By Shakko (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Pranking the Devil

The biggest mistake contemporary believers often make when reflecting on the mysteries of the Christian faith is to relate to them, either as mere historical events that took place in the distant past, or else as mythical fables that never really took place at all.

This mistake keeps us tangled in the weeds of history, arguing about things that may or may not have happened as they are written and handed down to us today. Viewed through such a myopic lens, the Bible becomes either an infallible textbook in competition with the findings of modern science, or else a highly questionable compendium of ancient thought. The Sacraments become mere memorials that mark us as adherents to a particular religious tradition. The Church itself becomes just another dated institution, devoted to a particular set of dogmas and morals, and having no existence outside the buildings and budgets sustained by its members. Theologically, the imprisonment of the mysteries of the faith in cells of history or mythology leaves people of faith with no real choice except empty secularism, on the one hand, or radical fundamentalism, on the other. Either way, the dismissal of the Easter mystery causes us to miss out on the eternal power Christ’s resurrection has to transform our lives today, for this world and the next.

St. Paul shows us the way out of this intellectual quagmire in tonight’s reading from his epistle to the Romans. He asks the Roman Christians, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”

This is a brilliant question. Implied in it is the conviction that the death of Christ is not an historical event, but a present reality. The word baptize, used by Paul in this text, comes from the Greek word baptizo, which means “to immerse” as one would soak dishes in a sink or a baby in a bathtub. What Paul says here is that the Sacrament of Baptism, more than just a memorial of past events, “soaks” us in the ever-present reality of Christ’s death on the cross. The scattered fragments of our lives and deaths are gathered together and joined into one, through Christ’s life and death, in Baptism. This is an important truth to consider because it gets at the central mystery of the Christian faith and illuminates the central predicament of every human life on earth.

We humans live in a state of detachment from the world around us. When we are born on this planet, each of us begins the long process of dissociating our identity from our mothers and families. The goal of all childhood is to grow up and leave the nest in which we were raised. With the increased privilege of adulthood comes increased responsibility, and with that an increasing sense of isolation and loneliness.

We earn the right to become masters of our own destiny, only to discover early on that we are actually poor masters, indeed. We find ourselves driven by unconscious impulses in our own minds: rage, lust, gluttony, greed, envy, vanity, and arrogance. And then we discover that we are simultaneously trapped by those very same unconscious forces at work in the world around us. These forces lead to the inevitable breakdown in our relationships. We go on living lives of “quiet desperation” in isolation from one another, failing to understand what is truly going on within ourselves. St. Paul right names the cause of our predicament when he tells us that we are “enslaved to sin.”

Sin is something of a loaded term in today’s society, as it has been for millennia. Religious people are often quick to use that term when pointing out the faults of others, so the rest of the world has learned to tune out the message whenever “sin” is mentioned.

With that in mind, I intend to be very careful about how I use the term sin in this message. Put simply, sin is our address; it is where we live. Sin describes the state of broken relationships between each one of us and our neighbors around us, between our conscious thoughts and our unconscious motivations, and between our souls and our Creator. There is not a person in this room whose life is unaffected by this breakdown in relationships. We did not choose it, we do not want it, but we cannot get free of it. As St. Paul tells us, the present reality is that each and every one of us is “enslaved to sin.”

But this is not the whole story. Even though we find ourselves in a state of broken relationships, we also sense within ourselves a deep connection with each of these things. Our very existence depends upon our relationship with one another, our inner thoughts, nature, and God. The fact that we are aware of our predicament is the first step toward resolving it.

The Church teaches that God has become one with our human nature in Jesus Christ. The gap between divinity and humanity was first crossed at Christmas and continues throughout Jesus’ life on earth. Jesus opens eyes that are blind, ears that are deaf, and tongues whose songs of praise have never been heard. To the hungry, Jesus offers bread. To the lonely, Jesus offers welcome. To the guilty, Jesus offers amnesty. To the oppressed, Jesus offers freedom. To those who are dead, Jesus speaks wonderful words of life. All of these things Jesus did in his thirty-odd years on earth, and he does them still in our lives today.

One would think that people so bereft of the inner and outer necessities of life would gladly welcome such gifts from the Source of Life himself, but the stories of Holy Week demonstrate that this is not so. The revelation of pure divinity in a human life exposed the lies and the futility of our emotional programs for happiness that we construct for ourselves. Rather than risk the journey into freedom that God offers in Christ, the powers of this world reacted with swift vengeance to silence the voice of God-in-the-flesh. We learn again each Passion Sunday and Good Friday how this world-system treats those who challenge its power. Better a familiar slavery, they say, than an unknown freedom. The death of Christ on the cross was the sad-but-inevitable result of his life on earth. Yahweh told Moses at Sinai that no human could see the face of God and live, but our forebears declared the opposite to Jesus at Golgotha: that no God would be allowed to expose the true face of humanity and live. If this were any other story, it would end there as a cautionary tale about the fate of those who dare to challenge the way things are, but this is not just any other story; this is the Gospel.

What happens next makes highly appropriate the coincidence that Easter Sunday should happen to fall upon April Fools’ Day this year. The ancient fathers and mothers of the Church were fond of portraying the events of Holy Week and Easter as Christ’s elaborate practical joke on the devil. They chuckled as they told the story of how Christ tricked the devil into killing him and then sprang his trap, destroying death from the inside out, like a Trojan Horse that was ushered into the bowels of hell itself. St. John Chrysostom writes:

“Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.”

Easter is Christ’s April Fools’ prank on the devil. Just as Good Friday revealed how brutal we are, Easter Sunday reveals how we ridiculous we are. God, faced with human evil, is as patient, loving, and resolute as a mother faced with her toddler’s tantrum. Just as there is nothing a preschooler can do to lose his mother’s affection, so there is nothing we can do to out-sin the love of God.

Friends, this is good news for us as we begin our annual Easter celebration. Despite our best efforts, we have utterly failed in our effort to silence the voice of Love in the face of Jesus Christ. We did our worst, but all of it together was not enough to stifle the power of God’s love. Despite our best efforts, we are still loved. In the words of the ancient Easter Troparion:

 “Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and, upon those in the tomb,
bestowing life.”

Friends, these are not simply historical events that we remember tonight, nor are they mere mythology to stir our imaginations to good behavior. As Father Randall is fond of reminding us: “Christianity is not a religion about being good so Daddy will love you.” No, the mystery of Easter is a present reality in our lives today. As St. Paul told the Roman Christians, so he tells us today, “if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

Baptism, like all the Sacraments, is a mystery that unites the scattered fragments of our lives to the one life of Christ. In Baptism, our old lives of sin are buried and we are raised to the new life that God intends for us. In Baptism, God’s love in Christ is made real to us. In Baptism, even our deaths take on meaning because they are vanquished by Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection.

Living as a Christian in the world today, I continually find that Jesus Christ gives me access to a dimension of reality that is not available to me through other, more rational means. Encountering the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and the Church as unfathomable mysteries, I have discovered time and again that they are means of grace through which God continues to speak to me, day after day. In those all-too-frequent seasons when I labor under the burden of doubt or despair, it is you, the people of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, who call me back with laughter and tears, with words of encouragement and challenge, to the one life of the risen Christ who still dwells in our midst.

Friends, I thank you for this gift and ask your fervent prayers for me, and I offer mine for you, as we journey together toward the discovery of all God offers us in Christ, both now and for eternity. Amen.

Your Greatest Gift is You

Preaching on the Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Kalamazoo, MI.

Click here to read Luke 2:15-21

Your greatest gift to the world is you.

Do you hear me in that?

Your greatest gift to the world, the Church, or your family is you.

