The Word Made Verb

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Johanna Hartelius and Jason Micheli about the readings for the First Sunday of Lent [Year B] (Genesis 9.8-17, Psalm 25.1-10, 1 Peter 3.18-22, Mark 1.9-15). Johanna is the host of the (Her)men•you•tics podcast where she unpacks theological terms without using stained glass language. Our conversation covers a range of topics including covenant reminders, God’s immutability, liturgical vision, Lent as Christianity’s January, and the connections between death and baptism. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Word Made Verb

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Kicking and Screaming

Mark 1.4-11

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful that I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you will the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

All of us have questions. We have questions about what it means to be a Christian, what the bible is all about, and how to make sense of it all in the ways we live. In November I compiled questions from the congregation and created this sermon series in which I will attempt to answer some of the questions that vex us in regard to faith. Today we begin the series with, “If Jesus was dunked, why do we only sprinkle?”

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The parents stood next to me by the baptismal font, each trying desperately to keep their sons under control. Abe and Archer had never been up at the front of the church, the stained glass windows were mesmerizing, but more than anything, they just wanted to get down and run all over the place.

So I grabbed some of the water in the bowl and let it drip onto their hands as I read the words that countless Christians have heard before their baptisms. It was nothing short of God’s grace that as the water moved from hand to hand, both boys froze in their parents’ arms, and they almost prayerfully joined me in the sacrament that would change their lives forever.

I took them one after the other into my arms, lightly sprinkled water onto their heads and baptized them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Afterwards, I carried them out into the middle of the sanctuary and you could hear a pin drop as the congregation took in the beloved sight of two newly baptized boys moving down the aisle. For them, the church, it was the first baptism in a very long time, and in those two boys they saw their future.

It was a beautiful baptism, and one that I will cherish till the end of my days.

Years later I stood with two different parents, one of whom is another United Methodist pastor, and two different sons, in a very different place. Instead of standing before the church in a church, we had, as the good ol’ hymn goes, gathered by the river. And by river I mean creek.

The crowd of people snuggled closer together as the wind howled through the trees. I came prepared with waders and got appropriately bundled up before stepping into the current. And the closer we came to the moment of baptism the more frightened the two boys looked about a moment that would change their lives forever.

However, I believe it was the fear of the water’s temperature that made them quake in their baptismal gowns more than the disruption the Holy Spirit was about to make real.

I grabbed the younger one first, carried him across the waters to the deepest part of the creek, and his mother and I thrust him completely under the frigid waters three times in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And he was kicking and screaming the entire time.

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I honestly tried to focus on the holiness of the moment, doing my best to make it right, but all I could think about was whether or not the older brother was going to hightail it out of there as soon as I tried to pick him up.

But when we made it back to the shore, I deposited the one brother for the other, took him out and did the same thing. He cried the whole way back to the shore.

It was a beautiful baptism, and one that I will cherish till the end of my days.

If Jesus was dunked, why do we only sprinkle? It’s an interesting question, and frankly one that has vexed the Christian church since nearly the beginning. In the account of Jesus’ baptism by John in Mark’s gospel, it says that Jesus was coming up out of the water when he heard the voice of God, therefore implying that he had been completely under the water. Yet, in many churches when baptism takes place it is done so with the pouring of water over someone’s head, or the sprinkling of water on the forehead.

Answering this question, the one about why we baptize, is at the heart of why there is no universal church. Just take a drive through Woodbridge and you will encounter just about every flavor of church there is and one of the things that divides us is our inability to answer the question.

Some churches believe that you can only baptize adults who have made the choice for themselves. And when they are baptized it has to be “living water” which is to say it cannot be contained in something made by human hands, and has to be in a creek, river, lake, or even the ocean.

Others say you can fully immerse someone in a pool or large baptismal font.

Some churches believe that you can baptize babies, with the consent of their parents, and can do so in a great number of ways, from dipping them in the font to sprinkling water across their foreheads.

And still yet in some churches, they believe that using water in baptism is unfaithful and will instead only baptize by the Spirit without any physical object being used.

And because we have no single answer to the question, there are an almost limitless number of Christian denominations throughout the world.

Do you want to know a secret? The amount of water used doesn’t really matter. Bring a kid to a creek, or a baby to the font, or an adult to the pool, all you want, baptism isn’t about what we do, but instead about what God does to us.

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Baptism, like communion, is what we call a sacrament. It is an outward sign of an invisible grace. It is one of the ways we experience the grace of God here and now through something we can touch, feel, and experience.

It is good for us to practice baptism as such because the whole of the gospel is done to earth, it takes place in the real, tactile, fleshy world. Whenever the Spirit is mentioned in scripture it is tied to the material – real water, real bread, real flames. The Spirit fills us in church when we gather, and sends us out from the church to be in the world.

The Spirit is not something meant for our hearts and souls without the bodily experience.

That’s why the story of Jesus’ baptism has all these great physical details… The people were gathering out in the wilderness at the behest of a radical man named John dressed in camel’s hair with a leather belt, perhaps with locusts and wild honey dripping out of the corner of his mouth. John declares that the one more powerful is coming, and that even he, John, would be unworthy to untie his sandals. And then Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan, he comes up out of the water, still dripping with the experience, and the heavens are ripped apart as a voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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Baptism is not some concept that we can relegate to our minds and our philosophical reflections. It is a defining act that grabs us out of who we were and pushes us into who we are.

Churches, for centuries, have fought battles and excommunicated Christians for their differing beliefs on how much water should be used for baptism. But more important than the amount of water, is the fact that baptism is a violent, disruptive, and transformative change that takes place in our lives.

When I first baptized the boys in the sanctuary, it was picturesque; it was everyone’s dream baptismal experience. But the baptism that took place in the cold creek was more in line with the theological conviction of what it means to be baptized.

            It might bother our modern sensibilities to think about children, or even adults, kicking and screaming on their way to baptism, but when we consider the truth of what we are doing to them and for them, it might be the most proper response.

Immediately following Jesus’ own baptism, the heavens were ripped apart. This was no happy-rainbow-spewing-splitting of the heavens, it was a violent rendering of the cosmos such that the earthly and the divine were coming into contact with one another. We might, in our minds, imagine a beautiful scene where sunshine broke forth from behind the clouds to surround Jesus with a glow, but the language of the gospel beckons us to imagine a scene more akin to the violent rendering of the bomb cyclone the east coast just experienced.

Baptism, whether it’s Jesus’ or our own, is a moment of profound transformation. When we baptize someone in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are, as Paul puts it, baptizing them into Christ’s death so that they can be raised in new life with Christ.

That is no easy thing.

Baptism is the radical reorientation of all things. Whenever we bring someone to the water, whenever we remember our own baptisms, the heavens are torn apart again and God meets us where we are.

