The Adventure Begins

Matthew 3.13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Tell us what you remember about your baptism.

So spoke the instructor in my Spiritual Formation class in seminary more than a decade ago. We were huddled in a basement classroom, devoid of any natural light, squirming in our plastic chairs, wondering who would be the first to share.

“I remember,” one of them began, “being afraid.”

He described the fear of Y2K and what horrors it could bring. And so, on the last Sunday of the calendar year, he marched up to the font at the end of church and asked to be baptized because, as he put it, “I wanted to make sure I would go to heaven if the world ended when we hit the year 2000.”

“I remember,” another classmate began, “feeling pressured into by my friends.”

She described the teenybopper convictions of her closest friends who told her she had to be baptized. She didn’t even go to church. But then, one Sunday, she was picked up in a minivan by one of her friend’s parents, and a bunch of strangers surrounded her at the font and water was dumped all over her head. When she got home, soaking wet, her parents demanded to know what happened, and all she could say was, “Jesus happened, I think.”

“I remember,” someone else intoned, “the storm.”

She described her reluctance to attend church her entire life until, well into middle age, a particular tragedy drew her in the direction of mystery that happened to be her local church. She started reading the Bible, participated in worship, joined a small group, and felt like God was calling her to be a Christian. So they scheduled her baptism, and in the middle of the service an unexpected thunderstorm rolled through the town. All was well until they began praying over the water and lightning struck nearby with the thunderclap shaking the sanctuary. In the silence that followed she, apparently, shouted, “The devil ain’t got me no more.”

And then I raised my hand and said, “I remember nothing. I was 19 days old.”

We can only ever begin again, Barth once said. Christians, those who follow Jesus, are ever in a state of starting over. We have a liturgical calendar that folds in on itself every year, we return to the same scriptures and the same songs and the same prayers not out of tireless commitment to the old, but because they make us new.

We can only ever begin, again.

Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, when churches across the world read about Jesus’ baptism by his cousin John in the Jordan. 

It’s a bit odd, when you take a step back and think about it, that John is the one who baptizes Jesus. It’s odd for a variety of reasons. Notably, John shows up in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism for the repentance of sins. He looks out on God’s people who have completely lost their way and he beckons them back, again, to the truth of the Lord who delivered them from captivity into the Promised Land. Like all the prophets before him, John speaks with clarity and authority and power about repentance.

And yet, what does Jesus have to repent? Why does Jesus need to be baptized by John?

Repentance is such a churchy word. Where else can you hear that word thrown around with such reckless abandon?

What is it? Repentance is not feeling bad about what we’ve done, or thinking differently than we once did. Repentance means nothing more than turning around, or returning. The church, in our unending concern with encouraging people to think for themselves and make all the right choices, often confuses God’s kingdom with the benefits of the kingdom. 

We talk about turning our lives around so that we can finally find our purpose. We talk about repentance so that we will finally start behaving and make the world a better place. We talk about making changes or resolutions in order to finally become the people God wants us to be.

And those things are fine, they have their place. But they are not the Gospel. They are just the bonus, the 2-for1 deal which is handed over by the One who hands himself over on our behalf. 

The Gospel is the Good News of Jesus. Repentance is just the word that describes our activity whenever we encounter it.

John, out in the wilderness, is not offering a better way to live. The kingdom does not come about because we actually start doing the things we’re supposed to do. Rather, the kingdom of God is already present in the person of Jesus, and we are not worthy of it. That’s why we repent, we return. We wander off in all sorts of directions, but then in the waters of our baptism we return to the truth of who we are: Sinners in the hands of a loving God. 

Wandering is at the heart of who we are. There’s this gnawing lack of something inside all of us. It’s why we flock to the self-help section in bookstores, hoping we will finally discover who we really are. 

And, again, if self-help books worked, there wouldn’t be any of them anymore.

Find yourself! Says the slogan for clothing companies, vacation destinations, and retirement portfolios. 

Do you want to find yourself? You don’t need to go climb a mountain, literal or figuration. You don’t need to sign-up with a spiritual guru or enroll in a CrossFit class. 

All you need is some water.

Look in it and you’ll see who you are. 

It used to be the case that, when a set of parents brought their child forward for baptism, they only had one name – their family name. And then, someone like me would say, “What name is given this child?” The answer would be the first public declaration of a person’s identity. Our first names, which in certain places are still called Christian names.