This is an important truth that we are in grave danger of losing in the world. We live in a world that measures the “worth” of human beings in terms of the money they earn, the possessions they own, the positions they hold, or the degrees on their wall.

In a negative sense, this world judges people based on categories like race, ethnicity, nationality, gender identity, and sexual orientation. We dismiss the ideas of our fellow human beings because they come from someone of a different political party or religious tradition. We project all our self-hatred and insecurity onto people who live with a disability, mental health diagnosis, or criminal record.

When we meet new people at cocktail parties, our first question is usually something like: “So, what do you do?” I would be far more interested to ask, “So, who are you, really? What makes you tick? What thrills/hurts you? What brings you enough hope to get out of bed in the morning?” (And that’s probably the reason why I don’t get invited to many cocktail parties…)

Truth is always inconvenient. Someone has said, “The truth will make you free, but not before it’s done with you.” As broken people living in a broken world, we are not predisposed to face the honest truth about who we really are. We are afraid that we are nobody, or that we are so ugly, stupid, and boring that no one could possibly love us, if they were to see us as we really are. So, we hide. We try to cover ourselves with the paltry fig leaves of our accomplishments and failures, thinking that we have successfully tricked the world into believing that this nobody is somebody, but secretly fearing that the truth about our inner nothingness might one day be found out.

Brothers and sisters, I come to you this morning with good news that these deep fears of ours are entirely unfounded. Beneath the tattered rags of the false identities we have constructed for ourselves is not an ugly emptiness, but the glory of the Divine Image that has been revealed and redeemed for us by our Lord Jesus Christ.

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Name of our Lord. Today’s gospel recalls the eighth day after the Nativity, when the infant Messiah was brought to be initiated into the community of God’s chosen people through the rite of circumcision. Today is the day when the name of Jesus was first spoken out loud to the world.

There is tremendous power in a name. Names tell us something about who we are. Doctors put a lot of energy into diagnosis: accurately naming an illness in order to treat the patient. Parents know that if you raise a child, calling names like “bad, stupid, ugly, and worthless”, that child will grow up believing those things about him/herself and acting accordingly. In the Bible, names are of the utmost importance: the patriarch Jacob is given the new name Yisrael, meaning “he wrestles with God” after struggling all night for a blessing from an angel. Avraham, the exalted ancestor of Jews. Christians, and Muslims, is so-named because he is “the father of many nations.” Jesus names his disciple Petros because he is the “rock” upon which the Church will be built.

In today’s gospel, our Lord is given the name Jesus, Yeshua in Hebrew, which means “salvation, deliverance, or liberation” because he is destined to free God’s people from slavery to sin. The name of Jesus was not an arbitrary label attached to this person after-the-fact, but was first whispered into the Blessed Virgin Mary’s heart at the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel. At that time, the angel said of Jesus:

“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:32-33 NRSV)

The Holy Name of our Lord is a statement about who Jesus is. Behind and beyond the rough exterior of an uneducated, working-class carpenter, born in the parking lot of a Motel 6, in a backwater town of an occupied country, deeper than all of that: we can see with the eyes of faith the Son of God, the Savior of the world.

As millennia have gone by, the Church has continued to ponder the full meaning of Jesus’ identity. Bishops and theologians have met repeatedly in great Councils, endlessly tossing the question back and forth while the answer eludes them. After two thousand years, all the Church can really say is that the mystery of Jesus’ identity is a question that can never be answered. He is fully human and fully divine in a way that transcends human understanding. Anytime people have stood up and claimed to have the final solution to this problem, the Church has been quick to tell them they are wrong. Christian orthodoxy is not a matter of holding tightly to unquestionable answers; Christian orthodoxy is a matter of standing in reverent awe before unanswerable questions.

Even after all these years, the unanswerable question of Jesus’ identity continues to haunt and bless the Church on earth. We can never claim to fully understand it, but we can give testimony to our experience of it. And we express this experience in poetry, story, ritual, and song: that in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, eternity has become embodied in time, heaven has taken up residence on earth, and divinity and humanity are now one.

Jesus reveals the mystery of his identity to us by entering into full solidarity with the human condition. In today’s gospel, Jesus enters into solidarity with the people of Israel through the rite of circumcision, which Jews today call a bris. The closest equivalent to this rite of initiation in the Christian tradition is the sacrament of baptism, which Jesus would also receive later in life, at the hands of his cousin John.

In baptism, we Christians receive our identity. That is, we learn who we really are in Christ. The water is an outward and visible sign of the washing away of the false identities we construct for ourselves. In the Church, we are no longer presidents or panhandlers, no longer grad students or gangstas, no longer trust-fund babies or crack babies, no longer doctors or drag queens. In baptism, all of these constructed identities are washed away: “We renounce them.”

In baptism, we are stripped of our fig leaves and stand naked before our Creator.

And this, brothers and sisters, is the Good News: that underneath the stained and tattered rags of ego is not the ugly nothingness we feared. In the moment of baptism, we stand beside the font, dripping and shivering like a toddler fresh out of the bathtub, and hear the voice from heaven saying to us what it said to Jesus at his baptism: “You are my Son (Daughter), the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22)

Brothers and sisters, this is the truth about who we really are. This is the truth that God reveals to us by taking on our humanity and dwelling among us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I dare you today to allow this truth to soak into the marrow of your bones. Allow it to transform you from the inside out. Allow it to turn upside-down the way you look at the world.

In baptism, Jesus liberates us from all our false, constructed identities. If you wash away everything you have, every one of your accomplishments and failures, everything you’ve ever done, everything that’s ever been said about you, what would be left? Only a mysterious voice from heaven saying, “You are my Child, the Beloved.”

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Jesus gives us eyes to see it. Jesus gives us the ability to see ourselves and our world through the eyes of God. This is how St. Paul is able to say, in his second letter to the Church in Corinth:

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh; even though we once knew Christ according to the flesh, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17)

This is why we make the promise, in our Baptismal Covenant, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and “respect the dignity of every human being”. We promise this because Christ is in all persons and every human being has an eternal dignity that deserves to be respected. You reflect the image and likeness of God in a way that is utterly unique, that has never been seen before in all of history, and never will be again. Without you, and without each and every person around you today, some small part of God would remain unknown forever.

And that is why I tell you today, brothers and sisters, that your greatest gift to the world is you.

The Unquenchable Fire

Click here to read the service bulletin, including the biblical text


There is a story of a young novice in a monastery who goes to his abbot and says, “Father, what can I do to attain Salvation?”

The wise old abbot responds, “As little as you can do to make the sun to rise in the morning.”

So the novice replies, “What then is the purpose of meditation and all our spiritual exercises?”

And the abbot says, “To make sure that you are awake when the sun begins to rise.”

I love this story because it does such a good job of getting right to the reason why we, as people of faith, put ourselves through the hard work of prayer and the rigorous demands of the Christian life.

Saved by Grace

As Christians in the Reformed tradition, we are fond of insisting that salvation comes to us by grace, as a free gift apart from our good works, ritual observance, and correct theology. We receive this gift by faith, but even that receiving faith, St. Paul says, is a gift from God, “so that none may boast.”

We sainted sinners and sinful saints are utterly incapable, either by works or by faith, of doing anything to make the light of Christ appear in our hearts or world. Like the young monk in the story, we can do as little to attain salvation as we can to make the sun rise in the morning.

Like the shepherds of Bethlehem in the Christmas story, we do not bring Christ to birth, we simply bear witness as the Word of God “takes on flesh and dwells among us.”


In today’s gospel, we encounter a man who understands intimately what it means to bear witness to the presence and activity of Christ in the world.

