Surely, we can learn to tell our stories, to enact our rituals, and to be LOVE to one another in ways that transcend, religions, cultures, and old hatreds? – a sermon on the Baptism of Jesus

Baptism of Jesus – Mark 1:4-11  audio only

Welcome to a new beginning. The celebration of the Baptism of Jesus begins the church lectionary’s focus upon the Gospel according to the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Mark. For the balance of the church year most of our gospel readings will come from the oldest gospel in the New Testament, from storyteller that we call Mark. Written before the development of the nativity myths, this gospel begins with the story of Jesus baptism by the prophet known as John the Baptist. As the oldest account of Jesus’ baptism, written sometime after the year 70, some 40 plus years after the execution of Jesus of Nazareth, this story gives us particular insights into the ways in which the legacy of Jesus was experienced by the early followers of the teachings of Jesus.  In those early years of the followers of the Way, Jesus’ life and teachings not only ushered in a new way of being in the world, they also provided a new way of understanding the Divine.

Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew. Raised in the ways of first century Jewish people, Jesus would have been taught to relate to the Source of All Being, the One we call God, as a far off distant, super-natural being.  This is the kind of understanding of Divinity that is reflected in John the Baptizer’s proclamation of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. However, this is not the understanding of Divinity that the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Mark portrays in his depiction of Jesus’ baptism. Most of us have heard the stories of Jesus’ baptism so many times that we tend to miss the radical nature of Jesus’ baptism. Once we let go of the notion that this is some sort of historical account of Jesus baptism, we can begin to understand how the gospel-storyteller understands the significance of Jesus’ life and teachings.

“Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from the heavens: “You are my Beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.” The intimacy portrayed in this story, defies what would have been, for the story-teller and the story-teller’s community, the accepted understanding of the nature of the Divine. The God depicted in this story is radically intimate. Jesus’ relationship to the Source of All Being, is one of intimacy. You can almost hear the Creator of All that Is, declare, lovingly, “That’s my boy! He brings me such pleasure.” At that time, the prevailing understanding of God, of YAHWEH, as KING of KINGS, LORD of LORDS, is expanded to what will eventually be taught by Jesus as Abba, or Daddy. Jesus’ teachings move beyond the hoped for super-natural, super-hero God, that the persecuted Hebrew people longed for and point instead to a God who is known in the intimacy of LOVE. Within the Jewish tradition there was and is a great diversity of depictions of the Creator of All that IS. Sadly, so many of those depictions of Divinity had been reduced to an understanding of God as a super-natural-male-being. The feminine attributes of the Divine that are depicted in the Hebrew Scriptures were largely forgotten. Gone too were the depictions of the Divine as something other than a super-natural being.  It was as if, over time, the understandings of the Power that lies at the very heart of reality were reduced to the projections of human desires to be saved from the trials and tribulations of this life. Continue reading

Wear Your Baptism in Ways that Others Might See a Visible Means of Grace in You – a sermon on Baptism

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Listen to the sermon here

How many of you know what this is? Where I come from it is often referred to as a dog-collar and the folks who wear them are called God-Bothers. Back when I first started seminary, I resolved that I wouldn’t wear a clerical shirt and collar. I didn’t like the idea of being set apart from others. I really didn’t want to be seen as one of those holier-than-thou types, who took themselves so seriously. Learning the history of clerical garb didn’t help me to warm up to the idea of wearing them. Apparently, back in the middle ages fashion dictated that educated professionals wear black. Also, during the middle ages, long before shirts had collars it was all the rage to let your white undergarments show around your neck. This was the precursor to shirt-collars. Apparently during the reformation, this trend fell out of fashion but clergy, who couldn’t afford to keep up with fashion continued to wear black shirts with their white under-garment showing.      

Over time, the church does what the church often does and applied a liturgical meaning to explain what is already happening. So, the church began to explain clerical attire theologically. If you google it, you will discover that, pastors are just like everyone else, they are in bondage to sin and cannot free themselves. So, they wear a black shirt to signify their sinfulness, but they wear a white collar to signify that the words they speak are not their own, but God’s words, because you see the collar covers the pastors voice-box to signify that we speak the Word of God. Now the presumption that I or anyone else speaks on behalf of God is rather daunting to say the least and did nothing to encourage me to wear a clerical collar, nor did the obscure explanation of the tab collar, which insists that this little white notch is placed strategically over the Adam’s apple to cover over the reminder of Adam’s sin. Not having an Adam’s apple, myself, I wasn’t much taken with the idea of wearing special clothing to set me apart. But when I first became a pastor, I was insecure and believe it or not I didn’t want to rock the boat. So, I ever so hesitatingly began wearing a clerical collar. I was uncomfortable wearing the collar, so I decided that I would only wear it on Sundays, or to protest marches, and sometimes when I was visiting people in the hospital, because in hospitals, wearing a collar makes it easier to gain access to patients.

