Blessing and Privilege?

sermon on Matthew 5:1-12; 1st Corinthians 1:18-31

my modern beatitudes translation:

Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up the mountain and gathered his followers around him[1], and he opened his mouth teaching and saying to them,

“Privileged[2] are the dispirited[3], because they are part of heaven-ish empire[4].

“Privileged are the saddened, because they are to be encouraged.

“Privileged are the nonviolent[5], because they’ll[6] control this world.[7]

“Privileged are those hungering and thirsting for justice[8], because their appetites are to be quenched.

“Privileged are the helpers, because they’ll be helped[9].

“Privileged are those with clean hearts[10], because they’ll recognize God.

“Privileged are the peacemakers, because they are to be called son of God and daughter of God[11].

“Privileged are those hunted[12] for justice, because they are part of heaven-ish empire.

“You’re privileged when you’re insulted and hunted and they give ‘alternative facts’[13] about you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because that’s earning the heaven-ish wages[14], just as that’s how they hunted the prophets before you.”

 

sermon:

Blessings and blessedness seem notoriously difficult to identify or attribute, since blessing can be so easy to claim at one moment but offer so little explanation when lacking.

The Bible can contribute to such confusion. As a couple examples, Psalm 127 describes having children as a blessing from God. But does that mean those of us without children lack divine blessedness? Proverbs 3 talks about the wise as blessed, but that not only fails to account for us stuck as idiots; maybe more importantly, it seems to contrast with 1st Corinthians claiming our cross-obsessed foolishness. Psalm 137 is among the ugliest in the Bible; when held captive by the Babylonian Empire, it alleges that those are blessed who’d kill the enemies’ babies. It’s not only despicable, but the opposite of Jesus identifying peacemakers as blessed.

Along this ambiguous trend, we like to figure our wealth is a blessing, or a secure home or good job or caring friends, or any kind of victory as blessing. It spreads from there. A well-known social media meme over the past couple of years has even focused on this, as #blessed. No less than the New York Times has weighed in against what has turned from self-serving to just silly.* That author reported her friends’ internet claims that “God [had] recently blessed [them] with dazzling job promotions, coveted speaking gigs, the most wonderful fiancés ever, front row seats at Fashion Week…And, [not] limited to the little people, [God’s] been known to bless Kanye West and Kim Kardashian with exotic getaways and expensive bottles of Champagne.” In my own glimpse at Twitter this week, within a few minutes those who’d been #blessed included students signing to play football at various schools, a guy who happened to push save before his laptop died, one whose coworker bought her a burrito after she forgot her wallet, and—I’m not kidding—a student who found answers to cheat on a test. #Blessed. That seems unlikely to be the sort of blessing God would be doling out. More, if God were indeed busy with that baloney, it would have to be a colossal waste not only of time but of divinity itself.

Yet this is so fully embraced by our culture that it’s rare to diverge from this sense of blessing. It has become mostly a synonym for luck or being fortunate, though those happenstance, coincidental, rolling-the-dice types of terms seem less sacred or benevolent than claiming blessedness. While just as circumstantial, a claim to blessing manages to sound not only holier but more preferably likeable.

Again, the Bible isn’t immune to the odd use. Quite often in its pages the term gets translated for some reason as “happy.” Those of you who may still think of Twitter hashtags as pound signs may recall Robert Schuller’s book about these Beatitudes called “The Be (Happy) Attitudes.” But this is neither about your attitude nor about our usual feeling of happiness. Though Psalms would have it that “Happy are those who observe justice, happy those who avoid the way of the wicked, and happy who consider the poor,” is there really any reason to suspect that paying attention to the immense and increasing levels of poverty around us could make you happier? In that instance, I’d be more likely to bank on society’s claim that personal finances correlate with happiness.

But that’s not where Jesus comes down. Indeed, his blessings appear like reversals. If we didn’t know better, we could take them to be pitying, like a consolation prize, almost saying, “well, you didn’t get what you really wanted, but at least you’re blessed.” One of the times is a week after Easter when Thomas gets to put his fingers into the nail marks in Jesus’ hands. Jesus replies, “yeah, but blessed are those who haven’t seen but come to believe.” That always prompts me to want to respond, “thanks, Jesus, but if it’s all the same to you, I’d just as soon get to touch and see.”

