Sermon for Epiphany 4C

1 Corinthians 13

As of last October, I have been with you all here in Powell for 3 years. Now in my 4th year of ministry here, I have done several baptisms and funerals, but no weddings. Many of my colleagues would say that I am extremely lucky not to have done a wedding because of everything that’s involved with them. But I’d like to have the experience of at least one under my belt. And, our council just recently updated our wedding policy that hadn’t been looked at since 1992 or so, so we should be all prepared to host a wedding here. So, all of you who are here today, your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to go out and persuade engaged couples that for a Christian wedding, they couldn’t do any better than to come to Hope Lutheran Church. However, as you’re talking to these theoretical couples, you may want to mention this: I will discourage them from using 1 Corinthians 13 as one of the texts that is read at their wedding. I’m not saying that I would outright refuse to use it, but I think there are other, more appropriate texts to be used at a wedding. And here’s why: the love that the Apostle Paul is speaking of is not the romantic love that is paraded about in Disney films, that of the prince and the princess living happily ever after. It is not the kind of romantic love that is celebrated on Valentine’s Day, and it is certainly not the kind of romantic love that is uppermost in the minds of the newly married couple on their wedding day. Instead, the love that the apostle Paul speaks of is a decision, a choice, and is something that not only binds two people together, but rather, binds a whole community together as the body of Christ.

So, let’s set the scene for this famous chapter that Paul is writing and see if we can understand what he’s getting at here. Paul had helped to establish the church in Corinth with a couple whose names were Priscilla and Aquila. After staying there a while, he moved on. But after he left, the church in Corinth fell into trouble as factions formed and began to argue with one another. I really love the Corinthians, and Paul’s first letter to them, because it helps me see that not much has changed in churches over the centuries, and yet God has continued to sustain the church and has even caused it to flourish. Up until today’s section of 1 Corinthians, Paul has been writing about how the church is Christ’s church, not his, not Apollos’, nor any other of its leaders’. And then he begins to address specific questions that the Corinthian church has, which we unfortunately don’t have time to get into here today. Perhaps we will do this book for our next Thursday morning Bible study! But, in order to understand chapter 13, we do need to look back at chapter 12, which we have heard in worship for the last two Sundays.

The Corinthians had questions about spiritual gifts which the Holy Spirit had bestowed upon them. More specifically, they wanted to know which spiritual gift was the best, so they could justify the hierarchy that they had put in place. And the spiritual gift they liked best was speaking in tongues. Now, this gift is generally not common in the Lutheran branch of the Christian church today, but that is not to say that it doesn’t exist. I have heard people speaking in tongues, and it is an interesting phenomenon. These people are genuinely overcome with the love of the Holy Spirit, and are so ecstatic that they spontaneously begin speaking of that love in words that are unintelligible to the rest of us. It’s awesome and weird and fascinating all at once, and I can understand why the Corinthians, and some branches of the Christian church today, think that it is an important gift to have, if not the defining mark of the Holy Spirit upon someone.

But Paul dismisses that idea in chapter 12. He talks about how each person is given a gift by the Holy Spirit, and one person cannot say that he or she is better than another. Each of us needs each other to make the body of Christ work, he says, just as a human body needs all of its parts to work together. Paul also tells the Corinthians that speaking in tongues, while it is a cool gift, is not the most important one that the Holy Spirit can give. He names first apostles—those who are sent to bring the good news of Jesus to others; second prophets—those who speak God’s word to the people; and third teachers—those who teach others how God’s Word relates to their lives. Only then does Paul name other gifts, with various kinds of tongues being the last in the list. And then he gets really worked up about the whole thing and says that even though these kinds of things are indeed gifts of the Holy Spirit, without love, they are absolutely worthless.

Now, while the person who read 1 Corinthians 13 today did a fine job, I’d like to read part of this again, and this time, I want you to hear the anger in Paul’s voice as he writes these words. The Corinthians should know this already! Didn’t he do a good enough job of teaching them this stuff when he was there? Did they not listen to him? Why must he repeat himself? (read 12:27-13:3) Can you see now why this wouldn’t be my first choice of a text to be read at a wedding? While I don’t think Paul is quite as angry with the Corinthians as he was with the Galatians—a topic for another time!—he is definitely irritated with them. And out of this irritation and this strong desire for the Corinthians to truly understand what the most important thing is in their relationships with one another comes some of the most beautiful language describing what love is really all about.

