Baptism is a Ritual Expression of What IS – a sermon on the Baptism of Jesus – Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

I have never much cared for John the Baptist. Everything that we read about John the Baptist in the Christian Scriptures makes me think of him as Jesus’ red-necked cousin. You know the kind of family member I mean. We all have one or two in our families. Some of you may have had the pleasure of being visited by one of your fanatical red-necked family members over the holidays. We’ve all been there. Stuck around a dinner table, trying to steer the conversation clear away from anything remotely political; fearing that at any moment our red-necked relative will go on a rant about immigrants coming into this country and threatening our culture, or the government wasting millions on foreign aid, or women with their feminist agenda’s wanting it all, and those lazy poor people who need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stop expecting handouts, or heaven forbid, the relative whose neck so flaming red that they, at the drop of a hat, will sing the praises of the likes the orange fellow who lives in the White House, who they think is on to something because he refuses to be politically correct and tells it like it is. You know that relative of yours who keeps reminding you of the good old days and the need to return to them because if we spare the rod, we will spoil the child.

Take a moment and sit back and remember that relative, friend, or co-worker, and if you are blessed enough not to have such a person in your life, think about the folks who we see every day in every sort of media, the folks are calling for a return to the values you no longer share. Do you have a clear picture in your mind of someone whose constant wrangling makes you so uncomfortable that they embarrass you? Hold that image in your mind and listen as I do my best to imitate John the Baptist as he rants on:

“Pay attention people!  You think my raving on and on about repentance is annoying? You think my baptism is demanding? There is somebody coming who makes me look like a wimp. There is somebody coming who has real fire in his belly. Somebody who will take your tools out of your hands, and wipe the floor with you, and toss the lot of you into the fiery pits of hell! You brood of vipers!!! You just wait! Be afraid. Be very afraid!!! You’re all going to get yours!

Repent. Turn from your modern, pinko, new age, progressive, radical ways!!! Return to the good old days!!! Days when men were men and women kept a civil tongue in their heads and kids were seen and not heard. The days when this was a God-fearing country and we rode with our neighbours to the south, to keep the world safe for the likes of us. It’s time to toughen up people and start demanding a little respect from those people, you know the ones I mean, the ones who are different than us.”

I don’t know about you but these days I tend to give rednecks like John the Baptist a wide birth. If I do happen to stumble into a situation where I can’t avoid fanatics like John the Baptist, I tend to just let them ramble on, until they wear themselves out and then I take my leave, shake the dust from my feet and I move on. But the holidays, oh the holidays, it’s difficult to avoid red-necks during the holidays, especially if we are related to them. Well John the Baptist comes around every Advent ranting and raving, shouting at us to Repent, to Prepare, you brood of vipers!  No wonder, we are all very quick to move on to Christmas when we can ignore John and gaze adoringly at the baby Jesus, whose beauty makes us forget that Herod is looming in the background. But no sooner is the baby born, then in the wink of an eye Jesus is a grown man, and his dear cousin John is at it again, going on and on, threatening us by suggesting that Jesus is going to rain down on us bringing the Holy Spirit to baptize us with fire. With a winnowing fork in hand, he will clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, burning the chaff with unquenchable fire. And the way that John tells it, it sounds pretty much like we are the chaff and not the wheat, and so, we are doomed to burn in that unquenchable fire, if we don’t do what John tells us to do. Repent! Repent! Repent I say! Repent! Be afraid! Be very afraid! The Lord is coming! Fire burns!!! Hell is on the horizon!!! Turn back! Turn back!!! Continue reading

A Progressive Christian Wades into the Waters of Baptism

baptism 33A sermon for the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus – Matthew 3:13-17

Listen to the sermon here

Wading into the waters of baptism is no simple matter for a progressive Christian. Once you leave the myth of perfection in some distant garden back there in the mists of time, reject the notion of humanity’s fall from grace as a result of original sin, and give up worshipping the sadistic image of a god who demands a blood sacrifice, it’s difficult to navigate the waters of baptism without spouting notions that the institutional church condemns as heresy. But today is the day when the church celebrates the baptism of Jesus and the stories about the baptism of Jesus that have been handed down to us by our ancestors suggest that on this day of all days, we should have the courage to follow Jesus into the river of life even if it does challenge some of our long held assumptions about what it means to be a child of God.