Radical Prophet

St. John the Baptist was a dangerous radical and progressive prophet whose task was to “prepare the way” for Christ’s first coming to earth. I call him a “radical” because of the Latin term radix, which means “root.” John was a powerful mystic. As the last prophet from the Old Testament era, his ministry was inspired, not by a particular school or tradition of rabbinic interpretation, but directly by God.

Religious traditions need prophetic renewal from time to time. Without direct experience of the divine, religions begin to calcify and get “stuck in their ways.” The Buddha played a similar role in the Hindu faith. We Protestants might point to Martin Luther and John Calvin as prophetic voices in 16th century Europe. In Judaism, there were many prophets who arose throughout the history of Israel. Prophets, as radicals, reconnect the faithful to the “root” of their faith in God. They are always “dangerous” to established authorities because they call into question “the way we’ve always done it” and remind us of our core commitments to God and neighbor.

This is exactly what St. John the Baptist is doing in today’s gospel. He calls the people to a renewal of their spiritual and political lives by announcing:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Bearing Fruit

He has particularly harsh words for the Pharisees and Sadducees, the two major parties of established religious authorities in first century Judea. To them, John says:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

By “fruit,” John means the kind of changed life that a person leads when they have come into a deep relationship with God.

The religious leaders would have been understandably offended by such comments. They might point to their seminary degrees on their office walls. Or they might make reference to their traditional ancestry, which they trace back through the prophet Abraham in the biblical book of Genesis.

But John anticipates this defensive response. He says:

“Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

In other words, John recognizes this ruse for what it is: a distraction from living the kind of life that God envisions for the covenant community. After liberating the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, God said to them, in effect, “I want you to be a different kind of community from the nations you see around you. Old patterns of exclusion and oppression must not be present among you. I want the nations of the world to look at you, my people, and see what kind of God I am.”

But the people of Israel, like all peoples, were consistently unable to live up to this high standard. We read in the Old Testament just how often God’s people “missed the mark” and began to take on characteristics of Egypt, Canaan, and Babylon. They worshiped humanly constructed images and ideologies in place of God, exploiting the earth and their neighbors. This is why God continually sent prophets like John. They called the people back to what it means to be God’s covenant community on earth.

Facing the Consequences

When the people refuse to listen (which is most of the time), God warns them that this way of life (“Every man/woman for him/herself”) leads only to death and destruction. This is why John says:

“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Notice how John does not name God as the source of this destruction. We might be tempted to think of God as the primary actor in this event, but I think it would be just as legitimate to think of it as a natural consequence of our tendency toward selfishness and the violent ways of the world. God’s intention, in sending us the prophets, is to save us from this path of self-imposed destruction. If we refuse to heed this warning, God respects our decision by allowing us to face the consequences of our actions.

Wheat and Chaff

The good news is that there is another way. Even in the midst of our rebellion against God’s ways of peace, God is present and active. In first century Judea, God sent St. John the Baptist to prepare the way for Christ.

John says:

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

At first glance, this image might seem like another warning of wrath and judgment. But it might help if we look more closely at John’s image of the Messiah as a farmer winnowing a harvest of wheat.

Wheat grains grow inside of a husk on a stalk, much like corn. In order to salvage the nutritious wheat, the husk must be removed. This is done by a process called “winnowing.” In the ancient world, farmers did this by setting the pods over a fire. The heat would crack the husks open and the wheat would fall out. Then the farmer would toss the pile in the air with a large fork. The wheat would fall through while the husks (called “chaff”) would be blown away by the wind.

Here’s the interesting thing: the wheat and the chaff are parts of the same plant. I take them, not as symbols of two different kinds of people (“good” and “bad”), but as two realities that exist within myself. I am, at the same time, both sinner and saint. There are good parts of me and bad, wheat and chaff.

Chaff is an essential part of wheat. It protects the precious grain while it grows on the stalk. Without it, the grain would be vulnerable to predators and the elements. But there comes a time when the chaff must be removed, or else the grain will never fulfill its destiny to make new plants or be ground and baked into bread. In the same way, we who live in this complicated world are a mixture of more useful and less useful parts. These parts of us must grow together for a time, so that we can become fully-formed, well-rounded people. We wrestle with these complexities and long for the simplicity of a life where only good remains forever.

When I imagine my destiny at the end of life, I imagine God taking those less useful parts of me and separating them from the goodness in me that reflects the divine image. I see divine judgment as the “winnowing” process, by which goodness is preserved and evil eliminated. Whatever is left at the end of this process is that which will live forever in God.

Unquenchable Fire

How will God accomplish this division of good and evil with us? John tells us quite clearly:

“He [Christ] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

This is directly related to the winnowing process. The Holy Spirit, the presence of God within us, is the winnower’s fire that liberates the good wheat from the chaff we no longer need in our lives. God is at work within us, transfiguring us day by day into the divine image and likeness.

And John reassures us with the good news that this inner fire of God is “unquenchable.” That is, all the chaff and sin within us is unable to snuff out the presence and power of the Spirit.

Kindled by Water

This fire was kindled in us, ironically, by water in our baptism. In that moment, when the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection were applied to us, the Holy Spirit came to dwell in us in a way that cannot be undone. Baptism is not so much something that we do for God so much as something that God does in us. Baptism is the sign and seal of God’s pledge to save us and never leave nor forsake us.

Baptized Christians are part of Christ’s Body, and Christ loves us as dearly as we love the parts of our own bodies. He could not abandon us any more than one of us could cut off a hand or a foot. This is why John calls the fire “unquenchable.” We can resist the Spirit, but we cannot snuff her out entirely.


The prophet invites us, in this Advent season, to “prepare the way” for Christ’s coming by cooperating with the energy of the Holy Spirit, who is already at work in us, separating the good wheat from the chaff we no longer need. We are invited to return to the roots of our faith and consider again what it means to be a member of Christ’s Body, the covenant community of God’s Church in the world.

This work is not something we do for God, but what God is doing in us. We cannot make Christ appear in our hearts any more than we can make the sun to rise in the morning. The good news is that Christ is already here, working God’s will in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. Our only choice is whether we will resist or cooperate with the work of the Spirit in our lives.

St. Paul writes, in his first letter to the Thessalonians:

“May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” (1 Thess. 5:23-24)

This Advent, may we open our hearts to allow the fire of the Spirit to crack open our hard shells, and the wind of the Spirit to blow away that which we no longer need. May the water, wind, and fire of baptismal grace gather us once again into the barn of the Church, where we will dwell together in peace at Christ’s coming.

The Baptismal Covenant

Fr. Randall Warren drew our attention to the Baptismal Covenant during last Sunday’s sermon at St. Luke’s. You can read the Covenant by clicking here or by flipping to page 304 of the Book of Common Prayer (if you’re one of those old-fashioned people who still remember how books work). This brilliant summary of the Christian faith was born from the womb of liturgical renewal in the 19th and 20th centuries. Since its inclusion in the the 1979 Prayer Book, Episcopalians have “fallen in love with it,” according to Fr. Randall.

Reading and reflecting on the text later that day, it occurred to me that this brief Covenant provides a helpful starting point for thinking about the way the Church practices its mission in the world.

Do you believe in God the Father?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?

We begin by reciting the Apostles’ Creed. This is our way of saying that faith begins, not with us, but in God. And God is not a monolithic entity but a community, a network of relationships, between divine persons (i.e. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) that we collectively refer to as the Trinity. This is how Christians are able to say that “God is Love” (1 John 4:16). A single person can be loving, in the adjectival sense, but Christians believe that God is love, in the active sense. God is relationship. To borrow a phrase, “God is a verb.” God happens.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

The place where God happens is the Church.