And even with good translations, and as beautiful as this chapter sounds to our ears, the English still doesn’t get the meaning of the Greek quite right. And that is because in the Greek, love is actively doing things and is not an abstract concept that needs adjectives to describe it. If we were to translate the Greek more accurately, the sentences would read, “Love shows patience; love acts with kindness; love does not get envious, it does not boast, it does not act arrogantly or rudely.” In other words, Paul is saying, you Corinthians who think you have spiritual gifts, don’t be arrogant around those who don’t have the same gifts as you, because that is not showing love. And those of you who don’t have the gift of tongues, don’t be envious of those who do, because that is not showing love. Love is a choice. Love is a decision that you make, sometimes day after day, to want the best for the other person, even when that means you might have to sacrifice something that you want. And that decision should not be one-sided, but it should go both ways. For if we are the body of Christ, then we need to strive to be like Christ, who loved us so much, who wanted what was best for us, even when we were not worthy of it, that he suffered death for us on the cross. This type of love is what overcomes all earthly divisions and is what binds us all together as brothers and sisters in Christ.

This congregation has seen this type of love for one another. When this congregation divided in 2005, those that remained with Hope made a conscious decision to stay together as the body of Christ, and that is still happening today. Those who become part of our congregation today are also making that conscious decision to stay with us. We are not always in agreement over things in the world, like politics, or social issues that affect us here in the church. And yet, this congregation has decided, over and over again, to remain together as a manifestation of the body of Christ here on earth. That conscious decision to actively love one another, to act in kindness to one another, to be patient with one another, in spite of all of our differences, is an example of the kind of love that Paul is talking about here. Is it a complete and whole kind of love, like what Christ showed for us on the cross? Of course not, and it will never be until Christ comes again to set all things right. But through Christ, we also know that loving one another means forgiving one another when we mess up. And that forgiveness is part of the love that Christ showed for us in his life, death, and resurrection.

After worship today, we have an opportunity to actively love one another and determine how we, as a congregation, are going to actively love others outside of these church walls. And that opportunity is called the annual meeting. I was speaking with someone this week who was trying to determine why more of the congregation didn’t come to the annual meeting. And when the question was asked, I thought back on my experiences with annual meetings before I became a pastor. What I remember is that they were either boring—for me, my mind glazed over when the budget was discussed—or that they were opportunities for, shall we say, sharp disagreement among the members of the body of Christ, and even some political maneuvering. Perhaps that is why some of us choose to stay away, or perhaps there are other reasons. But what would happen if we approached the meeting as a way to actively love one another, to want what is best for each other and for us as a whole despite any personal disagreements we might have? This meeting could then become an opportunity for us to work together and to make even more of an impact on one another and upon the surrounding community.

In the end of this chapter, Paul tells us, “Love never ends.” God’s love for us frail human beings never ends. God’s love is what holds us together. And when all other things in and on this world come to an end, God’s love will still be there. This is the love that Paul calls us to strive for. This love for one another is why the Holy Spirit gave the Corinthians, and continues to give us, all of these various kinds of spiritual gifts. The point is not the gifts themselves, but the point is how we use those gifts that we have to show love to one another. When this chapter is preached to a couple on their wedding day in this way, perhaps it is appropriate, for their romantic love will fade and they will have to choose each day to love one another. But the love that Paul is talking about is so much grander than husband and wife. It encompasses all, and it is all in all. Through Jesus Christ, God has shown us his love for us and asks that we strive to show it to one another. May that love permeate our being with one another and be shown throughout our imperfect lives. Amen.

Sermon for Epiphany 3C

Luke 4:14-21

Freedom is an important word for us here in the United States, and especially, I think, here in Wyoming. Freedom is something that we fight for. Freedom is the ability to live as we like, free from too much interference in our lives from the government, whether it be city, county, state, or federal. Freedom is something that we as Americans can talk about with no problem. But when I read Jesus’ words, quoting the prophet Isaiah, that he has been sent to proclaim release to the captives, I had a much harder time trying to identify with that. Another word for proclaiming release, you see, is proclaiming liberation. And when I was trying to figure out how to start this sermon, I realized that I could not point to any powerful examples of liberation in my life. For I have always been free. I suppose I could point to that state that we are all in, that of being prisoner to sin, and how Jesus has liberated me from that. But that is a daily struggle that we all have, and I don’t think that this, necessarily, is what Jesus or the prophet Isaiah was referring to. I could speak of my own personal call as Jesus liberating me to speak to and to lead God’s people, when I wouldn’t have been able to do so in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, but again, I think that’s entirely too narrow a focus for proclaiming liberation to the captives. Instead, today, I want to put this in its context, connecting it to what else Isaiah and Jesus are saying: that of bringing good news to the poor.

You see, of all the gospels, Luke has the greatest emphasis on bringing the poor into the circle of those whom God cares for. If you contrast Jesus’ “Blessed are” sayings in Matthew and Luke, for example, Matthew has Jesus saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” whereas Luke simply has, “Blessed are the poor.” This week in our Thursday morning Bible study, we contrasted the Christmas stories as told in Matthew and Luke, and found that whereas Matthew was concerned with the reaction to Jesus’ birth in the great halls of political power, Luke spoke of lowly shepherds being invited by heavenly angels to come and see the newborn baby lying in a manger. It’s not that one Gospel writer is wrong where the other is right; it’s simply that, even though God inspires each writer, each of them retains his own personality and writes with that emphasis on what Jesus means for him and the congregation to whom he is writing.