It is radical because in the sacrament we affirm that God’s kingdom is more powerful and life changing than anything else in existence. We proclaim that the water washes away every bit of who we were such that we can become the people God is calling us to be. We move into a way of being that is intimately connected with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

I was baptized nearly thirty years ago when I was 19 days old. I have no memory of it at all. I don’t even know who was there or what was said. But it made all the difference. It made all the difference because a group of people who gave their lives to Jesus believed that in giving me to God my life would be about more than me. In baptizing me into the death of Jesus, and raising me into the new life of resurrection, I began a journey that has reshaped my understanding of the world and what it means to love God and neighbor.

Baptism doesn’t promise a perfect life. It is not a cloak of protection that we can drape over those we love. It should shake us that we do something so radical to the people we love. We baptize those whom we love because we want their lives to be about something bigger than themselves, we want them to know what it means to love God and neighbor, we want them to experience resurrection here and now.

I have brought infants, and toddlers, and even teenagers to the waters of baptism again and again because what God does through the Spirit is the most wonderfully disruptive thing that can ever take place. In those moments, God speaks from the torn open heavens, just like on the day Jesus was baptized to say, “You are my child.”

            And we are who God says we are. Amen.

Best Day Ever

John 14.1-7

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.

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Dear Teagan Leigh…

We are the stories we tell. Stories make up the very fabric of our existence here on earth. As you grow older your parents and grandparents and teachers will tell you tales and fables in order to teach you lessons about the world around you. When you mature enough you will be told stories about the past in order to avoid the mistakes of those who came before you. And when you get old like me, you’ll start telling stories in order to comprehend the events of life and in attempts to derive meaning out of the mundane.

We are taught by stories, we are convicted by stories, and we are entertained by stories.

Teagan, when your parents got married, I stood in front of them and their friends and their families and I told them about the importance of stories. After listening to them describe their love and commitment to and for one another in the months leading up to that moment, I knew that their stories were coming together in that holy space as I pronounced them husband and wife.

I told the story of how when your Dad, Tucker, was 4 years old he went shopping with your great grandmother. The whole trip was planned around your Dad finding something for his mom for Mother’s Day. He was given complete and total freedom to pick out whatever he wanted from the store, and sure enough he found the perfect Mother’s Day gift. They went home and wrapped it and then you’re grandmother, Lisa, opened her gift to discover that your 4 year old father, out of all the items he could’ve pick in that store, chose for her a broom and a dust pan… Your grandmother mustered up all the strength she could to accept her gift with pride, though she couldn’t help herself from asking, “Tucker, why the broom and the dust pan?” To which your father replied, “Momma, they’re green, just like your eyes!”

Teagan, I also told a story about your mother, Jess. When your Mom was about 5 years old, she started playing tee ball. She practiced and practiced and then the first real game finally arrived. When your mother got up to the plate for that first at-bat, she swung as hard as she could and she started running. By the time she rounded second base she was beaming with pride thinking about how she was about to score her very first run, and when she was closing in on third base, her coach yelled, “Home Jess! Go home!” but instead of rounding third, your mother ran straight into the dugout and, if her friends and parents hadn’t been there, she would have literally kept running all the way back to her house.

I told those stories at your parents’ wedding because we are the stories we tell. You’re mother is a remarkably loving friend who takes people at their word. Her trust for others is such that she would go to great lengths for the people in her life, even if it meant running all the way home. And your Dad is easily one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met in my life; he will tell you exactly how he feels rather than waste anyone’s time and he knows how to make the best out of any situation, even if he bought your grandmother a broom.

At your parents wedding, I stood before them, their friends, and the rest of your amazing family and told stories. I told those stories to show how your mother and father were about to have their stories join together and you, sweet precious Teagan Leigh, are one of the wonderful results of that union.

And frankly, I would like to take a little credit for your existence. Had I not been there to marry your parents together, had I not joined them in holy matrimony, you wouldn’t be here this morning for your baptism. So, you’re welcome.

I’m just kidding, but there is someone else we need to talk about, someone else whose story makes possible your story. And you might think that I’m going to start talking about Jesus… nope (or at least not yet). We need to talk about your grandfather Marshall.

At your parents’ wedding, your grandfather stood up at the reception and gave one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard. To be honest, I was a little disappointed when I was listening to it because I realized that no one would remember what I said during the ceremony, but everyone would remember what your grandfather said. And, if I may be so bold, I can condense his 45-minute speech into one phrase: Best Day Ever.

Your grandfather Marshall went on and on about all the memories he had of your Dad and your Mom and how every day was the best day ever, all the way up to the wedding day, and that throughout their marriage they would continue to experience the best day ever.

It was perfect.

What made it perfect was how faithful it was. Because marriage, the joining together of two people is based on an assurance of commitment, what we like to call a covenant. Your parents covenanted to love and cherish and remain with one another recognizing that life will change, that circumstances would move them into strange and unknown places, and yet they believed in the power of God to hold them together in spite of the great mystery we call marriage.

Which brings me to Jesus…

Teagan, your parents are crazy. In their marriage they looked into the abyss of the unknown and jumped right in, and they’re doing it again today in your baptism. Bringing you forth to be baptized is one of the craziest and most faithful things that you parents will ever do, because in doing so they are recognizing that you don’t belong to them.

            You belong to God.

Teagan, there is this profoundly awesome moment in the gospel of John when Jesus was talking to his disciples about what it would mean to follow him. Jesus went on and on in attempts to strengthen his friends and provide for them a glimpse of the kingdom of God on earth and Thomas responded by saying, “Lord how will we know the way?”

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Thomas’ question is all of our questions. Throughout your life Teagan you will encounter this question in its many forms: Who should I sit next to at lunch? What should I get my mom for Mother’s Day? What school should I attend? Who should I marry? What kind of family should I raise? What kind of job should I pursue? What kind of church should I attend? How will I know when it’s the right time to retire? All of these questions are predicated on the assumption that we do not know where we’re going and we need all the help we can get.

Thomas wanted to know how to get where Jesus was going, he wanted an answer to his question, he wanted to know the way. And Jesus responded like this, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

Teagan, there are many ways that you can live your life, you can find a great number of answers to your many questions. But Jesus is THE way, and THE truth, and THE life. And unlike many of the means by which the world will try to entice you with a great number of choices, attempts at making you the author of your own story, Jesus is the one who acts upon your behalf.

There might come a day when you’ll look back and regret the choice that your parents made for you. You might wonder if you would’ve made the same choice for yourself had they waited until you were old enough to make it. Your experience of the baptized life might be such that you’ll even be mad at me for being the one who doused you in water. But this thing we call baptism doesn’t really have anything to do with you, or your parents, or even me. Instead it has everything to do with God revealing THE way through THE Son.