Of course, the Church is not the only place where God happens. All communities and relationships reflect, to one degree or another, the relational nature of the Trinity: friends, families, societies, ecosystems, even the gravitational relationship that exists between planets and stars. God meets us in all of these places, but the Church is the particular community where human beings are invited into a special covenant relationship with each other and with the Triune God through the person Jesus Christ, who is present with us in the Scriptures and the Sacraments.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Relationships are never easy. Relationships are raw. Intimacy strips away our fig leaves and exposes all our parts: the good, the bad, and the ugly. When we come into the Church, a network of relationships that spans all of time and space, and is itself enfolded into the network of relationships that is the Trinity, we come as we are, with all our baggage in hand.

Standing in the light of Christ’s perfect humanity, we are confronted with the fact that we, in our selfishness, behave in ways that are less than fully human and lead to broken relationships.

The good news is that God refuses to break up with us, even when we try to do so with God and each other. God is like a mother in a department store whose toddler is throwing a tempter tantrum. The child screams, “I hate you!” And God adjusts the purse strap on her shoulder, takes us by the hand, and says, “You can hate me if you want to, but I still love you. Come along now; it’s time to go home.”

Christ dares us to get honest about our shortcomings. Christ invites us to begin again… and again… and again, knowing we are bound to fail. Success is measured, not in how many times we fall down, but in how many times we get back up. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Recovery is about progress, not perfection.” Salvation is a journey, not a destination.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

The result of this continual falling down and getting back up is that we grow in confidence that we are fully loved and accepted, no matter what.

This is big news.

This is big news in a world where a person’s appearance and performance are analyzed and judged with ruthless scrutiny. This is big news in a world where the “worth” of a person or an ecosystem can be quantified and calculated with dollar signs. This is big news in a world that prizes whiteness, maleness, and straightness. This is big news in a world where “might makes right” and “the best defense is a good offense.”

The absolute and unconditional love of God is big news because it renders irrelevant all the noise of news broadcasts and the temptations of commercial advertisements in between. People who know they are loved don’t need those trappings. People who know they are loved don’t fear what others fear. People who know they are loved by God have found something worth dying for, and therefore have something to live for too.

Love changes everything. Love makes the world go round and turns it upside down. Love wins. This is big news. It’s worth sharing. It needs to be said. The rest of world needs to hear it.

The Church is a community of people who have been changed by God’s love and try, to the best of their limited ability, to embody that love in the way they treat others. Evangelism is a “show and tell” enterprise… in that order. We do our best to show love first, and when the world asks us why we love so radically, then (and only then) we have earned the right to talk about Jesus.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Some Christians have mistakenly conflated evangelism and proselytism. They think the proclamation of the good news means arguing with people until they see things from your point of view. They think their job is to bring Christ to the world, but nothing could be further from the truth.

The reality is that Christ is already present in the world. Christ is in that homeless person, that sex worker, that meth cook, that terrorist, that presidential candidate. Christ lives in them and loves them at the level of their true self, which is deeper than all their problems and insecurities. They don’t see it, most of the time, and neither does the rest of the world. That is why most people falsely identify with things that are less than their true selves: appearance, occupation, possessions, criminal record, diagnosis, disability, race, national origin, political party, etc.

What breaks the spell of these false selves is when we enter into a relationship with someone who treats us as though we are Christ because, at a certain level, that is exactly who we are. The role of the evangelist is to help us realize this truth in ourselves and live it out in relationship with others in the Church and the world. So, in the end, all evangelism is simply Christ loving Christ through Christ.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

This is where the rubber meets the road. This is what it looks like to seek and serve Christ in others, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ, and to be the Church on Earth.

When we do this, we can expect the powers-that-be to get angry. Proclaiming the truth that God loves everyone completely, equally, and unconditionally is a direct affront to the lies they peddle. Bishop Gene Robinson once asked me, “If you aren’t getting in trouble because of your faith, is it really the Gospel you believe?”

Striving for justice and peace and respecting the dignity of every human being will undoubtedly put us at odds with this world system of domination and manipulation. When we march on the picket line, write to an elected official, volunteer at the shelter, let go of an old grudge, bring a casserole to a sick neighbor, or sit through another committee meeting, we are turning the world upside down.

The same holds true for those who teach, heal, practice law, raise kids, run for office, work the McDonald’s drive-thru, or greet customers at Wal-Mart. You are the hands and feet of Jesus in the world and the work you do, when undertaken with this Baptismal Covenant in mind, is the ministry of the gospel.

And here’s the really amazing thing: it works.

When we begin to practice these promises in our lives, the world will take notice.

People are spiritually hungry. They intuitively sense that something is wrong with the way things are, but have no idea how to remedy the situation. Sadly, centuries of Christian dogmatism and judgmentalism have led many to believe that the Church has nothing to contribute. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

The Church’s mission begins and ends in love because we believe that “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16) Our Baptismal Covenant begins with the perfect love of the Triune God at the heart of reality and quickly ripples outward in concentric circles, embracing us, the Church, and the whole universe in the everlasting arms.

“We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

Growing Into Our Baptism

NOTE: There will be much talk about Star Wars in this sermon, but NO SPOILERS about the new film.

I’ve never known a world without Star Wars. I was born in the same year that The Empire Strikes Back was released. As a little kid, I saw the movies and played with the toys. My younger brother and I would dress up as the characters. Since I was the taller one, I would put on a football helmet and tie a towel around my neck and become Darth Vader. My brother would be Luke Skywalker. Then our dad would put on his Star Wars disco record (and yes, it was still a record) and we would duel in the living room with plastic baseball bats as lightsabers. As I got older, I would re-watch the movies with my friends and read the novels and comic books. Several of us got together and played a Dungeons and Dragons style role-playing game based on the movies. When I was nineteen years old, I met my wife in the same week that Episode I: The Phantom Menace came out. I won’t lie: I saw it six times in the theater that summer… and I’ve already been to see The Force Awakens three times since it came out last month.

I’m a lifelong Star Wars fan. There has never been a time in my life when these movies weren’t there. Their presence has been a given in my life, and I made their story my own as I grew up. And now, I get to pass them on to my kids as the saga continues in these new films that are coming out.

Tell you this today, not just to gush about these movies, but because I can see in my love for them something about how Christian faith begins and grows in the Church. And my point will be this: faith begins, not with what we do or believe in relation to God, but with what God does and believes in relation to us.

Today we remember the baptism of Jesus by St. John the Baptist in the river Jordan. Scholars generally agree that this event is the moment when Jesus’ public ministry begins. Jesus’ baptism is, in a sense, his ordination. Especially interesting are the words spoken to Jesus after his baptism: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Jesus’ ministry begins with the message, communicated to him in baptism, that he is loved. That love is a given. It’s just there. It’s the foundation upon which the rest of Jesus’ ministry is built. There is no part of Jesus’ life that is not shaped by this love. Because Jesus is loved, and because he knows he is loved by God, everything else he says and does becomes possible: his teaching, healing, forgiving, welcoming, even dying, and rising again from death. God’s freely given, unconditional love is the source for all of this.

The same is true for you and me. Those words, which God spoke to Jesus at his baptism, God also speaks to you in your baptism: “You are my child, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” God’s love is a given. Like the Star Wars movies, it’s just there. We grow up with it. Most of us take it for granted and never stop to think about how amazing it is.

The sacrament of baptism is how we become conscious of God’s love.

The word baptize comes from the Greek word baptize, which means “to submerge or immerse.” Think about soaking in a bathtub, jumping into a swimming pool, or floating in an ocean. When we are immersed, the water surrounds us on all sides, holds us up, and carries us along in its currents. Now, imagine that the water is God’s love: surrounding you, holding you up, and carrying you along. God’s love washes us clean. The water of baptism is a symbolic representation of that truth. The sacrament of baptism is not a religious merit badge or even a rite of initiation. Baptism does not make God love us; it makes God’s love real to us in a physical way.

