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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.


“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.


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?



Sermon: Sunday, October 9, 2016: Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 2 Kings 5:1-15c  +  Psalm 111  +  2 Timothy 2:8-15  +  Luke 17:11-19

man-silhouetteThis man is revolting. He is rotten, inside and out. He is toxic, and whatever he’s got, it is spreading. It spreads from person to person, and if we’re not careful it will consume our whole nation. There is a place for folks like him, and it’s not among decent people. If it were up to me we’d send him somewhere we’d never have to see him again.

But somehow he’s still here. Despite the obvious rot, he is still treated as though he is a person of substance, a person deserving our attention and respect. Why is that? How is it that this man believes there to be one set of rules to govern the majority of people and a different set of rules that apply to him? Is it because he is wealthy? Is it because people are afraid of him, because of his history of combativeness? Is it because his exploits have made other people rich? Is it because he enjoys the favor of the ruling establishment, because he has the endorsement of the nation’s elites? Is that why he thinks he plays by different rules?

You know who I’m talking about, right? His reputation precedes him. He’s the kind of public figure who needs no more than a single name.

He is Naaman.


By 1530 it had been more than a decade since Luther had presented his 95 theses and launched the Protestant Reformation. Families, cities, and nations were deeply divided and the rhetoric used by each side to describe the other was so inflammatory it might actually make us feel better about our present electoral embarrassments. Writing against the Roman papacy Luther once remarked,

“You are desperate, thorough arch-rascals, murderers, traitors, liars, the very scum of all the most evil people on earth. You are full of all the worst devils in hell — full, full, and so full that you can do nothing but vomit, throw, and blow out devils!”

And you thought “basket of deplorables” was rough? Luther had all the best words. Though Paul still advises us to avoid “wrangling” over them. (2 Tim. 2:14)

In 1530 the Lutherans were tasked with doing more than railing against all they did not agree with and could not support, but to make a positive statement of faith which became one of the most important documents of the entire Reformation, the Augsburg Confession. In it, Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and other early theologians of the Lutheran reform movement found new words to share the good news of the free gift of God’s love, justice, mercy, and liberation. Describing what we have come to know as the doctrine of justification, the Augsburg Confession says,

“It is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our own merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us.” (AC IV)

Later, because we have such a hard time believing that our standing before God has everything to do with God’s grace and nothing to do with our goodness, the Lutherans had to write an explanation and defense of all they’d written in the Augsburg Confession, so they expanded their explanation of justification:

“Reconciliation does not depend upon our merits. But if the forgiveness of sins depended upon our merits and reconciliation were by the law, it would be useless. For since we do not keep the law, it would also follow that the promise of reconciliation would never apply to us … For if the promise required the law and condition of our own merits, it would follow that the promise is useless since we never keep the law.” (Apol IV.42)



Baptisms still take place in the River Jordan.

Still, God does not simply meet us where we are — God graciously changes us, though in practice it can feel like anything but a gift. For Naaman, change came in accepting that he was no better than any other of God’s own people. There was no special water reserved for people like him. There was no elite baptism. God’s love and God’s justice are strong enough that they do not fail to encompass even a narcissistic, belligerent fellow like Naaman; but God’s love and God’s justice do change Naaman who, in the end, takes his place among all God’s ordinary saints, proclaiming that there is no God in all the earth but the one who met Israel in the waters of liberation from slavery, who met them in the crossing of the Jordan as they entered into a promised land, the same God who meets us at the font.

If the story of Naaman is just a story about how God works through ordinary water to heal and restore people to fullness of life, I can accept it. It’s a miracle story from Hebrew scripture that prefigures the Christian sacrament of baptism, so let’s just sing “All Are Welcome” and continue feeling good about ourselves. And if the doctrine of justification by grace through faith is just a bit of Reformation history, passed down through the generations for confirmands to memorize, then I can manage it. It’s one more bit of theology in one more book on one more shelf to be referenced in one more sermon.

But this story and our history is more than that.

