Worthless

Jeremiah 2.4-13

Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? They did not say, “Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and puts, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?” I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?” Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit. Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord, and I accuse your children’s children. Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Cedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. Has a nation changed it gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed to evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out sisters for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

One year my elementary school got the bright idea for a new program to help keep the tomfoolery down in the cafeteria. We were, as most kids are, fine in the classroom, but the minute we were allowed to mingle with friends in other classes, everything went crazy. 

So the teachers would yell, and separate certain students from others, but it never really worked. And then the front office got an epiphany… The three flowers.

One day, in the middle of every table, stood a small little vase and inside each vase were three fake flowers. The idea was that if the table became too rambunctious, a teacher or administrator would come over and remove one flower – the first warning. And, if sort of worked, the fear of losing the other two would inevitably lead most of us to quiet down and focus on our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But then someone would put their hand over the armpit and start making the sounds of flatulence, or someone would purposely spill milk out of their nose and then flower number two would disappear.

For most that was enough. With two flowers missing a table would eat in miserable silence waiting for the lunch period to end.

We knew the punishments for losing all three flowers: There was the possibility of extra homework, the loss of recess, and the most dreaded of all, a phone call to our parents.

So having lost two flowers, we would get our acts together and instantly mature right on the spot.

Except for one day. Because on that particular day, having already lost two flowers, one of my best friends stuck his spoon into his chocolate pudding, and rather than bringing it to his mouth, he started to arc it back with his other hands and he shot the brown blob across the table directly at the girls.

Time suspended for a moment as the entire table watched the pudding reject the laws of physics and fly in slow motion until it landed directly in the middle of the forehead of the prettiest girl in our class.

And immediately, our table and the tables around us erupted in cacophonous laughter until the cafeteria lady, as we called her, slowly sauntered over and withdrew our final remaining flower.

Our hearts sank knowing that the worst thing in the world had just taken place and our imaginations began to run wild with whatever punishment was coming our way. The cafeteria lady quickly wrote down all of our names on a piece of paper, and then she handed it to me. She said, “Lunch is about to end, and when it does, you are to take this to the office, the principal will be calling each of your parents to tell them what you did today.”

The remaining minutes were agonizing and we refused to look each other in the eyes, and when I picked up my tray to deposit my trash the lunch lady came over a final time and said, “And don’t get any funny ideas like throwing away the piece of paper before you go to the office.”

Why did she plant such a seed of mischief in mind? I will never know. 

But that’s exactly what I did.

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No wants likes getting in trouble. It’s not the trouble we mind, but its getting caught that makes all the difference. If we can avoid it, we do everything we can to avoid indictment. And then we read a scripture like the one from Jeremiah and we squirm in our pews. We squirm, precisely because it makes us uncomfortable. 

Jeremiah’s condemnation resonates with us in ways we’d care not to admit. Each of us, in our own time, can take a good hard look in the mirror and catch glimpses of our own waywardness, or lifestyle choices, or foolish decisions and know that the word from the Lord is true. 

We do the things we know we shouldn’t, and we avoid doing the things we know we should do.

Or, to put it like Isaiah puts it: People who pursue worthless things become worthless themselves.

Ouch.

The people of God during the time of Jeremiah were a people of foolish wastefulness. They had been given everything they needed: plentiful land to eat its fruits. But for them it was never enough. And, to make matters worse, it wasn’t just the people, it was the priests too. They all went off in search of the illusive “more” and they came back empty handed.

The desire in the hearts and minds and souls and bodies was so blinding that they had forgotten who they were and the story of God’s deliverance.

Which is why Jeremiah speaks of their water and their cracked cisterns. The people of Jerusalem are dying of thirst, both literally and spiritually. The faithlessness of God’s people had delivered the Babylonians to their door steps and their aid and supplies had been cut off. The cisterns scattered throughout the city are literally drying out leading to cracks and the water has stopped.

But it’s more than just the literal water that’s missing. Jeremiah has eyes to see and a word from the Lord to preach that they have lost the living water of God. Not because it dried up and disappeared, but because the people made their own cisterns and bottled their own understanding of enough instead of relying on God.

The people have lost their story. They have forgotten that God, their God, had delivered them from captivity in Egypt to the new and beautiful Promised Land, God had been faithful to the covenant struck with Abraham, but the people had listened to another song, they had followed their own thoughts and desires, and now, they are accused.

And not just them, but their children’s children!