The Holy Spirit meets us as we celebrate this sacrament and speaks to each and every one of us the same words that God the Father spoke to Jesus at his baptism: “______, you are my child, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

This, by the way, is the reason why we Presbyterians (along with Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, Lutheran, Methodist, and Anglican Christians) have always been comfortable with the baptism of infants. Whenever a baby is born, we believe that God loves and accepts that child before he or she can say, do, or think anything. We believe the spiritual journey does not begin when a human being makes a conscious decision to search for God, but when God makes a decision to search for us. And the good news, the best news, is that God already made that decision a very long time ago. God says in Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I created you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart.”

The promises we make in baptism, to turn away from sin and turn toward Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, are only ever a response to the grace that God has so freely bestowed upon us. This is why we say that baptism is not a merit badge. It is not something we do for God; it is something God does in us.

In the same way, growth in the Christian faith is not about how much we love God; it’s about realizing how much God loves us. Like Star Wars, God’s love is ubiquitous: it’s just there, all around us. We grow up with it, and we grow into it.

The more we realize just how much God really does love us, and how there really is nothing we can do to about it; the more our lives and our ministries begin to look like Jesus’. Everything Jesus did, from teaching, to healing, to feeding, to welcoming, to forgiving, even to his death and resurrection, was based on this core truth that God loves us and there’s nothing we can do about it.

I pray that we, as a church and as Christians in this world, would realize this same truth in our own lives, and that our lives, one day a time, might begin to look more and more like his life.

Serious as a Heart Attack

Jesus’ Baptism.  Photo by David Bjorgen. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons

Click here to listen to this sermon at my church’s website.

I’d like to begin this morning by stating three tragic facts:

  • First, while you were sleeping last night, around the world, 30,000 children died of starvation or malnutrition.
  • Second, most people sitting in church today don’t give a damn about it.
  • Finally, more people will be upset at me cursing in church than they are at the death of 30,000 kids.

Now, I realize that I just dropped a bomb in your lap a moment ago, so let’s press pause and step back to look at what’s going on.

First, I have to cite my sources.  This little stunt comes from a guy named Tony Campolo, who is a Baptist minister and college professor in Pennsylvania.  Believe it or not, I actually toned the language down from Campolo’s original version!

Second, I want you to pay attention to what happened inside of you just now.  Your heart probably skipped a beat and your adrenaline started pumping.  You might have been angry at what I said or fearful that a lightning bolt might strike me dead.  I certainly hope that it led you to a moment of insight and self-reflection.

What I just did here is employ the rhetorical technique of hyperbole.  Hyperbole happens when you overstate something in order to make a point.  In this case, the point I was trying to make was a point about our moral priorities.  Which issue is more important: mass starvation or bad language?  Starvation, obviously.  But which one is more likely to cause a ruckus in church?  Probably language.  Maybe we church folks need to rearrange our priorities?

Spiritual masters of many religions often use hyperbole as a favorite teaching technique.  For example, Lin Chi, a Zen Buddhist teacher from the ninth century, is thought to have said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”  This is another example of hyperbole.  Obviously, a Zen master would not want his students to assassinate the founder of their religion.  The point he was trying to make is that they shouldn’t idolize or attach themselves to anything in this world, even a religious figurehead.  They should exist in a position of openness to reality, willing to let go of their most precious possessions, ideas, and beliefs.  That’s what Lin Chi meant when he said, “Kill the Buddha.”

Don’t we all sometimes use hyperbole to make a point?  How about this one: “I’m starving!  I could eat a horse!”  Are you really?  Is your life actually in danger of ending due to malnutrition?  Probably not.  If someone barbequed up an entire horse and served it to you for lunch today, could you finish it?  Probably not.  You were using hyperbole to get people’s attention and let them know that you feel hungry and would like to eat food as soon as possible.

I’m giving you this crash course in the art of hyperbole because I think it’s essential to understanding the point that Jesus was trying to get across in this morning’s gospel reading.

In the second half of the passage, Jesus says some pretty offensive stuff to his would-be followers in three separate conversations (that have been conveniently condensed into one by the author of Luke’s gospel).

In the first conversation, the would-be follower says he’ll follow Jesus anywhere and Jesus replies, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

The second person requests permission to attend a parent’s funeral, but Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

The final person just wants to say goodbye to loved ones, but Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Now, that’s some pretty harsh and offensive stuff!  In fact, it’s downright rude!  We imagine Jesus to be a person of great compassion, so why didn’t he ease up on someone whose father had just died?  This is anything but the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” we used to sing about in Sunday School.

Well, Jesus is using hyperbole to make a point.  He is being intentionally offensive and overstating his case.  What’s his point?  That discipleship is hard but it’s also the most important thing in the world.

Think about it: what could be so important that it would cause you to miss your father’s funeral?  It would have to be something pretty big, wouldn’t it?  You would pretty much have to have a heart attack in the car on the way to the funeral itself.  Well, that’s exactly what Jesus is saying: he’s as serious as a heart attack.  Following Jesus and proclaiming the kingdom of God is a drop-everything scenario: stop the presses, hold the phone, and pay attention.  You’re on your way to your dad’s funeral, you say?  Forget about it, this is too important, even for that.  Discipleship is hard and it will cost you everything you have, so you’d better be ready to let it all go.

Do we relate to our Christian faith like that?  I kind of doubt it.  Unlike most of our fundamentalist neighbors, we mainline Protestants don’t tend to use guilt and fear to manipulate people into faith.  For the most part, I think that’s a good thing.  Real faith should be an honest, authentic response from the heart, not something people do because they’re scared of punishment.  But we sometimes adopt a rather casual relationship with Jesus and we don’t always take him seriously.  The things he says should offend and disturb us.  Jesus is supposed to make us extremely uncomfortable.  If we’re not troubled by the things he says, then we’re probably not really paying attention.

Real Christian faith cannot be reduced to an institution, a tradition, or a system of beliefs.  Real Christian faith requires a total commitment of one’s whole being to the service of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.  Real faith, as theologian Paul Tillich put it, is a matter of “ultimate concern.”  To the Christian, everything else in life becomes secondary.  You have to let it all go, let the dead bury their own dead, put your hand to the plow, and never look back.  It’s as serious as a heart attack.  It will cost you all you have.

Many of us are already familiar with the idea of total sacrifice.  We would gladly give all we have, including our lives, for the sake of spouse, kids, or country.  We realize there’s a payoff that makes the sacrifice worthwhile.  In this case, when you let go of everything and commit your whole being to following Jesus, what you get back is your true self.  Bit by bit, you let go of your false identifiers (e.g. property, money, job, politics, nationality, religion, etc.), you get underneath them and discover who you really are.  This is frightening at first because we have been so thoroughly trained to identify ourselves by these things (e.g. I am an accountant, a mother, a son, a Republican, a Presbyterian, an American, etc.).  We think we are these things.  We’re terrified that if we let go of these things and they are swept away, there will be nothing left of us.  But Jesus shows us that this is not true.

Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”  In other words: when we let go of our egos and our false identifiers, we discover who we really are.  This wonderful paradox is illustrated so beautifully in the sacrament of baptism: you go down into the water, where all that extra stuff gets washed away and you are left standing there: naked, wet, and shivering, just like the day you were born.  You are now born again.  And it is then (and only then), as you come up out of that water, that you are given your first glimpse of your true self: the heavens break open, the dove descends, and the voice speaks to you as it did to Jesus at his baptism: “You are my beloved child.”

