Copyright, Yellow Tavern, 2011
Not to be copied for publication, in part or in whole, without proper acknowledgement.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Blessed Foolishness

Epiphany 4A, 2011

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Matthew 5:1-13 1/30/2011

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ 
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

A young man, so the story goes, went to his Roman Catholic priest to ask that his name be removed from the membership rolls of the parish. When asked why, the young man replied, “Because I don’t believe any of this. I don’t believe in God, I don’t think Jesus was God’s Son, I don’t believe in heaven or in hell or in the church or any of this nonsense. I want you to take my name off the rolls, because I am not a Christian and I never will be one.” The priest thought a moment, and said, “Well, if that’s what you want, I’ll do it. I need to go get the parish membership rolls so I can take your name off. But before I do that, there’s one thing you have to do.” “Anything,” answered the young atheist. “I just want out.” “While I’m getting the membership books,” said the priest, “I want you to go into the sanctuary, walk up to the front, and say to Jesus, hanging there on the cross, ‘You did this for me, and I don’t care.’ Then come back, and I’ll take your name off the parish rolls.”

The young man strode confidently into the sanctuary, walked to the chancel, looked up at the figure of Jesus in agony on the cross, and announced with a loud voice, “You did this for me and I don’t . . . You did this for me and I . . . You did this for me and . . . You. . . did this . . . for me . . .”

We would be hard pressed to act out that story here at Providence, because all our crosses are bare. In fact, I couldn’t find a single public image of Jesus on the cross in our entire building except for the icon I have on the wall in my office. Mind you, this is not a Providence Church problem – this issue is ubiquitous in Protestant church facilities. Protestants like to tell each other that they have empty crosses instead of crucifixes because they believe in the resurrected Jesus. Methinks we doth protest too much. My experience has been that Protestants like to move quickly from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday, passing over (pun intended) the messy horror of Good Friday to the much happier picture of eggs, bunnies, marshmallow peeps, and, oh yes, an empty tomb. And, when something terrible happens in our lives, we console each other with well-intended but utterly unhelpful aphorisms like “Well, they’re in a better place” . . . “God has a special purpose in all this” . . . or, in the case this week of a wonderful young woman not from around here whose marriage has imploded, “Remember there’s only one perfect man, Jesus, and just trust in his perfect love for you.” All those things are true, but they’re so, so unhelpful. And, when spoken by well-meaning Christians, they miss the much more helpful and much more deeply true message of God’s love for us in Jesus, on the cross.

St. Paul was writing a deeply divided church in Corinth. It comforts me, in a perverse way, to read how utterly screwed up the Christian churches of the first century were within a few years of their founding. Every letter in the New Testament is a letter written to solve a problem in the church. Any problem we face in the church today is nothing new: youth in the first century were sitting on the back row texting each other, too, but minus the cell phones.

So Paul wanted to establish the basis for any conversation between Christians. In Corinth, they wanted to talk about spiritual gifts, and who had the better ones. No, Paul said, everything we do proceeds from the cross – not the empty cross that we’ve turned into pretty gold jewelry, but the instrument of torture and public execution on which Jesus died. We can’t bypass that on the way to Easter: no one is there for Easter Sunday who wasn’t there for Good Friday. Everything hinges on the broken body of the Son of God on the cross.

That’s a problem, Paul said, for both Jews and gentiles. It was a problem for Jews because they wanted a sign of God’s power over evil, like the Exodus. If the heavens had split and God had rescued Jesus from the cross and destroyed all the Romans, then they would have believed. The notion that God would reveal himself in weakness, death, and failure was inconceivable.

For non-Jews, the idea that the execution of an obscure Jewish carpenter could save the world from its chaos made no sense whatsoever. The notion that life could only come from death, that love was displayed in suffering, that strength came from weakness was irrational. God, the Greeks knew, was the essence of reasonableness, and nothing about this Passover horror story is reasonable.