Over and over again throughout the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, Israel knows itself as the people delivered by God. And still today, we are a people delivered by God from the tyranny of another sort, not from a Pharaoh in a far away land, but from the reign of sin and death. And its because we know the story of what God did that we can live fully and faithfully today.

We are the stories we tell.

It’s true. Just think about what’s important to you or to your family. Whatever the thing is, there’s probably a story that helps bring the object to light. Narratives shape the world around us and give us the means by which we can understand who we are and, in the church, whose we are.

And even though we know that we’re the stories we tell, more often than not we act like we are the things we possess. We value ourselves on the clothes we wear, the car we drive, the home we own. And all of those things are worthless. They can blow away with the wind. 

Is there a shirt that can make us happy?

Is there a car that can fix our marriage?

What good is a perfect house when you run out of water?

So Jeremiah lambasts the people of God, and even us all these centuries later. Why have you forgotten what God did for you? Why are you rushing after things that cannot bring you life? Why have you dug your own cisterns when God is the one with the living water?

And here’s the deal: Jeremiah, bless his heart, we can see what he’s going for. He’s not simply trying to make the people feel bad about themselves, he says what he says so that they can change. The prophet wants everyone to tune their hearts back to God’s frequency. 

But it’s not going to work.

Literally, it doesn’t, things just get worse for the nation Israel as she refuses to listen and continues to dig her own cisterns.

But it was never going to work out anyway.

The more prophets prophesy about the need to change, the more preachers preach about the need to change, the more things largely stay the same.

No one goes to an AA meeting because their spouse nags them to go. No child jumps at the opportunity to do their homework because their parents yelled at them to do so. 

Just think about the last time someone tried to fix you… Did it work?

Just think about the last time you listened to a sermon that told you all the things you needed to do to fix your life… Did you and did it work?

Thats the kicker about preaching – people don’t change because we tell them to repent, nor do we change because someone told us to. 

It’s infuriating, but we all have to come to our solutions on our own. Sure, we can do our due diligence and show people the door, but we can’t push anyone through it. But even that is a long shot in terms of transformation.

We like to talk about how the world is changing, how we can barely keep up with it all, and part of the reason it feels like the world is spinning out of control is because we all stay the same. We are creatures of habit and when we find a routine that seems to work we stick with it, even if the routine is a denial of God’s living water provided to us for nothing.

We’ve got the crooked and broken notion that we’ve got to dig our own wells to get what God has already given to us.

What Jeremiah points at in his indictment, the thing we almost always miss, is that this is exactly the thing he was criticizing. It’s not just that God’s people needed to be better, though it wouldn’t have hurt, the problem was they were so convinced that they could do everything they needed on their own when they couldn’t do much of anything. 

We are all works in progress – that’s absolutely the truth. And yet, this incessant desire to change others usually makes things worse.

Should we stop trying? Of course not. The point isn’t to give up, but to realize that we all need help outside of ourselves and even outside of the people closest to us. We need a savior. We need living water that will never ever run dry. We need the bread and the cup. 

We can’t do all of this on our own.

So thanks be to God, who through Jesus Christ has made us his own. Amen.

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Alive In Death – A Baptism Homily

Ephesians 5.1

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Dear Carson,

I hope someone takes a few pictures today, because you’re definitely not going to remember any of this. And even if if there are no pictures to mark the occasion of your baptism, I hope some that are present will tell you the story. And even if none of those people remember anything about today, I’m writing you this letter so that one day, you might be able to look back at this decision that was made for you, and you can begin to appreciate how strange it all was. 

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When I stood before your parents and brought them into their wedded bliss, of which you are a result (you’re welcome by the way), I told them that marriage is a mystery.

And I meant it.

Couples, even those as in love as your parents, have no idea what they’re doing when they get married. They think they know what marriage is supposed to look like or even feel like, but it will always be one of the most profound mysteries we will ever encounter in the world.

And Carson, make no mistake about it, what we will do to you and for you today has been to willfully place you in the path of another mystery – one even greater than the strangeness that is marriage.

Your family and friends have gathered together in one place to see you cutely baptized in the water as countless others have been before you but, to be honest, there’s nothing very cute about what is going to happen.

Baptism is nothing short of baptizing you into the life of Jesus of course, but also into his death.

In time you will come to find that to be Christian, is to be weird.

Sometimes the strangeness is so pronounced that I find myself bewildered that people even want to become Christians. What I mean to say is: Who wants to willingly give away part of their gifts just to bless other people? Who wants to turn the other cheek when someone strikes them? Who wants to worship a crucified God?

Apparently we do.