The story of Naaman is the voice of our ancestors telling us that there will always be rotten bullies spreading their illness, getting preferential treatment, enjoying the spoils of war and the approval of the nation. Still, God meets them in the water. The power of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith is that it tells the truth about me. That too often I believe I have earned my place in this world when in reality my successes are the products of a wide set of factors, many of which I have no control over and for which I can claim no credit: my race, my gender, my class, my nationality.

Even more fundamentally, the doctrine of justification reminds me that I am not a good person. I am filled with anger at others but minimize my own failures. I set goals and intentions for myself that I am not able to keep. I delight in the public embarrassments of those I consider hypocrites and pray that my own hypocrisies will remain hidden. I judge people. I judge them over important things and over petty things. But if I stood before God’s judgment, as I do, as we all do, I would come up lacking. When we stand before God’s judgment, we come up lacking. We are rotten. And still, God meets us in the water.

reformation500-enOur stories and our histories, our confessions and our doctrines, are not abstractions for us to agree or disagree with, they are our attempts to describe reality as we have experienced it in our skin. As we begin this 4-week series looking at the legacy of the Lutheran Reformation at the start of the global observance of its 500th anniversary, we are reminded that our history as a movement within Christianity includes the fact that we were born at a moment no less political, no less violent, no less corrupt, no less horrifying than the one we’re currently in. This week’s outrageous statements shock us, but they should not surprise us. Honestly, we’ve all heard worse. The depth of the divide in our nation scares us, but it should not defeat us. Our nation has been through worse, more than once, and so has the Church. If these recurring atrocities of human nature should convince us of anything, it is that human nature is inherently atrocious.

Therefore, it is a gift when we remember that Christ did not come to reward the righteous, but to save sinners. God did not come looking for perfection, but offering salvation. The Holy Spirit who breathed life into us as the first of many gifts comes to us over and over and over again to heal us, to justify us, to liberate us, to forgive us, to save us. What else can we say in response to such grace, such divine generosity, so many gifts, but “Thank you!”


Sermon: Sunday, January 10, 2016: Baptism of Our Lord

Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7  +  Psalm 29  +  Acts 8:14-17  +  Luke 3:15-17,21-22

What is baptism?

I know I’m supposed to have a good answer to that question, but I suspect it’s the kind of question that requires an experience rather than an answer.

I know what I was taught about baptism, what Luther wrote in the Small Catechism that some of you had to memorize as part of your confirmation in the church decades ago:

What is baptism? Baptism is not simply plain water. Instead, it is water used according to God’s command and connected with God’s word.

What then is this word of God? Where our Lord Christ says in Matthew 28, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

What gifts of benefits does baptism grant? It brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it, as the words and promise of God declare.

What are these words and promise of God? Where our Lord Christ says in Mark 16, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.”

Luther goes on to reflect on how it is that water is able to accomplish these things (“clearly the water does not do it, but the word of God, which is with and alongside the water…”), and what this baptism by water signifies (“that the old person in us with all the sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin … and that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”)

I don’t dispute any of what brother Martin had to say on the topic, but I will confess that it doesn’t speak to me. There is a kind of mechanism to his formula that reduces the sacrament to a series of “because/therefore” and “if/then” statements, which doesn’t reflect my own experience of being a baptized person. Because Jesus said, “make disciples of all nations” therefore we baptize. If we are baptized and believe, then we are saved;” and, conversely, “if not, then we are condemned.”

The reality, I suppose, is that two thousand years into this project of God’s called “Christianity,” it has become impossible to think about or talk about baptism without dragging all of the baggage of all of the church’s teachings on the subject into the conversation — which, and this is no shocker to anyone, has been all over the place and not terribly consistent. But even more than the teaching, it has been the practice(s) of baptism that have left many of us inherently suspicious. Making disciples “of all nations” sounds quite a lot like colonialism, the mass exportation of values and power relations onto foreign people without regard for their own histories and experiences. I think that for many of us, much of our discomfort with the idea of evangelism comes from the really healthy acknowledgment that humanity’s track record of respectful engagement with people of different cultures and practices is spotty at best. We are rightfully cautious about the sorts of religious chauvinism that so quickly creep into our every effort to share the faith that is in us, so that more often than not we share very little about our faith at all preferring to keep private what we have been commanded to carry into all the world.