The problem, Paul said, was that God had shown power over and over and over, and people still didn’t believe. Miracles are only good as long as the people who saw them are still around, if that long. In Exodus, it only takes a month and a half after the miracle at the Red Sea for the Hebrews to start second-guessing Moses and to suggest they were better off in Egypt. Jesus knew that the memory of the miracles wouldn’t last past his arrest in Gethsemane. As for the Gentiles, reason is a fickle mistress always in service to baser motives. It is reasonable to believe in this god or that depending on what’s good for me. When I was in high school, I suddenly discovered how much more sense it made to start attending the Presbyterian Church when I started dating a Presbyterian girl. But what sense does it make to follow a Messiah who calls you to be crucified, too?

God gave signs, and they didn’t work. God made complete sense, but that didn’t work either. So, Paul said, God decided to turn the values of this world upside down. Instead of power, God appeared in weakness on the cross. Why? Because very few people know what it’s like to be powerful. But every single person who has ever lived knows what it means to be weak, to be sick, to be hurt, or be helpless. Sooner or later, every single on of us will know what it’s like to die. So, if you want to make your love present to every creature in Creation, do you do it in power and miracle, or in pain and suffering and death?

In the same way, few of us know very much about what it is to be wise and smart and rational, especially myself. An ongoing argument I’ve had for years with my dear Baptist friends is about what some of them call “the age of accountability” or “the age of reason,” when children are eligible for conversion and baptism and church membership, because they are capable of understanding the gospel. What’s the IQ number for that, I ask? What do you do with mentally challenged people? What do you do with children who are dying? Do you completely “understand” baptism, or communion, or grace, or love, or the cross, or resurrection, or faith? Paul said it: we now see as in a dim mirror, but someday we shall see face to face; now we know in part, someday we shall know in full, even as we are fully known. If my salvation is dependent on my reason, my comprehension, my intelligence, my understanding, then I am doomed to hell. Very few of us know what it’s like to be brilliant, but every person whose ever lived knows what it’s like to be confused and lost and misunderstood. In seminary, I worked for a semester on a ward of profoundly challenged children. None of them would ever understand St. Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God, but every one of them knew what it meant to be held and bathed and changed and fed. If you’re going to reveal your love to the world, do you do it with a sublime philosophical treatise, or with an act of consuming love?

So, Paul says, God has turned the values of this world upside down. Isn’t that what the Beatitudes – these declarations from the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel lesson – are all about? Who is really blessed? The people in People Magazine, or on our TV screens night after night? The rich, the beautiful, the powerful, the famous? No, Jesus says, it’s the poor, the meek, the mourning, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. The others don’t need good news. They’ve got their money and their power and their machines of war and their success to keep them warm. But God has come to be with the unwashed masses who don’t have anything else to bless them. And if God is with the poor, the suffering, the dying, those whose lives and families and health and hopes have imploded, then God must be with us always. That’s the good news from the cross.

I’d love to see us hang some images of the dying Jesus on our church walls. Maybe, if we discovered that God reveals himself in suffering, we’d be more open with ourselves, and with each other, about the wounds and struggles in our own lives. Maybe, if we began focusing on the crucified Jesus, we’d spend less of our time and energies and attentions on what this world thinks is powerful and sensible, and discover Jesus among the poor and the suffering and the dying people all around us. Maybe if we prayed less to the glorified Jesus on his throne and more to the bleeding Jesus on the cross, we’d begin to see how we live and how we act and what we think is important in a whole new light. Maybe it wouldn’t take a 9/11 or a family crisis or an economic meltdown or a tragedy in the church or community to make us rethink our lives in some pretty radical ways. Because we all, you see, stand at the feet of the crucified Jesus every day, saying, “You did all this for me, and I don’t care.”

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Fishing For People

Epiphany 3A, 2011

1/23/2011

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 
‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — 
the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’ 
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Last Sunday, we read the story in John’s gospel about how Andrew had been introduced to Jesus by John the baptizer. Andrew had spent a day talking to Jesus, and then went and found his brother, Simon, and brought him to meet this amazing new friend. I asked you to write on your bulletin the names of people you knew who needed to be introduced to Jesus. They are your Simons, I said, and God is calling you to be their Andrew.