The fact that your parents have asked me to baptize you is both a testament to their faith, and their foolishness (at least according to the world). To get all of these people together, friends and family, and make them sit and listen to someone like me wax lyrical about the virtues of death and resurrection, to commit your life to something you will faintly understand, is to participate in perhaps the most counter-cultural thing any of us can ever do.

While the world tells us to do all we can and earn all we can and change all we can, baptism tells us otherwise. 

Instead, today marks the beginning of your bewildering journey into the discomfort of learning that your life no longer belongs to you, neither does it belong to your parents, nor to the rest of us.

You’ve already done, earned, and changed all you can because you belong to God.

Now, Carson, there are some who would prefer that I not speak about death at the moment of your baptism, and I don’t blame them. You will come of age in a world just like the rest of us in which we are constantly denying the one truth – none of us make it out of this life alive. So, some of us will mark your baptism as a rite of passage, something to measure the time of your infancy.

But your baptism, and all baptisms, are actually quite dangerous.

Baptisms are dangerous not because of the water involved, but because in so doing we are setting you against the powers and principalities of the world, and incorporating you into something that will come to drive you crazy.

Carson, I asked you parents to choose the scripture for the occasion of your baptism, just as I asked them to pick the passage for their wedding, and they didn’t disappoint. These words from St. Paul have been used for centuries to encourage those newly in their faith about what their faith is all about.

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

So, Carson, I am here to tell you to do all of that stuff. Imitate God, live in love, whatever that might mean. In other places Paul lengthens this list to include putting away falsehoods, living by humility and gentleness, and learning to speak the truth in love.

And all of that is good stuff, but more important than hearing a list like that is for you to hear this: don’t you ever think for one second that it will earn you anything. 

In fact, by doing those things it will probably make your life harder.

Let me explain – If you want to live in love like Christ did then you will have to do all sorts of nice things, but you’ll also be expected to do some terrible things. The love that Jesus held for others certainly led to him feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, and befriending the lonely, but it also led to him turning the tables over in the temple, and praying for his enemies, and eventually it led him to the cross. 

My point, Carson, if there is one at all, is that you can try and try and try and no matter what you accomplish, whether for good or ill, it will never ever negate or change what is done for you and to you today, in Christ.

Paul tells us, again and again, that Christ has already given himself up for us.

That “us” is always bigger than we imagine because it includes all of us.

The person of Christ was a fragrant offering to God such that all of us would be forgiven. 

Or, to put it another way, you don’t have to live like Christ because you won’t be able to – none of us are.

We do not deserve what has been done for us. 

This hits home today because Paul is affirming that you are forgiven in your baptism for all of the sins you’ve already committed. Which, to be clear, are few and far between at this point. Save for that one night that a bunch of people were over at the apartment and you had multiple blowouts in your diaper. 

But this baptism of yours forgives you of all your sins. Not just those that came before, but an entire lifetime of sins yet to come.

In the strange waters of baptism all of us confront the confounding truth that we are all forgiven before, during, and after our sins.

And we are forgiven for one reason, and one reason only: Jesus gave himself up for us. 

In time you will come to discover that this claim is paradoxical in the eyes of the world. You will be bombarded throughout your life with the fallacy that there is always more you can do to earn the approval or the love or the acceptance of others. But you are already precious in the eyes of God and there is nothing, quite literally nothing, you can do to earn, or accept, or even fathom the forgiveness made possible to you.

We, your family and friends, are here with you to simply and fully declare that you already have it. Period. Full stop.

However, lest you discover this letter as a middle school and think you’ve been baptized into zero responsibilities – it’s not that living in love doesn’t matter. I hope you do live by love. But my greater hope is that you don’t fall prey to the foolish believe that whatever you do in that love isn’t enough. 

You are enough.

And, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that no matter when you read this letter, you will fail to understand what was done to you today. None of us really knows what we are doing when we are baptized into the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just like none of us know what we’re doing when we get married.

It’s only something we can figure out while we’re figuring it out.

Carson, on some level I’m actually grateful you won’t remember any of this. You might wake up and realize one day that being a Christian isn’t all that its cracked up to be and you might even blame me, your beloved pastor uncle for ushering you into it. But, like most of the things that determine our lives, we don’t really have control over our baptisms.

I’m also particularly grateful that you won’t remember the first time we met. In time you will learn that I’ve known your mother longer than just about anyone on this earth and when she introduced me to your father, I knew she had finally found someone willing to put up with all of her craziness. Though, by now, I know that it goes both ways.