I venture into these troubled waters as someone who treasures the sacrament of baptism. Long before I ever entertained the idea that I might one day respond to the call to become a baptizer, I became a lover of this particular sacrament of the church. I am now, and I have always been one of those people who find it almost impossible not to shed a tear or two at baptisms. The beauty of all that hope and expectation all wrapped up in the guise of a tiny little human has a way of generating in me a watery contribution as my tears join the sprinkling to wet the babies head. When the baptized is an adult my tears flow even more bountifully. Let’s face it folks these days the reality is that infant baptisms are rare enough. Adult baptisms, especially in mainline churches are so rare that the nostalgia alone is enough to send us into spasms of uncontrollable weeping for seer joy at the thought that it is even remotely possible that someone has been able to see beyond the church’s doctrine long enough to embrace the amazing possibilities of the sacrament to provide any benefit in this the twenty-first century.

When we look back to the stories told in the synoptic gospels about the baptism of Jesus we are sometimes so distracted by the opening of the heavens, the descent of the dove and the voice of God declaring Jesus to be the beloved, that we miss an important detail of the way in which the early followers of the Way chose to tell the story of Jesus public coming out party. New Testament scholars remind us that the stories told by the writers of the gospels were written at the end of the first century; a time when it would have been clear to all those who had ears to hear, that by going down to the river Jordan to be baptized by John would have stirred up the political and religious waters. John the Baptist was a revolutionary who made no bones about the fact that the religious authorities and the political rulers were leading the people down the wrong path. John’s shouting in the wilderness was his way of warning the people to repent; to literally turn around and follow a different path. John was doing far more than ranting when he condemned the religious authorities as a brood of vipers; he was calling on the people to reject the teachings of the authorities. John’s insistence on repentance was a call to revolution, a revolution designed to overthrow  the status quo. John was out there in the wilderness because it wasn’t safe for him to spout his own particular brand of incendiary fire and brimstone rhetoric within earshot of the authorities. By going down to the River Jordon and submitting to John’s baptism of repentance Jesus was choosing to identify himself with a political revolutionary.

That the writers of the gospels chose to tell there story in ways that see the God of Israel give Jesus a shout out, and the very spirit of God descending like a dove onto the shoulders of Jesus, turns John’s baptism of repentance into a kind of passing of the torch from one revolutionary to the next. Yet, despite the gospel-writers having cast Jesus into the role of revolutionary torchbearer none of the gospel writers shows Jesus following the ways of his predecessor John. There is no record of Jesus calling people to repent nor is there any record of Jesus ever having baptized anyone. All we have is Jesus “Great Commission” which if New Testament scholars are to be believed, Jesus probably never even said, “go therefore and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Yes, it’s true, most preachers, dare I say modern-day baptizers, learned in seminary that rather than being an instruction given by Jesus the Great Commission was actually added to the story by the early followers of Jesus. But I digress, the point I’d like to emphasize about Jesus’ trip down to the waters of the Jordan, is that by choosing to publicly submit to John’s baptism, Jesus was making an important statement about his own public ministry. For just like John, Jesus intended to challenge the religious and political authorities.

That the gospel writers have Jesus head off into the wilderness to find his own way prepares us to follow Jesus down a completely different path than the one his predecessor John pointed toward.

