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.



Sermon: Sunday, October 18, 2015: Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 53:4-12  +  Psalm 91:9-16  +  Hebrews 5:1-10  +  Mark 10:35-45

Dr. Carol Newsom, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University

Dr. Carol Newsom, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University

My Hebrew scriptures professor in seminary, Dr. Carol Newsom, had a particular pinching gesture she would make whenever we would try and read Jesus into the Old Testament. “No Jesus!” she would insist, demanding that we take the time to understand what these ancient texts meant to their original audiences before Christians got their hands on them.

Her voice is in my ear this morning as we hear a series of scriptures beginning with Isaiah which present Jesus as a priestly figure who offers up his life as a sacrifice and teaches us that, in the reign of God, it is costly sacrifice not power or rank that marks us as God’s own people.

This passage from Isaiah is probably most familiar to us from Good Friday services during Holy Week.  We’ve been conditioned to hear the description of the suffering servant as a prefiguring of the person of Jesus, whose unmerited public suffering and humiliation open a pathway to redemption for all the world. If we take Dr. Newsom’s admonition seriously and let the prophet Isaiah speak with his own voice, we discover that this passage is not pointing ahead in time toward Jesus; and, in fact, isn’t necessarily even pointing at any individual person, but is instead speaking about the whole community of Israel as personified by the suffering servant — a community whose on-going struggles and unmerited sufferings create possibilities for new life and redemption for the surrounding nations.

St. Luke's inaugural "Deacon Servant Leaders": Kay Deacon (above) and Betty Feilinger (below).

St. Luke’s inaugural “Deacon Servant Leaders”: Kay Deacon (above) and Betty Feilinger (below).

If we take that as a starting point, just the idea that the suffering servant isn’t a particular person but an entire people, and then read the texts that follow through that lens, then I think we learn something about ourselves that is particularly relevant on this day when we are recognizing the faithful servant leadership of two of our longtime members, Kay Deacon and Betty Feilinger.

Listen again, for example, to the question Jesus asks James and John when they ask to sit at his right and left hands, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” It’s an interesting question on a day when we are welcoming members into our congregation through an affirmation of their baptisms. As we talked about the meaning of congregational membership in preparation for these new members’ receptions today, we talked about how membership in a congregation isn’t like membership in a gym or membership at a museum. It’s not the kind of membership best described with a discussion of rights and privileges. Instead, our membership in the church is better understood as being members of a body, intimately related to one another in inseparable ways so that when one aches, we all ache with him; when one grieves, we all grieve with her.

That is what these last two months of testimonies have been driving at, the idea that — while we may each have a different experience of grief and loss when it comes to our immanent departure from this building, our historic home — we all know very well what it is like to have an experience of everything changing, what we lose and what we gain. By sharing our testimonies with each other, by sharing our stories of suffering and loss, we also create new openings for intimacy within the community, for a mutuality that makes our present sufferings more bearable and even transforms them into something new and life-giving.

IMG_2238-2In the verses immediately preceding this morning’s gospel story, Jesus has told his disciples for the third time that he is headed to Jerusalem to confront the powers of this world, and that he knows full well that he is headed there to die. Still unable to hear what that don’t want to hear, James and John ask Jesus for positions of rank and privilege in the coming Jesus administration. They want to be set apart from the crowds that follow Jesus. In his reply about common cups and shared baptisms, Jesus indicates that they’ve utterly missed the point. Being a follower of Jesus isn’t about setting yourself apart from the crowds that surround you, it’s about becoming their servant, identifying with their pain, longing for their liberation. Drinking from the cup and sharing in the baptism are about being members of a body that searches out opportunities to suffer with and alongside all the needless misery humanity inflicts on itself so that it might be transformed. It is about choosing to associate with those the world despises because we remember that we all belong to one another like a hand belongs to a foot, or like an ear belongs to a mouth, or like a mind belongs to a heart. To follow Jesus is to belong to God, which carries with it the priestly vocation of sacrificial giving of all that we have and all that we are.

