Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, January 11, 2015: Baptism of the Lord

Texts: Genesis 1:1-5  +  Psalm 29  +  Acts 19:1-7  +  Mark 1:4-11

Hosea Williams of SCLC, left, and John Lewis of Student nonviolent Coordinating Connitte leading more than 500 people across Edmund Pettus Bridge (Selma) on March 7, 1965

Hosea Williams of SCLC, left, and John Lewis of Student nonviolent Coordinating Connitte leading more than 500 people across Edmund Pettus Bridge (Selma) on March 7, 1965

There’s a scene in the movie Selma, which opened this weekend, in which the Reverend Hosea Williams and a young John Lewis are leading a crowd of hundreds in crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge on what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965. As the two civil rights leaders look ahead to the far side of the bridge they can see state troopers led by County Sheriff Jim Clark along with a mob of angry white people. Looking down at the Alabama River below them, Hosea Williams asks, “Do you know how to swim?” To which John Lewis replies, “There aren’t many swimming pools that allow blacks in my neighborhood.” The meaning behind their exchange is clear: the act of crossing these waters will put their lives in danger.

That’s what Christian baptism is, a passing through waters that puts your life in danger.

When the John the Baptist called the people out of the city walls, into the wilderness offering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4), he wasn’t offering a wilderness retreat. It wasn’t a countryside getaway. It wasn’t a day trip with meals included. John led people out into the wilderness calling on them to repent and be forgiven. It was an invitation to leave the broken status quo behind.

Forgiveness was the business of the Temple, it was a part of the religious establishment’s franchise. It was a well-known and understood exchange of goods in return for priestly services. It was an allowed activity, a local concession made by Rome for people living under occupation. A lot of religion is like that, a perfectly acceptable bit of inoffensive ritual that threatens no one and changes nothing. What happened on the Edmund Pettus bridge was not an inoffensive bit of ritual. It threatened the power of Jim Crow laws that had bolstered a system of racial segregation that had kept Black people oppressed, stripped of their civil rights and denied any means of recourse and it changed the course of the nation.

tumblr_mja57gWewj1r2r773o1_r1_500On the day of that first march across the Edmund Pettus bridge, no one thought a few hundred Black people marching out under the Alabama sun could change much of anything. It was just street theater, and it could be dealt with. But when the nation turned on their televisions in 1965 and saw law enforcement charging on horseback into a crowd of non-violent protestors, beating Black men and women, young and old, with fists and clubs, the power of that bit of ritual, that street theater, became clear.

I know that for many people, Holy Baptism is a polite rite. An occasion for photographs and brunch. And I love those things, photographs and brunch, I love them a lot. But when I smile for the camera or share in the joyful repast after a child is baptized, what I am celebrating is another life dedicated to the God who is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit, which is the power of God unleashed upon the world for its liberation, reconciliation and restoration.

After Jesus had engaged the rulers of this world and defeated all the powers of death the Holy Spirit called women and men to continue that work, people like the apostle Paul, initially slow to recognize the Spirit’s movement for what it was, but zealous for the Lord after his conversion. As he traveled through Greece, Paul came upon a group of twelve disciples, like those first twelves disciples Jesus had called away from all they’d known to follow him. When he learned that they too were followers of Jesus, he asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit when they came to believe in Jesus. Their answer is heartbreaking. They said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

These twelve Greek disciples knew the name of Jesus, even called themselves his followers, were even baptized into John’s baptism, which is to say that they had experienced a renewal of their consciousness, had experienced a kind of epiphany, had come to know that the world as it is is not the world as God intends it to be, had accepted a call to leave the status quo behind. But it stopped there. They had begun their turning toward God, but they had not experienced the power that comes with baptism into God’s mission, the power that goes beyond withdrawing from this world to participating in its recreation. When Paul heard this he baptized them at once in the name of the Lord Jesus, and they began to speak in tongues and prophesy.