In your baptism, something you won’t remember outside of stories and photographs, God is the one acting on your behalf. It is the Spirit that moves through the water and calls you forth into a new life, it is God who has worked in and through the waters of so many who have been grafted into the church, it is Jesus who makes possible the kind of radical transformation that takes place in the water.

When your parents got married, they stood before the altar of the Lord and asked for God’s help to navigate the difficult and challenging covenant of marriage. And in your baptism they will do much the same, and we will all join them in their covenant. The people of God’s church, and not just the people of St. John’s but all Christians everywhere, are making the promise to raise you in the faith, to support you when you falter, to congratulate you when you succeed, and to call you out when you wander from THE way.

In a sense, we are making the public proclamation that you are a gift to us from God.

For many of us Teagan, this is the best day ever. When we look up to see you at the font surrounded by such love it will give those of us who have followed THE way a great deal of hope. In the water that will cover your head we will be reminded of THE truth of what Jesus came to do for the world through THE life of God offered on the cross and resurrected from the grave. And Teagan, I hope that one day you will look back at this day, the day of your baptism, as the best day ever.

But even that would be a disservice to the living God who breathed the breath of life into you, the living God who called your mother and father to live in holy matrimony all of their days, and the living God who revealed THE way and THE truth and THE life in his Son. For to follow Jesus on THE way as THE way is to know that every day is the best day ever. Because every day is another opportunity to encounter the incredible grace of God in the laughter of a friend, in the tear of a spous e, in the smile of a stranger. Every day offers us a chance to live into THE truth that God is the author of our stories. Every day presents an occasion to give thanks for THE life that reorients all of our lives.

Teagan Leigh, you are a gift. You are a gift to your mother and father and to your family. You are a gift to the church. You are a reminder of what God’s grace actually looks like. So today we give thanks to God for you, for making this the best day ever, and for THE truth that even greater days are yet to come. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 31.5

Devotional:

Psalm 31.5

Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

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It is such a blessing to work for a church with a preschool because I get to interact with children who are beginning to learn about God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This takes place weekly during chapel time in the sanctuary as I help to share stories from the bible with the kids, and it also takes place on special occasions like when we celebrate communion together and when we talk about the waters of baptism. Our preschool represents a great diversity of families and religious convictions (including a few kids whose mother or father is the pastor of a different church) so I have to make sure that whenever we talk about scripture I’m not doing it in such a way that it will undermine what a child has been taught at his/her home church.

Over the last few years we’ve had two brothers attend the preschool whose mother is the pastor of another United Methodist Church in town. Pastor Sarah and I are very close and I’ve greatly enjoyed talking with her boys about the bible because they know it so well (though it has made chapel time sessions a challenge since they are forever answering the questions before the other kids get a chance). Her boys, Charlie and Jed, are what I hope my son, Elijah, will be like as he grows up.

Months ago I was having a conversation with Sarah at a clergy event when she shared with me that her boys were not baptized as infants and that they had recently decided to commit their lives to Jesus AND that they wanted me to participate in their baptisms. To be asked by another clergy person to take part in her children’s baptism is quite unlike anything I’ve ever been blessed to do in my life.

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And so yesterday afternoon, Sarah’s family and friends gathered together with her boys by a river just outside of Staunton for their baptism. I offered a little homily to reflect on how God has already moved in and through their lives and then it was time to go to the water. The river was moving at a good pace and was so cold that I was worried if the boys slowly walked out into the water they would have high-tailed it in the other direction, so one-by-one I carried Sarah’s sons over the water and together she and I baptized them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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For what it’s worth: the Spirit got a hold of them real quick and they were both screaming as they came out of the water!

 

Being there are the water’s edge, and then in the middle of the river for the baptism, was one of the holiest experiences I’ve had in a long time. And when I looked at Jed and Charlie, when I saw their utter dedication to what they were about to do (even with the water as cold as it was), and I was reminded of Psalm 31.5: “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” Jed and Charlie made a choice yesterday afternoon to offer their lives to Christ, something that most of us have done whether we made the choice or someone made it for us. And today I am grateful that I was there to participate because their faithfulness has challenged me to be more faithful like them.

Baptism and Temptation

Mark 1.9-13

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.

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This morning is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. Christians throughout the world will use this season to repent of past sins, and seek renewal in their commitment to follow Jesus Christ. Throughout this season we are going to explore and examine Jesus’ life from baptism to resurrection by walking in his footsteps on the way that leads to life. We are using Adam Hamilton’s book The Way to guide our weekly services, because it follows Jesus’ life in a way that is important for us to rediscover during Lent. We begin with Jesus’ baptism and temptation.

 

Before I became your pastor, I helped a number of churches with their ministries. One such church is nestled in the Great Smokey Mountains in the far reaches of western North Carolina. Bryson City United Methodist Church has a beautiful building right in the center of town. They have services every Sunday that are often interrupted by the sound of motorcycles during the summer. They have a dynamic choir that rivals choral groups from cathedrals. And it is within walking distance of one of my favorite restaurants: Bojangles.

I spent an entire summer doing everything I could for the church, but honestly they didn’t have many expectations – so long as I showed up on Sunday morning with something to say and checked in on people during the week, I was encouraged to spend my time exploring the local area by hiking and whitewater rafting. (It was a great summer).

I will never forget some of the characters that would show up on Sunday mornings. There was Ralph, the church organist and music minister, who had a ponytail and always wanted to talk more about fly fishing than the hymns we would use during a worship service. There was Mr. Outlaw who knew his bible better than the seminarian that had shown up for the summer. And there was Ben Bushyhead. I will never forget Ben Bushyhead, not just for his incredible last name, but because after I preached for the first time he walked right up to me and said (rather declaratively), “Son, you using too many of them big seminary words.”

On one particular Sunday morning, toward the end of my time at the church, they were going to have their first baptism in a long time. A member of the church’s grandson was visiting and they all thought it was the right time and the right place to have him baptized. The excitement in the congregation that morning buzzed through the pews. This was what the church was all about: Welcoming visitors with signs of affection and love; returning to the great sacrament of baptism; and seeing young people standing near the altar.

The service built up toward the baptism at the end and the pastor invited the family to join him around the baptismal font. He spoke with conviction about how God had moved across the waters in creation to bring order out of chaos, he reminded us of the Israelites’ journey through the water on their way out of Egypt, and he even compared this sacrament to the baptism that John shared with his cousin Jesus at the Jordan River.

It was a holy moment seeing the congregation preparing for the baptism and a few of the older members were doing their best to cover up the tears that were slowly falling down their faces.

The pastor then motioned for the baby. He held the young boy with one hand, took of the top off the font with the other, and his eyes went wide. The beautifully and intricately carved baptismal font was empty; there was no water for the baptism.