Well one day, I needed some candles and so I dashed into the Zellers over the road to quickly grab a couple. I was having difficulty finding just the right candles when a store clerk came up to me and asked me if I would come with her. I figured that I’d been lingering over the candles for so long that she must have mistaken me for a shoplifter, but as we hurried along, she explained to me that there was a man in housewares who was abusing his wife and child. I’d forgotten that I was wearing a collar, but the reality of what this clerk was asking me to do choked me into realizing that the collar had led her to believe that I could actually do something. Not knowing what she expected me to do, I told her to call 911. She assured me that they had already called, but that in the meantime perhaps I could help. We stopped just before the aisle where the abuse was taking place. The store clerk whispered that, “they are just over there.”  As she pointed, I realized that she wanted me to go on alone. So, not knowing what to expect, I took a deep breath and walked in on a scene that was way beyond my abilities. A big burly guy was twisting the arm of a woman while a little girl of about 4 or 5 stood crying. The man was yelling obscenities when I interrupted him. When he looked at me, I saw the fear in his eyes as he immediately let go of the woman who fell to the floor. The little girl ran to her mother. I expected the man to turn on me, but instead he just stared at me, as he began to cry, “I’m sorry pastor, forgive me.” It wasn’t I who stood before him, but the church, his church, the church that had taught him right from wrong. The collar I wore made the church visible to him and made it impossible for him to forget who he was. As a child of God, he couldn’t continue what he was doing. As a child of God, he knew in his bones that he was wrong. He wept until the police arrived. From that day on, I’ve known the power of the collar to make the church visible in the world and so I wear it a lot more often than I’d ever expected I would. Continue reading

Wear Your Baptism in Ways that Others Might See a Visible Means of Grace in You – a sermon on Baptism

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Readings:  Isaiah 42:1-9 and Matthew 3:13-17

Listen to the sermon here

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

I Really Don’t Like John the Baptist: a sermon on the Baptism of Jesus – Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

John the Baptist's headI’m indebted to Daniel Simundson for teaching me to pay attention to the missing verses in lectionary readings. Listen to the sermon here

The Things We Do For Jesus! – a sermon on the Baptism of Jesus

waters 4Baptism of Jesus Sermon — Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Sunday January 13, 2013    Listen to the sermon here

There’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 neither my job nor 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 by ensuring that the communities that I serve hold those mysteries sacred. It is my job to hold the mysteries in such reverence that we all remember 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 likes 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. Because 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.

It happened on Thursday night. All week long I’ve been thinking about what I would say about the Baptism of Jesus and I wasn’t getting very far. It’s been a busy week, with lots of things to do as programs around here gear up again after the lull of the holidays. After teaching Confirmation on Thursday, I got home at about 9:30. The house was empty because Carol was off visiting the grandchildren for a few days. It had been a long day, and I quickly got into my pajamas, switched on the fireplace, and settled into my recliner in front of the television. The PVR was full of shows for me to watch and the opening scenes of Gray’s Anatomy dragged me into the complications of lives I would never have to minister to and I began to relax. The drama of medical emergencies mixed with the complications of various love affairs pulled me into a world where there was absolutely nothing expected of me and I was loving it right up until the moment that the telephone rang. Modern technology means that the name of the person calling usually appears on right there on the TV screen so that I can decide whether or not I’m going to answer the call. When the phone rang I expected it to be Carol calling to say goodnight, so I’d already pushed the pause button, expecting that after a quick goodnight I could get back to my shows. Buy the time I realized that there was no name on the TV screen but only a phone number, it was too late and I was already saying hello.

The caller was someone I’d heard from only once before. They were already halfway through a very nasty tale of woe when I realized that they were asking me to come out. It was a call for help. It was a call that I had every right not to respond to. I mean the caller wasn’t even a member of this congregation. It was late. I was already in my pajamas. It was dark outside.

I was annoyed. I mean really. Couldn’t this person have called me before I left Newmarket? What gave them the right to think that I would come out so late, in the dark, for someone I’d only met once before? The audacity. The sheer audacity of such a request was enough to make you scream. Give me a break. I listened to the caller’s plight with precious little sympathy. I asked her to hold on for a moment so that I could try to think of a way to help. What I really meant was: is there anyone in Newmarket that I can disturb at this time of night and ask them to go over and help. Some of you have offered to help in this way in the past. You know who you are and you can be sure that your names went through my mind as I tried to avoid leaving the comfort of my warm snug. It was only the thought of how annoyed I was to be disturbed at such a late hour that kept me from disturbing one of you. So I told the caller to hold on and I would be there in about half an hour.