I was asked this week about the difference between the call stories in John and in today’s lesson in Matthew. Sometimes its difficult to reconcile the chronologies of the different gospels – especially the differences between the Gospel of John and the other three. Most scholars believe John was written later, and is trying to give us a different picture of Jesus – one that is less an account of what Jesus did than what Jesus meant. That’s why sometimes, in John, it’s not clear whether it’s Jesus speaking or the author, John, commenting on what Jesus has said.

I like to think that the reason Simon and Andrew left their boats so easily when Jesus came walking by was because they already knew who he was. The brothers had met him back by the Jordan River, as Matthew said. Then they went back north to fish for a while. They talked, as they fished, about what Jesus had said, and who he might be. Maybe they had just said to each other, “You know, if Jesus ever asked me to be one of his disciples, I’d drop everything and do it,” when Jesus came walking by. And maybe they had told their neighbors James and John about Jesus, too.

Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. There must have been something in that invitation that spoke to a passion, a hunger, a dream in Simon and Andrew. Has that ever happened to you? Five and a half years ago, Vicki and I were shopping for a house. We had been with our real estate agent to about a half-dozen houses. A good agent, like ours, listens carefully to what you like and don’t like as you visit different homes. She asked us to look at an internet listing of a house, and I wasn’t particularly impressed. “I really think you need to look at this house,” she insisted. “Fine,” I responded, “I’ve got a meeting, but you can show it to Vicki.” Vicki walked through the door of our home and said the house spoke to her: “Please buy me.” Sometimes it’s not so much that we choose, but that we are chosen.

Maybe you fell in love with another person that way – something in that person called something deep within you. Most of us who have fallen in love (isn’t the term significant – falling?) discovered that the person we loved didn’t fit the description we would have written. Instead, that person was a surprise ever so much better than anything we would have designed for ourselves.

When Jesus called Simon and Andrew to fish for people, there must have been a hunger deep within the two fishermen that responded to the call. There was a hole in their souls that needed filling, and Jesus called them to the banquet.

There’s a hole in the soul of every single person who has ever lived. It’s there because God made us that way. Just as we were made with empty stomachs, there is a hole in the soul that needs filling.

John Caldwell was a merchant seaman in the Australian navy during World War II. At the end of the war he found himself stranded in Panama, with no way to get home to his wife in Sydney. He decided to buy an old sailboat and, even though he had never sailed before, cross the Pacific before typhoon season set in. He didn’t make it, and was caught in a terrible storm east of Fiji. His boat was wrecked, his food was ruined, and he drifted westward for weeks before washing ashore on an island in the Fiji chain. He was so hungry that he was reduced to drinking the burned motor oil from his engine. He was so desperate to have something – anything – in his stomach that he devoured whatever was at hand.

Now, you’ve probably never been so hungry that you’ve drunk motor oil. But how often have you stopped at Fas Mart or McDonalds or wherever to put a mass of high calorie, high fat, highly salted garbage in the hole in your belly? How many of us, this afternoon, watching the playoffs, will be eating broccoli and carrots and celery, and how many of us will be wolfing down the cheese and chili covered nachos? We do it all the time – we are so desperate for something to fill us that we’ll swallow anything.

And so it is with the hole in our souls. We fill that hole with high fat, high calorie, high salt spiritual junk, and are still starving. So, what can fill that hole?

There’s a clue in the current CarMax commercials running on TV. I love CarMax. We’ve bought four cars from them. But the commercial they’re running shows happy people getting in and out of cars in the CarMax parking lot to the tune of the Ingrid Michaelson song, Everybody. The lyrics are:

Everybody, everybody wants to love

Everybody wants to be loved

oh, oh, oh

CarMax is telling us that when you find the car you love, you will be loved. Or the house, or the boat, or the person, or the beer, or the team, or whatever. The purpose of commercial advertising is to convince you to buy something you don’t really need, because that thing will fulfill your life and make you happy forever. But the song under the commercial has it right, even though the full song is about a lost human lover: Everybody, everybody wants to love; everybody, everybody wants to be loved. That’s it, folks. That’s the hole in everybody’s soul. We are made to love, and to be loved.