So on a day, when the church looks back upon the baptism of Jesus, surely we can take courage from Jesus’ example of wandering off into the wilderness to find our own way of challenging the religious authorities of our day. Continue reading

A Progressive Christian Wades into the Waters of Baptism

baptism 33A sermon for the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus 

Listen to the sermon here

Wading into the waters of baptism is no simple matter for a progressive Christian. Once you leave the myth of perfection in some distant garden back there in the mists of time, reject the notion of humanity’s fall from grace as a result of original sin, and give up worshipping the sadistic image of a god who demands a blood sacrifice, it’s difficult to navigate the waters of baptism without spouting notions that the institutional church condemns as heresy. But today is the day when the church celebrates the baptism of Jesus and the stories about the baptism of Jesus that have been handed down to us by our ancestors suggest that on this day of all days, we should have the courage to follow Jesus into the river of life even if it does challenge some of our long held assumptions about what it means to be a child of God.

I venture into these troubled waters as someone who treasures the sacrament of baptism. Long before I ever entertained the idea that I might one day respond to the call to become a baptizer, I became a lover of this particular sacrament of the church. I am now, and I have always been one of those people who find it almost impossible not to shed a tear or two at baptisms. The beauty of all that hope and expectation all wrapped up in the guise of a tiny little human has a way of generating in me a watery contribution as my tears join the sprinkling to wet the babies head. When the baptized is an adult my tears flow even more bountifully. Let’s face it folks these days the reality is that infant baptisms are rare enough. Adult baptisms, especially in mainline churches are so rare that the nostalgia alone is enough to send us into spasms of uncontrollable weeping for seer joy at the thought that it is even remotely possible that someone has been able to see beyond the church’s doctrine long enough to embrace the amazing possibilities of the sacrament to provide any benefit in this the twenty-first century.

When we look back to the stories told in the synoptic gospels about the baptism of Jesus we are sometimes so distracted by the opening of the heavens, the descent of the dove and the voice of God declaring Jesus to be the beloved, that we miss an important detail of the way in which the early followers of the Way chose to tell the story of Jesus public coming out party. New Testament scholars remind us that the stories told by the writers of the gospels were written at the end of the first century; a time when it would have been clear to all those who had ears to hear, that by going down to the river Jordan to be baptized by John would have stirred up the political and religious waters. John the Baptist was a revolutionary who made no bones about the fact that the religious authorities and the political rulers were leading the people down the wrong path. John’s shouting in the wilderness was his way of warning the people to repent; to literally turn around and follow a different path. John was doing far more than ranting when he condemned the religious authorities as a brood of vipers; he was calling on the people to reject the teachings of the authorities. John’s insistence on repentance was a call to revolution, a revolution designed to overthrow  the status quo. John was out there in the wilderness because it wasn’t safe for him to spout his own particular brand of incendiary fire and brimstone rhetoric within earshot of the authorities. By going down to the River Jordon and submitting to John’s baptism of repentance Jesus was choosing to identify himself with a political revolutionary.

That the writers of the gospels chose to tell there story in ways that see the God of Israel give Jesus a shout out, and the very spirit of God descending like a dove onto the shoulders of Jesus, turns John’s baptism of repentance into a kind of passing of the torch from one revolutionary to the next. Yet, despite the gospel-writers having cast Jesus into the role of revolutionary torchbearer none of the gospel writers shows Jesus following the ways of his predecessor John. There is no record of Jesus calling people to repent nor is there any record of Jesus ever having baptized anyone. All we have is Jesus “Great Commission” which if New Testament scholars are to be believed, Jesus probably never even said, “go therefore and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Yes, it’s true, most preachers, dare I say modern-day baptizers, learned in seminary that rather than being an instruction given by Jesus the Great Commission was actually added to the story by the early followers of Jesus. But I digress, the point I’d like to emphasize about Jesus’ trip down to the waters of the Jordan, is that by choosing to publicly submit to John’s baptism, Jesus was making an important statement about his own public ministry. For just like John, Jesus intended to challenge the religious and political authorities.

That the gospel writers have Jesus head off into the wilderness to find his own way prepares us to follow Jesus down a completely different path than the one his predecessor John pointed toward.