The pastor looked up from the font and we locked eyes in the middle of the sanctuary. Without being told what needed to be done, I jumped up from my spot and ran to the kitchen. I frantically searched for any vessel that could hold water and settled on an old and chipped coffee mug. Using the sink, I filled the cup to the brim and then ran back to the sanctuary spilling a fair amount of water on the way.

While I stood in front of the congregation, I tried to make it look as liturgically appropriate as possible as I poured the water into the font, and the baptism went on as planned.

Bryson City UMC

Bryson City UMC

The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ. John was preaching and proclaiming in the wilderness when Jesus arrived to be baptized. This important and sacred event revealed the voice of the Lord identifying Jesus as the Beloved, while also setting in motion Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Jesus, as the Son of God, did not need to be baptized to be cleansed from his sins, but in going down to the water with the masses, he demonstrated his willingness to identify with sinful people. Jesus believed in doing ministry with others, rather than for others. In this scene we see God, in Christ, starting to bridge the great chasm between the earthly and the divine to inaugurate a new reality.

Yet, just as the baptismal scene comes to its conclusion, the Spirit of the Lord drives Jesus out to the wilderness where Satan tempted him for forty days.

During this time Jesus fasted from food and spent most of his time in prayer, though Satan was not inclined to leave him alone. He tempted Jesus with bread, with praise, and power. And Jesus remained steadfast; he resisted the temptations, and came out on the other side of the forty days strengthened and ready to begin his public ministry.

Again, in the temptations, we see Jesus’ willingness to identify with sinful people. All of us have moments where we wrestle with the devil.

We might feel helpless to resist the call of abundant and unhealthy foods. While countless people die of starvation everyday, few of us actively work to end hunger in the world.

We might feel helpless to the temptation of empty relationships and abusive power dynamics. We settle for the easy route so long as it benefits us completely, and few of us live selflessly instead of selfishly.

We might feel helpless to resist the urge to spend money on lottery tickets, or we cheat on our taxes, or we pretend to be something we’re not in order to further our quest for financial gain.

All of us are tempted one way or another. But chief among our temptations, is the temptation to forget what it means to be baptized.

In the small church in the Great Smokey Mountains, they had lost sight of the value of baptism; it had been so long since anyone was baptized that the font was empty and held no water! When we let the wells of baptism run dry in our churches and in our souls, we forget who we are and whose we are. When the identity we receive in baptism is forgotten, we quickly fall prey to the devil’s many temptations.

Baptism is a defining act. Through the sacrament of baptism God claims us, we are anointed with the Spirit, and we are set aside for God’s purposes. During baptisms in worship, the entire congregation makes a public commitment and covenant to raise the baptized person in the faith and become a new family. In baptism we receive the power of God’s Spirit to resist temptations through unending grace.

But when we forget who we are, when we forget how far God was willing to go for our sakes, our baptismal identity fades from our minds and is replaced with insatiable desires and temptations.

On Wednesday, many of us were reminded of our baptismal identities while ashes in the sign of the cross were marked on our foreheads. Wherever we went on Wednesday we were met with strange looks regarding the smudges on our skin, and whenever we glanced at our appearance in the mirror, we came face to face with our baptismal identities. But if you take a quick glance around the congregation, you will notice that all of the ashes have faded away.

Like empty baptismal fonts, and clear foreheads, we can fall to the temptation of forgetting who we really are.

In a few minutes all of us will be invited to remember our baptisms. We will use similar words just like the ones that have been used for centuries, we will pray over the water, and we will ask God to give us the strength to remember who we are each and every day. Whether we can vividly remember the moment we felt the water on our skin long ago, or it was done to us while we were babies, we will take time to give thanks for the people who surrounded us in those moments. We will give thanks for the congregations that promised to raise us in the faith, and do the same for others.

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But just in case this baptismal remembrance is not enough, we are going to take it one step further. After I take water and mark your forehead with the sign of the cross, you will receive a little plastic card with these words: “Lord, as I was my hands, I remember my baptism. Cleanse me by your grace. Fill me with your Spirit. Renew my soul. Amen.” Our challenge is to take these cards and place them near a sink in our homes. That way, whenever we go to wash our hands we can offer this prayer to God and remember who we are. That way, the baptismal font of our souls will never run dry. That way, we can resist the temptation to forget our baptisms.

Remember your baptism and resist temptation. Remember your baptism and receive strength. Remember your baptism and be thankful. Amen.

Who Are You? – Sermon on James 1.17-27

James 1.17-27

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act — they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

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The small town sheriff was frustrated when he received a phone-call from the station that interrupted his Sunday supper. A report had come in that a group of young boys were throwing water balloons at strangers walking along Main Street. Reluctantly, the sheriff changed out of his Sunday best into his uniform and went to find the hooligans.

Just as the report noted, a group of young boys were standing on a street corner with a bucket of water balloons and were striking anyone within distance. As he approached in his patrol car, he expected to hear the boys laughing and hollering, but they were rather silent as he inched his way forward. He recognized all the boys from his local church, and dreaded the phone calls he would be making to all of their parents, but he knew their behavior had to stop.

The boys were smart enough not to throw a balloon at the police car, but the sheriff was still nervous to roll down his window in case a wayward throw made it inside. “What do you think you’re doing?” he yelled to the boys. In unison they all solemnly replied, “we’re working for the Lord.” He was mystified by their response, after all how could throwing water balloons at strangers be equated with the almighty? So the sheriff sat in his car with one eyebrow raised and motioned for them to explain.

The ringleader then stepped forward and said, “Didn’t you hear the preacher this morning sheriff? He told us to go out baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We’ve got Holy Water Balloons and we’ve done already made 45 Christians.”

Every good thing in our lives, every generous act of giving, every perfect gift, every blessing, every compliment, is from above.

Throughout our days, the Lord nurtures, guides, and provides all that we need. More often than not, God uses the people around us to do so, but nevertheless God supplies the goodness in our lives.

The letter of James is beautiful, and it begins with a quick assessment of the discipled life and what it means to live into this identity.

James knew how to notice the small things, because the small acts of life are the nuts and bolts of existence. It is the little things, the small actions and the tiny compliments, that hold together the fabric of our lives and give us the power to build and shape community. What we say and how we act are more important than we can possibly imagine.

The Lord has given us new life by the Word of truth and the power of scripture so that we would become a kind of first fruits. We have been given the great blessings of God’s presence, scripture, and Jesus Christ and now we have the responsibility to let those blessings bear fruit in our lives, and in the lives around us.

We must understand this, children of God, we should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, because our anger does not produce God’s righteousness. How many times have we jumped to a conclusion, or said something without thinking it through and immediately regretted it? How valuable is James’ advice: be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger?