But the idea of “nations” is baked into the concept of baptism from the very start in ways that I think are also profoundly important, for reasons that are hinted at in this morning’s scriptures beginning with Isaiah.

“For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.” (Isa. 43:3-4)

Even with all its passionate language and declarations of love, there’s something really disturbing about this passage, which sounds somewhat like a prisoner exchange between sovereign nations. God is named the Holy One of Israel to the exclusion of Egypt, Ethiopia and north Africa.

We resonate with “do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” which sounds like a more eloquent version of “little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong.” But the question of belonging always seems to beg the more difficult question to answer: are there others who do not belong to God? If so, how do we know? What is the marker, what is the sign?

The insider/outsider tensions evidenced in Isaiah show up in a slightly different form in the story we get from Acts (and not Ephesians, as your bulletin would mistakenly have you believe), moving from international conflict to ethnic prejudice. The tension is set up right away between the apostles in Jerusalem and the Samaritans, who we know from any number of other biblical references are the much despised and maligned ethnic group living within the borders of the nation but on the margins of respectability. They are the butt of every joke, they are the target of every slur. Yet, despite all this, they have heard the story of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus as a narrative of good news for them as well and have already been baptized in Jesus’ name — though there is apparently some dispute about whether or not the Spirit had been active in that baptism, because Peter and John are sent to go and pray with them, to lay hands on them and touch them, at which point they received the Holy Spirit.

I suppose there’s a way of reading this story that focuses on Peter and John as the necessary mediators of God’s Holy Spirit, that reinforces the old power dynamic between those living in Jerusalem and those from Samaria, but to use that detail as the starting point for interpreting the story ignores the larger frame of reconciliation between ancient enemies. The bad blood between Israel and Samaria goes back to the Babylonian exile. It is an ancient enmity. Yet somehow they see themselves in the story of the confrontation between Jesus and the Roman Empire, and they come to faith. The timing of the arrival of the Holy Spirit emphasizes the disruption of established national and cultural identities in that it is only when these old enemies finally sit down in the same room and lay their hands on one another, touch one another, become real to one another, that the Spirit of God is felt among them.

My struggle with the way the church has taught about and practiced baptism for so long is that it reinforces the very sense of nationalism I think the sacrament is intended to disrupt. We say, “go therefore and make disciples of all nations” through baptism, but we imagine baptism as a new nationality, a new preferred status with God that still leaves some people chosen and others condemned.

ch-22_lake-of-gennesaret.pngBut the story of Jesus is the story of God’s love overflowing every boundary we construct to contain it. The ministry of Jesus criss-crossed the shores of the Sea of Galilee so that he could eat with, and touch, and heal people on every side of that pool of water.

My heart suspects that there is something hard-wired into us that keeps trying to break the world into “us” and “them.” It must have something to do with our most basic survival instincts. I say “my heart” because that’s where I feel it, this seemingly genetic predisposition to be suspicious of others, to try and break the world back into tribes.

The call to “make disciples of every nation” by baptizing them can so easily become one more way of practicing that old human impulse, but that is not what this sacrament is intended to do. It’s not a new passport issued by a different sovereign. It is the abolishment of borders. It reminds us that every human being comes into this world surrounded by waters whose headstream is God. It is water combined with God’s word, because we are creatures of flesh and spirit. We need to touch something in order to believe that it’s real.

So we touch this water remembering that it is holy because it comes from God, just as we are holy because we come from God, just as every life is holy because every life comes from God. God, present in the waters that have surrounded us even before birth, has been whispering into each and every heart, “you are my child, you are beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

As we come to believe this, as we begin to order our life together in this world around this idea that all life is sacred, then we are all saved — together.  As long as we continue to live in scarcity, treating love and belonging and all the rest of life’s basic necessities like privileges instead of birthrights, we are condemned — together.

We are all in this together, which is why we do not generally practice private baptism, because it confuses the meaning of the sacrament. You aren’t baptized so that you can be set apart from other people, you are baptized into Christ, who lived and died for all people. In these waters we die to all the lies that have kept us divided, and we rise to a new life, a new holiness, a new discipleship, a new practice, a new nation which is no nation at all. We are citizens of one another’s welfare. We belong to God.