Yet there’s plenty of biblical precedent for paradoxical blessedness. Psalms talk about those taking refuge in God as blessed (where we might ask if would be better to be secure and not need a refuge). Those whose transgressions are forgiven are blessed (again, we might imagine it’s better not to have done wrong in the first place). We’d be slow to echo the Psalms’ sentiment that people are blessed when they’ve been disciplined by God. 1st Peter calls those blessed who suffer for doing what is right, when we’d prefer to avoid suffering at all costs. Revelation talks a lot about blessing in the face of adversity, calling martyrs with blood on their robes blessed and even the dead are blessed. The probably foremost biblical etymologist notices that the Bible’s definitive use of blessing is as a “reversal of customary evaluations.”** So it’s not just a consolation prize, but truly upending our estimations.

It doesn’t take much to appeal to our worst instincts, so when we would cherish most the good life, the new car, the fancy house, the full belly, attractive looks, the smiling family, an applauded career, the ease of schedule, releasing of stress, beautiful surroundings, and the right answers for the tests, then almost all of the favorable comparisons we typically attribute as blessings are reversed in God’s appraisal and in these words from Jesus. Blessed are the poor? Blessed are those low in spirit, without much holiness, the un-happy!? Blessed are those who mourn? The meek? The hungry? Those yearning for and need justice? The soft-hearted? The ones who labor for reconciliation: the winners are those who don’t try to win? Or worse, the losers: the persecuted and reviled and lied about?

This list has a bad set of roles, with some pretty undesirable circumstances that Jesus lays out for us in his first sermon. And he’s not saying these are worthwhile eventually, that it seems rotten now but pays off in the long run. He’s observing the reality of what it’s like to be his follower and to live into this spreading heaven-ish empire. Each could begin, “You’ll know you’re following Jesus if…”

These blessings sure aren’t demonstrable happiness, but result from the trust and conviction of faith, or more from your inescapable connection to God’s redeeming and saving work. You are brought in to experience this firsthand, unexpectedly making it (as I translated the term) a “privilege.” The best thing about blessing from God is that it doesn’t just validate your stature or what you already thought of yourself, but God’s blessing arrives amid difficulty and disappointment, when you need it, when all seems lost and you’re wondering why you should keep trying to be true in doing what is right.

With this, we could refer to it either as mere coincidence or as a “blessing” that the lectionary gives us the intensely unflinching reading from 1st Corinthians, proclaiming our center in Christ crucified, a scandal and moronic (in the original Greek). “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.”

We need this word right now. Your blessing is the result of following a crucified criminal, of being incorporated into this crucified and resurrected body of his that persistently takes on flesh as the church in the world, striving for his purposes, of thus being chosen by God, and that means you are blessed, if you can believe all that.

 

 

 

* https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/04/fashion/blessed-becomes-popular-word-hashtag-social-media.html?_r=1

** Kittel, vol4, p368

[1] skipping sit to teach, for modern context

[2] see Kittel v4p365, trying for familiar modern term

[3] depressed? down-hearted? not-very-spiritual?

[4] term from last week’s sermon

[5] see www.GirardianLectionary.net

[6] “are to/they’ll” emphasizing future passive

[7] heir à responsibility, share of, take possession of; ghn as land, nation, earth (non-heaven)

[8] more familiar than “righteousness”

[9] trying for paired terms around elehmon (gracious/graced)

[10] Psalm 51 :10

[11] baptismal calling

[12] more active of “sought/chased” and more familiar than “persecuted/oppressed”

[13] term currently in news from Trump, for “falsely say bad stuff”

[14] not heavenly reversal, but active suffering for acting godly

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A Heaven-ish Empire

sermon on Matthew4:12-23; 1Corinthians1:10-18

 

This Sunday marks the anniversary of Pastor Sonja and me starting here and preaching our first sermons at MCC. It makes me think back to those days a year ago, meeting you, figuring out how this wild system of two shared congregations functions, and details for an annual meeting a week away, and even what streets to take to get here.

This Gospel reading has a similar feel, right? So much happening at once. It’s the first glimpse of Jesus’ ministry (not that I’m trying to compare myself to him, I’m just talking hectic beginnings) with many details of him moving to a new home, he’s preaching, he’s meeting people, calling them to follow (and they have their own hectic new beginnings), Jesus is going around healing and teaching and curing. Bizzy!