Our contemporary conversations are filled with “uhhs” “buts” “likes” and other verbal bridges because we are afraid of silence. Rather than actually listening to others, or at least giving them the chance to speak, we fill up every ditch between our words out of fear that someone else will jump in with something else to say. Imagine how much our relationships would change if we only heeded James’ words in our conversations? Can you picture how different our identities would be if we were quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger?

If we have the strength to change the way we converse, then we will begin to welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to change the world. Instead of relying on our own words at all times and places, with patience we can remember the great Word of God in Jesus Christ and put all our trust in him. Instead of believing that we are alone in the world and in our situations, we will come to see that God is with us, and has carried God’s people through this before and will again.

But it’s not just about the words we use and speak, as Christians we are invited to be doers of the Word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.

Have you ever departed from church on a Sunday morning, after hearing a particularly convicting message, only to believe that it had nothing to do with you? Have you ever picked up the bible and started reading only to think about the other people the scripture should apply to instead of you?

For if we are hearers of the word and not doers, then we are like those who look at a mirror and as soon as we walk away immediately forget who we are. Our identities are rooted in the scriptures we read, and in the water of our baptism. But too often, we leave from church, or we put down the bible, or the water dries from our hair, and we immediately forget who we are and whose we are.

If church is supposed to accomplish anything on a regular basis, it is to act like a giant mirror so that we catch a glimpse of who God is calling us to be, and then never forget what we have seen.

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It was New Year’s Eve 1999 and Javier was afraid. For months news pundits and writers speculated about the “end of the world” coming with the year 2000. In addition to some strange and warped biblical prophecies, technologically proficient workers warned about the change that might come with the digits 99 changing to 00 and the blackouts that could ensue. For weeks people throughout the world prepared for the worst, and the rhetoric about the end times increased.

So Javier found himself getting ready to attend a worship service with his family and friends in El Salvador on the eve of the new millennium and he was afraid. The service itself was fine; it proclaimed the word of God’s faithfulness in spite the warnings about the new millennium, yet Javier could not rid himself of the fear that was shaking him to his core. Before the service came to a close, Javier stood up, walked to the front and asked to be baptized. He did not know what the New Year would bring, he did not know what would happen to the world, but he figured that a little water on his head couldn’t hurt.

Except, that simple affirmation that God was bigger than himself, that simple humbled moment of reverence to God’s power to save was enough to change Javier’s life forever. Of course, the year 2000 did not bring about the end of the world, but it did bring about Javier’s new identity in Jesus Christ. From that night forward he saw himself as a disciple and has lived into that ever sense.

My own baptism took place when I was 19 days old. Other than some strange blurry photographs of my mother and father standing at the front of the church, I have no idea what it was like or what happened. But it came to shape my very identity. The people who were present in worship that day 27 year ago took seriously the commitment to raise me in faith, and helped me hold on to my identity in Jesus.

The Sunday before I became the pastor at St. John’s I stood before my home congregation and thanked them for nurturing me in the faith all these years and said goodbye. But while I stood in the narthex shaking hands after the service, a much older woman came up with a very worn bible in her hands. Without saying much she turned to the back inside cover and showed me my name and the date of my baptism. For decades she had written down the name and date of every person baptized in her presence and made a point to pray for every single one of them, every single day. Her prayers shaped me into who I am.

Those of us to look in the mirror and remember who we are when we walk away, those of us who are doers of the word will be blessed in our actions. Our religion is pure when we, like the disciples from long ago, actually live into the Word of God and start caring about the people in our midst. Our religion is pure when we clasp our hands together and pray for the world. Our religion is pure when we remember our baptisms and are thankful.

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Who are you?

What defines your identity?

Perhaps we’ve forgotten who we are and whose we are. Instead of seeing disciples of Jesus Christ in the mirror, we only see fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters. Instead of holding on the image of God in our hearts, we turn away from the mirror of church and we immediately forget what God is speaking into our lives.

Do you remember your baptism? Can you recall the details of what eventually led you to yearn for the water of a new identity? Were you, like Javier, led to baptism out of fear? Were you, like me, led to baptism before you even had a chance to know what was happening?

Baptism is not about quantity; we’re not interested in throwing Holy Water Balloons at everyone within distance. Baptism is instead about discovering our fullest identity in Christ through a covenant by water and the Spirit.

Today, we are all invited to remember our baptisms and be thankful. In a few moments I will pray over our baptismal font, and everyone may come forward to remember and give thanks. The mirror behind the water is there for us to take a good look, so that when we turn around we will not forget who we are.

Disciples of Jesus Christ: Remember that every good thing is from above, that God has given us the word of truth so that we may bear fruit in our lives. Remember to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Remember that we are called to be doers of the Word. Remember your baptism and be thankful. Remember who you are. Amen.

Devotional: Mark 1.4

Devotional:

Mark 1.4

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 

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I had been waiting at the garage for longer than I had hoped. I had neglected to take the car in for an inspection during the month of November, and I was running the risk of receiving a ticket for my negligence. I was prepared to speak with my hypothetical police officer about the numerous demands on clergy during Advent, but every time I made the list of excuses in my head, the more pitiful they became. Only after Christmas was I willing to finally bite the bullet and wait for my car to be inspected.

I thought it would be a quick in-and-out appointment, but I continued to sit in the waiting room while my car was being checked out. After thirty minutes, I saw my car coming out of the garage and was re-parked right outside the window. However, when I approached the cashier, she informed me that I still needed to wait. The time passed idly by while I made small talk with the other customers about being a pastor in town and the recent arrival of the holidays, but the repair shop neglected to call my name even while my car was parked outside with a new inspection sticker clearly placed on the front window. I tried to be as patient as possible, but when I could no longer take it I went back to the cashier and explained the situation, to which she apologized for making me wait for nothing, and handed me my keys. She explained that the paperwork had been lost in the shuffle and asked if there was anything she could do. I laughed to myself and then said, “It’s okay, I’m a pastor and I’m supposed practice what I preach, including patience.”

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After church yesterday afternoon, my wife and I were enjoying lunch at a local pizza shop when she brought up the familiar topic of practicing what I preach. The sermon had been about forgiveness and the need to act on the words that we so faithfully pray in the Lord’s Prayer every week, and it was clear the Lindsey wanted to explore the topic further. She spoke in a way that halted and haunted me: “Taylor, you kept talking about our need to forgive. Is there anyone that you need to forgive? Or better yet, do you think there’s anyone out there who might be wrestling with whether or not to forgive you?”

John appeared proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It is too easy, particularly from my side of the pulpit, to neglect the need to repent for my faults, and forgive others around me. It is even harder to open my eyes to the fact that there might be people who have not forgiven me for something I have done. As we take our first steps into 2015, let it be the year we actually practice what we preach. Let us strive to be people of patience, forgiveness, and repentance. Let us be brave with our love, and seek to be truly reconciled with everyone around us.