Anyway, when I found out that your parents were bringing you into this world, I began counting down the days until I could hold you in my arms. And, I know this will sound selfish, there’s just something indescribable about being invited into the covenant of marriage between two people, particularly when you love them as much as I love your parents, and then knowing that their covenant has resulted in new life so much so that I feel bound to you in ways both tangible and intangible.

So when the day finally arrived that I got to see you in the flesh, I patiently waited as you were passed around the room and waited until you became fussy with all of the forced baby talk and pinched cheeks from the adults, and I swept across the room, took you out of one of your grandmother’s arms and declared that I would take you into the other room to calm you down and rock you to sleep.

But I was honestly just being selfish.

I wanted to hold you close and whisper the promise of faith into your tiny little ears.

But I never got the chance. Because as soon as I was out of earshot on the other side of the house, and I looked down into your eyes, you looked right at me and I started crying. I cried and cried all over you, to the point that I was worried I would have to wipe you down before handing you back to the family.

Carson, I was overcome by the emotions of the moment because I was filled with a sense of profound gratitude. You are, in lots of ways, a miracle. And not for the simple miracle of child birth and such, but you and your life is a testament to the miraculous ways in which God has stitched this world together. You are the result of a love not only between your parents, but also an entire community of individuals who helped to bring them together, and a God of such immense love and mercy that we have been blessed by your existence.

You, to use Paul’s language, are a beloved child of God.

Carson, in my family, which is beautifully bound to your family, we have a habit of calling one another precious lambs of Jesus. It’s cutesy, and religious, and even a bit weird, but it also points toward the truth of this moment. You are baptized into something you cannot possibly comprehend, you are led into it like a sheep guided by the divine shepherd. In the water offered to you God will bring you into a life defined not by lists and expectations, but by grace and mercy.

It is my hope and prayer, precious lamb, that you come to discover that God neither exists next to us, nor merely above us, but rather with us, by us, and most important of all, for us. 

So welcome Carson, welcome to the complicated and confounding life now defined by your baptism in which in spite of your worst, and even best, intentions, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Amen. 

Nothing New

Devotional:

Isaiah 43.19

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. 

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On Saturday morning I will meet with a small group of people to baptize the daughter of one of my oldest friends. It will be its own worship service with scripture and prayer, song and sermon, and sacrament and silence. The occasion has been in the works for quite a long time and I count myself blessed for being invited into the midst of it.

As I hold that precious baby girl in my arms on Saturday, I know that I will have to hold back the emotions that will undoubtedly well up within me and I will be immediately transported back to a year and a half ago when I stood in a very different place, but doing a very similar thing, when I married that girl’s parents together. It’s no accident that the movements and vows of baptism are intricately tied together with the covenant and celebration of marriage. And for me to know that I was there, and will be there, for these two holy events is nothing short of a miracle.

And yet, for all the newness of the occasion(s), I am reminded that God really doesn’t do anything new. At least, not in the way we think about it. Sure, there will be a newish child, she will enter a new period in her life, her parents will (have to) come to grips with the fact that their daughter will be baptized into the resurrection and death of Jesus. 

But that’s not actually new.

All that truly matters has already happened, once and for all, by the Lamb slain before the foundation of the cosmos. The baptized, and those who gather with her, might be unable to believe this or even faintly grasp it, but it doesn’t really matter. 

Baptism isn’t about what we do. It’s not about what we believe. It’s not even really about the person being baptized.

It’s about what has been done for us.

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In baptism, we affirm that through the water, and through the work of Christ, that we’ve already been forgiven for the sins we’ve committed. The thing done for us also conveys the forgiveness of the sins we’re committing right now. And it even forgives us for a whole lifetime of sins to come!

To me, baptisms have to be one of the strangest and most beautiful things we do within the work of the church because they powerfully proclaim the gift of grace and all of its unmerited qualities. We currently live in a world so consumed by what we consume that we fool ourselves into believing that all the stuff we’re doing earns us something – both tangible and intangible. 

And yet God, in all of God’s wondrous knowledge, chose to make a way where there was no way, chose to do the one last new thing, through the person of Christ in whose baptism we share.

And, best of all, it’s true whether we perceive it or not. 

Thirsty

Devotional:

Psalm 63.1-8

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. 

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After preaching and leading worship for what felt like 4 of the more challenging weeks in my life, a youth from the church approached me after the service on Sunday. In his eyes I saw a the beginnings  of a question and I mentally prepared myself to respond. I have attempted to be as clear as possible about the situation the UMC finds itself in, and I have tried to preach faithfully in the midst of it, but the look on the young man’s face left me worried that I had been anything but clear.