Names are gifts. We don’t get to choose them or pick them. They’re given to us.

And then, with the waters of baptism, we receive yet another new name. A larger and more important name: Christian.

Whenever I baptize someone, whether they’re a shiny new baby, or covered in wrinkles with gray hair, I always say the same thing: I baptize you in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit – you are a precious Lamb of Jesus Christ.

I say that last part not because I was taught to say it, but because that’s what one of my grandmother’s has called me my entire life. 

I’m still growing into it.

It takes time for all of us to live into our names, that Christian name in particular. It’s something we return to every so often because sometimes we forget who we are.

It’s easy, all too easy, to forget our identity. The world will strive to tell us who we are, and what we should care about it, and what we should think. We’re told by the world, and others, that our lives are journeys of self-discovery whereas, in baptism, God finds us.

Our lives are the adventure of being lost and being found over and over again. 

Martin Luther, the great reformer of the church, was often prone to depression and anxiety. And he said that in those most awful moments, those dark nights of the soul, it was a great comfort to take a drop of water, place it on his forehead, and say, “I am baptized.”

Why?

Because we belong to God and that can never ever be taken away.

Or, as Paul puts it, I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

We return to that promise because sometimes we forget.

In the end, becoming and being a Christian is something done to us and for us before it is anything done by us.

In other words: faith requires others. Just like baptism. Someone has to hold us, pray over the water, tell us about Jesus and the promise of what he has done, is doing, and will do. Someone has to model that faith, a whole life of faith. Otherwise, we would have no idea what we are baptized into.

To know who Jesus is and what he means has got to come to us through others as a gift – a gift like grace.

Before the church was called church is was called EKKLESIA, which just means gathering. Church, then, is people who are together. People who hold fast to one another as we hold fast to the promise of the Gospel. 

And that’s why the church gives us this day, this same Sunday every single year, that we might remember who and whose we are.

I don’t remember my baptism. There was no peer pressure, or fear, or even reluctance. I had no choice in the matter. But the choice made on my behalf has made all the difference in the world. 

And that’s true for all of us, whether we marched to the font on our own or someone carried us to it. From the moment of our baptisms, it becomes impossible to explain our lives without reference to the water, the promise, the story, and the others who made it possible.

Baptism is where the adventure we call faith begins. 

Jesus’ baptism by John unleashes him into the world. The heavens are opened and he sets out on the adventure of preaching, healing, teaching, feeding, dying, and living again that makes possible the rectification of all things, even us. This is where his journey begins, as do our own, in the waters of baptism.

Welcome To Humanity

1 Corinthians 12.12-14

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.

1 Thessalonians 5.11

Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. 

Dear Finley,

I have a confession to make. I have a long standing habit of writing homiletical epistles on the occasion of one’s baptism – it’s a way of cutting across time such that, one day, you can look back and find out why you were baptized. You will have no memory of this but, your life will be decisively different because of it.

And yet, before God and family, I must confess that the idea is not original to me. I stole it from one of your other uncles: Jason

He knows that the proclamation of the Word is essential to the sacrament that is your baptism, because, as Barth put it, “Preachers dare to talk about God.”

Otherwise, there’s a temptation to make your baptism all about you. When, in fact, it’s actually all about the One in whose life and death you are being baptized. 

Your uncle taught that to me.

I wonder what your life will be like, having two of the smartest pastors ever called by God as some of your uncles. Perhaps it will be a gift and a curse, for you are doomed to hear the same things over and over again.

At the very least, you’re likely to hear a lot about Karl Barth, Stanley Hauerwas, and Jesus.

And yet, repetition is all anyone can ever hope for.

I pray you never tire of hearing, “I love you.”

Similarly, I hope you rejoice in being told to remember your baptism and be thankful. Of course, you won’t remember any of this, but the ripples of it will impact every part of your life.

Finley, today you become a human. I know that is a strange thing to say. You might expect to hear that today you become a Christian

And yet, if Herbert McCabe is right, we can only be fully human as we are incorporated into the fullness of humanity named Jesus Christ. Jesus, McCabe argues, “was the first true human for whom to live was simply to love – for this is what human beings are for.”