But amid the details of this first glimpse of a public Jesus and what he’ll be up to until the end, one bit right away grabbed my attention this week. The passage starts: “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested…” That detail feels peculiar. It seems to indicate that Jesus’ ministry didn’t come out of fulfilled preparation or special readiness. It didn’t say, “Now after Jesus had earned his Master of Divinity degree and was approved by the synod…” Nor does it attribute this to internal enthusiasm with some sort of spiritual motivation, that God nudged Jesus to use his gifts as who he was truly meant to be. He wasn’t looking for opportunity, as if perusing job listings and weighing his options until he decided to pack up shop and move down to the lakeshore instead of staying with the family carpentry business back in his hometown.

No, what really seems to have gotten the ball rolling on what Jesus would accomplish in a couple short years and what would try to be shut down and stifled as he was executed, and what continues as the movement that maybe your parents introduced you to when you were but an infant and that keeps bringing you here now, what started all of this huge and vital process, according to that first sentence from Matthew this morning, was a crisis, was that John got arrested.

Again, just to make sure we’re really getting it, that wouldn’t have been the obvious choice. If Jesus felt close to John and was impressed by him and even echoed some of John’s preaching, then this isn’t exactly when he should take up the mantle of a mentor, but would’ve been a good time to lay low and hide out and not make waves. Not only does Jesus start his work amid a moment of crisis, but clearly from John’s example, this is dangerous.

That is emphasized by the setting in the reading, though it doesn’t quite jump out at us. Matthew likes to quote from the Hebrew Bible and tell us that Jesus was fulfilling those writings. He does it 15 times, way more than any other writer. We need not take it as if prophets were predicting details about Jesus so much as Matthew saw the old story, God’s story resonates in the life of Jesus, and the ancient story has continuity in this new community.

At any rate, in this case the words from the Isaiah that Matthew uses describe Jesus’ setting as the land “on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” Being under the shadow of death certainly must be a description for crisis and danger, so there’s that awareness with the start of Jesus’ ministry.

Still more, it describes Capernaum as “on the road by the sea” and as a region “of the Gentiles.” Those are doubly dangerous terms. The region of Gentiles indicates it’s far from the heart of the faith. This isn’t amid other Jewish believers near the temple in Jerusalem, but is out in the hinterlands, surrounded by non-believers.

Maybe worse, this so-called “road by the sea” means the Via Maris, an ancient highway that ran from Egypt to Damascus and far beyond. It was a route for international trade under the supervision of the Roman Empire. Those people who have sat in darkness far from the safe nightlight glow of their religious stronghold were instead under the watchful lurking eye of a foreign government’s military occupation. Capernaum was a highway wayside, where people were trying to eke out existence as a meager and maybe forlorn group of believers. These people are at all kinds of apparent loss—of their health, of their security, of control, of any sort of prestige and power. And Jesus himself is at a loss as John the Baptist has been imprisoned.

To reiterate once more: in that dark setting, Jesus began. Amid this shadow of loss, the light Jesus casts is counter to the empire. Again, it may not jump out in our translation, but he’s confrontational when he says that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Rather than picturing a palace in the clouds, we could more meaningfully title it something like “the heaven-ish empire.” This is the same when Jesus has us pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.” It’s about how God would have earth run, the shape of life under God’s authority instead of Caesar’s. It should leave no surprise from the get-go that darkness tries to overcome light and such talk and such actions are going to get Jesus crucified; he is boldly proclaiming this new empire in enemy territory, offering an alternative community directly in the face of reigning powers.

Again, as he calls those first pairs of brothers, he’s transferring or relocating them out of the kingdom of Rome. In leaving behind their nets and boats and role as fishermen, Jesus is pulling them out of a job that was indentured labor for the imperial economy. These guys paid taxes in order to get out on the water, and then their catch mostly went to palaces of oppressive leaders. They weren’t enjoying Friday night fish fries of what they caught; rather, they were left with only boiled down glueyness of guts and otherwise unappealing parts of the fish. Jesus is inviting them to abandon that life of captivity for a risky new role of fishing for people.