When I was a boy, I asked my dad about speaking in tongues and he told me that some Christians experience the Holy Spirit in ways that fill them with inspired divine speech which, when paired with someone who had been given the gift of interpretation, could result in a kind of divine testimony in the assembly. For many years that was the only image I had for speaking in tongues. Later in my life when I was called on, time and time again, to speak before teachers and bishops and to offer my own testimony about the movement of the Holy Spirit in my life calling me, anointing me, to bring good news to the poor, and freedom to those held captive by the closet, and liberation from the short-sightedness of institutional preservation at the expense of human dignity, I did not realize that I, too, was speaking in tongues. In those moments I did not have notes in my hands and I did not know what I would say, but as they were needed, words would flow from my mouth, the right words at the right time. And sometimes, when the Holy Spirit was moving in the hearts and minds of those to whom I was speaking, they could actually hear me, and a new understanding emerged. There was liberation, and reconciliation, and healing.

Now I know that I was speaking in tongues, which is to say that I was speaking the same English words in the same English sentences, but filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit which blows where and when it will. I remember on one occasion, after I’d finished giving my testimony, a man asked me, “so, do you imagine yourself as some kind of prophet?” and being the good, Midwestern Lutheran I was raised to be I said, “no, not at all. I’m just trying to be honest and stay true to the God who put me on this path.” As though that isn’t precisely what it means to speak in tongues and prophesy. To tell the truth in the face of a lie so pervasive it passes for reality.

It happens at least a hundred times a day. You see something, or you hear something, or you read something that you know is simply untrue. This last week it might have been something about Muslims in the wake of the tragic terrorist attacks on the French publication Charlie Hebdo and the hostage crises that followed. Maybe you read or overheard the violence of these attacks being blamed on Islam.

Or perhaps it was a news story reporting on the culture of sexual violence against women that exists on every campus in this country, but gets dismissed as an internal affair. Perhaps you heard excuses being made for the misbehavior of young men as if date rape was inevitable.

Or maybe it was a comment shared by coworkers, or on social media, about how we should’ve expected the work slowdown by New York police after the riots following the death of Eric Garner and the murders of two NYPD officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, as if to imply that we as a nation are not capable of both supporting our police officers and also holding them accountable for their conduct.

Finding the words to speak and the courage to say them in the face of a culture of silence and stasis is the work of the Holy Spirit, which blew over the chaotic waters at creation and brought something out of nothing. Finding the strength to not only withdraw from a world that breaks your heart, but to join together with others who share your pain, your grief, your experience and organize to change it is the work of the Holy Spirit, which enters at baptism and makes us members of one body, so much larger than any one of us could ever be on our own.

And the point isn’t that the Holy Spirit only acts through those who’ve been baptized, or won’t act until you’ve been baptized, or waits for you to decide to be baptized. The point is, the God who meets us in the waters of baptism is always at work in this beat up world of ours, but so often it’s hard to see. However, each time one of us comes to the water, we are making clear what the world tries so hard to conceal, which is the truth. That all are welcome and there is always enough. Each time one of us brings our precious child forward to these waters we are not only saying no to the death-dealing forces that are always reducing us to something anonymous, a number, a dollar, a bottom line; we are placing what is most valuable to us in service of a world that we still haven’t seen, that’s still being created, that is coming toward us from the future, that threatens to change everything. We are joining the movement.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, March 30, 2014: Fourth Sunday in Lent

Texts: 1 Samuel 16:1-13  +  Psalm 23  +  Ephesians 5:8-14  +  John 9:1-41

If you were here two weeks ago, you’ll remember that I spent a good bit of time in my sermon talking about the backdrop to the Gospel of John, the fact that it’s believed to have been composed near the end of the first century, sixty years or more after the death of Jesus. From what we can put together about that time, the Jesus movement was experiencing conflict as Jewish people who had come to believe and confess that Jesus — whose life, death and resurrection were now facts of history — was the long-awaited messiah. Their confession put them at odds with members of the synagogue community who did not share their faith, and as a result they were being kicked out of their congregation. The disruption was intense and the consequences were devastating. These first century Jews were not living in today’s religious landscape, they couldn’t just join another church with beliefs friendlier to their lived experience down the street. They were being cast out of all they’d known with no assurance that they were being called into something new.