Our lives are made up of various loves. Your father, for instance, loves tractors and chainsaws. Your mother loves ceramics and plants. One set of your grandparents sit around their phones everyday waiting to see you smile on FaceTime. The other set was so excited about your arrival into the world that they bought a house in Harrisonburg, just to be close to you.

And you have a whole set of aunts, uncles, and cousins who are obsessed with you.

On and on and on.

And the claim made in your baptism is that God loves you.

You will come to find that God’s love is both wonderful and awful. It’s why we sing of the hopes and fears of all the years being met in the person of Jesus Christ. It is wonderful and awful to be loved by God because God really know us, and loves us anyway.

To be human is to love, and to be loved in return.

Another thing you will hear over and over again throughout your life, is something your uncle and I get to declare every time people gather at the Lord’s table: “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”

The baptism into which you are baptized sets you on a course of being surrounded and caught up in the adventure called church, in which you will be forgiven over and over again. 

Hence the first scripture passage your parents chose for this occasion: For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

The water of your baptism incorporates you into something seen and unseen. It connects you with others across time and space. Or, as Stanley Hauerwas is oft to quip: Whatever Christianity is, it is at least the discovery of friends you did not know you had.

This is true not only for the church, but for you in particular. Without Jesus your parents never would’ve met. The smattering of family and friends we call family who gather for your baptism would not be possible without Jesus. 

I hope and pray you discover that nothing is more precious in the world than the gift of a friend. Friendship takes time and requires forgiveness. Forgiveness and patience are deeply connected. But God has given us all the time we need to become friends with one another. And, of course, learning how to become friends with others also teaches us what it means to be friends with God.

In short, we have all the time in the world to learn how to forgive and, perhaps more importantly, how to be forgiven.

Thankfully, Jesus, the one in whose baptism you share today, is in the forgiveness business. 

Which leads to the second text your parents chose for the occasion of your baptism.

“Therefore, encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

Another thing your uncle taught me is that, whenever you encounter a therefore in scripture, you need to know what the therefore is there for. 

If you look just two verses before you will encounter these all too important words: God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him… Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

In other words, the forgiveness that makes friendship possible is only possible because of Jesus Christ and him crucified. 

We are called to build one another up not because it makes the world a better place, though it certainly might. We are called to encourage one another because God has already made the world a better place in Jesus. We are called to forgive one another because God is the great forgiver.

In your baptism your sins are forgiven. Not just the ones committed before your baptism, which up to this point mostly amount to waking your parents up in the middle of the night over and over again, but also all of the sins yet to come. 

Again, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners.

The timing of your baptism is important – not only because it allowed for most of your family to be present, but also because it is Christmastide, the wonderful time between Christmas and Epiphany. A strange and wondrous witness to the infancy of the Lord, and the expansive extent of the kingdom of God.

The timing of your baptism also points to the fact that you are a baby. It is important that we baptize you as an infant. For, at this very moment, there is absolutely nothing you can do to earn, accept, or even believe in the forgiveness that your baptism imparts. In baptizing you we, the church, declare that you already have it. 

We are baptizing you into a different life, a human life, a life of love and friendship that will set you at odds with the world. 

It will set you at odds with the world because the world will tell you there is always more to be done, whereas your baptism says, “It is finished.” The world will tell you to be careful with your love, whereas your baptism points to the fact that God is reckless with God’s love. 

Right here and right now you are beloved. Not because you have done anything or deserve anything, but because the Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world, even yours.

So welcome to the strange new world that is your life. You might never have been but you are because the family called church wouldn’t have been complete without you. Beautiful and terrible things will happen to you, but you needn’t be afraid. God is with you. Nothing can ever take that away. Amen. 

Water In The Desert

Isaiah 35.1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. 

It’s a thing that takes place, more often than I would like. Someone wanders into my office and before long they say, “Why did this happen?”

Why do Russian forces continue to attack civilians in Ukraine, killing innocents daily?

Why did my cells mutate into a cancer that is trying to kill me?

Why would my husband hurt me so much?

Those are worthy Advent questions.

Why? 

We’ve got the lights and the cocoa, some of us already have presents wrapped under the tree and are putting together the menu for when the relatives arrive. We’ve got all this other stuff going on and yet we know that not all is as it ought to be.