One of Luke’s main emphases in his Gospel is to show how Jesus ministers to those who are on the margins, those who most good religious folks wouldn’t look twice at. Jesus’ purpose in ministering to these people, Luke says, is to show them that they are included and they are loved, and that the Christian community is not whole without them.

So, let’s set the scene for Jesus’ preaching in Nazareth. When Jesus comes back from his 40 days of fasting in the wilderness and being tempted by the devil, he is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and he knows what his purpose is. And what better way to start his ministry than by giving his inaugural address in his hometown of Nazareth? So he makes his way home from the wilderness, stopping in synagogues along the way and teaching, so that word of mouth would tell his family and friends that he was on his way home.

When Jesus gets home, he goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath as was his custom, and he gets invited to read a portion of Scripture and to preach on it. We don’t know if Jesus deliberately chose this portion of the prophet Isaiah, or if that was the appointed reading for that particular Sabbath. Either way, Jesus uses this Scripture to lay out his agenda for his ministry, much like a new president lays out the agenda for his administration in his inaugural address. And here is Jesus’ agenda for his ministry, taken straight from Isaiah: to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Many people attempt to spiritualize this agenda and to say, “Well, we are poor and we are oppressed because we are in bondage to sin and we often can’t see that we are in bondage to sin, and so this good news is for us.” Now, I’m not denying that this is true. But Martin Luther often said that we must look first at the plain sense of the text when we are interpreting what it means, and nowhere in this agenda of Jesus is he talking about being in bondage to sin. No, Jesus is talking about those who are financially poor, those who are physically blind, those who are physically oppressed, and he is proclaiming jubilee, that is, the year of the Lord’s favor when all debts are canceled and all the land is returned to its original owners. That’s a very frightening thing for people who hold power, like, for example, bankers who hold a lot of debt. In this equalization that is to happen, those who hold power and money in this world stand to lose a lot. No wonder interpreters have spiritualized this text over the years: if we took the plain sense of this text seriously, many of the powerful in this world would fall. And that’s really scary for a lot of us.

But one thing that God tells us in Scripture over and over again is, “Be not afraid.” Do not be afraid, for in Jesus, God is with us. And so, we who want to follow Jesus more closely need to take seriously Jesus’ agenda as he preached in his hometown of Nazareth. And the question that we need to ask ourselves is this: how do we proclaim the same things that Jesus proclaimed in his inaugural address in Nazareth in a way that is meaningful to those outside of the church?

Let’s start with the premise that if someone is poor and is worried about finding money to pay for rent, utilities, and food, and has little experience with the church, they are probably not going to want to talk about spiritual things until their physical needs are taken care of. In the letter of James it says, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (2:15-16). This congregation has taken this admonition to heart: we give food and money to Loaves & Fishes; we donate money to ELCA World Hunger; we participate in the distribution of Christmas baskets that the Council of Community Services does each year; we donate to Backpack Blessings, which helps ensure that kids are not hungry over the weekends when they can’t get food at school; and we have set up a method to donate to our congregation’s Good Samaritan Fund. We are doing well, and we need to continue these efforts.

But poverty continues here in Powell, and even with all of the things we are doing to fight it, it seems like there is ever yet more that can be done. And that is because, as wonderful as all of these things are, they are addressing the symptoms of poverty and not the causes. It’s like a story that I heard recently. Some people were standing by a river and saw someone drowning. So, they pulled him out, healed his wounds, and sent him on his way. But then, a few minutes later, another person came down the river who was drowning. The people on the bank did the same thing for this person, but soon another person and another person came down. Finally someone suggested that they go up the river, find out what was causing people to fall in, and try to put a stop to it. There they found a rickety bridge across the river that had no railings. People were crossing this rickety bridge and falling in. So the people downriver tore down that bridge and built a new, sturdier one. By addressing the cause of the problem, the people may not have been able to put a complete stop to the drownings, but they were able to greatly reduce the number of people drowning in the river.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is the kind of good news to the poor that Jesus was preaching. If we find the causes of the poverty in our community and address those, then we can bring the kind of true liberation from oppression that people are longing for. This week I will be meeting with the pastor of the United Methodist church to begin talks about how we can come together and address the causes of poverty in Powell. I ask for your prayers that the Holy Spirit will guide us as we take these first steps, and your support as we continue down this road. I don’t know what kind of shape this idea will take in the future. Perhaps people from our congregations can come together to offer help with writing job applications and resumes. Perhaps we can help people in our community access government resources that they were not aware of. Perhaps those of us who are good with budgets can help people learn to budget the resources they have. Or, perhaps this idea will take shape in a way I can’t even imagine right now. The Holy Spirit has a way of doing that, and I believe that now is the moment for this congregation to act.