Before he opened his mouth I said, “I can tell that you’ve got a question brewing. What is it?” 

He stared blankly at my face for a moment and then said, “Is there anything you wish you hadn’t packed in your bag when you went hiking at Philmont?”

I, constantly over thinking everything, made an assumption that he wanted to know more about the denomination’s stance on human sexuality, or where the UMC is heading, but what he really wanted was some advice as he prepares to journey to Philmont this summer with his Boy Scout Troop.

When I was the same as as the young man I was fortunate enough to travel to the Boy Scout ranch in northern New Mexico for what was one of the most formative experiences in my life. So, recalling those ten days and 102 miles, I told him about cutting down on unnecessary clothing, spreading communal gear across the whole crew, and making sure that he has enough bottles for enough water.

And ever since Sunday afternoon, I’ve been thinking about that last item a lot. And, to be honest, it has been a long time since I’ve given a lot of thought to the most basic and important element of our survival: water.

I can remember hiking out at Philmont nearly 15 years ago and not having enough water on a particularly brutal day. We started rationing it among the group as much as we could but at some point we ran out and we began panicking. With every mile we passed another dry creek bed and our lips continued to crack.

However, when we finally made it to the next campsite that afternoon, there were arrows pointing to a fresh spring that was producing water. It was hot and it was brackish, but it was the most delicious water I’ve ever tasted in my life!

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The psalmist writes, “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” The desire to know God and to feel God’s presence is likened to wandering around a dry land looking for water. And yet, how often do we long for God in that kind of way? Many of us make our way to church on Sunday mornings hoping for something, even yearning for something, but would we describe it like the thirst while looking for a spring in the midst of a drought?

Or perhaps the metaphor works differently. Maybe it’s not so much about our desire to be filled like a flowing stream, but the refined rarity of actually finding it. 

Today, many of us take for granted what has been made available to us in the person of Jesus Christ. We go about our Christian lives without having to think much about what we are doing. We enter church and see the cross but it doesn’t stand out to us in the stark way that it should. 

And yet, like water, without the cross and without Jesus we are nothing.

Precious Lamb of Jesus Christ – A Snow Day Sermon

Isaiah 43.1-7

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth — everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

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She’s looks up at the strange man in whose arms she is being held. Her mother and father are standing nearby with looks of hopeful anticipation but she keeps looking at the man who seems to be talking to everyone else. 

There’s a bowl of water nearby. She wants to touch it. But the man keep moving her around.

Suddenly everyone gathers closer and the man’s voice grows very soft. She feels a cold slither making its way down her head and she hears the word, “Father.”

The liquid spills onto the top of her dress when she she feels the cold across her scalp once again though this time she hears the word, “Son.”

She feels the goosebumps spreading across her body and all she really wants is to be held by her mother when the final handful of water splashes all over with the last words, “Holy Spirit.”

The last thing she remembers is being carried by the man around a large room filled with people all staring, staring right at her, with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes.

She grows up in the church, or at least that’s what other people say, but she’s not there every week. She knows all the words to some of the hymns, she always dips her bread in the cup with practiced precision, and she sees plenty of pastors come and go.

And then she leaves, off to find her own way in college. She doesn’t know who she is really, or even what she wants to do, but she studies hard and pours herself into her work.

Graduation comes and goes. Boyfriends come and go. Jobs come and go. And with each passing momentous moment, she feels a little less than she did before. The people and the work and the moments require so much of whoever she is.

She wanders.

She marries.

She has children.

She finds herself back in church.

She leaves the church.

She buries her mother.

And then her father.

She brings the first child to college, and then the second.

She volunteers in the community, makes new friends, starts a book club.

She realizes that she has more gray hair than brown.

She drives by a church on a Sunday morning and, on a whim, she decides to stop and go inside.

The pastor stands at the front of the room, with a little baby in his hands and two parents on the side. He lifts water from the fount and places it gingerly on the tiny little head. And the last thing she hears before the tears starting streaming down her face are the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You are a precious lamb of Jesus Christ.”

Who am I?

Where do I belong?

What give me worth?

These questions, whether we are young or old, they never really go away; we are a people looking for answers.

And, more often than not, we go looking for those answers in all the wrong places. We seek out our identity in our spouses or our children, we claim ourselves in our work or our vocation, we even define who we are by our accomplishments or retirement accounts.