The same vision of the heaven-ish empire’s new community is also embodied in the mention of healings. One theologian says the Gospel talks so much about sick people because “Roman imperial structures and practices were bad for people’s health. Some 70-90 percent of folks in Rome’s empire experienced varying degrees of poverty… [and] Such factors resulted in widespread diseases associated with poor nutrition (blindness; muscle weakness etc.) and a lack of immunity (diarrhea; cholera etc.)…[So] Jesus’ healings are acts that repair imperial damage and enact God’s life-giving empire in restoring people’s lives.”*

Though that could be close to raising questions of government and health care, our reading from 1st Corinthians portrays this new community in ways which might be still closer to our reality gathered here. Paul reiterates that we are people of the cross, baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Rather than the too-human distinctions of earthly power structures, this is our core identity now. Again, this transfers your allegiance from the old kingdom into the new community of equals, of mutual care, of shared responsibility. We don’t define ourselves against each other, but with each other, together.

Paul’s appeal is that in Jesus we should recognize no divisions among ourselves, but should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. In that congregation, it meant revising how they settled legal disputes and how they served meals and how they viewed the less talented among them. It reconfigured relationships between the wealthy and poor, the high class and the hungry, the wisely cultured and the vulnerably foolish, how they interacted in marital relationships and sexual ethics, and even how they understood the living and the dead.

I’m going to break there. That’s loads of ancient background, though I hope it helps you sense how vibrant and vital this gathering here is, critical (amid crisis), a matter of death and new life, confrontation with empires on each other’s behalf. It’s the spreading graciousness of the heaven-ish empire that is welcoming you, continuing to transfer you to a new community and to strengthen your resistance. In shorthand, this Godly way of meeting the darkness of crisis with the light of enlarged caring community is often known briefly as “love.”

I’m not going to spell out specifics of how to love or to do better at living into this central and critical identity we share in Christ, of how you’re enacting the ancient story, or go into political descriptions, or forecast what standing up against imperial forces means in our world now among crises and dangers we face in our own dark setting.

Instead, with just a brief glimpse of the struggle in more modern settings, I want to share another passage from Martin Luther King, in which he happens to use our Bible passage from this morning. Here you go: He begins in noting the “sad fact” that we resist participating in the beloved community because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of [enemies], and our proneness to adjust to injustice…[Yet, he says,] These are revolutionary times. All over the globe [people] are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” …America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of [love] will take precedence over the pursuit of [hate]. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brother [and sister]hood.**

And, with that reiteration of Jesus’ invitation and sharing Rev. King’s expectancy of new birth, finally the one other reflection I offer was shared with me that the darkness around us isn’t always the darkness of the tomb, but may be the darkness of the womb as we’re emerging into the light of new possibilities, new life, new relationships. I continue to be glad to be sharing that with you.

 

* https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3138 (Warren Carter)

** “A Time to Break Silence” in A Testament of Hope, p241-2

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Inauguration Vigil for Climate Change

Reflection for Vigil of First 100 Hours of a New Presidency on Climate Change

A lot depends on perspective in these days, and so depending on your perspective, you might find it either a fitting coincidence or grotesquely ironic that this week ending in inauguration began with the observance of Martin Luther King day.

Whether good or ill, I’ve been considering the Rev. King’s words and example amid this moment. There are, again, things both more and less helpful.

Less helpful to me feels that grand reassurance oft repeated by Rev. King, that the arc of the moral universe is long but that it bends toward justice. Overall, I have that hope in God’s blessing and promise. Yet we’re gathered in vigils around the country in these days particularly recognizing that we don’t have time for a long arc. We can’t wait for eventuality. The fate of so much wellbeing on our planet—on lives already as well as generations to come and the very shape of creation’s community as we know it—direly is demanding our concern.

On that note, Rev. King also impatiently resisted those who asked him to wait for more favorable conditions. He witnessed such revolutionary times where people all over the globe “are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression.” Almost 50 years ago he gave a famous speech explaining the challenge that resisting racism connected to resisting war. Or—in others of his famous phrases—that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere and that we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.

We see today a similar expanse of overlapping categories and the calling to a common cause. Climate change is about saving polar bears from extinction, but climate change is also about native communities in Alaska melting through the permafrost. And climate change is about refugees and low-lying cities that are already facing expensive emergencies, and climate change is about women’s rights as villagers have to walk farther and farther for water, and climate change is about rural lives, as agriculture in Wisconsin will be battling more and more pests, and climate change is about health care facing pandemics for the poor and elderly, and climate change is about recreation and tourism, and avoidably about the Department of Natural Resources and the Public Service Commission (and their websites) and climate change is about politics and is about the economy, both tied together in the shameless greed of fossil fuel companies trying to profit in the face of impending disaster. Climate change is about the fullness of who we are, which also means climate change is about religion, is about God, about the faith we practice, about our sin and our hope, is about the deepest of our beliefs and corest of our commitments.