It’s important to understand the story behind the story when reading scripture, so that we can begin to understand the incredible choices each story teller is making to give hope to fearful people, to give courage to a community doing a new thing, to give faith to an assembly gathering outside the boundaries of the known world, a new world, a new creation.

From the start, John’s gospel has been trying to tell us that the world is being made new. “In the beginning,” it says, echoing the words of Genesis, “was the Word…” the familiar proclamation of Christmas morning. After that opening prologue, the very first thing that happens in John’s gospel is an act of testimony, as the Jerusalem establishment heads out to meet John the Baptist across the Jordan where he is baptizing people. They ask him, “who are you?” (John 1:19) and it says, “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed.”

Imagine what these words would have meant to people who were being cast out of the familiar places of community and meaning because of their own confession, their own testimony. The story begins with a baptism, and a confession that will not be denied

From there the story focuses, understandably, on Jesus — until we get to chapter nine, the long passage we just read together. It begins with another echo of Genesis, one that would require us to know and remember that the first human, formed in the garden at the beginning of time, was named Adam, a pun that functions as a moniker. In Hebrew the word for “earth” is adamah, so the first person, formed from the earth, is called Adam.

580510493_5c828c0454_oJesus comes upon a man blind from birth, someone who has never seen him. This man doesn’t ask to be healed, he doesn’t plead for Jesus to perform a miracle, he’s just living his life. Jesus’ followers notice the man, and use his blindness as an occasion to start a conversation about sin. The man is different, so they want to know what went wrong. Jesus is uninterested in their preoccupation with sin, and responds to them, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5) Again we hear the beginning of this gospel,

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5);

but also, again, Genesis,

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light” (Gen. 1:1-3).

Then Jesus takes some earth, the stuff we’re made of, and rubs it in the man’s eyes, as if to recreate them, and tells him to go wash in a pool of water, to be baptized as it were, and we’re told that the name of the pool, Siloam, means “sent.”

From that point, a series of remarkable things occur. The very first being that Jesus disappears from this story and the focus shifts from Jesus to the man who has now begun to see the world in a new way, for the first time. In fact, the verses that follow mark Jesus’ longest absence from the story in this gospel. Rather than continuing with the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples, the story follows a series of exchanges between the man with new sight and the temple establishment.

blindYou can imagine that the original audience, the community for whom this gospel was composed, understood immediately what was happening here. Like the man born blind, they’d never seen Jesus. Only heard of him. Maybe they were the children or grandchildren of people who’d been alive when Jesus had walked the earth, and they grew up hearing other families in the synagogue talk about their differences as if they were sins. Maybe they’d lived their whole life among the assembly, but experienced an epiphany, a conversion they never saw coming that changed everything about how they saw the world. Whatever their particular circumstances, I feel certain that these first century Jews knew that when the storytellers talked about the man born blind, they were talking about them.

The next thing that’s remarkable to watch in this story is the creation, before our eyes, of an evangelist. After spending his life being treated like the subject of other people’s speculation, he begins to find his own voice. It’s tentative, at first, he’s no John the Baptist. His testimony develops and is sharpened, like all of ours, in conversation with others.

His first words are simply to assert his existence to people who’d walked by him every day, but never really saw him. Now that he is different, now that he sees the world differently, they can barely recognize him. “Is not this the man who used to sit and beg?” they ask. Just as Jesus’ disciples wanted to talk about this man, not to him, this man’s neighbors were so busy talking about him they barely heard him when he gave his first testimony: “I am the man.”

“I am the man,” is shorthand for so much being said. I am the man Jesus healed. I am the man you used to walk by. I am the woman you talk about, not to. I exist. I am a subject, not an object. I am one of God’s own creations. I have sacred worth. I matter.