But those things never bring us what we need.

What we need, according to Isaiah, is to hear how God is the one who gives us identity and value.

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

I have redeemed you!

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The people who heard these words from Isaiah were bloodied, bruised, and bedraggled. They were thrown into exile without hope for the future. And in God’s most bewildering of ways, these tender words remind the people Israel who they were, and whose they were, despite their identities and circumstances.

We often don’t like the so-called “God of the Old Testament.” God sends a flood to wipe out the humanity God had created in order to start again. God asks a father to sacrifice his only son in order to test his faithfulness. God sends an entire group of people into exile for their continued sins and ignorance of the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast.

But, to be abundantly clear, the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament!

Only in God’s infinite and unknowable wisdom does the exile become the mechanism in which the people Israel become who God always intended them to be.

In that time, living as strangers in a strange land, if the exiles were able to take a good and hard look at themselves in the mirror they would’ve seen a tiny, miserable, and insignificant band of uprooted men and women who were standing on the edges of the empire.

But Isaiah screams out at them in the midst of the suffering and isolation and fear: “That’s not who you are! You don’t belong to Babylon, you don’t even belong to yourselves, you belong to God!” 

They are a hopeless people in desperate need of hope. But where in the world could they find hope in the midst of such uncertainty? The hope they so desperately needed is not within them, it is not even in some leader who claims to speak on behalf of all the people.

Their hope, their only hope, is in the One who has not turned away from them.

Today, just as in the time of Isaiah, we let our sins define us and those around us. Whether it was a one time mistake, or even a habitual failure, we name and are named by our failures. We’ve grown far too comfortable with letting a choice define an entire person’s life.

And yet, and yet (!), we are precious lambs of Jesus Christ in the sight of God despite our sins! That’s crazy! No matter how horrible we feel about what we’ve done, no matter how judgmental we are regarding the actions of the people around us, to God we are precious. 

To God we will always belong.

However, lest we fall prey to the belief that God’s loves gives us the freedom to do whatever we want, to whomever we want, whenever we want… that’s not what Isaiah is saying. The prophet is looking out on a people in the midst of uncertainty, then and now, and says that when we fail and fall (because we will), whether as individuals or even as churches, we can take comfort in the realization that our sins do not prompt God to quit loving us or laying claim to us. 

God’s love doesn’t free us to sin. God’s loves frees us from believing that our sins define us.

We can put our trust and hope in a great number of things – a spouse, a job, a politician, a bank account. But all of those things will eventually fail to give us what we’re looking for.

Instead, the prophet Isaiah calls us to put our hope and trust in the One who never abandons us.

Today churches all across the globe are celebrating the baptism of Jesus Christ. They will encounter the wonderful story of Jesus being compelled to the water and receiving his own baptism by his cousin John. And it is a rather fitting moment for us considering the fact that in baptism, God marks us and claims us as God’s own children. In the water, God seals God’s love for us, no matter what we’ve done and no matter what we will do.

In the water, we are precious.

Baptism, though we only receive it once, is not something that we do and then wash our hands of it forever. Our individual baptisms are something that we return to over and over again. At our church today we were planning to baptize a grandfather and his granddaughter, but the snow prevented us from gathering together! We were going to surround them at the fount as they heard the words that countless others have heard. I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit – you are a precious lamb of Jesus Christ.

And then the plan was to have everyone come forward to place their fingers or the hands in the water to remember their own baptisms – to be grateful and mindful of the water that brings us our truest identities.

Throughout January we’re doing a series on What’s Right With The Church? There’s plenty that’s wrong, but there is far more right with the church than wrong. In the church, and in particular through the sacrament of baptism, we discover that we are wanted and loved by God regardless of whether we deserve it or not.

That’s pretty crazy when you think about it!

While we live in a world in which institutions and individuals can regularly disappoint us or even abandon us, God says, “I have called you by name, and you are mine!” Amen. 

The Wrong Scripture – A Baptism Homily

Romans 12.9-13

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 

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Dear Jacoby,

You’re not going to remember today. 

If he had it his way, and by he I mean your uncle, and by uncle I mean someone who wishes he was your uncle, and by all of that I mean Jason… If he had it his way, I wouldn’t baptize you.

It’s not because you don’t deserve it, or that you’re not the paragon of cherubic cuteness.

It’s because he believes baptizing babies is an inherently problematic theological adventure.

And, though it deeply pains me to admit it, he’s got a point.