I’ll conclude with words Rev. King delivered those 50 years ago which speak for us here, now, and invite our ongoing devotion:  We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. [he said]… Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons [and daughters] of God, and our brothers [and sisters] wait eagerly for our response. … [W]hatever the cost … and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must [act] in this crucial moment of human [and non-human!] history.

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Christmas Continuing

a newsletter article — slightly belated

Keep celebrating, because it’s still Christmas!
As I write this on December 30, it’s still Christmas. As you read this in early January, it will still be Christmas. Even if you get around to it in late January, there’s still a sense it could be Christmas.

 

I’m whatever it would be called for a Scrooge who is grumpy when people don’t celebrate Christmas enough. After months of holiday lights in stores and of songs on the radio, it all vanished on December 26. Symbols of joy were cleared away as detritus, bagged up and kicked to the curb with the tree, disposed of as if life could and should return to “normal.”

 

But we miss out by shortchanging the official 12 days of this season, from December 25 to January 5. We need more carols and candlelight, and probably would do well to keep giving gifts (though I’m not asking for lords a-leaping). In the darkness, in the cold, amid the bleak midwinter, huddled under our worries, we’d benefit from more celebration, more practice at joy, more brightness of outlook and demeanor.

 

Back to the 4th Century the Church celebrated Christmas all the way until Candlemas on February 2, following the timeline of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple from Luke 2:22. That made it a full 40-day season. (After all, why should the repentance of Lent take all the fun of 40 days?!)

 

What’s more, our sense of Christmas as the biggest festival of the year (followed now by Halloween, as our Confirmation class reminded me, based on commercial capabilities) is also a newer trend. Originally the big three were Easter, Pentecost, and Epiphany. Christmas was a minor prelude!

I’d be in favor of not bypassing Epiphany. For our current calendars, the liturgical schedule of Christmas concludes with the celebration of Epiphany on January 6. We celebrate that as the visit of the wise men (see Matthew 2 for your at-home festivities). We also celebrate the arrival of the light and ponder what this means for us at the shared Epiphany choral service on Sunday, January 8.

 

This is a bit different in Easter Orthodoxy, where the focus of Epiphany is the Baptism of Jesus, a festival that the west typically celebrates on the Sunday after Epiphany. An internet search for “orthodox epiphany” will show some of the fun they have with the occasion.

 

Amid too much date-keeping and liturgical minutiae, the main thing worth knowing (and which I mentioned in this space a couple months ago) is how they reflect on Jesus’ baptism. We typically think of the waters of baptism as blessing us and connecting us to God. Since we’d say Jesus was already blessed and connected to God, the Orthodox view is that Jesus blessed and connected the waters to God. It’s a great transposition. Jesus entered the Jordan River and hallowed those molecules, and through the logic of the hydrologic cycle—as waters flow downstream and evaporate and fall elsewhere as rain—now all waters have been blessed by Jesus.

 

That also serves for continuing our celebrations of Christmas. As Jesus is born into our world, into our flesh, breathing our air, then there is nothing outside of the touch of the sacred, outside of God’s presence. Our lives and this world are imbued with holiness. That means Christmas cannot be boxed up or put to the curb, because even the landfills and basement shelves—and yes, I have to admit, even the non-Christmas songs on the radio and the unadorned stores—are born with God’s presence.

 

So keep celebrating—that’s our new normal!
+ nick

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sermon on The Baptism of Our Lord

(Matthew3:13-17, Acts10:34-43)

 

The first thing for today is an explanation and apology. Epiphany is January 6, and this festival of the Baptism of Our Lord is usually the first Sunday after Epiphany, which was last Sunday, but we were celebrating our choral service. So when you have to explain to friends and classmates and coworkers tomorrow that your church is a little slow, I apologize for that. We’ll see if we can fix it by the end.

In spite of our slowness, this was worth not bypassing. Actually, Jesus says that right in the Gospel reading. John the Baptist wanted to skip past it, to avoid the baptism of Jesus, but Jesus says, “Nope. We need this.”

We may wonder what about the baptism of Jesus we need, or why this is worth paying attention to. We may ask, does it tell us something important about Jesus, or is it because it tells us something important about us?