So this morning we are honored to be able to recognize two members of our congregation who have modeled for us this kind of sacrificial servant leadership. Unlike James and John, these two women have not asked for this honor, they have simply gone about the business of meeting the needs of others year after year, doing the hard work that needed to be done so that others could enjoy the benefits of belonging to the body of our congregation.

St. Luke's Final Rummage Sale

St. Luke’s Final Rummage Sale

We know that Betty Feilinger has faithfully organized and administrated the bi-annual rummage sale for decades — calling together past and present members and friends of St. Luke’s for an event that has raised tens of thousands of dollars over the years to support this congregation through thick and thin. Her service to our congregation has been quiet and faithful, never seeking recognition for the hard work that she has done. She has practiced her baptism among us through a life of service to her family, her neighborhood and her church, and we are grateful to be members of one body with her.

St. Luke's chancel. Christmas Eve, 2014.

St. Luke’s chancel. Christmas Eve, 2014.

Likewise, we have seen Kay Deacon’s service at the altar week after week and year after year: preparing the sanctuary for weekly worship and for the high holy days at Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. In her dedication to making our worship beautiful she has often labored alone, offering her time as a sacrifice of love. She has modeled what sacrificial love looks like in care for her children and for her church, and we are grateful to be members of one body with her as well.

Betty and Kay have not asked for this recognition and, in the spirit of the one who calls us to service, we do not bestow these honors on them as a way of setting them apart from the rest of the congregation — but as a reminder of the good and joyful work of living our faith, of practicing our baptisms, of being members one with another of the living body of the church. In recognizing them this morning as Deacon Servant Leaders, we are reminding ourselves that we have all been called to lives whose meaning becomes clearest in acts of service to one another and to the world.

So we are grateful this morning to be able to honor the years of service offered by two of our members, even as we welcome others to join us in a legacy of service that has marked this place and that will follow us in to all the places and spaces yet to come. We acknowledge that the life of faith includes suffering, but we believe that the sufferings we share with one another offer new possibilities for hope and healing, offer new strength for the work of peace and justice and liberation. We share our stories of service because we are trustees of the greater story of God’s service to the world, a story that began when God’s breath moved over the waters of creation, and that continues as we practice our baptisms together, recreating the world one life at a time.



Sermon: Saturday, April 4, 2015: The Resurrection of Our Lord — The Vigil of Easter

Texts: Genesis 1:1–2:4a  +  Exodus 14:10-31;15:20-21  +  Isaiah 55:1-11  +  Daniel 3:1-29  +  Romans 6:3-11  +  John 20:1-18

JFK_Assassination2It was a Friday in November, 1963 when the nation found out that their president, John F. Kennedy had been killed. News of his assassination spread quickly as televisions in lunchrooms and living rooms flickered on to share minute by minute coverage of the events taking place in Dallas. All across the country people dropped whatever they were doing and waited for any bit of news that might make sense of this shocking tragedy.

Leonard Bernstein, the famous Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, was in meetings that afternoon when the news came to him that Kennedy was dead. The two men were friends, and Bernstein was a frequent guest at the White House. So it was perhaps not unexpected that Bernstein was approached the following day, Saturday, by CBS to create a memorial program that would air the following day, a Sunday. Bernstein accepted and worked quickly to select the music.

The obvious choice would have been a requiem, and many orchestras across the country did just that. Bernstein, however, went a different route. On Sunday, November 24, just days after the president’s assassination, Leonard Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic and the Schola Cantorum of New York in a nationally televised memorial featuring Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. Speaking the following evening at a fundraiser for the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York, Bernstein explained his decision.

“There were those who asked: Why the Resurrection Symphony, with its visionary concept of hope and triumph over worldly pain, instead of a Requiem, or the customary Funeral March […]? Why indeed? We played the Mahler symphony not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him. In spite of our shock, our shame, and our despair at the diminution of [humanity] that follows from this death, we must somehow gather strength for the increase of [humanity], strength to go on striving for those goals he cherished.”