But all earthly loves, even the love of family and friends, are temporary and imperfect. The love of family and friends is meant to shape us and point us to a perfect love that lasts forever. That’s why no matter how loving our family and friends are, we’re still looking for something else. We’re looking for a perfect love that loves us for the terrible messes only we know we really are.

Simon and Andrew heard something in Jesus’ call that sounded like perfect and forever love. We know from the gospel story that Jesus loved them in all their cluelessness, all their unfaithfulness and betrayal, all their sin and messiness. And he loved them forever, more than life, even after death. Only God can love like that.

So when Jesus called Simon and Andrew to come fish for people, love was the bait. Simon and Andrew and James and John just wanted to love, and wanted to be loved. The wanted to love more than their jobs and their lives and their families, and be loved by more than the same. There was a hole in their souls, a hole just like yours and mine. They were tired of spiritual junk food.

Brothers and sisters, every day you and I live, work, meet, and go to school with people who are so hungry for perfect and eternal love they’re killing themselves drinking motor oil. And, when they look at you and at me, they see the same attempt to fill the holes in our lives with garbage, so there’s not much about our affirmation of faith in Jesus they find very attractive.

Let’s stop living as if our self-important busyness, or the fate of our favorite team, or the size of our bank account, or the newest toy from whatever store is the answer to our eternal hunger. What would happen if we started living as if the love of God in Jesus ChristĎ€ really were what life is all about?

That’s the bait, folks. It’s what you and I are hungry for. Nothing else will do. Let’s start living like that, so other people will see something in us they’re missing. Then, all we have to do is tell our starving friends where we’ve discovered a banquet.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

He First Found His Brother

Epiphany 2A 1/16/2011

John 1:29-42

The next day (John) saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).

In 1978, three young Virginia Conference United Methodist pastors, Ken Horne, Ray Buchanan, and Jeff Allen, and their families began praying about how God might lead them into a shared ministry based on simple lifestyles, deep spirituality, and ministries of justice. Ken and Ray went to Bishop Kenneth Goodson the next year and asked him to appoint them to a ministry beyond the local church. In June of 1979, the Hornes and Buchanans moved into a farmhouse in Big Island, Virginia, where they could follow God’s leading into a new ministry. Ken and Ray decided they would call their work “The Society of Saint Andrew,” based on this morning’s gospel lesson about the man who, after meeting Jesus, found his brother and brought him to the Savior. Ken and Ray weren’t sure what shape their ministry would take, but they simply wanted to bring people to Jesus. Three years later God handed Ken and Ray a blueprint for their work when, at a hunger awareness workshop at Franktown Church on the Eastern Shore, a farmer named Butch Nottingham challenged Ray’s statistics about how much usable food was wasted in farm fields every year. “You get a group of people to walk behind my potato harvester this summer, and you can have all the left-over potatoes you want,” Butch told them. Twenty-eight years later, the Society of St. Andrew has grown into a world-wide gleaning ministry that has involved 400,000 volunteers and retrieved 164 million pounds of food for local food banks. I’m thankful to say Ken and Ray are good friends and I’ve been involved over the years in a number of gleaning projects with the Society of Saint Andrew – again, named for a man who simply brought his brother to meet his new friend, Jesus.

This week and next week, I want us to think about how we bring people to meet Jesus. The season of Epiphany, which begins with the visit of the foreign wise men to the manger, focuses on mission and evangelism. Epiphany ends on Ash Wednesday, which this year is March 9th. The forty-day season of Lent, not counting Sundays, leads us to Easter. This year, during Lent, I would like us to take up the challenge issued at last year’s Virginia Annual Conference to enter a season of fasting, prayer, and repentance as we consider how we have not shared our faith with our brothers and sisters and neighbors and friends. Church attendance and membership have been in decline in our congregations for fifty years. The population of Virginia has grown dramatically, and our churches have shrunk. We need to take a long, hard look at ourselves, because we have not followed the example of Saint Andrew.