To start reflecting on this occasion, it sure seems that the baptism of Jesus is not like ours. I mean, we had nine baptisms here this past year, most of them when we were gathered together for Sunday worship services. You were here and part of those experiences. So how would you describe them? Nice? Community-building? Good to see young families and cute babies?

Nobody said that at a single one of those baptisms the roof was torn off the building, a bright light shone in on the child or a dove came to rest on them. And the voices we heard didn’t come echoing with the thunder but were plain old regular human voices. So we might draw distinctions that the baptism of Jesus was extraordinary, was special, very different from our baptism.

With that, another line is often drawn that our baptism washes away sins, but Jesus didn’t have any sins to wash away. Matthew doesn’t seem concerned about making that theological point in this story. I mention it partly because we have a bad conception of sin, mostly viewing it as the nasty little secrets and bad habits and quirky peccadilloes and guilty pleasures, but that is really a weak definition of sin.

More than that, though, this account of the baptism of Jesus isn’t trying to tell us about what Jesus isn’t, but who Jesus is. That gets obscured by how our lectionary chooses pericopes, or little snippets, lifted out of the larger context. Here are the verses right before today’s reading: John the Baptist proclaimed “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but a more powerful one than I is coming after me; I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear the threshing floor and…burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (3:10-12)

Against all that fierceness, you could feel the tone shift as if our reading today began with a big but: but “then Jesus came.” John seems to have expected a tough guy, busting in, taking charge, tossing out the bums. But Jesus comes, not with the ax or burning chaff or in all his glory, but comes and asks to be baptized.

That’s the first important thing we learn here about Jesus. Asking what it tells us, while you could take it that Jesus needed to repent or was just a wimp, it’s better and more likely that his means and ends weren’t John’s. So he could be modeling what it’s like to turn from our own ways and toward God’s way. Or showing us that God’s grace is never earned but always received as a gift. Maybe he goes through with it so we can hear about the Spirit resting on him and the voice calling him the Beloved Son. Maybe it’s about the importance of baptism.

That raises the next question, of whether the baptism of Jesus is like our baptisms or is completely different. By the simple fact that there aren’t these miraculous phenomena at our baptisms, does that mean we’re left with something second rate?

I’d argue wholeheartedly against that. I firmly believe some of the point in this story about Jesus is so we can understand the same thing in our baptisms. Even though you couldn’t see the Spirit descending on you, and even though it sounded like my voice, or like some pastor’s voice, or whoever did it, still by means of your baptism, with that splash of water, God was declaring: I choose you. You are my son. You are my daughter. I love you. I’m pleased with you. That message of claiming you always and delighting in you no matter what is exactly the purpose and reason for baptism.

Your baptism expressly connects you to Jesus. Within our baptismal liturgy, that’s proclaimed in words of prayer saying, “At the river your Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Holy Spirit. By the baptism of Jesus’ death and resurrection you set us free from the power of sin and death and raise us up to live in you.” That’s why the paschal candle is rekindled today, as a reminder that your baptismal candles share that flame, a symbol of Jesus’ death and resurrected presence. As we remember our baptisms in a minute, we renew the covenant connection with newness of life in Jesus.

That points to another aspect of reflection for this day. There have been times when we associated baptism with going to heaven, through the promise of eternal life. That was vital yesterday at the memorial service for John Goltermann, for example. It can be the central promise for baptism in newborn intensive care units.

But mostly, when we gather in church and when we need to think about our baptisms, it isn’t because we’re worried about going to heaven. It isn’t only about death and resurrection like rising from the grave, but is dying to an old way of living and newness of life we’re living into already.

We have some of that perspective from Martin Luther. Today you have in bulletins the first bit of his Small Catechism, and it will be most of the way through this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation before we get to the section on baptism, but for a preview, Luther reminds us that baptism means a daily dying and rising. It’s not only amid tragedy or after we’ve drawn our last breath, but is about how we’re rising to live each and every day. It’s not just an eventuality, but is actually changing you here and now.

This is similar to a discussion with Confirmation students and their families and mentors this week, that it’s foolish to think of Confirmation as happening once and for all, that in the spring of 8th grade you’re able to say, Yep, I agree with this faith and am interested in participating in it. Rather, every single day we could be Confirmed, could gather here at church and say to each other, here’s what I believe today and where I’m left wondering, here’s what I find important, here’s how I expect God is working in me and in this world. That every-day-Confirmation would be essentially the remembrance of baptism, the daily dying and rising, the repentance of trying to orient our lives on what God is calling us toward and working in us.