Jesus knew this truth about himself.  That’s how we was able to walk so freely, securely, and courageously across the face of this planet, unbound by the fetters of attachment to stuff, status, religion, or nationality.  Jesus was free in his true self and he lived to show the rest of us the way to freedom.  He knew that journey would be long and difficult for us.  That’s why he was so urgent and serious as a heart attack.  He knew we have a long way to go and a lot to let go of: all that stuff that keeps us bound up and wound up like bedsprings.  But he also knew what waits for us on the other side of that process: freedom in the knowledge of who we really are as God’s beloved children.  This is the freedom to which Christ calls us.  This is the promised land, the kingdom of heaven on earth, the state of being where we can finally hear the words that the Spirit of God is eternally speaking into our hearts: “I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

The Power of Love

Image is in the public domain. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Image is in the public domain. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

How do you know when you’re on a bad first date?

  • When you’ve been waiting at the restaurant for half an hour and she still hasn’t shown up yet.
  • When she pulls out a newspaper and starts reading it.
  • When she pulls out a cell phone and says, “Let me call my husband…”

Each and every one of these things happened to me at one point or another when I was still single.  Looking back, they’re kind of funny, but they didn’t seem so at the time (especially the last one).

There is something especially deflating about a first date that does not go well.  It takes the wind out of your sails in a way that few things can.  You put on your best clothes and your best behavior in an attempt to ultimately convince another person that you are worth loving.  When it doesn’t work out like you had hoped, it’s hard not to take that personally.  Your self-esteem usually needs some time to recover.

This doesn’t just happen in the dating world either.  Job interviews can be just as brutal in their own way.  You’re putting yourself out there, your future is on the line, but nobody wants to take a chance on you.  That kind of rejection stings to the core and leaves a mark on the surface.

Rejection is probably the most disempowering and disheartening experience a human being can go through.  It hits us right where we live and makes us feel like we aren’t worth anything.  No matter how old we are or how successful we appear to be in life, each and every one of us carries inside of us the pain of past rejection and the fear of future rejection.

This is true of everyone: from the washed-up wino under a bridge to the pop-star princess on TV.  I remember learning this as a teenager when I overheard a conversation one day with a girl who I thought was the prettiest and most popular girl in school.  She was telling someone how she would sometimes just sit in front of her mirror at home and cry because she felt so ugly.  I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  I thought for sure that this girl, of all people, must know what it’s like to be beautiful and loved by everyone, but I was wrong.  The pain and fear of rejection is universal among humans.

Saddest of all are those who experienced rejection so many times that they start to really believe that they’re not worthy of love or happiness in life.  These folks have started to internalize that message of rejection.  They think that’s who they are.  They think that’s what they deserve.  They think they’re nothing and that their lives are worth nothing.  So they treat themselves and others accordingly.

Personally, I can’t help but wonder whether this kind of broken heart might lie behind some of the many incidents of mass murder and random violence that have become so epidemic in our society?  If so, then I would humbly suggest that an effort to include the outcasts and befriend the loners might be more effective in preventing violence than our repeated (and unsuccessful) efforts to “watch out for those maniacs” or “keep an eye on those weirdoes.”  Internalized rejection is disempowering and dehumanizing to people.  There eventually comes a tipping-point when a rejected person becomes the kind of monster that others have made them out to be.

Rejection is powerful, but then again so is love.  Knowing that even one person cares is sometimes enough to make all the difference in the world.  It can even save a life.

I’ve seen what love can do in my life.  Having already mentioned some of my bad experiences in dating, I’d like to share one good one.  This single, ongoing good experience has been enough in my life to outweigh all those other bad dating experiences put together.  I’ve been married to an amazing woman for eight years.  We have laughed together, cried together, encouraged each other, and challenged each other.  Loving her and being loved by her has changed the way I live in this world.  I carry myself differently, I see myself differently, and even though Sarah and I might set each other off sometimes, we usually manage to somehow bring out the best in each other.  That’s what love can do.  That’s the power of love.

Jesus understood that power.  He had experienced it directly, in an ultimate sense.  When he was about thirty years old, he got involved with a radical movement started by his cousin, John.  Cousin John, who we all now know as John the Baptist, was a kind of revival preacher who lived a simple life in the desert and made extensive use of a Jewish practice known as tevilah (ritual washing).  Tevilah was (and still is) used for all kinds of religious and sanitary reasons in traditional Judaism.  John used it as a ritual sign of for Jews who wanted to recommit their lives to following the Torah.  John intuited that big changes were on the way for his people and he wanted them to be spiritually ready.

Jesus himself appears to have been attracted to John’s renewal movement.  Like many of his peers, he participated in the tevilah ritual (which our Bibles have conveniently translated baptism, from the Greek word for “immersion”).  But then something happened to Jesus that didn’t seem to happen to the others.  Luke tells us,

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.””

This ritual washing seems to have been a significant spiritual experience for Jesus.  It was the catalyst that set the rest of his life in motion.  This is the point where Jesus’ work of healing and teaching really gets started.  In a sense, Jesus’ baptism was the moment when he was ordained and commissioned to his ministry.

The part of this story that really stands out to me is the voice from heaven.  This voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  This message is addressed directly to Jesus himself.  The voice calls him “Beloved,” which I take to be significant.

I think about those times in my own life when I faced a scary challenge and my wife said to me, “I love you, sweetheart.  I have faith in you and, no matter what happens, I promise we’ll get through this together.”  I can tell you that, when I hear that from her, I find an inner strength I didn’t know I had.  Love is empowering, no matter where it comes from.  Spouses and partners can affect each other in that way.  We can do the same as friends, family, parents, teachers, and bosses.  We encourage each other.  Have you ever thought about that word?  Encourage.  It comes from the Latin en (into) and cor (heart).  We “put heart/strength into” one another.  When Jesus was baptized and heard that voice from the sky saying “You are my Son, the Beloved,” I believe he was being en-couraged: the very heart of who he was and what he would do was being put into him at that moment.  I believe it was then that Jesus discovered the depths of inner strength that would allow him to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and speak such bold words of truth to power.  Whatever else we might believe about him, we can say that Jesus was a person who felt himself to be empowered by the ultimate Love that springs up from the very heart of reality: the sacred energy that we Christians name God or Holy Spirit.

The same Spirit that empowered Jesus also lives in us.  The same energetic force that catalyzed the Big Bang also animates our brains and bodies.  The flame that burns in a hundred million stars is also shut up in our bones, sparking our creativity and setting our hearts on fire to imagine what might be possible.  After 13.75 billion years of preparation, fine tuning, and evolution, the universe has finally given birth to us: you and me.  We have been gifted with unprecedented knowledge, opportunity, resources, and power to shape the future of the world.  Life itself has placed these gifts into our hands as if to say, “You are my beloved sons and daughters.  I made you, I love you, and I believe in you.”  No less than Jesus, you and I are empowered people.

We call it a miracle when we read about Jesus feeding 5,000 people with loaves and fishes, but we have that power too.  According to the World Food Programme, one dollar will feed four children for a day in a developing country.  This means that we could feed 5,000 people for only $1,250.  Even our little country church could manage that much miracle.  On Christmas Eve 2011, our congregation answered a cry for help from Thea Bowman House, an affordable daycare center in Utica whose funding was being slashed by the county government.  Closure seemed imminent.  This would have forced dozens of parents to leave the workforce and go on welfare because they couldn’t afford full-time daycare without assistance.  People from our church raised $1,000 that Christmas Eve and sent it to that program.  I ran into their director several months later, who told me that, thanks in part to our contribution, they managed to weather the storm without closing their doors.  What’s even more amazing is that they did it without having to drop services to a single family.  I call that a miracle!