This morning’s story involved no advertising, no praise bands, no door hangers or tracts, no sophisticated demographic analysis of the community. It began with a simple identification: John the baptizer recognized Jesus coming his way, and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. . . This is the Son of God.” Every Jew listening knew what Son of God meant: this was the heir to David’s throne, the king who would restore the nation of Israel to glory. They would have been puzzled at the other label John imposed: the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. That echoed sacrifice, and suffering, and death. Those listening that day would not understand how Jesus was the Lamb of God until after the resurrection.

Nevertheless, John points to who Jesus is. That is the first act of witness: we tell it like it is. Jesus Christ is Lord was the first affirmation of faith of the Christian Church.

There is a quiz on Facebook you can take to see how much you know about your friends. You are asked questions about your friend’s honesty and likes and dislikes and activities. If your friends and relatives were asked about you, would they know your favorite football team, or favorite college, or TV show, or movie, or musician, or politics, or hobby? Probably. We have absolutely no qualms about broadcasting our beliefs about politics or sports or TV or who makes the best pizza. We try to convince our friends they should root for our team, go to our college, or vote for our candidate. Why, then, is it so difficult for us to simply point, like John, to Jesus, and say Look! There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world?

It only takes a spark, the song says, to get a fire going. One of John’s followers, named Andrew, heard John identify Jesus as the Messiah. Immediately, Andrew followed Jesus to the place he was staying, and spent the whole day with him, no doubt listening to him and asking questions. That’s the second movement of evangelism. We go where Jesus is staying, listen, and ask questions. When people tell you that they get just as much out of staying home or playing golf or walking on the beach as by going to church, ask them how much they talked about Jesus at home or on the links or at the beach. Andrew spent time getting to know Jesus. That’s what this place is for. And, let’s be honest and say that sometimes we do a whole bunch of stuff here at church that has nothing to do with Jesus. Retired United Methodist preacher and songwriter Kirk Mariner has a song that says No bazaars when Jesus comes, no jelly jar terrariums, no Brunswick stews, no an-t-cues, no bazaars, and that’s the good good news. This year our church council is going to take a long, hard look at our process of making disciples, and whether we’re doing anything that’s not focused on that mission. If we are, why?

Andrew goes to the place Jesus is staying, and learns who he is. But Andrew doesn’t stay there. He has to tell someone what he’s found. Have you had the experience of discovering a new restaurant, or seeing a new movie or TV show, or a new song or musician, and you just had to go tell somebody about it? My first year in seminary, as we were trudging through Systematic Theology and Supervised Ministry and Church Administration and Old Testament, the movie Blazing Saddles came out. A seminary friend, Jess Jones, and I went to see it. We had grown up on Westerns and Hoppy, Gene, Roy, Maverick, and Marshall Dillon. Blazing Saddles was the funniest movie we’d ever seen. The next night we took my roommate. The next night we took three other seminarians. We saw it eight times, bringing a different group each time. Mel Brooks owes me a commission. It was just too wonderful for us to keep to ourselves. Do you have a movie, a restaurant, a team, a musician, a whatever, that you’ve just thought too amazing to keep to yourself? Remember when you fell in love, and brought your new love home to meet the family, or your best friends? We all want the people we love to love what we love.

Andrew finds his brother, Simon, and drags him to meet this rabbi. That’s it. Jesus takes over from there. Jesus looks deep in Simon’s soul and says I know you. You’re Simon Johnson. I’m going to call you Rock.

That’s mission. That’s evangelism. That’s what I want us to start doing as a congregation. It’s not hard, it doesn’t require that you know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It takes three steps:

Name Jesus Lord.

Go where he’s staying, and listen to him.

Go tell the person closest to you, and bring them with you to Jesus.

Somebody who knew Jesus loved you enough to bring you with them to Jesus’ place. Maybe it was a parent or a grandparent. Maybe it was a husband or wife. Maybe it was a friend. Maybe it was a teacher or preacher. Somebody was your Andrew.