The ongoing reality of living as beloved by God and embodying that for daily existence was also the case for Jesus; if it would’ve only been about his death, about his ending on the cross and the promise of new life from the tomb, then Jesus could’ve been baptized near the very end of the Gospel. Instead he does it right away, so we know this promise and the presence of the Holy Spirit with him in all of his life, in all that he does, with the power to go “about doing good and [struggling against] the devil,” as we heard Acts describe his ministry. Again paralleling our lives, most of us were baptized as infants, not as an insurance against something bad, but as assurance that God’s blessing is with us in all that happens to us, throughout our lives and beyond, giving us power to keep doing what’s right.

I began with an apology that you’d have to say your congregation is a little slow, but also wanted to redeem that slowness. For your existence this week, you may need the promise of God’s presence and some hope for life. This week, as we face new beginnings which may be accompanied by worries and challenging tasks and so many possibilities of striving to embody God’s goodness in our world, here to conclude are words of encouragement and blessing from Martin Luther King Jr.:quote-our-only-hope-today-lies-in-our-ability-to-recapture-the-revolutionary-spirit-and-go-martin-luther-king-55-75-20

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to [hu]mankind as a whole … This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all [hu]mankind.

We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. … We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. …

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons [and daughters] of God, and our brothers [and sisters] wait eagerly for our response.*

That’s what your baptism is for. Amen

 

 

* from “A Time to Break Silence” in A Testament of Hope, p242-244

* from “A Time to Break Silence” in A Testament of Hope, p242-244

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Watch Night / New Year’s sermon

Matthew 25:31-46; Ecclesiastes 3:1-13

 

This Watch Night service is a new thing to me, and maybe to you, too. Pastor Sonja has known of them, primarily as a practice of African American congregations, and she was eager to explore it here.

The history actually began with Moravians in the Czech Republic who first held this service in 1733. A few years later it was picked up by John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement. His vision was to have one of these each month on the full moon.

Partly this shape was as a covenant renewal, and the “watch” of the service was about watching over relationships with God, a chance to reaffirm that commitment. The basis and title came from Mark’s Gospel: “Watch therefore: for you know not when the master of the house comes, at evening, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning. What I say unto you I say unto all, Watch” (13:35-37, KJV).

For Wesley’s piety and reforming instinct, Watch Night also provided a religious community alternative to the drunken celebrations common in society, a way to gather in church instead of at the alehouse.

Oh, and this all comes together with another important part of this history that I hadn’t mentioned yet: it’s called Watch Night because it was a vigil, a watch being kept during the night. Specifically, these gatherings mostly would have meant that you would have arrived here at church last evening around 9pm and we would have kept at it until after midnight struck and the New Year began.

Now, I recognize we’re already lower attendance on this Sunday morning because of celebrations last night. And if we would’ve tried to hold church instead of those celebrations, I suspect even fewer of us would’ve been here.

Still, it’s tempting to take the Wesleyan tack and pat ourselves on the back for starting the New Year right by being here in worship and then criticize the late night revelers for neglecting what’s important, being inattentive to the covenant, failing to keep watch. There’s even scriptural precedent for it, like in the letter to the Romans: “salvation is nearer to us now; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (13:11-14)

The counterargument is that I rather like gratifying the desires of the flesh. I cherish those celebrations with family and friends. In that light, we may well agree with the unusual Ecclesiastes perspective struggling to make sense of how we should live. It doesn’t arrive at typical morality like John Wesley pursued. Along the way it barely mentions God, reiterating that we might as well eat, drink, and be merry, since there doesn’t seem to be a larger purpose in life than that.

We might find a bit more answer for life’s intentions than that. But first, especially as we’re here on the 8th day of Christmas, we should be cautious about where we look for godliness, about excluding God from parties and merriness. Indeed, the much larger biblical precedent than abstention is about God’s involvement in and love for this world and its delights. If we get too prudish and suspect we need hang out in some holy place to impress Jesus, then we’ve missed the notification that he didn’t come to the holy people in the holy place, but was born in a barn and celebrated by raucous shepherds.