Devotional – Mark 1.7

Devotional:

Mark 1.7

He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”

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I was in the middle of a short homily when I started worrying about whether or not the water would be too cold for the baptism. You never can tell how a child will react to the living water; some laugh as if it is tickling them while it trickles down their hair, some scream in fear as the cold water seeps into their clothing, and others remain stupefied by a grown man wearing a long white dress pouring water onto their head. I stood in front of the local community hoping that this baptism would go smoothly, rather than be remembered for the blood curdling cries during the sacrament.

I had picked the beginning of Mark’s gospel for my baptismal homily; John baptizing Jesus in the Jordan. I love the text because it is concise and too the point while remaining profoundly theological. I shared with gathered body John’s ability to bring in the crowds for the repentance of their sins out in the wilderness when Sawyer began to squirm around in his mother’s arms. Without really thinking about what I was doing, I walked over to the family in their pews, reached for Sawyer, picked him up, and continued preaching. For a few moments I continued with whatever I was saying but it felt as if everyone had disappeared and Sawyer and I were the only ones remaining in the sanctuary. I was unsure why I had felt God push me to pick him up, but as I held him close I felt the words of John come alive for me: “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” Here I was holding a precious baby boy, who kept smiling as he stared at the hair growing on my face and I was struck by his preciousness. When I baptized him with the living water I felt unworthy to do what I was doing, and then became profoundly thankful for God’s presence in that beautiful moment.

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Through the waters of baptism Sawyer, and all of us, experienced a new beginning. Like the event of John baptizing Jesus in the Jordan, everything would be different from that moment forward. We covenanted to raise Sawyer in the faith, to pray fervently for him, and to be abundantly present for him in times of need. The church is at its best when we make good on the promises we make to the children we baptize, something I look forward to participating in during Sawyer’s life.

In this season of Advent we are reminded of the new beginning that took place in Bethlehem in a manger. Moreover, in our baptisms we had the privilege of being incorporated into God’s cosmic story to be God’s children. While we prepare for Christmas, I encourage all of you to be thankful for your baptisms, and remember that God came in the form of a baby, just like Sawyer, to dwell among us.

 

Divine Irony – Sermon on Exodus 2.1-10

Exodus 2.1-10

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; and she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happened to him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

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Can you imagine what was going through the mother’s mind when she placed her little son in the papyrus basket? Can you see her tears flowing down on to the boy who would change the course of history because she was forbidden to let him live?

Everything had changed in Egypt. Joseph had been sold into slavery but saved the Egyptian people by storing up food for the coming famine. He was widely respected and his people were held in safety because of his actions. But eventually a new king arose over Egypt and he did not know Joseph. He feared the Israelites, their power, and their numbers.

The Israelites quickly went from being a powerful force within another nation, to a group of subjugated slaves who feared for their lives. They were forced to work in hard service in every kind of field labor, they were oppressed and belittled, and their family lives were slowly brought into jeopardy. Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all the males born to Hebrew women, but when they resisted, he changed the decree so that “every boy that is born to the Hebrews shall be thrown into the Nile, but every girl shall live.

Once a prosperous and faithful people, the Israelites had lost everything. Yet, even in the times of greatest distress, people continue to live and press forward… A Levite man married a Levite woman and she conceived and bore a son. When he was born and she saw that he was good, she kept him hidden for three months. But a time came when she could no longer hide the child and she found herself making a basket to send her baby boy into the Nile.

Kneeling on the banks of the river, she kissed her son goodbye, placed him in the crude basket, and released him to the unknown. The boy’s sister, who was allowed to live in this new regime, sat along the dunes and watched her baby brother float down the river toward where a group of women we beginning to gather.

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Pharaoh’s daughter saw the basket among the reeds, and when she opened it she saw the boy, and took pity on him. She recognized that he was one of the Hebrew boys but she was compelled to be compassionate toward him. The sister, with a stroke of genius, realized that she had the opportunity to save her brother and stepped forward from her hiding place to address the princess. “Shall I go and find a nurse from the Hebrew woman to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to the young slave, “Yes.” So the girl went and found her mother, the mother of the child she had just released into the Nile, and brought her to the princess. Pharaoh’s daughter charged her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages for doing so.” So the mother received back her own son and nursed him. However, when the child grew up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she adopted him as her son, and she called him Moses because “I drew him out of the water.”

This story about the birth and the childhood of Moses is one of the most familiar texts from the Old Testament. It has just the right amount of suspense, intrigue, serendipity, divine irony, human compassion, intervention, and it concludes with a happy ending. Moses’ birth has captivated faithful people for millennia and offers hope even amidst the most hopeless situations.

One of the greatest pastors I have ever known serves a new congregation in Northern Virginia. Jason Micheli has inspired countless Christians to envision a new life of faithfulness previously undiscovered. He played a pivotal role in my call to ministry, we have traveled on countless mission trips together, he presided over Lindsey’s and my wedding, but above all he is my friend.

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Jason and his wife Ali embody, for me, what a Christian relationship looks like. They support one another in their different ventures without overstepping their boundaries, they challenge each other to work for a better kingdom, and they believe in the Good News.

For a long time Jason and Ali knew that they wanted to adopt a child and they traveled to Guatemala when Gabriel was 15 months old to bring him home. As a young pastor and lawyer, Jason and Ali had busy schedules that were filled with numerous responsibilities that all dramatically changed the moment Gabriel entered their lives. They went from understanding and responding to the rhythms of one another to having a 15 month old living with them, a child who they were responsible for clothing, feeding, nurturing, and loving. I know that the first months must have been tough, but Ali and Jason are faithful people, they made mistakes and learned from them, they loved that precious child, and they continued to serve the needs of the community the entire time.

Jason and Gabriel

Jason and Gabriel

A year and a half later, just when the new patterns of life were finally becoming second nature, a lawyer who helped them find Gabriel contacted them. There was another family in the area who had adopted a 5 year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander, but they no longer wanted him. The lawyer recognized that Jason and Ali had recently adopted a child but wanted to find out if they would adopt another. However, the lawyer explained that this 5 year-old was supposedly very difficult, his adoptive family was ready to get rid of him, and he didn’t speak any English. Jason and Ali had a choice: lift this child out of the Nile, or let him continue to float down the river?

The story of Moses’ adoption by the Egyptian princess is filled with irony:

Pharaoh chose the Nile as the place where all Hebrew boys would be killed, and it became the means of salvation for the baby Moses.

The unnamed Levite mother saves her precious baby boy by doing precisely what Pharaoh commanded her to do.

The daughters of the Hebrews are allowed to live, and they are the one who subvert the plans of the mighty Pharaoh.

A member of the royal family, the Pharaoh’s daughter, ignores his policy, and saves the life of the one who will free the Hebrew people and destroy the Egyptian dynasty.