Now, whose Andrew are you going to be? At the beginning of today’s worship I asked you to write on your bulletin the name of someone who needs to know Jesus. You are their Andrew. God gave that person to you, and their name this morning, so you could go tell them about the time you spent with Jesus today, and bring them back to Jesus with you.

Next Sunday we’re going to look at Jesus’ call to Simon and Andrew to learn how to fish for people. We’re going to talk about what it is that really attracts people to Jesus. In the meantime, let you love for Jesus, and you love for the person whose name you wrote down, be the irresistible lure that leads someone to Jesus. Go, be an Andrew. As Ken Horne and Ray Buchanan discovered, you can’t begin to imagine where it might lead.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Remember!

Epiphany 2A, 2011

Matthew 3:13-17 1/9/2011

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

The first Sunday after Epiphany in the Christian calendar celebrates Jesus’ baptism. We’re moving pretty quickly through Jesus’ life, aren’t we? He was born two weeks ago; last Sunday the Wise Men came to visit; suddenly, he’s full grown and ready to begin his ministry. One reason for this time warp is the silence of the gospels about Jesus’ infancy and adolescence, except for Luke’s story about him getting lost during the family trip to Jerusalem at Passover. There are several false gospels that try to fill in those gaps about the young Jesus – they were rejected by church leaders because in those stories Jesus does things like maim or kill neighborhood kids who make fun of him, or shape pets out of the river clay and bring them to life, because no one else will play with him. I have some of those, if you’d like to read them.

No, we jump to the baptism because what’s important about Jesus is his ministry, including his death and resurrection. And right here, even before his ministry begins, Jesus shows us, at his baptism, everything he is going to tell us and show us for the rest of his life.

John has been calling Jews to turn their lives around because of the coming of the Messiah, who will bring the Kingdom of God. John appropriates the Jewish ritual of baptism, which had been used by non-Jews in their conversion to Judaism. Water was poured over the converts, symbolizing the washing away of their old life and their birth – as we are born out of the water of our mothers’ wombs – into a new life. Water must have been poured, because the Jordan River at the site associated with John’s ministry isn’t deep enough for immersion, despite what our Baptist brothers and sisters say. It’s not the amount of water – it’s the presence of the Holy Spirit which gives baptism it’s holy power. What is so radical and so offensive about John’s baptism is that he is insisting that Jews – children of Abraham and the covenant – should renounce their old lives as thoroughly as would Gentile converts.

Jesus comes to the river, and asks to be baptized. Recognizing him as the Messiah, John demurs. “You should be baptizing me, not the other way around,” says John. But Jesus insists: “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” What is Jesus talking about, and why does Jesus insist on being baptized?

The common misconception across the centuries is that baptism somehow removes sin. There was a period in the early church when some people thought you should not be baptized until just before you died, so you wouldn’t sin again before dying. Rich people hired clergy to follow them around to baptize them in case they got hit by a chariot. When St. Augustine was a young boy, he grew deathly ill, and his parents agonized about whether to have him baptized, lest he recover and have to go through life perfect ever after. That’s not what baptism is about: I have baptized many, many people of all ages, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that they were no less sinful after their baptisms than they were before. “You will never be anything but a sinner,” Martin Luther said, “so be honest about it. But believe and rejoice in Christ more boldly still.”

So, what does baptism do? First, it is not our gift to God. It is not a work that you and I do to show God how much we love God. It is God’s gift to us, showing us how much God loves us. In baptism, we are incorporated into the Body of Christ. Incorporated -- the word literally means to become part of a body. Now, how does this happen? It’s a mystery, but it happens because God says so. It happens because the Holy Spirit flows in, with, under, around, and through the prayers and the words and the water. You can describe a mystery, like love, but you can’t explain it. Jesus was baptized, and told us to be baptized, and that’s the mystery.

But there’s something else going on here, that represents everything Jesus ever said and did. Jesus submits himself to be baptized by John. He needs the grace of God just as much as anybody else does. He’s not an exception in any way from your life and from mine – he’s born in blood and water, he eats and drinks and sleeps and gets tired and needs a bath and laughs and cries and gets frustrated, and he’s going to suffer and die like you and me, too. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus shows us what it means to be a child of God – it means surrender. It means throwing away any claim of status or special privilege. Jesus is a real human being throwing himself on the mercy of God, needing to start over again every day just like you and I need to start over every day by the power of God’s love. Jesus surrenders himself to baptism because he has to surrender himself to God just as much as you and I do.