So on a day, when the church looks back upon the baptism of Jesus, surely we can take courage from Jesus’ example of wandering off into the wilderness to find our own way of challenging the religious authorities of our day. Continue reading

Time to stop holding our noses as we suspend reality! Let’s tinker with the rite of baptism…

Baptismal Liturgy pastordawnOver and over again, I hear from colleagues who find it difficult to use prescribed baptismal liturgies. In my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal was published in the 21st century (2006). But the liturgical rite for Holy Baptism still prescribes the use of questions which contain images that harken back to medieval times. We have long since given up teaching our members to personify evil in the form of the devil. But the authors of our new liturgical texts insist that we continue to ask parents and sponsors to “renounce the devil an all the forces that defy God”; locking participants into some sort of cosmic battle in hich both evil and indeed God are personified in ways that most 21st century folks find archaic. As a confessional church, creeds continue to include proclamations of a virgin birth; an obstacle that seems laughable to people who have had the benefit of New Testament scholarship. Clergy who preside at baptisms are expected to hold our noses, while participants suspend reality and still the church continues to bemoan the fact that few and few parents bring their children to our fonts. In an effort to work with parents and sponsors to create baptismal rites that allow for the possibility that the Spirit is alive and well and working in, with, through, and beyond our feeble attempts to celebrate the miracle of new life, I have over the years tinkered with the rite of baptism. We have for several years now celebrated the rite of baptism using the liturgy which is provided here as an inspiration for others to tinker with the rite. 

click here for a pdf of our 21st Century Baptismal Liturgy

A Progressive Christian Wades into the Waters of Baptism

baptism 33A sermon for the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus  Mark 1:4-11 

Listen to the sermon here

Wading into the waters of baptism is no simple matter for a progressive Christian. Once you leave the myth of perfection in some distant garden back there in the mists of time, reject the notion of humanity’s fall from grace as a result of original sin, and give up worshipping the sadistic image of a god who demands a blood sacrifice, it’s difficult to navigate the waters of baptism without spouting notions that the institutional church condemns as heresy. But today is the day when the church celebrates the baptism of Jesus and the stories about the baptism of Jesus that have been handed down to us by our ancestors suggest that on this day of all days, we should have the courage to follow Jesus into the river of life even if it does challenge some of our long held assumptions about what it means to be a child of God.

I venture into these troubled waters as someone who treasures the sacrament of baptism. Long before I ever entertained the idea that I might one day respond to the call to become a baptizer, I became a lover of this particular sacrament of the church. I am now, and I have always been one of those people who find it almost impossible not to shed a tear or two at baptisms. The beauty of all that hope and expectation all wrapped up in the guise of a tiny little human has a way of generating in me a watery contribution as my tears join the sprinkling to wet the babies head. When the baptized is an adult my tears flow even more bountifully. Let’s face it folks these days the reality is that infant baptisms are rare enough. Adult baptisms, especially in mainline churches are so rare that the nostalgia alone is enough to send us into spasms of uncontrollable weeping for seer joy at the thought that it is even remotely possible that someone has been able to see beyond the church’s doctrine long enough to embrace the amazing possibilities of the sacrament to provide any benefit in this the twenty-first century.

When we look back to the stories told in the synoptic gospels about the baptism of Jesus we are sometimes so distracted by the opening of the heavens, the descent of the dove and the voice of God declaring Jesus to be the beloved, that we miss an important detail of the way in which the early followers of the Way chose to tell the story of Jesus public coming out party. New Testament scholars remind us that the stories told by the writers of the gospels were written at the end of the first century; a time when it would have been clear to all those who had ears to hear, that by going down to the river Jordan to be baptized by John would have stirred up the political and religious waters. John the Baptist was a revolutionary who made no bones about the fact that the religious authorities and the political rulers were leading the people down the wrong path. John’s shouting in the wilderness was his way of warning the people to repent; to literally turn around and follow a different path. John was doing far more than ranting when he condemned the religious authorities as a brood of vipers; he was calling on the people to reject the teachings of the authorities. John’s insistence on repentance was a call to revolution, a revolution designed to overthrow  the status quo. John was out there in the wilderness because it wasn’t safe for him to spout his own particular brand of incendiary fire and brimstone rhetoric within earshot of the authorities. By going down to the River Jordon and submitting to John’s baptism of repentance Jesus was choosing to identify himself with a political revolutionary.