I was cursing to bet the band as I went upstairs to get dressed. The air was positively blue. I was angry. I was going out, on what in my mind was the middle of the night, it was ridiculous. Hell, it was dangerous. It was dark. Yeah we were going to meet in a public place. But why the expletive, curse, fill in the blank your self, why the ………blanket blank, should I? I certainly wasn’t going out of love for my neighbour. I was ticked. I was going because it’s my job to go. Sure I knew that I had every right to refuse to go. But if I didn’t go, my shows would be ruined. How could I possible sit there and enjoy my shows when I knew that someone needed my help? Forget the shows, if I didn’t go, I knew darn well I wouldn’t get any sleep. 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

Prayer – Epiphany Sermon Series – 1: Daughter of a Sound

PrayerSermon series pastorDawnThree years ago, I reluctantly gave in to requests to preach on the subject of prayer and I devoted my sermons during the season of Epiphany to the subject of prayer.  I have been asked to re-post those sermons. In the course of three years, my theology has continued to evolve. However, I have resisted the temptation to edit the sermons and so the manuscripts are what they are, an exploration of sorts. Here’s the first. I shall repost the seven sermons in the series over the course of the Season of Epiphany.

Prayer #1 – Bath Qol – The Daughter of a Sound – preached on Baptism of Jesus Sunday 2012

Mark 1:4-11

And so John the Baptizer appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John and were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. John was clothed in camels’ hair and wore a leather belt around his waist, and he ate nothing but grasshoppers and wild honey.

In the course of his preaching, John said, ‘One more powerful than I is to come after me. I am not fit to stoop and untie his sandal strips. I have baptized you with water, but the One to come will baptize you in the Holy Spirit. It was then that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by John. Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from the heavens: “You are my Beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.”

I began the sermon by asking the congregation to sing a cappella from memory the familiar hymn: I Come to the Garden.

I come to the garden alone,

while the dew is still on the Roses;

And the voice I hear,

falling on my ear the Son of God discloses.

And he walks with me, and he talks with me,

and he tells me I am his own,

And the joy we share as we tarry there,

Non other has ever known.

He speaks and the sound of his voice

Is so sweet the birds hush their singing;

And the melody that he gave to me

Within my heart is ringing,

And he walks with me, and he talks with me,

and he tells me I am his own,

And the joy we share as we tarry there,

Non other has ever known.

I’d stay in the garden with him,

Though the night around me be falling;

But he bids me go;

Through the voice of woe

His voice to me is calling.

And he walks with me, and he talks with me,

and he tells me I am his own,

And the joy we share as we tarry there,

Non other has ever known.

The season of Epiphany begins and ends with stories of Jesus’ hearing the voice of God. In this morning’s story of Jesus’ baptism, Jesus hears the voice of God as a dove descends from the clouds. On the last Sunday of Epiphany, we will hear the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop when the voice of God is heard speaking from out of a cloud. Both times the voice will say essentially the same thing: “This is my beloved”

The word Epiphany is a Greek word which means “manifestation or revelation” of the divine. Over the years, the word epiphany has been used to describe those “a ha” moments in which something quite obvious is revealed. The phrase, “I saw the light” springs to mind whenever I think of the word Epiphany. I’d like to say that I associate that particular phrase with the word epiphany because, in the season of Epiphany is the season when plunged into the darkness of winter the church celebrates light. But the truth is the word epiphany makes me think of cartoons I watched as a child, when a light bulb would appear over the head of a character when the cartoon character had a bright idea. When that light-bulbs appear in cartoons, it’s a sure sign that the character is headed for trouble, because bright ideas often get us into trouble. So, you’d think I would have known better when, earlier this week a light-bulb went off and I had a bright idea that during the season of epiphany I should begin a sermon series on the subject of prayer. I mean, what better season than the season of epiphany to tackle a subject that people have been asking me to address for months now.

Ever since we set off on this grand journey of re-thinking our theology, trying to understand Christianity in the 21st century, the issue of prayer has been lurking in the background, almost haunting us. As we’ve explored ancient and mystic, understandings of the reality that we call God our cherished notions of God as a grand puppeteer in the sky who intervenes from above to change the course of history, have been challenged. As we’ve come to understand God as more than our images of God could ever even begin to capture, we have explored the possibility that God is more immediately present in with and through us. As we begin to see God’s work in the world grounded in the world, there are moments when I really miss that grand puppeteer in the sky.

It is certainly easier to talk about prayer if your talking about appealing to an other-worldly creature to fulfill your longing for a divine parent to solve all our problems. Because seriously folks, when you give up the idol that we’ve created of a god who controls all things from up in heaven, a god who listens to our prayers and then decides what is and isn’t good for us, and answers those prayers according to some grand plan he devised eons ago, in which all we are required to do is believe that whatever happens its God’s will, and we shouldn’t question but simply believe because in the end all will be revealed, well when you give up that particular image of God, the question that haunts me, and judging by the questions and comments I’ve heard from a good many of you is,

Who or what do we pray to know?
Should we pray, and how should we pray?
And more importantly who or what will answer those prayers?

Continue reading

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