And, because baptism, like faith, is a gift God gives us and not a gift we give God, in baptism we are laid before God’s throne, helpless, giving ourselves to the mystery. That’s why we baptize babies. If we have to understand what’s happening before we’re baptized, or before we receive communion, guess what?

Except that there is a deeper understanding of the mysteries – of life, and love, and family, and grace – that comes not from the head but the heart. A baby knows what it’s like to be held lovingly. A baby knows when her parents surrender her to someone else, to hold, to wash, to be spoken to with word of grace. People used to think babies weren’t aware and learning – now we know they are aware and learning even before they’re born. I know that babies know something is happening in baptism, and that it makes a difference.

Let me close with two stories about baptism. The first is about Martin Luther, the 16th Century monk turned reformer. When Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X and his life was in danger, his friends kidnapped him and hid him in a castle called the Wartburg. Luther stayed there for 11 months, translating the New Testament into German and writing. But during his exile he felt assaulted regularly by Satan, who tormented him with doubts about the stand he had taken against the church. He was not a Christian – he was Satan’s instrument. At the depths of his despair, wondering whether he belonged to God ot to the devil, Luther came to a great realization: I am baptized! he cried in triumph. This was an objective thing that had happened. There was no doubt about it. And, in baptism, God had claimed him, forever. And remembering his baptism enabled Luther to follow God’s call and stand against Rome and all its allies.

The second is about my baptism. We don’t baptize people any more they way I was baptized – now we baptize in the midst of a congregation, which assumes responsibility for the child and welcomes him to the family of faith. We don’t do private baptisms, except in emergencies. But I was baptized in the little Methodist church in Delaware where my parents had been married, because it was such a pretty little church. And the celebrant wasn’t my parents’ pastor, or even the pastor of that church – he was a childhood friend of my mother’s, who had become a Methodist minister. So, years later, after I had had a conversion experience my senior year in high school, and was struggling with whether I should be re-baptized, as all my well-intentioned evangelical college friends suggested, I did some reading about the church where I was baptized. It’s called Barratt’s Chapel. It’s an Historic Shrine of Methodism, built in 1780 – the oldest surviving Methodist church building in America. When John Wesley sent Thomas Coke in 1784 to America to call together all the Methodist lay preachers, ordain them, and set aside Francis Asbury and himself to be the first Methodist bishops, he met Asbury for the first time at Barratt’s Chapel. And in the floor of the chancel, directly under the spot where I was baptized, is a brass plaque that commemorates their meeting. Now, I’ve never thought that meant I was going to be a bishop. But after I heard God’s call to be a United Methodist minister, I realized that something much bigger was going on at my baptism than anybody there understood.

That’s the mystery. And on the first day of Jesus’ ministry, he shows us everything it means to love God. Jesus surrenders any claim of status and privilege, and gives himself completely to God and to God’s family. Then, when he has surrendered himself completely to God, the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends, and God claims Jesus as his beloved child, with whom God is delighted.

Brothers and sisters, when we give up all our privilege and surrender ourselves to God, the same thing happens to us: the heavens open, the Spirit descends, and God tells us he is absolutely crazy in love with us.

Remember your baptism. It’s God’s free gift to you.

Monday, January 3, 2011

By Another Road

Epiphany A, 2011

Matthew 2:1-12 1/2/2011

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; 
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Last week I was reading in the news a list of what New Year’s resolutions people should not make: find love; lose five to seven pounds; quit obsessing; have a baby; quit your job; convince your significant other to marry you; quit dating; learn to get along with (whomever) ; wake up 30 minutes early to meditate; and win the lottery. The list says something about CNN’s target audience – young adults who can’t find love, commitment, or good jobs. The point the article was trying to make was that people tend to make all-or-nothing resolutions, and such are doomed to fail by February. Instead of finding love, the author suggests, get more involved in activities that help you meet and get to know more people; instead of meditating (or praying) for 30 minutes, start with 5 or 10; don’t obsess about obsessing; make your job better rather than quitting; take a break from dating instead of quitting altogether; and so forth. It’s a provocative headline that, surprisingly, covers some good advice.