By addressing the causes of poverty in this area, we will not be able to eliminate poverty completely. But, like the people by the riverbank who decided to build a new bridge, we may begin to make a dent in the problem. Imagine with me for a moment: what would it look like if we were able to reduce poverty in Powell by 25%? 50%? Even higher? What would it look like to have more people working? What would it look like to have less children in need of the Backpack Blessings program? I think that this is the kind of good news that Jesus is bringing to the poor, and the kind of liberation that people are longing for. It’s not going to be easy, by any stretch of the imagination. But, when we are filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the ability to do the things which Jesus dreamed of. And that power of the Holy Spirit is love. When we love power, we keep others poor and down. But when we act in the power of love, we lift others up.

Let us end today’s meditation with a prayer. Holy Spirit, fill us with your power. Fill us with your power of love. Help us to proclaim good news to the poor and release to the captives. Guide us as we begin steps to come together with our neighbors to lift others up out of poverty and into the fullness of communion with you and with us. Help us to see those in need as people you love, and help us to lift them up. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sermon for Epiphany 2C

John 2:1-11

It’s interesting to me to see, sometimes, the changes that writers, directors, and producers make when they make a book either into a TV series or a movie. One series that I’m watching right now is called The Shannara Chronicles, based on a series of fantasy books written by Terry Brooks. The specific book that they’re focusing on right now is the second one in the series, called The Elfstones of Shannara. In this book, there is a magical tree called the Ellcrys that, as long as she lives, keeps demons imprisoned. But she is dying, and unless something is done to save her, the demons will break free of their prison and ravage the land, killing everyone they encounter in revenge for their imprisonment. There is a group of Elves, called the Chosen, who take care of the Ellcrys and who first notice that she is dying. Now, here is a significant change from the book to the TV series that I want to point out. In the book, the Ellcrys alone selects the Elves that she wishes for her Chosen. The young Elves pass beneath her branches, and the ones that the tree touches with her branches are the ones selected to be her Chosen. No one knows why the tree chooses who she chooses and it is regarded as pure grace and a singular honor to be Chosen. However, this must not have been exciting enough for the TV producers, and they changed it. In the TV series, the young Elves who wish to be Chosen run a race called the Gauntlet, and the first seven across the finish line are the Chosen. They are brought to the tree, who, it seems, must accept them because they have run the race and won—she doesn’t seem to have much actual choice in the matter.

Doesn’t this change say a lot about human nature? We have a tough time with the idea of grace. There is something in us that rebels against simply being chosen and loved for who we are. We think that we have to prove ourselves and then present ourselves to God as somehow being worthy, almost forcing God to accept us because we think we have fulfilled all of God’s requirements. We say, “Look, God, I’m a good person. Maybe I haven’t fulfilled all of your laws in every exact detail, but I have done my best. You have to love me now.”

Today’s Gospel lesson shows us how wrong-headed this idea really is. And it’s not an easy text for us to decipher, either. John maddeningly leaves out many details that might help us understand this story a little bit more. Whose wedding was it that Jesus and his mother and his disciples were invited to? Why does Jesus answer his mother quite rudely in one breath, and then in the next breath, seem to change his mind and does what his mother wants? And what a strange way to reveal his glory: the servants at the wedding, his mother, and his disciples are the only ones who know exactly what Jesus has done. But, I think we need to put these questions aside and focus in on the pure grace that is involved in this, Jesus’ first sign.

The first part of the grace of God shown in this story is that Jesus is present for the wedding. We don’t know whose wedding it is, and while that may be frustrating for us, it serves God’s purposes well. The couple getting married was obviously known to Jesus’ mother, but that fact alone did not obligate Jesus to come. There are plenty of instances in the Gospels where Jesus distances himself from his family. But Jesus chooses to come to this wedding and to celebrate with the happy couple and family and friends. This is pure, undeserved, unmerited grace. And Jesus’ presence among them, even without his turning the water into wine, would have been enough.