That trend continues today in our Gospel reading from Matthew, that when we look for Jesus we don’t best look at the pious following religious rules, snooty and too often hypocritical. Instead Jesus says he’s identified in the hungry and thirsty, the ill and imprisoned, the homeless and the stranger. Or as Dorothy Day said in one of our lessons on Christmas Day: “it would seem raving lunacy to believe that if I offer a bed and food and hospitality to some man or woman or child, and that my guest is Christ,” but nevertheless store clerks, factory and office workers, slum dwellers and suburban housewives, soldiers and tramps don’t just remind us of Christ, they are Christ. (I’ll post the whole reading on our Facebook page, in case you were off celebrating amid regular life and not at church last week.)

That continues to shape our caution about where and how we perceive God. Just as godliness can’t de facto be excluded from the delights and merriment, neither do happiness and abundance indicate a sure blessing from God, since Christ promises to be present for and with the hurting and lonely and outcast and all in need.

So as we gather here at a moment of transition, of watch that looks back at our past year and forward into the new, we consider the times—as Ecclesiastes has them of opposites—a time to dance and a time to mourn, a time to plant and to harvest, for war and for peace. We might well notice that in its reluctance to speak about God, Ecclesiastes doesn’t label these as times appointed by God, of God wanting times of war, weeping, hate, or death.

Yet amid these times and seasons we are left to contemplate what we may rightly name as caused by God, of what transpires in our world being labeled with the risky and uncertain term of God’s will, and what more easily may be labeled as the cursed effects of our sin or neglect or disregard. In both, we’re left to consider this past year more fully, to reflect on God’s presence.

To start, the moments we shared together at church fill me with plenty of gratitude, to be here with you and with Sonja, for the new beginnings and continued journey on the Road Ahead.

But it’s not just here, as we’ve recognized. We should look back on times of celebration and the highlights of 2016, the new sights we visited and transformative experiences, the progress we made and the simple joys, the sustenance of daily bread, the possibilities of reconciliation. Those we may consider gifts of God. Maybe recall or jot three of those things now.

On the other hand, I also know there’s a lot of sentiment about being ready to be done with 2016, to put that year behind us, from the small scale of facing illnesses and worries to the societal and global scales of conflict and anger and elections. Recall or jot three of those areas now. With those, in Ecclesiastes’ alternating times, 2016 may be mainly a time we’re ready to be done with and onto something else.

Looking ahead, then, watching out for this coming year, we also know our tasks and projects, we can predict what our work will and should be. We may see that as finding the delights, the celebrations in community, the relationships we need to revitalize us. We may take pleasure in our toil, in roles of finding Christ in our neighbors, in giving food and drink, welcoming and visiting, in responding. We may anticipate the renewed importance of care and support and advocacy in this new year. So I invite you to resolve yourself for three of those things now.

There’s one more aspect of this Watch Night tradition that’s not immediately satisfying or instantly gratifying. This keeping watch is also traditionally about waiting, about fortifying us for what is yet to come.

I mentioned that this is an especially important service in African American congregations, in spite of its European origins.  The strength of that connection arose on December 31, 1862, a day known as “Freedom’s Eve.” On New Year’s Day, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was to go into effect, and so African American slaves gathered for Watch Night worship services to pray, to hope, to wait, to celebrate as midnight came and, with it, the news of freedom.

But that wasn’t the culmination. As you may know, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation didn’t effectively emancipate or free any slaves. It declared that the slaves in rebel southern states were free, but there was no way to enforce that rule, precisely since those states had withdrawn from the Union. So that New Year’s Eve could have been a moment of disappointment or despair or frustration at the circumstances, but instead it was lived as a delight in the astounding good news even though that had yet to become a full reality. And still 154 years later in African American communities, they’re waiting and hoping for liberation and opportunity that’s still a long time coming, still not achieved, not right.

Maybe that’s some of our sense, too, the proclamation of God’s amazing efforts for freedom and good will, of peace on earth, of joy and celebration and merriment, of love and abundant life. Yet we wait. It is not yet fulfilled. The proclamation goes against too much of the current evidence. So the labors continue with renewed vigor, and we understand ourselves rejoined in the covenant, recommitted to the cause, abiding with hope in God.

Again, since this service was her design and excitement, final words go to Pastor Sonja, with a prayer she shared last midnight which she had found inside one of her father’s Bibles: “Almighty God, who hast promised to restore my soul, enable me now to be quiet and to know that my life rests in Thee. Let Thy healing energy come upon me to give me power over such opposing conditions as fear and worry, to bring me great courage for daily living, beauty to refresh my spirit and a wonderful sense of fellowship with Thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

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