Jacoby, in time you will come to know the stories of Jesus – in fact your parents have already started telling you about the man to whom they committed their lives. And as you come to know Jesus more and more you will discover that baptism in the bible, whatever it may be, never happens to children. 

It’s reserved for adults.

The theological rationale is that only adults have the wherewithal, the ability, to comprehend the immensity of what is about to be done to and for you. Only adults have the maturity and the agency to commit their lives to the death made manifest in the water, and the new life that comes from emerging out of it.

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And that’s our problem little Jacoby you’re too young and you’re not going to remember any of this – which is why I’m writing you this letter. The hope is that when you look back at this decision that was made for you, you can at least to some degree appreciate how strange it all was, that your parents and the rest of your family agreed to make a covenant that you cannot.

I mean, we’re pretty good people – you’ve got an aunt who can dance like there’s no tomorrow while also writing in iambic pentameter. You have an uncle who can literally fix anything, literally. You have another aunt who can listen to 5 podcasts in a row while throwing on the wheel without missing a beat. You’ve got an uncle with such good taste in music that other people are often green with envy. You have an aunt who is so dedicated to the needs of others than she often forgets to think of herself (she’s also gorgeous). You have an aunt and uncle who have more scholarly education than most of the rest of the world. And you have an uncle who can marry, bury, and baptize anyone. 

But the really funny thing about putting all of the responsibility on the adults in the room is that we have no greater role in any of this than you do. Whether we have the proper frame of mind or not, your baptism is not about us. 

And that’s why it doesn’t matter what Jason thinks – baptism isn’t really about adults or babies. Not even you Jacoby.

It’s about God.

Jacoby, one day, if we actually live up to the covenant we are about to make, you will see the similarities between baptism and marriage. In both, individuals make promises they cannot possibly understand in the hopes that God will make something of their nothing. And in both circumstances, I often encourage those involved with the service to choose the scripture passage that, to them, best suits the moment.

When I married your aunt and uncle they, strangely, thought it best to proclaim the story of David’s anointing when being joined together. I have to admit that I scratched my head in the days leading up to their backyard wedding as I struggled to make some theological sense out of kingship in the midst of marriage.

The stories we gravitate to in scripture tend to define us. I could make the case that your uncle David wanted to hear about the story of the biblical David because he likes to think of himself as a king, or at least a king when it comes to chess.

But, of course, there’s also more to it than that. Like the biblical king with whom he shares a name, your uncle has lived a life whereby looking at the content of one’s heart, rather than their outward appearance, has defined much of his personality in all of the best ways possible.

Similarly, your parents chose the passage about the threefold cord not being easily broken as their wedding passage. And, to be honest Jacoby, that was so them.

They humbly know and recognize that their marriage will require more than just themselves, and they pray regularly for God to be the third part of their cord that binds them together through better and worse. Moreover, as you grow older and older you will come to find that your parents love to make friends of strangers, particularly when it comes to inviting others to the tables. And thus the threefold cord grows and grows.

Which makes what I’m about to say all the stranger: your parents picked the wrong passage for your baptism. 

And, to be clear, this is even more bizarre when you consider the fact that your parents are much better Christians than I am, and I am paid to be a professional one. 

The passage is okay, in the church we call Paul’s list in Romans 12 the marks of being a true Christian. But here’s the strange, dark, and even terrifying truth of reading this passage, a scripture all about being the best you, is that you will never do it.

You might try. Hell, I hope you do. And maybe you’ll even be good at some of it for awhile, but ultimately laying out a list like this one, on the day we kill you and resurrect you to new life here and now, is like telling you to climb a mountain that has no peak.

Let your love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to the good. 

Jacoby, your grandmothers are salt of the earth Christians. They earnestly pray for others, they show up when few others do, and they understand the virtues of active listening. But even they fall short of the expectations of Paul’s list. But Jacoby, for as faithful and flawed as your grandmothers are, they know that reading this list immediately before your baptism, like they are commandments from the Lord, is to confuse what we in the church call the law and the gospel. 

Or, to put it another way, reading this list implies, to some degree, that you are only worthy of the water to which I will pour on you if, IF, you do these things.

But the truth I hope you come to discover in your parents, your family, and your church, is that there is no such thing as “if” in the kingdom of God.

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In no way shape or form is the love of God almighty continent on our willingness, or our ability, to actively live a life according Paul’s list. So, Jacoby, you can hang these words above your door frame, you can write them on your heart, but don’t you ever believe that God’s love for you is dependent on your love for God.