But when God gives, he doesn’t give in half measures. No, God gives in abundance. When Jesus’ mother tells him that their hosts have no wine, this is not a life and death situation. No healing is required. If their hosts had run out of wine, and no solution was found, the family would have been a social pariah. They would have been laughed at for not being able to properly host a wedding celebration. Their status would have been the lowest of the low in the village of Cana. And while that would have been a huge deal in first-century Palestine, it was still not life or death. Jesus didn’t have to act, which may account for his rude reply to his mother. But instead, Jesus chooses to act, and he chooses to do so with abundant grace. Can you picture how much wine this was? Six stone water jars—each holding twenty or thirty gallons. And not the cheap boxed wine, either—but the really, really good stuff. Now, you all know that I’m not a wine drinker. And people have different tastes in wine—some like very dry wine, while others like very sweet wine. I don’t think it matters for our purposes what the wine at that long-ago wedding tasted like. For our purposes, I’d like you to imagine this wine at the Cana wedding to be whatever the best-tasting wine is that you’ve ever had. Because that’s the type of abundant grace that Jesus brings to us—it is whatever we most need in our lives, and it is pure gift.

Finally, neither the steward of the feast nor the bridegroom know where this good wine has come from. Only those people who saw what had happened—the servants, Jesus’ mother, and Jesus’ disciples—knew what was going on, and they chose not to share this with the others. Why? Even in their drunken states, it was very possible that no one would have believed what had happened. This is a peculiar kind of epiphany—Jesus choosing to reveal his glory only to a few people, only to those who had eyes to see and who knew what was going on. Our idea of a revelation of glory would be for Jesus to reveal himself to the entire world, to smite the evildoers and to reward those who do good. Notice again that we think our merit should have something to do with receiving God’s grace. But that’s not how God works.

What should we take, then, from this strange story that John tells us? First, abundant grace comes in the form of Jesus being present in the ordinary, daily events of our lives. You all know that my dog, Otis, comes with me to church for meetings as long as there is no food involved—because he’s a horrible beggar. He came with me to church for the council meeting on Monday night, and suddenly, in the middle of the meeting, he got very sick. In this ordinary event I saw Jesus in the midst of the council meeting that night. Instead of getting upset with my dog, the council members there that night forgave Otis for making a mess, petting him and asking him if he was okay. Frankly, I think I was more upset and worried over cleaning up the mess than they were. But, they laughed and said, “Dogs do that sometimes,” and then said, “Otis just wants us to hurry up with the library renovation.” Otis and I both thank you for that grace, and yes, I see that as Jesus being in our midst, even in the most ordinary, and frankly, disgusting, events of our lives.

The second thing that we should notice is that, like the wine, Jesus gives grace in abundance. Sometimes it’s hard to see that abundant grace when we’re struggling to make ends meet, or when such things are going on in our family that we feel like we’re going to scream and throw in the towel completely if just one more thing happens. But, if we take a look around, we can see the many and abundant gifts that Jesus has blessed us with. I see those abundant gifts in the network of people here in this congregation and this community. When one of us is in need and he or she lets the people in the congregation know, someone who can supply that need steps forward and helps the other person out. We have many who, when someone is sick, go to visit and bring food, as well as consolation. When someone needs something done in their home, there is usually someone in the congregation who can help out either at no cost or very little cost. This is the kind of thing that the Apostle Paul speaks of in our second lesson today from 1 Corinthians, and it is evidence of the abundance of Jesus’ love and grace that is poured out upon us.

Finally, in the last line of our Gospel today, we see that Jesus reveals his glory, but he reveals it only to a few, those who have the eyes to see what is happening. The human idea of glory always has to do with fame and fortune. Consider all of those who were hoping to win the gigantic lottery this week. Now, I know that many were imagining what they could do with all of that money, and probably had plans to use it to do good for others as well as spending some of it on themselves. But there’s also glory involved in that, isn’t there? Who among us wouldn’t like the fame of being that one lucky person who won all of that money, the glory of having our 5 minutes of national fame before everyone’s attention moved on to the next thing? That’s our idea of glory. But that’s not God’s idea of glory. God’s idea of glory is to work behind the scenes to change water into wine, where only a few can see and believe in the one whom God has sent. And so, we need to be observant, to see where God might be working for good. And it’s important to remember that God does work even in the bad things that happen to us. We might not see it until whatever it is has happened and is behind us, but we can trust that, whatever is happening, God is there in, with, and under the elements that make up the event. So, let’s keep our eyes out, and we might just see the glory of God revealed in that hidden grace.

So, where do we see the grace of God working in our lives here in Powell? As we go from here today, I’d like to issue a challenge for all of us, myself included. In each of our interactions, in each situation in which we find ourselves this week, let us intentionally be on the lookout for God’s grace in our lives. Sometimes people call these “God sightings”. How, where, and when do we see Jesus in our lives? Then, as we come back to church events this week, let’s start out our meetings and our Bible studies with reports of where we saw God’s grace poured out upon us in abundance, in the hidden things, and in the ordinary things that happen to us in our lives. I’d like to start making this a habit in our congregation, so that we can become better at praising God for working in our lives. This is going to take some practice, so don’t be discouraged if you can’t come up with something right away, especially since we don’t often see God’s grace until we look at an event in hindsight. But keep on the lookout, for Jesus might just be there when you least expect him, changing water into wine and revealing his glory in your life. May it always be so. Amen.

Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord

Luke 3:15-17; 21-22

Remember your baptism. This is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in the Lutheran church, and one which we just heard again through the children’s sermon. Remember your baptism. Although I had several opportunities while I was in Florida this week to “remember my baptism” as my parents and I got caught in a downpour of rain without umbrellas or raincoats as we walked through St. Augustine, and as my mother and I chose to get wet on a couple of water rides at Busch Gardens, I have no memories of my actual baptism. Being the granddaughter of a pastor, with my grandfather living nearby at the time I was born, meant that I was baptized when I was about 3 weeks old. I have pictures of that day, with proud members of my family taking turns holding me after the actual baptism, but no pictures of the event itself—I think my grandfather would probably have shot anyone who dared take pictures during the service—and even if we were able to retain memories of what happened to us at 3 weeks old, I was told that I slept through the whole thing, for which my parents were profoundly thankful to God. And so I am envious of those of you here who were older when you were baptized, because you do have actual memories of that blessed event.

What does it mean, then, for those of us who were too young when we were baptized to remember the event, when someone tells us to remember our baptism? Perhaps we should rephrase this command to say, “Remember that you are baptized.” For, as blessed as the actual event was, and as much as I wish I could remember that day itself, it is important for me to remember that I am baptized, and to reflect on what that baptism means in my life. And, although the baptism that Jesus underwent at John’s hands was not exactly the same as the baptism which we as Christians undergo over 2000 years later, there are enough similarities between the two that makes today a good day for us to reflect on baptism, as we remember the story of Jesus being baptized.

Luke’s account of Jesus being baptized is interesting from a literary standpoint, and we don’t get to see it today because the lectionary has removed these verses from the story. We hear once again, as we heard in Advent, part of what John the Baptist was preaching to the people: one is coming who is more powerful than John; John is not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals; this one who is coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire; he will separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff with fire. But then, instead of immediately moving to John baptizing Jesus, Luke tells how King Herod imprisoned John because John publicly chastised Herod for marrying Herodias, who had been Herod’s brother’s wife. Then, almost as an afterthought, Luke moves back to John’s baptizing ministry and tells the story of Jesus’ baptism as a flashback.

We would think that something as important as the baptism of Jesus would merit a grander telling than what Luke seems to give it. But, we need to look a little bit more closely here at what Luke is doing. Out of all of the writers of the New Testament, Luke is one of the most sophisticated. So we need to ask ourselves this question: By placing Jesus’ baptism in the shadow of King Herod’s imprisonment of John the Baptist, what is Luke saying about Jesus’ baptism and future ministry? He could very well be making the point that Jesus will continue John’s ministry after John is put in prison. But, more than that: Luke is foreshadowing that Jesus’ ministry will also end in imprisonment and death at the hands of the reigning powers, just as John’s does. And yet, Jesus is baptized anyway, as an act of resistance to those earthly powers that will attempt to crush him.

And so, what does that say about our own baptism into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Baptism is generally seen as a joyful occasion, and rightly so: it is God coming down through the means of water and the Word and claiming the person being baptized as one of his beloved children, with whom he is well pleased. If the person being baptized is a baby, we get very excited and teary-eyed, and everything is white and pure and beautiful. If the baby cries, we laugh and find meaning in those cries. If the person being baptized is older, many of those same emotions are present. But do we ever stop to think about what more there is to baptism besides the beauty and becoming one of the family of God?

When we baptize, we are baptizing the person into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Baptism is not simply a warm, fuzzy, family feeling and now everything will be just wonderful for the person’s entire life. Baptism is saying that, like Jesus’ life, life for the Christian will be difficult. Baptism is an act of resistance to the powers of this world, and our lives after baptism will never be the same. Richard Swanson, professor at Augustana University, writes that baptism is a “gift from God that connects people with promises too big to fit into the world as it is presently constituted”. And being baptized is an act of faith that holds God to those promises that he has made. If we stop to think about what being baptized really means, it’s a miracle sent from God that anyone dares to become baptized, or that we dare to baptize our children. Baptism is a really big deal.

So, in practical terms, what does all of this mean? Many of you remember, when I first came here over 3 years ago, that our baptismal font was not bolted down. At my installation service, when the then-assistant to the bishop John Allen was here, he bumped into the font. The water sloshed, but did not spill over. Then I bumped into it a couple of times and water sloshed all over the place. So Howard bolted it down—thank you, Howard! The pastor at Messiah Lutheran in Red Lodge, Kim Wilker, thought that this was a great image: Baptism is always in your way, he said. But what does that mean? Well, here is one story that I think illustrates this idea.