Even if you feel like you’ve got it all figured out, spend one minute watching the nightly news and you are likely to be bombarded with stories and images of all that is wrong with this world. 

Why is this world so broken? What can we, the church, say about all the sorrow, the waste, the vengefulness that populates the evening news and keeps us awake at night?

John the Baptist had the same questions. Sure, he prepared the way out in the wilderness, he called for the baptism for the repentance of sins, he talked about the One to follow. But his talk was incendiary, downright revolutionary, according to the powers and the principalities, and it got him locked up.

And from prison John starts to wonder about his cousin Jesus. “He sure seems like the Messiah. He walks like the Messiah, he talks like the Messiah. And yet, where is all the grand and Messianic stuff to inaugurate this time? Why isn’t Jesus more like me?”

So John sends word by way of his disciples, “Hey cuz, are you the real deal? Or are we to wait for another?”

And Jesus, in typical Jesus fashion, responds in his own weird way. He says to his own disciples, “Tell my cousin what you have seen and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the poor have good news.”

Jesus, notably, quotes the prophet Isaiah, the very text we read this morning. A text from 700 years before Jesus arrived on the scene and John got locked up.

Jesus is saying to John, by way of his disciples, that he is, indeed, the One to come and the time has already arrived. “The kingdom is breaking in, J the B, you’ve set your sights too low. You want to defeat the empire called Rome. Well, I’ve come to vanquish the empire of sin and death. It’s already begun because I am here. I am the kingdom in the flesh.”

This proclamation, this promise, of the blind seeing, the lame walking, the deaf hearing, it’s a recurring theme in scripture. Isaiah has a glimpse of it. Jesus preaches on it in his first sermon. The disciples witness it. 

It’s the ministry of divine inversion. It’s no different than Isaiah talking about streams in the desert and the hills being brought low. The work of the Lord makes a way where there is no way.

And yet, Jesus’ answer to his cousin, his pointing to the work made manifest in the flesh, is somewhat incomplete. The rugged Advent faith compels us to admit that something is amiss. Yes, Jesus did heal a few blind people, but only a few. Yes, he did feed the hungry and cure the sick. But how many?

The signs of the in-breaking kingdom, the work of the Lord then and now, is left undone.

That’s the strange tension of Advent – of living between the already but not yet, of being stuck in the time being.

The kingdom of God is mysterious. 

Mysteries are fundamentally unsatisfying. We are not content to rest under the shadow of the unexplained. So we bring our expectations and questions to Jesus over and over again, not unlike John did from behind bars, and Jesus, more often than not, gives us mystery.

Preachers like me are always looking for stories, these moments of impact where the Gospel hits us in the heart. And sometimes the stories arrive from unexpected places.

Rob Delaney is an actor and comedian, known for bit parts in various films and a short-lived British series titled Catastrophe. He’s made a career out of making people laugh. And this week Delaney has been making the day-time and late-night tv circuit promoting his new memoir titled A Heart That Works. The title comes from a song lyric: A heart that hurts, is a heart that works.

That’s a strange title for a memoir from a comedian.

The book tells of Delaney’s experience of profound loss and pain. His third son, named Henry, around the time of this 1st birthday got sick. Very sick. It took a long time to figure out what was going on, and they eventually discovered that Henry had a brain tumor. He had extremely invasive surgery and chemotherapy that left him disabled. After a year and a half of time in and out of the hospital, the tumor returned and he died.

When asked about why Delaney chose to write the memoir, again and again he has responded, “I wanted to return to humanity, and I didn’t know how other than to write about it.”

And so, day after day, Delaney has sat down for interview after interview, being forced to relive something that no one should ever have to experience. 

And this week, while sitting down for a conversation on CBS, Delaney interrupted the program and looked across the table to Gayle King and said, “Gayle, you came up to me this morning before we came out here in front of the cameras and you hugged me, and asked me genuine questions, and you cried. You offered me a beautiful and human response. And I want you to know it’s the best thing that’s happened to me in days.”

Gayle King, unflappable Gayle King, stared back at him with this bewildered look and said, “How can that be the best thing?”

And Delaney said, “You had a genuine response. I don’t want people to ask these perfunctory questions, and say ‘Oh, your grief,’ and then move on as if nothing happened. I want people to cry. My boy is dead. I won’t hold him again. I hold him in my heart and I think about him all the time. But you had a response like that and that was like water to me in the desert. It was beautiful.”