That the writers of the gospels chose to tell there story in ways that see the God of Israel give Jesus a shout out, and the very spirit of God descending like a dove onto the shoulders of Jesus, turns John’s baptism of repentance into a kind of passing of the torch from one revolutionary to the next. Yet, despite the gospel-writers having cast Jesus into the role of revolutionary torchbearer none of the gospel writers shows Jesus following the ways of his predecessor John. There is no record of Jesus calling people to repent nor is there any record of Jesus ever having baptized anyone. All we have is Jesus “Great Commission” which if New Testament scholars are to be believed, Jesus probably never even said, “go therefore and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Yes, it’s true, most preachers, dare I say modern-day baptizers, learned in seminary that rather than being an instruction given by Jesus the Great Commission was actually added to the story by the early followers of Jesus. But I digress, the point I’d like to emphasize about Jesus’ trip down to the waters of the Jordan, is that by choosing to publicly submit to John’s baptism, Jesus was making an important statement about his own public ministry. For just like John, Jesus intended to challenge the religious and political authorities. Continue reading

A Progressive Christian Wades into the Waters of Baptism

baptism 33A sermon for the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus

Matthew 3:13-17

Listen to the sermon here:

Baptism A Mystery of the Faith: a sermon for the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus

baptism 33There’s a definition of what it means to be a priest that has always daunted me. A priest it has been said is “a keeper of the mysteries; a keeper of the sacred mysteries of our faith. People often confuse the idea of mystery with the idea of secret. But I can assure you that as a keeper of the mysteries of the faith it is not my job, nor is it any other priest’s job, to keep the mysteries of our faith a secret. Yes, as an ordained pastor, one of my responsibilities is to be a keeper of the mysteries of our faith. As a keeper of the mysteries I am responsible for ensuring that the community I serve holds those mysteries sacred. We do so, by remembering that the reality that we call God works in, with, and through those mysteries. 

Baptism is considered to be one of the mysteries of our faith. Baptism is a sacrament of the church and by definition a sacrament takes ordinary stuff – water – mixes that ordinary stuff with the Word and in the combination of water and the Word you have a tangible means of God’s grace. God’s grace is revealed in the sacrament of Baptism by the act of our gathering together and mixing the stuff of the earth with the Word. We have only two sacraments in the Lutheran church Baptism and Eucharist, and both of those things are sacraments because we gather together take ordinary stuff – bread and wine, or water and mix it with the Word of Jesus the Christ and in the water, the bread and the wine the means of God’s grace is made visible to us.

So, there you have it the technical definition of the sacraments, the mysteries of Baptism and Communion, in which the reality that we call God works in, with, through and under. But like all technical definitions of mysteries, these definitions fail to capture the essence of the mystery that lies at their very heart; the mystery of the reality that we call God. As a keeper of the mysteries, one would think that a priest, a pastor, ought to be able to reveal, by way of definition something of the nature of the reality of the Divine. The truth is I have no real definition to offer you of this reality that we call God. I read once, I wish I could remember where the wisdom of a priest far more skilled than I who declared that he’d given up trying to explain God to anyone because in the end, he said, “I cannot lead you to God, anymore than anyone can lead a fish to water.”

The most important thing I learned in seminary is that “I don’t know is an answer.” The truth is the more we learn the more we know that we don’t know. But this unknowing can be so unsatisfying, precisely because we believe that God is the one in whom we live and breath and have our being, we want to know the very nature of the One who is the ultimate Reality.

Now, if these words haven’t already become so vague that the veil of unknowing has begun to make any tangible means of God’s grace seem invisible and so beyond our grasp, let me leave the theology behind and tell you a story. One thing I do know for sure is that the shortest distance between the questions of what it means to be human and understanding our humanity is a story. Continue reading