Jacoby, your name is a cooler version of one of the most important people in all of scripture: Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. Jacob, the heel-grabber who swindled the birthright away from his older brother Esau. Jacob, who dreamed of a ladder that stretched into the heavens. Jacob, who married the wrong sister. 

But Jacob’s name eventually changed. He wrestled with the Lord on the banks of the Jabbok river and when they came to a stalemate, Jacob was renamed Israel. 

Israel means, “You have striven against God and humans and prevailed.”

You, Jacoby, share a name with a man whose life was turned upside by God and a man who walked with a limp for the rest of his life after his name was changed.

It is my sincere hope and prayer that you would be so blessed as the one from whom you received your name.

Because Jacob, the biblical Jacob, stands as a shining example of what it means to be baptized by the Lord – whatever your life was, whatever it could have been, will be destroyed forever; in the water you will find the same Lord that changed Jacob into Israel, the same Lord that will grab hold of you throughout your life, the same Lord who will refuse to let go whether you do or not.

What we do in your baptism has almost nothing to do with any of us – but it has everything to do with the God who chose to come as close to us as a baby boy, a baby named Jesus, the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

Which brings me back to the list from Romans. I would love to spend even more time lambasting your parents for picking the wrong passage, there is some wisdom in choosing it for today. 

But the wisdom comes in the recognition that the list, though meant for us, is actually about Jesus.

Jesus’ love was genuine as he marched to the margins of life bringing hope to the hopeless, joy to the joyless, and voice to the voiceless.

Jesus hated all things evil particularly when it came to the powers and principalities that preyed on the weak.

Jesus held fast to the good in the moments of fear and frustration, like kneeling in the garden, and mounting the hard wood of the cross.

Jesus’ loved those around him with mutual affection, particularly when he removed his outer robe and used it to wash the feet of his disciples.

Jesus outdid everyone in his life by showing honor, though he did so in recognition that the least of these are the ones who will be first in the kingdom.

Jesus did not lag in zeal, and was remarkably ardent in spirit, as he served the Lord every day of his earthly life.

Jesus rejoiced in hope, hope for a day when weeping, and crying, and death would be no more. 

Jesus was patient in his suffering, even in the midst of death.

Jesus persevered in prayer, regularly retreating from the crowds to places of solitude to commune with the Lord.

Jesus contributed to the needs of the saints, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, befriended the lonely.

Jesus extended hospitality to strangers, particularly those forced to the edges of society and those who were far too often forgotten.

Jacoby, this list was meant for us, but it’s ultimately about Jesus. Which actually makes it the perfect passage for the day of your baptism, because you have done nothing to deserve it – and you never will.

That’s why we call it grace.

Though, lest you read this as a middle schooler and think you’ve been baptized into zero responsibilities – it’s not that doing the things on Paul’s list don’t matter. Instead, it’s that even if you lived according to it and were considered a saint by all your friends, your life would still pale in comparison to the work of God made manifest in Jesus Christ made available to you by water and the Word.

We will make a covenant to love you, and pray for you, and raise you in the faith that was first handed down to us. But following Jesus is not simply about people like me telling someone like you that God calls you to do nice things and live a life with genuine love.

The world is a mixed up, topsy turvy, broken place filled with messed up, upside-down, sinners like you and me.

And, you will absolutely fail to follow the commands of Romans 12.

You only need to think about the story of the biblical Jacob, the one whose life reads like a roller coaster, to know that in our heart of hearts we often make the wrong choice, we hurt the people we love, and we think we deserve more than we receive.

But your baptism, Jacoby, is something you do not deserve. You have not, and you cannot, earn it.

It is offered to you in spite of you.

It’s grace.

My beloved nephew, you are about to be baptized into something you cannot possibly comprehend, nor will you ever be able to. In the water offered to you God will incorporate you in to a life defined not by lists and expectations, but by grace and mercy.

I hope you come to discover, with each passing day, that God exists neither next to us, nor merely above us, but rather with us, by us, and most important of all, for us. 

God is great! God is the one who created the heavens and the earth, who entered into covenant with his servant Abraham, who wrestled with Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok, who called Moses from the burning bush, who delivered the people Israel from captivity in Egypt, who sustained the nation through the judges and the prophets, who anointed kings to lead, who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, who saved the world through a cross, who was resurrected three days later.

In baptism, God’s story becomes your story.

So welcome dear Jacoby, welcome to the story that started long before you arrived. Welcome to the life where in spite of our best intentions, and even our worst, God will refuse to let us go. Welcome to baptism made possible by Jesus. Amen. 

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.