“It was like water in the desert.” The prophet Isaiah speaking through a comedian, on CBS. 

And what makes that interaction even all the more extraordinary, is that Delaney is an atheist. Except, later in the week, this time while on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Delaney was pushed by the host to reflect on what his grief has done to him and he said, “It’s a big problem for me that, as an atheist, my faith organ has been growing in the years after my son’s death.”

Water in the desert. 

We tend to treat grief like a plague. We stay away from it. We close our doors to it. And if we have it, we do whatever we can to get rid of it. But you know, grief is actually good. 

Grief is just unexpressed love. Grief is how love perseveres.

It’s Advent. It’s that time of year when we pull our the greenery and we sing the songs and we light the candles. Today, the pink candle is lit. It’s Gaudete Sunday, rejoice, the Sunday for joy, pink is the liturgical color for joy. It’s a bit odd, I think, that we keep lighting this pink candle year after year.

Because, how can we be joyful in a time like this?

How can someone like Rob Delaney be joyful?

Grief is like a hole that cannot be filled no matter how hard we try. No number of presents can make up for the pain that we too often encounter in this life. And yet we are bold to light that candle.

We light it not as a denial of the harsh realities of life, but because joy is something that is done to us.

Joy is what happens when we dare to trust the Lord to do for us that which we cannot do on our own.

Joy is what happens when we are able to look at what we have, and had, and know that all of it, the good and the bad, came as a gift. Something rather than nothing.

Joy is what happens whenever we encounter water in the midst of the deserts of our grief.

When we weep with others, or even rejoice with others, does it fix everything? Does it set everything right? 

What good is a cup of water in the desert? It doesn’t get rid of the desert!

And yet, the mystery of God’s activity in the world is that even the tiniest signs of faithfulness and love and mercy and hope are the pointers to the glory that will come when the Lord comes to make all things new. 

The hope of Advent, of all time really, is possible precisely because what we have now is not all there is. We have these lights, and prayers, and songs because the point us to the greater reality that beats upon our lives ever day: God loves us, and this is not the end. 

I don’t know if this was the sermon you expected to hear this morning. I can assure you, this is not the sermon I thought I would be preaching at the beginning of the week. And yet, we worship the God of the unexpected. The God who provides water in the desert. The God who lifts the valleys up and brings the mountains low. The God who takes on flesh to dwell among us. The God who mounts the hard wood of the cross for us. The God who breaks forth from the empty tomb and returns to us. 

The proclamation of the gospel is that God comes to us in the brokenness of our health, in the shipwreck of our family lives, in the loss of all possible peace of mind, even in the thick of our sins. God, oddly, saves us in our disasters, not from them. 

Isaiah says the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

That is God’s promise to us. And until it comes to fruition, the least and the best we can do, is be water in the desert for others. Amen. 

The Gospel Is A Promise

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent [A] (Isaiah 35.1-10, Psalm 146.5-10, James 5.7-10, Matthew 11.2-11). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the film Spirited, seasonal food/drinks, Cage The Elephant, Fleming Rutledge, Advent themes, the glory of the Lord, grief, radical goodness, divine agency, narrative theology, patience, Love Actually, and water in the desert. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Gospel Is A Promise

The River

Revelation 21.10, 22-22.5

And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of the Lord is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as a crystal, flowing form the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

It happens, every so often, that someone reaches out with an inquiry about baptism.

A couple has a baby and they call the church office to ask if it would be possible for their newborn to be baptized. A stranger stumbles into church on a Sunday morning, is moved by the power of the Spirit, and approaches me afterward to discuss the holy waters. A long time church members sees someone else being baptized and, for the first time, desires to receive the promise of the covenant made by water and the spirit.

And, inevitably, we come to a moment when I ask THE question as it pertains to baptism: “Why?” 

One of my professors once said that the most faithful churches are those who won’t marry or baptize anyone off the street. That is, if a random couple asks to be married, it would be better for them to get married by the justice of the peace. The covenant of marriage, at least as understood by the church, is only possible within a community who will help hold the couple accountable to the promises they make.

And the same holds true for baptism.