For me, the fact that I am a baptized member of God’s family means that I stop and think about things that, if I hadn’t been baptized and my faith formed by the community of the church, I wouldn’t normally think about. Take, for instance, gambling. When I was in Florida last week, a friend of my parents who had worked for a long time in the horse racing industry took us to the race track in Tampa. We got to go early in the morning and watch the riders exercise the horses. I delighted in seeing the beauty of the horses, how frisky they were, and how much they wanted to run. I marveled at the ability of the riders to control the horses. It was evident to me that all of the people involved loved the horses and took great care of them. But then, later, we saw the actual races. And again, the fun part for me was watching these beautiful horses run. What made me think, however, was watching the people bet money on which horses were going to win. My father helped me interpret the racing forms—each horse had statistics and information about how they were raised, what races they had already won, and there were the favorites to win and the long shots. But in the end, there was no guarantee over who was going to win the race. And I began to question the wisdom of betting on horses, and I began to see how people might be sucked into a gambling addiction: thinking they could possibly win a large sum of money on a long shot that just might win, and praying that they would so they might be able to pay off a large bill. And then I began to see a little bit why there was some controversy surrounding the institution of a lottery here in Wyoming. And finally, I thought: surely God wants us to be better stewards of our money and use it to help one another, rather than gamble it away. And yes, some will say that it’s all in good fun, and if you want to gamble—in moderation—I don’t have a problem with that. It just had me asking what the point of it was when, even though my parents won some and lost some, they didn’t end up with any more than they went in with.

And this is just one way that baptism gets in our way: whether it’s gambling or something else that the world around us doesn’t bat an eyelash at, being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ means that we start to look at the world through the eyes of Christ. This is not simply a matter of asking, “What Would Jesus Do?” although it could start out that way. This is, rather, a holistic way of looking at the world. It is a way of asking ourselves if the values of the world are the values of God revealed to us through Jesus Christ, and if they are not, how we as Christians can work to proclaim those values of God to the world and work to change things, so that they are more in alignment with those values of God. Remembering that we are baptized also challenges us to look at our own individual values and see if they are aligned with the values of God as revealed to us through Jesus Christ.

Lest we get all tangled up in what being baptized challenges us to do in this world, however, let us return for a moment back to the scene of Jesus’ baptism. Luke tells us that “when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying . . . a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Along with the great challenges which come our way in baptism comes this great gift: that, no matter what, we are God’s children, and we are God’s beloved. Finally, that is the most important thing to remember about our baptism: that, even when baptism gets in our way, even when our baptism challenges us to think in different ways than the world does, even when we fail in life, God is right there with us, reminding us that we are indeed God’s beloved children. Whether we remember the day of our actual baptism, or whether it is simply a reminder to ourselves that we are, indeed, baptized, this is God’s incredible gift to us: that we are God’s children and that we are loved. So let us remember our baptism. Amen.

Sermon for Christmas 1C

Luke 2:41-52

My, how time flies! Just two days ago we were celebrating Jesus being born, and today, he’s already twelve years old! And getting into trouble. I think that if you have ever lost track of your child, you can sympathize with Mary and Joseph—searching for three days in Jerusalem, at the close of each day losing just a little bit more hope, maybe wondering what God was going to do to them for losing his son. From Jesus’ point of view, though, he was never lost—he knew where he was, and he knew he was supposed to be there. There’s a funny story in my family about how, when my brother was quite young, he went shopping at a local store with my father and my grandparents. My grandmother sent my brother over to the next aisle to get my grandfather, but when my brother got there, my grandfather had gone somewhere else. When my brother then tried to return to where my grandmother was, he couldn’t find her. So he went to a stranger and told her what was wrong. She brought him up to the service desk, where he promptly told the woman there that his father and his grandparents were lost. He was never lost, mind you, they were the ones who were lost. And I think that’s probably how Jesus felt, too.

So, what are we to make of this one story that we have from Jesus’ childhood? Those of you who have “tweens,” and those of us who can remember back that far, know that they rarely have their heads on straight at this age. Between schoolwork, activities, and the entrance into adolescence with all that entails, it’s a miracle any of us survived that age. And yet, sometimes people can receive their calling from God even when they’re young. In the movie, “Keeping the Faith,” about a priest and a rabbi who were long-time friends in New York City, the priest says that he knew from a young age that God was calling him into the priesthood, as people just seemed to feel comfortable coming to him with their problems. He relates how, when he told this to his parents, his mother cried, and his father simply wanted to know if working for God came with dental. (I only have this movie on videotape and I couldn’t find the right clip on YouTube, so I encourage you to watch this movie on your own, if you haven’t already. It’s a good movie that talks about people’s calling in life.)