It’s important, on a regular basis, to stake stock of our lives, and make whatever changes are necessary. Annual doctor’s examinations; preparing tax returns; church stewardship campaigns; and, of course, a New Year are opportunities to take a hard look at who and where we are, and who and where we want to be. Every now and then there are some seminal events in our lives that give us pause to do the same thing: the death of a loved one, a critical illness, or a new experience that makes us see ourselves and life from a completely new perspective.

Despite what we’ve learned from Christmas pageants, cantatas, and Sunday School, the wise men didn’t visit the manger the same night as the shepherds and the stork. Church tradition says they arrived twelve days later, January 6th; the reality is that it may have been weeks or months later. They approach the manger with one set of assumptions: that King Herod, the priests and scribes, and all the people of Israel would welcome with great joy the birth of the Messiah. They come to Jerusalem expecting anyone and everyone to know about the miracle that had been foretold by the star. As it turns out, all of Jerusalem, from the king down to the common folk, were frightened by the whole idea. Herod learns from the scholars that the Messiah should be born in Bethlehem, so he summons the wise men and recruits them as spies. Go to Bethlehem and find the baby, then come back and tell me where he is. In my favorite dramatic retelling of the story, The Cotton Patch Gospel, Herod says “I’d like to shake his hand. I’d like to shake it real good.” And so the Magi head to Bethlehem, find the baby and his family, and, before offering him presents, knelt down and paid him homage.

Preacher and theologian Tom Troeger suggests we’ve missed the order of what the Magi do at the stable. First, they worship. These learned holy men from a far country and culture kneel at a cattle trough and give honor to the Savior. This was the whole point of their journey, they announce in verse 2. They have come to bow down, to surrender themselves, to Jesus. Only after this act of worship, only after giving themselves completely to Christ, do they present their material gifts.[1]

Giving gifts, Troeger says, can be a way of controlling others, of putting ourselves in a position of superiority. The first business of Christmas, and the first business of life is not to control, or even to gift. It is to kneel before Jesus and offer him our lives. If we don’t get that right, anything that follows misses the point.

Then, Matthew says, a remarkable thing happened: the Magi took a different road home. An angel spoke to them in a dream and saved their lives, because, had they obeyed the King, retraced their steps, and told Herod the 911 address of the stable, Herod would have slit their throats on the spot. They are now under the same protection of God as is the baby.

When we kneel at Jesus’ feet, everything changes, and we can’t take the same road home. The world is different and we are different. We now have to listen to directions from angels.

This morning we’re celebrating a new road to a new home for Mark and Grace, who will be married as a part of our worship service. God led Grace here last year; God led Mark to a new life, and God led them to each other. It’s not only a wonderful thing that they understand that their marriage is an act of worship that they wanted to share with all of us and their family in Christ, but that on this first Sunday of a new calendar year, we all have the opportunity to renew our vows to each other – married and single – and to Christ. Their first meal as a married couple will be the Lord’s Supper, which will then flow into the reception in the fellowship hall. Thank you, Mark and Grace, for giving us a model for the integration of faith, love, marriage, and church. This is the way it’s supposed to work! For all of you who might get married someday, remember this morning.

Mark and Grace’s marriage is a new road that came because both of them knelt at Jesus’ feet. Now, like the Magi, they’re traveling a new road at the directions of angels. For all of us not sure where we are, not sure where we’re going, and terrified by the principalities and powers waiting to do us in, follow the example of truly wise men and women, from Bethlehem to Quinton: kneel down, and pay him homage. Don’t offer your gifts until you’ve surrendered yourself. Then, listen to the angels, who will send you down a different road.


[1] Bartlett and Brown, eds., Feasting On The Word, Year A, Vol. 1, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010, p. 217