Maybe this is your testimony as well, the word God has given you to say as a part of your own healing, and to be part of the way that God heals others. This first testimony seems so small, but is the basis for everything else we have to say: “I am the one God has made.”

His neighbors aren’t so quick to accept what he has to say however, so they finally stop ignoring him only to begin interrogating him. “How were your eyes opened?” In response, the man tells the story of his liberation. At this point he doesn’t try to explain how it happened, or to assign greater meaning to what happened. He simply reports the facts, as he experienced them, from his point of view.

This is the second testimony, the powerful story each of us can tell about the power of God at work in our lives, healing us, freeing us, saving us. These testimonies don’t require us to have all the right answers, or to be ready to defend them. They are powerful because they point to reality. “I used to be blind, now I see.” “I used to be afraid to leave, now I am ready to go.” “I used to drink myself to sleep every night, now I am ten years sober.” “I used to look at my body and hate it, now I can tell that this is a body loved by God.” “I used to think there was something irredeemably wrong with me, now I know I am loved.”

“Then I went and washed and received my sight.” (John 9:11)

Now the man’s neighbors begin to repeat the kind of conversation about sin and sinners that Jesus’ own disciples had been having when they came across the blind man. “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath. How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” Where the man born blind wants only to say what he has experienced in his own life, what has happened to him, the authorities want to talk about him, to try and cram his experience into a set of rules and laws they can understand. Finally, not wanting to own their own questions about Jesus, they project them onto the man with new sight: “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”

In response, the man is emboldened to go beyond simply describing what had happened to him, and his begins to make claims about what it means. “He is a prophet,” might just as well be, “He is one of us. He is a part of our community. He is the ethic beneath the laws. He is the teller of truths. He is the voice that will not be silent. He is the past and the future. He is a prophet.”

This courage threatens the powers that be, as well as everyone else who has found a way to get by in the world as it is. Even the man’s very own parents are not ready to stand by him as he claims the truth of his own experience. Now the man is not simply reporting the facts, he is risking his own place in the world. Up until now he could back away from his testimony, sharing the facts of what happened without owning what they mean. But no longer. In a showdown between silence in the face of those who had walked by him without seeing him, and the one who had seen him and given him sight, the newly sighted man is ready to challenge the powers that be.

This is the third testimony, the point at which our story goes beyond conviction to risky words and risky actions. “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also what to become his disciples?” Now the man has found his voice, and refuses to be silenced by power, in fact he challenges it directly, proposing a new understanding of life and our place in it that contradicts what had come before:

“Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but does listen to one will worship and obey God’s will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:30-33)

And now he’s said it, he’s moved beyond simply reporting the facts to declaring what they mean. Jesus is from God, and so is the miraculous new perspective he offers, the new sight.

After this testimony the newly sighted man is driven out of the community. Here we must pause and consider all that this means. These Jews were not the center of the Roman Empire, they were at the edge. They were an oppressed and occupied community. Their solidarity with one another was one of the primary ways they survived in a hostile culture. The man born blind was a marginalized man among marginalized people, and what little community he had he’d just lost.

Can you imagine the first audience of this gospel, Jews living decades after Jesus’ life and death and resurrection who had never seen him, but were risking everything by confessing him as Lord. Now there can be no doubt that they knew this newly sighted man represented them in the story.

It’s at this point that Jesus and the newly sighted man finally see one another face to face. Jesus hears that the man he healed has been cast out of the community, and he goes to him, pursues him and finds him and asks, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (John 9:35)

The man born blind doesn’t know who this is, but he knows that he is ready to believe whatever Jesus tells him. He has been transformed by his testimony, he is committed to the cause. “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” (John 9:36)

“You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”

“Lord, I believe.” (John 9:37-38)

This is the fourth testimony. I believe. I have experienced the healing, the freedom, the liberation that comes from God. I have found my voice. I have refused to be silent. I have lost those who could not see the presence of God in my life, but what I have seen I cannot unsee. I am not nameless, I am not sightless, I am not voiceless. I am yours. I am God’s. Lord, I believe.