And I think, ultimately, that’s what we can take from this story of Jesus in the Temple at 12 years old. It gives us pause to reflect on what God has called us to, and how our families react when we hear that calling from God. Mary and Joseph were frantically looking for Jesus, and when they found him in the Temple, sitting among the rabbis, their first thought wasn’t, “Oh, we’re so proud of him. He’s having a great conversation with these learned men and holding his own. He’s going to be a great rabbi himself one day.” No, their first thought is, “Where in the world have you been? We’ve been worried sick about you! Didn’t you think about us at all?” This is a natural reaction for parents to have, and it shows us that Joseph and Mary were human beings, just like good human parents are from generation to generation. What gives me pause, though, is how they react to what Jesus says. I want you to imagine Jesus responding to his parents with the tone of voice that a typical 12-year-old today would use with his or her parents coming to collect him or her from a friend’s house. “Mom, Dad, you’re embarrassing me. I’m not ready to go yet. How could you not know I had to be here? Don’t you know me at all?” If I had mouthed off like that to my parents, especially after they’d been searching for me for three days, it would have taken great restraint on my parents’ part not to smack me in front of everyone, and I probably would have been grounded for the rest of my life. But Mary and Joseph don’t respond as typical parents would. They were taken aback by what Jesus said, and they didn’t understand. But Jesus, with a typical tween sigh and a shrug of his shoulders, went with them back to Nazareth. And Mary treasured all of these things in her heart. So, perhaps after the initial scolding, when she had time to think about it, she remembered that she was dealing with God’s Son as well as her own, and wondered what, exactly, God was calling Jesus to do, and how this episode would relate to how Jesus was going to be the Savior.

What is God calling us to do? And do we always know it right away? My own call story is not as clearly written as Jesus’ call seems to be. At 12 years old, I had realized that my previous desire to be an astronomer would have involved a lot of science that I simply wasn’t interested in, and a new desire to be either a historian or a translator was developing, as I was beginning to study German and I was learning more about history. I enjoyed going to worship on Sunday mornings, but being a pastor one day was probably the furthest thing from my mind. But what I remember about my family is that, no matter what stage I was in, no matter what things I was interested in, they found ways to help me and to encourage me in that calling. For example, when I wanted to be an astronomer, they bought me books on stars and planets, and I think they got me a telescope, too, but none of us could figure out how to make it work! When that desire faded and I started to express different interests, they found ways to support me in those interests. And when, finally, as an adult, I heard God calling me into the ordained ministry, they have supported me in this calling as well.

As Lutherans, we have a theology that says that God has called each one of us into a vocation meant for each one of us to serve our neighbor who is in need. Martin Luther, who lived in a time when those who were called to religious vocations, such as priests, monks, and nuns, were regarded as being holier than the “ordinary” people, lifted up the vocations of everyone as vitally important to serving one another. Therefore, for the parents and grandparents here today, I offer this: support your children and grandchildren as they explore different things that interest them. Encourage them to follow their interests, because you never know where God might be leading them. If they are searching for something, suggest different vocations that they might explore.

And in the Christian church, family is more than just your family at home. If you are in the habit of reading my columns in the monthly newsletter, I always begin by saying, “Dear family of Hope”. I regard the congregation as an extended family, and if we are, indeed, an extended family, then we also have the privilege and responsibility of encouraging the children in our midst as they seek out ways to serve God and to serve one another. I have told several of you recently that, in my wildest dreams, I would never have imagined that we would have a children’s choir here leading worship. But because several members of this congregation noticed that the kids enjoyed singing, they began to encourage that vocation in them and to teach them the liturgy that we as a congregation sing. And we have now had a few times where we hear the children’s joyful voices encouraging us to sing out as well. Praise God for the Holy Spirit working in our midst, in ways that we never would have imagined! And thanks to the children, as well, for all of the hard work that they put in to learning how to sing.

It’s not always easy to let our children go to follow where God is calling them, as it has been with our children’s choir, Hopeful Encore. Sometimes God is calling them to places where they might be in danger. Sometimes the way is strewn with temptations that they will fall prey to. Sometimes the way will twist and turn, and those of us watching will just have no idea what God has in mind for them. Loving children, and even adults, in our midst, is not always easy. But sometimes, we are simply being asked to give our loved ones over into God’s care and trust that God knows what he has in mind for them. That’s ultimately what Mary and Joseph did with Jesus. And although, as the prophet Simeon predicted, a sword did pierce Mary’s heart, ultimately she bore witness to her Son being resurrected from the dead and saving all of humankind. Frederick Buechner wrote, “Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” Jesus’ greatest passion—loving us—did indeed meet our greatest need—our need to be saved. What is our greatest passion in life? And how will we encourage one another to follow that passion in order to meet the world’s greatest need? And will we be able to do it, even when that vocation leads us into places we would rather not see one another go, or go ourselves? May we ever be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit as we serve one another and serve God in this life. Amen.