The Egyptian princess listens to the advice of the baby’s sister, a young slave girl.

The mother gets paid to do exactly what she wants to do most of all.

The princess gives the baby boy a name and in so doing says more than she could possibly know. Moses, the one who draws out, will draw God’s people out of slavery and lead them to the Promised Land.

Divine Irony! God loves to use the weak and the least to achieve greatness and change the world. God believes in using the low and despised to shame the strong and the powerful. God, in scripture and in life, works through people who have no obvious power and strengthens them with his grace.

How fitting that God’s plan for the future and the safety of the Hebrew children rests squarely on the shoulders of a helpless baby boy, a child placed in a basket, an infant released into the unknown. How fitting that God promised to make Abraham, a childless man with a barren wife, a father of more nations than stars in the sky? How fitting that God chose to deliver Noah from the flood on an ark, and young Moses from death in a basket floating on a river? God inverts the expectations of the world and brings about new life and new opportunities through the most unlikely of people and situations.

Jason and Ali prayed and prayed about the five-year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander. What would happen to them if they brought him into their lives? Everything was finally getting settled with Gabriel and they believed they had their lives figured out. They had planned everything perfectly, yet they we now being asked about bring a completely unknown, and perhaps devastating, element into their lives.

What would you have done? If you knew that there was a child, even with an unknown disposition, that was being abandoned by his adoptive family how would you react? Would you respond with open arms?

Alexander is now 11, soon to turn 12, and is without a doubt one of the most mature and incredible human beings I have ever met. After Jason and Ali met him for the first time they knew that God was calling them to bring him into their family, to love him with all that they had, and they responded like the faithful people they are, with open arms.

Jason, Ali, Alexander, and Gabriel

Jason, Ali, Alexander, and Gabriel

When Alexander arrived at Jason and Ali’s home, he came with the clothes on his back and nothing else. A five year old Guatemalan boy with little English was dropped off at their home; I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like for him. Yet, Jason and Ali brought him into their family and they never looked back. 

In the beginning, they had to sleep with him in his bed night after night, in attempts to comfort him and let him know that they were never going to leave him. That no matter what he did, no matter how far he fell, there was nothing that would ever separate their love for him. For a child that had been passed from person to family to family, Alexander had no roots, he had little comfort, and he had not experienced love.

Jason and Ali stepped into his life just as Alexander stepped into theirs. Perhaps filled with fear about what the future would hold for their little family Jason and Ali’s faithfulness shines brilliantly through the life of a young man named Alexander who I believe can, and will, change the world.

I imagine that for some time Jason and Ali believed that they, like Pharaoh’s daughter, had drawn Alexander out of the river of abandoned life. But I know that now when they look back, when they think about that fear of the unknown, they realize that Alexander was the one who drew them out of the water into new life. Divine Irony. 

In the story of Moses’ adoption out of the Nile, God is never mentioned. There are no divine moments when God appears on the clouds commanding his people to do something incredible, there are no decrees from a burning bush (not yet at least), and there are no examples of holy power coming from the heavens. Yet, God is the one working in and through the people to preserve Moses’ life and eventually the life of God’s people. God, like a divine conductor, orchestrates the music of life with changing movements and tempos that bring about transformation in the life of God’s people.

I believe that most of you, if not all of you, would take up a new and precious child into your lives. Whether you feel that you are too young, too old, too poor, too broken, you would accept that child into your family and raise it as your own. We are people of compassion, we are filled with such love that we can do incredible and beautiful things.

But it becomes that much harder when you look around and understand what we have become through baptism. Every child, youth, or adult, that it baptized into the body of Christ has been lifted out of the Nile of life into a new family. The people in the pews have truly become your brothers and sister in the faith through God’s powerful baptism. The Divine Irony is that we might feel we are called to save the people in church, when in fact they might be the ones called to save us. 

The story of Moses’ birth and childhood is beloved. It contains just enough power to elicit emotional responses from those of us lucky enough to know the narrative. It is a reminder of God’s grace and love through the powerful and the powerless. But above all it is a reminder that like a great and loving parent, Moses has been taken into the fold of God’s merciful love and grace. That we, through our baptisms and commitments to being disciples of Jesus Christ, have been brought out of the frightening waters of life into the adoptive love and care of God almighty. That we, though unsure of our future and plans, are known by the God of beginning and end.

Just as Jason and Ali held Alexander every evening, just as Pharaoh’s daughter cradled Moses in her arms, we have a God who loves us, who holds us close, and will never let us go. 

Amen.

 

Gabriel and Alexander in 2009

Gabriel and Alexander in 2009

Questions: I Believe; Help My Unbelief! – Sermon on Mark 9.14-24 & Ephesians 2.8-9

Mark 9.14-24

When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able! — All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Ephesians 2.8-9

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

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Today we begin the first part of our sermon series on “Questions.” After requesting responses from all of you regarding your questions about God, Faith, and the Church, we have come to the time where I attempt to faithfully respond to those questions. Today we are talking about faith, being saved, and doubt. So, here we go…

In 1962 one of the greatest theological minds of the 20th century visited the United States on a lecture tour. Karl Barth was a product of Western Theology who actively spoke against the Nazi regime rejecting their un-Christian allegiance to Adolf Hitler. His writing and influence spread throughout the world to a degree beyond his expectation.

So during the early 1960’s Barth found himself in his later years, touring around the American landscape lecturing to young, and old, Christians about the importance of God being God.

Karl Barth is my theological hero – his books line my shelves and I believe he put forth a remarkable understanding of scripture.

Karl Barth

Karl Barth

However, Barth is remarkably difficult to understand and was very longwinded in his writing. He was once approached by a young theologian declaring, “Professor Barth, you’re my hero! I’ve read everything you’ve ever written!” To which Barth replied, “Son, I haven’t even read everything I’ve written.”

Karl Barth, intellectual and as difficult to understand as any theologian I’ve ever read, lectured at Princeton, the University of Chicago, and Union Theological Seminary. After one such lecture, no doubt filled with theologisms beyond the capacity of comprehension, a young man bravely decided to ask a question.

Now, at the time, evangelical theology was beginning to take off in the United States. Churches pushed for “personal relationships with Jesus Christ.” Altar calls were all the rage. And everyone wanted to know when you got saved.

The young man, with his hand shaking in the air, waited to ask his question. I imagine that Barth was getting tired of answering the foolish questions from the audience but decided to offer one final answer. “Son, what is your question?”

“Well professor Barth, I was wondering, when were you saved?”

The young man, obviously caught up with the personal stories of individuals who accepted Jesus Christ in their hearts, moments where folk learned that they were saved, wanted to know when Barth had discovered this momentous occasion in his own life.

After responding to questions about the ineffability of God, the diminishing role of the third member of the Trinity, and the self unveiling to humanity of the God who cannot be discovered by humanity simply through its own intuition, Barth was finally asked a question with a simple answer.

