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

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

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

Originally preached: 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

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

Recognizing the Sacred In and Beyond the Stories We Tell: the Baptism of Jesus

Joshua bell Subway1In this sermon, I attempt a method of interpretation which places one story beside another in order to reveal the sacred. The modern legend of Joshua Bell playing Bach in the subway told alongside the story of the baptism of Jesus provides epiphanies about the sacred in the other and begs questions about the way in which we tell our stories.  This sermon was preached last year in the wake of tragic events in Paris. Listen to the sermon here

In April of 2007 an article appeared in the Washington Post, which earned its author, Gene Weingarten, a self-described “heathen” a Pulitzer Prize. The story went virile and over the years I have read and heard all sorts of sermons that include a version of the story loosely based on Weingarten’s article. For reasons, which I hope, will become clear, I’d like to quote Weingarten’s article without any of the usual embellishments.

“HE EMERGED FROM THE METRO AT THE L’ENFANT PLAZA STATION AND POSITIONED HIMSELF AGAINST A WALL BESIDE A TRASH BASKET. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play. It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L’Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant. Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment? 

On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend? The musician did not play popular tunes whose familiarity alone might have drawn interest. That was not the test. These were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls. The acoustics proved surprisingly kind. Though the arcade is of utilitarian design, a buffer between the Metro escalator and the outdoors, it somehow caught the sound and bounced it back round and resonant.

The violin is an instrument that is said to be much like the human voice, and in this musician’s masterly hands, it sobbed and laughed and sang — ecstatic, sorrowful, importuning, adoring, flirtatious, castigating, playful, romancing, merry, triumphal, sumptuous.”

Some of you may recognize this article and those of you who do will know that the violinist was Joshua Bell. In the course of his article, Weingarten goes on to describe the complexity and the beauty of the 6 classical pieces that the virtuoso Bell played, which included masterpieces from Bach, Massenet, Schubert, Ponce, and Mendelssohn. What happened in the Washington Metro station is the stuff that legends are made of. If you read or hear this story from the 169,000 posts on the web, you will read a fairly consistent tale, which lends itself well to repetition and is the stuff great sermons are made of. However, in the retelling of this story, the details have been exaggerated in order to make a point.

There is a video of the events, which took place, so the facts can be checked. But when have we ever let facts get in the way of a good story; especially when we are trying to make a moral point. In the popular version of this story, the greatest violinist on the planet, played for 45 minutes and thousands and thousands of busy rush hour commuters passed by without paying any notice what so ever, except for one middle aged man, who slowed down and paused for just 6 seconds, later a women threw a dollar in Bell’s violin case. The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year-old boy. His mother dragged him along, but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head al the time. This action was repeated by several children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on. In the 45 minutes that Bell played, only 6 people stopped and paid any attention, 20 tossed money as they hurried by. No One applauded and no one recognized Joshua bell.

Joshua Bell subwayThese are the details of this popular myth. However, the Washington Post, Pulitzer Prize winning article and the videotape tell a more modest story. Exactly 1,097 people passed by, not thousands and thousands. Several people stopped and paid quite a bit of attention; one woman was heard to say that she really didn’t want to leave. As for the child, he managed to delay his mother for only 3 seconds, no other children appear on the video to take any notice and Joshua Bell was in fact recognized by a woman who couldn’t believe her good fortune and waited around until Bell’s magnificent performance was over to introduce herself to Bell before placing a twenty-dollar bill in his violin case. For his virtuoso performance Joshua Bell earned a grand total of $52.17 and a legend was born. Despite the exaggerated details in this legend, the essence of truth remains: One of the greatest violin players alive today, played some of the best music ever written, on one of the best violins in the world, and most of the people who where there that day never even noticed.

When I read the stories about the Baptism of Jesus, I get the impression that something similar has happened to this myth. The fantastic details as they are told by the gospel-story-teller known to us as Mark are pretty incredible. I don’t mean the characterization of John the Baptizer who is described as wearing camels’ hair and a leather belt around his waist, and who ate nothing but grasshoppers and wild honey. According to the gospel-story-teller we know as Mark, “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by this wild-baptizer John. Immediately upon coming out of the, 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 favour rests.” Continue reading