Near the end of his remarks he said this,

“We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

brooks-circular-thumbLarge-v3This story came back to me after my dad shared David Brooks’s column from yesterday’s edition of the New York Times (04/03/2015) titled, On Conquering Fear.” In it Brooks reflects on the power of art to rouse us from the apathy and skepticism that are the byproducts of living in a constant state of terror and learned helplessness. He begins by offering a commentary on the story of the Exodus read in Jewish homes on Passover, the ending of which we’ve already heard tonight (Ex. 14:10-31;15:20-21). He writes,

Storytelling becomes central to conquering fear. It’s a way of naming and making sense of fear and imagining different routes out. Storytellers expand the consciousness, waken the sleeping self and give their hearers the words and motifs to use for themselves. Jews tell the story of the Exodus each generation to understand the fears they feel at that moment. Stories create new ways of seeing, which lead to new ways of feeling and thinking.

That is what we’ve been doing here tonight. Telling the old stories of salvation inherited from our Jewish sisters and brothers, stories of God’s hand in history creating us in love, liberating us from oppression, providing abundantly despite our fear of scarcity, accompanying us through the times of trial.

These are the stories the followers of Jesus knew by heart, the stories they’d heard passed down from generation to generation in oral traditions and songs and plays and dances and dramas. These stories were in their blood.

These were the stories that Jesus himself drew on as he gathered women and men around him to dream of a world made new, a world in which the hard lines between empire and colony, master and slave, man and woman, Greek and Jew were softened, blurred, obliterated. Stories that reminded us that in the beginning we were all made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26).

These were the stories the disciples would have heard echoing in the miracle of loaves and fishes multiplied until all were fed. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isa. 55:1)

These were the stories the followers of Jesus might have remembered as he was led away by the Roman guard to be tried by Pontus Pilate. “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him.” (Dan. 3:28)

jesus-crucifixion-1127718-galleryThen the news came on a Friday that the man they’d loved, and trusted, and followed, was dead.  He wasn’t just dead, he’d been killed, and not quietly, not out of sight, but on a cross on a hill, in plain view for everyone to see.  The message was clear: be afraid. Do not be fooled by this dreamer. The world as it is is the world as it ought to be. The empire rules and you are its subjects. Obey and live. Rise up and die.

Rome thought that would be the end of it. That the people would mourn, perhaps even riot, but they knew how to deal with that. That’s what crosses were for. What they were not expecting was Gustav Mahler’s second symphony, the Resurrection symphony.  They were not expecting the insurrection only artists can lead, the kind that begins with a story and ends with a new creation.  Somehow, somewhere, on that Saturday between the cross and the triumph of the empty tomb God, the artist who spoke creation into being with a word, whose image and likeness is imprinted on every soul, moved once again over the waters. The story spread quickly. The cross on which the teacher hung was as empty as the grave in which they laid him. The empire is unmasked! Death, where is your power now?

These are the storied waters by which we baptize, and tonight we celebrate with our brother Ryan who has responded to the call of the Holy Spirit to come and die. To come and die to the numbing death of conformity to a culture of violence. To come and die to the wasting death of complicity with a culture of scarcity. To come and die to the corrupting death of privilege in a culture of supremacy. To come and die to the tragic death of waste in a culture of consumption and degradation. Ryan has heard the call to die to all that is killing us, and to rise with Christ, the firstborn of a new creation. So we celebrate with him, and his family, and his beloved, Rachel, and with the whole church, the rebirth of a new disciple, a new storyteller, a new artist in the commonwealth of God, the anti-empire, the reign that has no end.

Sisters and brothers, there are so many reasons to weep. From the senseless massacre of human lives in Garissa, Kenya to the racialized violence that plagues our streets and swells our prisons. The sources of our grief are always before us, terrorizing us, numbing us into submission to a nightmare passing as reality. What we need is a story, a song, a symphony to rouse us to life. Jesus said to the weeping woman, to Mary whom he loved, “do not hold on to me … but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’  Mary went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’” (John 20:17)  So I say to you: do not hold on to this story, this life-giving work of art, but go and tell anyone who will listen that you have seen the Lord, who is not dead, as they claim, but alive and being born again and again in you and me, in these waters and all who emerge from them.

This will be our reply to the cross: to proclaim the gospel more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.


Credit where it’s due goes to the Leonard Bernstein Office’s website for details shared in this sermon.