“Hmm, when was I saved? Oh yes, thats easy, it was… 2,000 years ago on the cross.”

“How will I know when I’m saved?” A question I have heard time and time again. When will I know, with assurance, that heaven is my everlasting reward? How will I be able to tell that I have been saved and what happens if I ever have doubts later on, will I still go to heaven?

In many churches, being “saved” is equated with a moment when an individual accepts Jesus Christ as their “personal Lord and Savior.” We look at it as a check-off list, an accomplishment to be met in order to go to heaven. A time when they let their old self die, in order to be clothed in Christ forevermore. This often takes form in an altar call, that moment after the sermon when a preacher stands right where I am, calling out to the congregation, calling out for those who feel the call of God on their lives to come forward during the final hymn to give their lives to Jesus Christ. Sometimes it takes place in baptism, when water is used to cleanse a child or an adult from their broken ways and save them. Sometimes it takes place in the bread and wine of communion, nourishing someone’s faith in a way previously unexperienced.

In many places, being “saved” like this is worth celebrating as a rebirth, a reawakening of the soul, a definitive shift in the life of a Christian. Some of my friends celebrate their “saved” birthday every year with a cake and presents. And even though some of those people are dear to me, and even though I can trace back to a moment in my life where I committed my life to Christ, I still wonder about what it really means to be saved.

This is what I do know: The saving of anyone is something which is not within our power, but only of God. No one can be saved – by virtue of what he/she can do. Everyone can be saved — by virtue of what God can do.

After coming down from the transfiguration on the mountaintop, Jesus met back up with the disciples only to be surprised to see them arguing with scribes. Upon arrival the crowd surrounded him overcome with awe. Someone from the group stepped forward, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak, it makes him seize up and crash to the ground. I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they were unable.” Jesus then responded to everyone present, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”

So the crowd brought the boy forward but he immediately began to convulse when in the presence of the Lord and he rolled on the floor foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” “Its been happening since childhood,” the father responded, “but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”

Jesus then responded, “If you are able! — All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

unbelief

I believe; help my unbelief! The father’s reply demonstrates for us the nature of faith. It seems so paradoxical and contradictory, yet, how often has that father’s cry been the prayer on our lips? The father has shown a bit of faith by approaching Jesus in the first place, yet the move stemmed from desperation rather than confidence; “if you can do anything” shows his doubt and his faith at the same moment. The father holds his disbelief and faith in tandem with one another.

Haven’t we all had moments where, like the father, we can hold both our faith and disbelief at the same time? Periods in our life where we know that God loves us, yet our doubts begin to percolate at the same time. Perhaps confronted with a disappointment we call out to God  begging to know his ways, wondering if he’s even listening at all, yet we still call out to God. Like the father we take our burdens to God, we have enough faith to go that far, faith the size of a mustard seed, but then we struggle and limp along unsure of what God can do.

Prayer does not work like magic. Prayer is not a manipulation of God to get what we want. God does not simply grant all of our requests when we kneel and bow before him. That puts far too much power on our side of the equation. Like “knowing” we are saved because “we” have accepted Christ, it puts the burden on us to accomplish something that we cannot do on our own. If salvation can be decided on our acceptance of Christ as Lord, then God would never have had to come in the form of flesh, die on the cross, and then be raised from the dead. Prayer is more like wrestling alone in the middle of the night with a God who refuses to let go.

God is the one who saves us through Jesus Christ, God is the one who healed that father’s son through Jesus Christ. Prayer and accepting Christ is not magic, yet we are always called to pray, like that father, for more faith. We pray for more faith as trust in God’s love, grace, and power so that God in Christ can work his healing power and presence through Christ in our lives.

The story of the man bringing his son to Christ is powerful for all of us gathered here, because like that father we are fallen people incapable to saving ourselves and our loved ones. This story offers us a great glimpse of God’s glory: All things are possible to those who believe. But even greater than that is the fact that beyond our faith or prayers, God is the source of healing and salvation in our lives. Jesus is the one who calls us to brings our burdens to him, we are not left alone to try and save ourselves.

So, how do we know when we are saved? What does it mean to be saved? Are we allowed to doubt?

I like Barth’s answer to that young man, “I was saved 2,000 years ago on the cross.” I like his answer because its true and it puts the power of salvation back on God’s side of the equation. We cannot save ourselves by virtue of our own devices, but it is only God who can save us. Yet, there is something remarkably powerful about accepting Christ at the same time. Barth’s response is appropriate, but it still misses a fundamental element of what it means to follow Christ.

If being “saved” can be compartmentalized to that moment on a cross 2,000 years ago, then there is little need for us to follow Jesus in the present. Without a commitment to change our lives in accordance with the kingdom, discipleship falls to pieces. When we come to know Jesus Christ in our hearts, when we have that moment, whether its at the altar during one of our favorite hymns, or in the water of baptism, perhaps in the wine and bread of communion, its not so much they we are accepting God, but more the fact that for the first time we are realizing that God has had us the whole time. 

Faith, at its purest and deepest form, is not about “letting God into your heart” but discovering that God has been there the whole time. Being saved is not about making a choice to become a Christian, but a willingness to let God be the Lord of our lives, and not the other way around. Doubts are not something to be feared and dismissed, but to be embraced and wrestled with. Even after John Wesley felt the assurance of God’s love in his life when his heart was strangely warmed, his doubts crept back in within days.

Faith is that great dance between us and God, faith is knowing and unknowing, faith is being able to cry out “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Thats exactly why we need elements of worship such as baptism and communion. We need patterns and practices that remind us of that great event where Christ died and was risen, that incredible moment where we were saved, but we also need food and habits for our faith journeys. We need to know that we have been saved by grace through faith, not by our own doing, but by the gift of God. Yet at the same time we have to hold the mystery of salvation like the father did, we have to recognize that we continually need Christ to be the one from whom all blessings flow, we need Christ to hear our prayers and grow our faith, we need Christ to be our Lord, not just in the past but in every moment of our lives. You have been saved, and are continuing to be saved everyday.

I believe; help my unbelief!” is our confession of faith in the God who continues to breathe new life and new faith into all of us.

In a few moments we will celebrate the two great sacraments of our church. Hattie Myles Markham will be brought forth to the water to be baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. She will be incorporated into God’s kingdom through the redemptive power of the trinity. And likewise all of us will then be invited to feast at Christ’s table letting the bread and the wine nourish our souls.

Here we find the gospel, in baptism and communion we find the good news of God in the world. No matter what you do, God will never love you any more, and no matter what you do God will never love you any less. God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. Nothing can ever separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ mounted the hard wood of the cross to save you and me from having to try and save ourselves. Salvation is here. Thanks be to God.

Amen.