We call it a miracle when we read about Jesus healing the sick, but we have that power too.  Our congregation recently finished paying off a $4,500 pledge to Presbyterian Homes & Services in New Hartford to help build the new Parkinson’s Residence.  We’ve been told that this program is the first of its kind and will lead the nation in the fight against Parkinson’s disease with state-of-the-art technology.  Just a few weeks ago, at our most recent Christmas Eve service, our little congregation took up a special collection of $1,420 that was sent to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) to help with the cleanup effort in New York and New Jersey after the devastation left by Hurricane Sandy.  Immediately after the storm, PDA set up emergency shelters and food distribution sites for the victims.  Since then, PDA has continued to work with churches and send down teams of volunteers to help with the long-term cleanup and recovery.  I call that a miracle too.

These are your miracles.  This is the power of what Love can do.  It causes us to think outside the box and reach deep down inside to find resources of strength and generosity we didn’t even know we had.  It’s true that the sharp sting of rejection and the dull ache of loneliness can be felt in all corners of this hurting world, but the caress of love can be felt as well.  The same Spirit that empowered Jesus’ ministry inspires ours as well.  The same voice from the heavens that spoke to Jesus still whispers in our hearts, calling us beloved children.  I pray that our lives will continue to echo the sound of that loving voice to this lonely world, saying to it: “I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Be blessed and be a blessing!

And I just couldn’t resist adding this video to the blog post:

Say Yes to Love

This week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.

The text is Mark 1:4-11.

Back when I was a kid, we used to have a snarky way of telling people we didn’t want them to be part of a conversation.  We’d say, “This is an A-B conversation, so C your way out of it!”  In that same vein, we also used credit card names, saying, “This is a Visa-Mastercard conversation, so Discover your way out of it!”  Neither of those is very nice.  And today, I want to invite you to do the opposite.  I would like for you to C your way into this particular A-B conversation.  Even better, I would love for you to Discover yourself in this conversation.

We’re talking about baptism today.  First of all, we’re remembering Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River.  Second, we’re welcoming a new family into our church, three of whom will be joining by baptism.  Even though we’re talking about these two specific events, one that occurred two thousand years ago and another that will occur in a few minutes, I would like for all of us to see through them to the one great universal event that encompasses all of us in its grand embrace.

Let’s look first at Jesus’ baptism.  We read that story this morning from the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, the second book in the New Testament canon.  What’s interesting is that this is where Mark chooses to begin his retelling of the Jesus story.  There is no Christmas story in Mark’s gospel: no angels, shepherds, magi, manger, or virgin birth.  For whatever reason, Jesus felt compelled to join with John, the passionate preacher and activist, in his grassroots movement for spiritual revival and social change.  Everyday people were inspired by and responding to John’s call to renewal but the religious and political authorities were suspicious.

John made use of an ancient Jewish ritual bath, called tevilah, as a sign of personal commitment to this movement.  Tevilah washing was common for ancient Jews.  Women did it monthly for sanitary reasons, all Jews did it at least once a year before Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and Gentiles did it when they converted to Judaism.  Moreover, there were several smaller washings that took place daily for both sanitary and religious reasons.

This, by the way, is why many Jews were spared from the horrors of the Bubonic Plague in medieval Europe.  Christians falsely accused them of causing the plague by poisoning the wells.  The reality is that the Bubonic Plague was caused by fleas that arrived in Europe on the backs of shipboard rats.  Jewish religion required regular bathing while Christian religion did not.  Jewish people got sick less frequently simply because they were much cleaner than their Christian neighbors.  Alas, this did not stop our forebears from concocting all sorts of slanderous conspiracy theories.  But I digress.

John made use of this very familiar Jewish ritual as a symbol of hope and dedication.  John had a hunch that he was getting people ready for something big that was about to happen, although he might not have been totally sure about exactly what that was.  And then, here comes Jesus.

At first glance, there didn’t seem to be anything particularly unusual about Jesus.  According to Mark’s gospel, there’s not even any indication that Jesus himself knew what was about to happen.  He was just another person who felt drawn to this radical and passionate preacher.  He decides that this is the place for him, his spiritual home, so he undergoes John’s symbolic cleansing ritual.

And then something happened that wasn’t part of the ritual.  Jesus had a spiritual awakening.  Compare it to Moses beholding the glory of God on top of the mountain or the Buddha attaining Enlightenment while meditating under a tree.  The text of Mark’s gospel tells us, “just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”

Earlier this week, I was listening to a biblical scholar named Marcus Borg talk about a similar series of experiences that once happened to him.  He describes these mystical experiences in language that will sound less poetic and more familiar to our modern ears:

[These mystical experiences] began to occur in my early thirties. They changed my understanding of the meaning of the word “God”-of what that word points to-and gave me an unshakable conviction that God (or “the sacred”) is real and can be experienced…

I saw the same visual “landscape” – a forest, a room, the inside of an airliner – that I normally see…

For a minute or two (and once for the better part of an hour), what I was seeing looked very different. Light became different – as if there were a radiance shining through everything. The biblical phrase for this is “the glory of God” – as the book of Isaiah puts it, “the earth is filled with the glory – the radiance – of God. The world was transfigured, even as it remained “the same.” And I experienced a falling away of the subject-object distinction that marks our ordinary everyday experience – that sense of being a separate self, “in here,” while the world is “out there.”

They were… experiences in which I felt that I was seeing more clearly than I ever had before – that what I was experiencing was “the way things are.” And they were also experiences of complete peacefulness, marked by a sense that I would love to stay in this mental state forever. Anxiety and distraction utterly disappeared. Everything looked beautiful.

I imagine that when Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove” it is describing the kind of experience that Marcus Borg was speaking about.

Next, Jesus hears a voice speaking to him.  We aren’t exactly told whose voice is speaking, but it makes sense to infer that it must be the voice of God.  The voice says to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Let’s narrow it down: “Love.”  The voice from heaven is the voice of Love.

Jesus listened to this voice and it changed his life.  That was the point in the story where Jesus’ ministry began.  The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus and the voice of Love empowered him to go out into the world and heal the sick, feed the hungry, welcome the outcast, and enlighten lost souls.  His great miraculous mission started right here, in a cold and muddy river, where a voice from heaven called him “Beloved”.  He spent the rest of his life trusting in that Love and sharing it with other people.

The word baptism comes from a Greek word that means “to soak or immerse.”  On one level, it obviously refers to the way that a person is literally and physically soaked in water during the ritual.  On a deeper level, we are all surrounded by and soaked in the infinite Love of God throughout our whole lives and beyond.  It is part of the air we breathe.  We need it more than oxygen.  Baptism is a ritual, we call it a “sacrament” (Latin for “mystery”), that makes this Love real to us.  God’s Love washes over us like a refreshing bath.  Day in and day out, we are floating on an ocean of Love.

The response of faith has ironically little to do with our religion.  Real faith means saying “Yes” to Love.  When you say that Yes, Love empowers you to live the kind of life that Jesus lived: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, welcoming the outcast, and enlightening the lost.

This is exactly what our church tries to do in its various denominational and grassroots organizations that work together for peacemaking, disaster assistance, hunger relief, health education, environmental preservation, social justice, and human equality.  This is the Presbyterian Church at its best.  And we’re not the only ones doing it.  Other churches, faith communities, and non-profit groups are working for these same goals.  Each one is saying Yes to Love in its own way.  That’s what real faith is.