This story of testimony comes to us just past the midway point in the season of Lent, a season of preparation for baptism; a season, historically, when those who had denied their faith in Christ were offered a way back into the congregation; a season when each of us looks inside to see where we ourselves have capitulated to the powers of this world that try so hard to ignore us, to shame us, to silence us; a season when we look outside ourselves to see where the world groans in anticipation of a new creation.

This Sunday’s story challenges us as much as it challenged the church at the end of the first century. What do we stand to lose when we stand by the truth of our own lives? Who will stand with us, and who will not? What waits for us on the other side of our healing, our liberation?

Jesus does. Now as then, the Jesus we have heard of but never seen becomes more and more real, more and more visible, as each of us finds our voice and shares our testimony. We are God’s people, washed in the pool of sending to share our story with the world.

Giving glory to God,
Amen.

 

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, December 11, 2011: Third Sunday of Advent: “New and Improved–Batteries Included”

Texts:  Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11  •   Psalm 126   •   1 Thessalonians 5:16-24   •   John 1:6-8, 19-28

Help me out here for a minute. We’re going to play a game of free-association. When I say “John the Baptist” what comes to your mind?

(The assembly is invited and encouraged to call out words, phrases and images connected with John the Baptist.)

That’s a great assortment of associations, but I have to be honest and confess that for me, John the Baptist reminds me of the teenager who comes to church showing too much skin, or people who don’t remove their hats during the national anthem at the ballpark. It’s not wrong, per se, but it’s distracting.

That’s how John the Baptist always strikes me, he’s distracting. He gathers people outside the city walls, wearing animal skins and eating weird food, making apocalyptic threats and, ultimately, losing his head. He is strange and wild and dramatic. He’s riveting. He’s hard to take your eyes off of. He’s doing guerilla street theater, insisting that we give him our full attention and then, just when he’s got us, John reveals that he is not the main attraction, not the headliner, not the one we’ve come to see.

All the costume, all the pageant, all seems designed to grab our attention so that John can deliver his overlooked and possibly his most important prophetic word. It’s not the one you’re thinking. Not, “among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” John’s most important prophetic word, I think, is his first response to the temple authorities who make a site visit in the wilderness to find out who this guy thinks he is. John provides them with a radically, deceptively, prophetically simple answer. He says, “I am not the Messiah.”

“I am not the Messiah.” That is John’s prophetic word for us this morning, so I’m going to ask you to repeat after me. Let’s preach John’s strong word together: “I am not the Messiah.” (“I am not the Messiah”) Again, “I am not the Messiah!” (I am not the Messiah!”)

Good! Now you are all prophets – just like John the Baptist! But do we understand what we’re saying, what John was saying, when we share in his proclamation that we are not the Messiah. I suspect we don’t, at least I’m sure I don’t. I know I’d like to believe, and generally conduct my life as though, I have the power to bend the world to my will. But I am not the Messiah, which means that I cannot be counted on to save anything. I can try my best, I may succeed at some things and fail at others, but I will never be the answer to any question of ultimate concern.

You are not the Messiah either. Odd how that sounds like an insult, when it should really come as a relief. Think about it. Consider the larger-than-life burdens this means you can finally lay down:

  • Parents, this means that despite the worries and burdens and pressure you feel to provide every opportunity for your children, you can relax a little bit. Frightening as it may be, you cannot control the world that surrounds your children and you cannot prevent every harm that might befall them. They will stumble along life’s path, they will hurt and be hurt, they will learn and grow, fail and succeed. You will always be a primal, formative influence in their lives – but you are not their saviors.
  • Children, this means that despite the pressures you feel to live up to your parents’ expectations, to make them proud, to carry on their traditions, to redeem their failures, to ease their grief, you can relax a little bit. No matter how dependent, or grateful, or resentful, or proud you are of your parents you are not their Messiah. You have your own separate existence and value apart from them, they are not defined by you any more than you are by them. You may be their most important relationship, but you are not their saviors.
  • Elders, this means that you are not responsible for ensuring that the legacy of all that you have learned, and experienced, and cherished is carried forward indefinitely into the future. God has reached out to you in amazing and powerful ways, but God will continue to reach out to the world to come in equally amazing and powerful ways – because that’s who God is, the one who saves and restores. You can lay that burden down, you are not the Messiah.
  • Young people, this means you are not responsible for maintaining and preserving the values and priorities, the dreams and visions of those who’ve gone before you. You have heard it said that you are the future, but you know your life is happening right now. You do not have to carry the weight of so much expectation from your bosses, your professors, your mentors, your elders. You are free to savor all the blessings of your one precious life right now, as it is happening. You are not the Messiah.

This is what John the Baptist says to the authorities who want to pin him down and lay the blame for civil unrest on his shoulders. They want him to say something as crazy as his clothes suggest he might be, but he does not. They ask him the question that faces each one of us, every day, as we go about the trying business of our lives, “Who are you? What do you say about yourself?”

In reply, John says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

Talk about grace under pressure. What a beautiful response. He says, “I am not the Messiah. I am the voice.”

  • I am not the news, I am the newscaster.
  • I am not the gospel, I am its preacher.
  • Or, in the terms we used with the children in this morning’s children’s sermon, I am not the light, I am the battery.

These two statements, taken together, represent so much freedom for us. The first, “I am not the Messiah,” frees us from the idolatry of believing that our thoughts, our beliefs, our prejudices, our practices, our habits, our methods, our culture, our nation, our politics, our religion are of primary importance. We are not God. It sounds silly and obvious to say it out loud, but so often we live our lives as though it were true.

flashlight batteriesThe second, “I am the voice,” guards against complacency, refuses self-negation and infuses with self-esteem, bespeaks a mandate, bestows a vocation, dignifies and ennobles our lives. God needs us. God has a message and we are its heralds. God has good news and we are its bearers. God so loved the world, and we are God’s lovers. God is light, and we are like the batteries in the flashlight – both perishable and essential.

The gospel says, “this is the testimony given by John.” St. Luke’s you have been testifying like John throughout your 111 years of ministry. You have been a voice in this neighborhood, across our city, throughout our church, and before the nations crying out, “Make straight the way of the Lord!”

Throughout this past year you have been offering your testimonies. Just like the religious authorities asked John, “what do you say about yourself,” you have been asked to share the faith that is in you as well.

  • You’ve done this in the one-on-one conversations with members of the Social Justice Team that helped shape the agenda of our work with the Community Renewal Society.
  • You’ve done it in small groups and bible studies and private conversations with one another.
  • Some of you have done it in front of the congregation, giving your testimony about how God has reached out to you and been present in your life.
    • Cynthia shared her faith story.
    • Judi talked about the church’s role in helping her and Bill raise their children.
    • Ben and Heather encouraged us to be proud of the ways that our commitment to the arts translates into real and practical resources for working artists – actors, dancers and musicians.
    • Pat reminded us that our community health mission has deep roots in a feeding ministry that has touched thousands of lives.
    • Dale showed us how a life lived in the church shapes us for service and supports us throughout life’s joys and sorrows.

You have all been giving your testimony, with words and with actions, and in the process you have been clearing a way for God’s presence to enter more fully into the world, one life at a time, starting with your own. You are not the Messiah but, oh, what powerful voices you have!

John the Baptist, so colorfully dressed, so dramatically inclined, was one you could not take your eyes off of. God used that, just as God is using our own colorful, dramatic lives as well. In times like these, when it can seem like the whole world is lost out in the wilderness, listening for good news, we can say with full humility and fuller confidence, “I am not the Messiah, but I am the voice!”

Amen.

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