not to hurt others, for they are beloved children of God just as we are.

Carolyn reminded me that this is Earth Sunday. We are reminded in today's lectionary readings that God's kindom includes green pastures and still waters. God's kindom is a place where no one will suffer scorching heat but will be led to springs of the water life. God's kindom is a place where no one will hunger or thirst.

We're called to bring about that kindom here on Earth. We are called to prepare tables of abundant welcome. We are called to protect all inhabitants of the planet from heat that scorches and kills. And we are called to do all this in love.

And so I send you forth, assured in the love that God has for you, and challenged to share that love with all.


Acts 9:36-43

36Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37At that time she became ill and died. They washed her body and laid her in an upstairs room. 38Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two messengers to Peter with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39So Peter got up and went with them, and upon arriving was taken to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside Peter, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40Peter put all of them outside, and then knelt down and prayed. Peter turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41Peter gave her a hand and helped her up. Then calling in all the saints -- including the widows -- Peter showed her to be alive. 42This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in Jesus Christ. 43Meanwhile, Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

Revelation 7:9-17

9After this I looked, and there was a great multitude beyond number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”

14I said to the elder, “You are the one that knows.”

Then the elder said to me, “These are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the love of the Lamb. 15For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship day and night within the temple, and the One who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

John 10:22-30

22At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the Temple area, in the portico of Solomon. 24The Temple authorities gathered around Jesus and said, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

25Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Parent’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Parent has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Parent’s hand. 30The Parent and I are one.”

audiofile (21.4MB, 15:34min)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Baptism of Jesus (C) - January 10, 2010

Baptism of Jesus (C) - January 10, 2010

Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Will you pray with me?

Creating, Sustaining, Redeeming God, I invite your Holy Spirit to move in this place, that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts may bring us into your Light, O God.

The day after Thanksgiving, just a few days after I'd agreed to preach this Sunday, I was at a dinner party, and one Jewish woman asked, "Why did Jesus need to get baptized?  Wasn't he, like, The Man?"

"Therein lies a tale," said one of the other Christians in the room.

Which tale we are told in the Gospel of Matthew:
13Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.  14But John tried to deter Jesus, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"

15Jesus replied, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness."  Then John consented.  (Matthew 3:13-15)
Okay, so it still doesn't really answer the question.

My NRSV says, "Righteousness, right conduct in accord with God's will as revealed in scripture."

So I still don't know why Jesus was supposed to be baptized.

John Howard Yoder says: Before Paul and the new humanity, even before Jesus, baptism also meant repentance and cleansing.  It meant "You can leave your past behind." (Body Politics, page 41)

This is a useful formulation for me -- the idea of baptism as marking a new start.

In their book The First Christmas, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan posit that it is not that some of the Gospels are missing some of the years of Jesus' early life but that "all the years are missing until the story of Jesus begins---as it does in all four gospels---with John's baptism of Jesus" (40).  They posit the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke as overtures to the story of Jesus' adult life and ministry, as parables rather than historical accounts.  I'm not going to get into a discussion of the birth narratives here, I merely mention it to provide the appropriate context for that line that so strikes me -- "the story of Jesus begins---as it does in all four gospels---with John's baptism of Jesus."

The birth narratives have marked Jesus as special in various ways, but here Jesus is publicly marked out.

“You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

You know this baptismal liturgy from the many times Tiffany has told this story -- "You are a bright, brilliant, beloved Child of God.  And you are beautiful to behold."

Jesus is named and claimed by God, undeservedly.  This is a moment of grace -- not something we earn.

God says to Jesus, "with you I am well pleased," but there's no indication that Jesus has done anything particularly to merit this.  Luke tells the story of young Jesus in the Temple, but other than that Jesus hasn't done anything to earn this distinction.

Something I read recently commented on the fact that Jesus is marked as Chosen before the temptation in the wilderness.  While we might expect someone to not be publicly named as Chosen until after a period of testing, God makes a commitment here -- at the beginning of the story in some of the Gospels, certainly at the beginning of Jesus' adult life as recorded in the Gospels.

The Isaiah passage we read echoes this -- God says, "I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you" (Isaiah 43:1-2).  The hearer is named as redeemed, with no indication of merit or even a reason.

This reading opens Chapter 43 of Isaiah.  The preceding chapter, Chapter 42, closes with, "Who gave up Jacob to the spoiler, and Israel to the robbers?  Was it not God, against whom we have sinned, in whose ways they would not walk, and whose law they would not obey?  So God poured upon them the heat of God's anger and the fury of war; it set them on fire all around, but they did not understand; it burned them, but they did not take it to heart."

The people Israel have turned against God, and God has punished them, and they still haven't gotten the message.

"But now thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob, who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear."

We remember that exhortation "Do not fear" from the Christmas story, right?  "Do not be afraid.  For I bring you good tidings of great joy that shall be for all the people.  Unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior."

"Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive and bear a child, whom you will name Jesus.  This child will be great and will be called the Child of the Most High."

"Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.  Your wife Elizabeth will bear a child and you will name the child John.  You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at this birth."

When God speaks to you, it usually means your life is going to get turned upside down -- so opening with "Do not be afraid" makes a lot of sense (though Mary at least got a "Hello").

No one cautions Jesus not to be afraid.

I think because Jesus chose this.  Divine messengers and messages are usually reported as coming to people who aren't particularly seeking them, but Jesus is stepping into this baptism with full knowledge of the sort of path that lies ahead.

This is Jesus' coming out.

John has been proclaiming and enacting a baptism of repentance -- calling people to return to God, to begin a new chapter in their lives, preparing the way for the coming of One who will begin a new chapter in the life of the world.  So when Jesus shows up and asks to be baptized, John says, "What do you have to repent of?  You are the Holy One, the Child of God.  You should be baptizing me, so that I may follow you."

But Jesus recognizes the necessity of this baptism.  We don't know what stories Mary and Joseph told their firstborn about the angels, the shepherds, the magi, Simeon and Anna at Jesus' presentation at the Temple -- even what stories were told about Mary's visit to pregnant Elizabeth, or any of the other stories Jesus and John might have grown up hearing about themselves and each other.  But in whatever way, Jesus has spent three decades preparing for this moment.

In Acts we read that Peter and John went to Samaria and prayed for the people there that they might receive the Holy Spirit "for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of Jesus."  I've come to be a big proponent of believer's baptism (rather than infant baptism), but at the same time I'm not fond of the privileging of the moment of personal conversion (accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior), so I really like this idea that yes, these people had accepted the word of God, had been baptized in the name of Jesus, but their journey was not complete -- God was still working on them.

Whatever commitment we make before God and others, it is not the end of the journey.

John even tells those gathered at the Jordan: "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming [...] who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

Our baptism in water is an outward marker of our commitment to begin a new chapter in our lives, but it is our baptism with the Holy Spirit that sustains us throughout that journey.

After Jesus is baptized, "the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove."  I have this image of a six-foot-tall dove descending and enveloping Jesus is an embrace.

And indeed, we are beloved both spiritually and physically.

The Incarnation reminds us that we most fully encounter God in humanity, and the physical act of baptism reminds us that we are an embodied people.

So I invite you, as you move throughout this week, to remember your belovedness, to be attentive to the movements of the Holy Spirit, and to to live each moment as if you are a new creation in Christ -- because you are.