Each of us is called to say Yes to Love in our personal lives as well.  This is harder than it looks.  We have to contend with the powers-that-be in this world that would try to choke the life of the Spirit and the voice of Love out of us forever.  We have to actively resist the pull toward cynicism.  We have to live like nonviolent radicals and revolutionaries, practicing random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.  Saying Yes to Love is a lifelong task that involves every part of life: church, work, school, and home.  All life is ministry and baptism is your ordination.  Say Yes to Love.

I pray that, as we think about and celebrate the sacrament of baptism this morning, it would be more than just a religious ritual to you.  I pray that it will be to you a sacred mystery.  I pray that the eyes of your heart will be opened so that the infinite ocean of Love in which we are all soaked might be made more real to you.  I pray that you will say Yes to this Love and go out from this place today to live the kind of life that Jesus lived: a life of Faith, a life of Hope, and a life of Love.

The Church Runs On Dunkin (or Sprinklin)

This morning’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.  Forgive the pun in the title.  I couldn’t resist!

The text is Matthew 3:13-17.

Click here to listen to the podcast.

I’ve been baptized three times.  And no, I don’t mean three times, as in “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”.  I mean that I’ve received the sacrament of baptism on three separate occasions.

The first time was when I was a baby.  My uncle, a Wesleyan minister, baptized me in his church.  The second time was when I was thirteen years old.  The church my family attended at the time believed that baptism should only be administered to those who have already made a conscious decision to follow Jesus.  The third time was when I was in college.  The church I attended at that time believed that people should only be baptized after they’ve had a certain kind of spiritual experience.

Each time I was re-baptized, I did it with the most sincere faith I could muster at the time.  I wanted so badly to please God.  Each time, I wanted to be absolutely sure that I “got it right”.

If my story about three different baptisms sounds bizarre to you, don’t worry: it should sound bizarre.  While my faith was sincere, I think as I look back that I was operating out of a very basic misunderstanding of what baptism is.  I was assuming that baptism is all about what I do.  I had to get baptized in the right way, from the right person, at the right time.  I thought it was up to me to “get it right”, otherwise the baptism didn’t count.

But nowadays, as I study more of the Bible, theology, and church history, I’ve come to believe that baptism is not really about what we do; I believe that baptism is mainly about what God is doing in us.

This truth is illustrated beautifully in today’s gospel reading.  It’s the familiar story of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River.  The first thing we notice is that this is no empty ritual.  Neither is it “just a symbol”, as some Christians tend to think of it.  Something is happening here.  Something mystical.  Something wonderful.

We read, first of all, that as Christ came up from the water, “the heavens were opened”.  We don’t know exactly what that means, but the general sense is that, for just a moment, the boundary between this world and the next (i.e. between “earth” and “heaven”) became paper thin.  So thin, in fact, that you could see and hear through it.  I imagine the scene going down like this: a sudden hush falls over the group.  Then the hair on their arms and the backs of their necks stands up.  They start to look around at each other and suddenly realize, “We’re not alone in this place!”  Just then, a voice speaks out, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  This is a moment of revelation.  We are being let in on a big secret.  In this moment, God is revealing something very important about who Christ is and, by extension, who we are.

The voice says, “This is my Son”.  This is a direct quote from the Old Testament.  It comes from Psalm 2:7.  This psalm is what’s called a “coronation psalm”.  It’s all about the king of Israel.  The title, “Son of God”, is usually applied to the king.  When we hear this title applied to Jesus, it’s a clear indication to us that Jesus comes from a royal heritage and is bound for a royal destiny.

As it is with Jesus, so it is with us.  Just as he passed through the waters of baptism, so do we.  Just as the heavens opened over him, they do so over us.  Just as he was empowered by the Holy Spirit, so are we.

In baptism, God shows us who we are as beloved sons and daughters.  You are not an anonymous face in the crowd to God.  Like Christ, the unique treasure stored in your life (and every life) has royal dignity.  As God’s children, you and I bear the image of God, the Holy One who gave us birth.  Each one of us reflects that image in a totally unique way.  If even one of us was missing, a part of that image would be lost forever.

As God’s sons and daughters, the text also tells us that we are “beloved”.  This is where I think “baptism” is especially appropriate as a word and as an image.  The word “baptize” means “to immerse” or “to soak”.  You and I are literally surrounded by God’s love (like water in a hot tub).  We’re soaking in it.  You and I are floating on an infinite ocean of love.  We’re carried along by its currents.  If you use your imagination, you can picture it in your head.  That’s what I like to call “seeing with the eyes of faith” or “seeing with your heart”.  Now, we can’t physically see God or God’s love with our eyes.  God is a mystery.  So, we have to use our imagination and trust that God is actually there.  Baptism, as a ritual, makes this invisible mystery more real to us in a tangible way.

So then, baptism is about what God is doing in us.  In baptism, God reaches out to us.  God shows us, through Jesus Christ, who we truly are as unique and beloved sons and daughters of God.  God empowers us, through the Holy Spirit, to trust in the unseen and infinite reality of love that surrounds us.  When you look at it like that, it gets pretty hard to think about baptism as something that we do for God.  Suddenly, it doesn’t even make sense to think that God is shaking God’s head and going, “Gosh, you didn’t do that right.  You’d better do it again if you want it to count.”  To think of baptism as something we do for God misses the point completely.

This truth was brought home for me in a fresh way last year.  There is a guy who I’ll call Sam (not his real name) who I know through my ministry on the streets in Utica.  Sam is a mentally ill alcoholic who occasionally finds himself homeless in our area.  I’ve known him for years through various agencies and organizations in the community.  A few years ago, he started attending our Thursday night Bible study at St. James Mission.  His participation would vary from week to week.  Sometimes he showed up reeking of booze and his comments on the text were nearly incomprehensible.  At other times, he would engage with others in lively discussion.  He brought insight and compassion from a street-perspective that left us all feeling enlightened and enriched.  In spite of his many problems, we’re glad that Sam came to be part of our community.

After he had been coming for a while, Sam told me that he would like to be baptized.  He and I began meeting together on a weekly basis to discuss the meaning of baptism and the basic beliefs of the Christian faith.  Things started well but quickly fell apart.  Sam’s psychological condition was deteriorating.  He would show up to his appointments, rambling about nonsensical ideas, reading poetry off blank pieces of paper, and talking to imaginary bodyguards through an invisible headset.  It was abundantly clear to me that any discussion of theology or spirituality would be pointless.

During this time, I considered delaying Sam’s baptism until he could get himself into a healthier place.  I thought a good dose of tough love might be just the thing to push him to get help.  However, I decided to go ahead with Sam’s baptism in the end.  We did it at our Thursday night Bible study.  He dressed his best and invited a whole slew of friends and family to celebrate the occasion with him.  And there, in all his confusion, Sam was immersed in the infinite ocean of God’s love for him.

Was this baptism a waste?  Maybe so.  But if we admit that it is a waste, then we also have to admit that God’s love is wasteful.  According to Jesus, God “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”  Don’t we place our faith in that same wasteful love when we bring our children to be baptized as infants, long before they can make any decision or response toward the Gospel of Christ?  Don’t we all have lean on that wasteful love time and time again when we struggle and fail in our Christian walk?  I know that I do.

God’s love is wasteful.  God opens the heavens and pours it out over those who need it most and deserve it least.  We are all soaked in it.  Baptism makes real to us the mystery of God’s love in a way that we can see and touch.  The faith we proclaim in our baptismal vows is only a grateful response for what God has already done for us.  As we meditate on the subject of baptism this morning, I pray that it will not be an empty ritual for you.  I pray that the reality of God’s love will soak you to the bone in a fresh way.  I pray that you would walk out of here this morning refreshed and renewed, ready to take this infinite ocean of love with you into a world that is dying of thirst.