Should you grow weary or bored at any point in the next ten to fifteen minutes, you can look at the liturgies in the hymnal or google online and you will discover that the questions and promises of marriage and baptism are remarkably similar.

What makes them similar is the outward nature of a promise, that neither of the them should be entered lightly, and they are only possible within the connection of a community we call church.

A few years back I was serving a church with a preschool and I made it a point to hang out among the students and their families as much as possible. I was at the door nearly every morning welcoming them into our building, I led chapel time once a week in the sanctuary, and after a while I started getting invited to a lot of 4 year old birthday parties.

And I’m not sure how it happened, but at some point along the way we had three different families represented in the preschool who each had a parent in ministry. 

Let me tell you, teaching preschoolers about the Bible is hard enough, but it takes on a whole new dimension when a few of those children would return home week after week to tell their pastor-parent what this pastor said.

Anyway, it came to pass that, one year, two brothers from the preschool asked if I would baptize them. And, of course, their mother was also a United Methodist pastor serving a church on the other side of town. So we decided to baptize the boys together.

But this was not to be an ordinary baptism. No, we did not schedule it to take place once picturesque Sunday morning in a sanctuary, we didn’t even consider baptizing them in the preschool where they learned of the faith. The boys wanted to be baptized in living water, a river or a lake or a stream.

It happened on a cold early May day, where we gather on the banks of, I kid you not, Whiskey Creek in Churchville, VA. I knew well enough to bring my fishing waiters because the water was liable to be cold. And it was frigid.

So we said all the things we normally say, I prayed with the boys by the creek’s edge, and then, because it was so cold, I had to literally carry the younger brother out into the middle of the creek, and his mother and I rapidly dunked him under the water three times in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

When he burst forth from the water on the final dunking, he screamed bloody murder, tears were streaming down his face. He hit me in the face and declared for everyone to hear, “I hate you Pastor Taylor!”

And then I had to go get his brother and do the same thing to him. 

John the Revelator sees what we cannot, at least not yet. From the vantage point of a high and holy mountain, he takes in the New Jerusalem, the great rectification of all things. And, oddly enough, there is no church in the city, no place of worship. How can it be that, when God comes to dwell among us, there is no place to gather such as this?

There is no temple because God is the temple. 

There is no darkness because God is the light.

There is no gate because God is the host.

Nothing unclean will enter this holiest of places, and neither will those who practice abomination or falsehood.

And there, in the center of it all, is the river of the water of life, bright as a crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.

This water, and more importantly from whom it flows, makes all things new, all things holy, all things clean.

There has long been an understanding of John’s vision as a prophecy. That is: it tells us about what will come to pass at some point in the future. Christian types will then hold these images over the heads of their dozing congregations and point to connective images in our surrounding culture as signs that the times have come. They do so as a warning about getting clean for the king, repenting in dust and ashes, so that, when the time comes, they will do what is necessary to make it through the gate.

And all of that might be right. But if that’s all that this is, then we’re in trouble. Big trouble. Big trouble because, none of us will make the cut. Abomination sounds like a big and scary thing, and yet all of us practice abominations on a regular basis. An abomination is anything that causes distrust or hatred – and we live in a world that runs on distrust and hatred! We are defined, so often, not by what we love but by what we hate. And that’s not even mentioning those who deal in falsehoods, namely all of us.

For as much as this is an image of something that will come to pass, it is also, at the same time, very much a description of how things are right now. Revelation is a timeless book not because it stands the test of time, but because it rejects all notions of temporal categories. It is beyond time. It has happened, is happening, and will happen. But, for creaturely creatures like ourselves, we can scarcely wrap our heads around it.

But John’s sees something that speaks into who we are and whose we are in present, past, and future. John sees the river. The river of the water of life.

Water runs through the strange new world of the Bible. In the beginning God swept across the waters and brought forth order out of chaos. In the days of Noah God set forth a rainbow in the sky. When God saw God’s people as slaves in Egypt, God led them to freedom through the sea, and eventually through the Jordan to the land that was promised. 

In the fullness of time God sent Jesus, nurtured in the water of a woman and was baptized by John in the river Jordan. Jesus called his disciples to share in his baptism of death and resurrection and to spread to the Good News to all who will hear it. 

The water that flows through the middle of the street of the city in John’s vision is the water through which we are delivered to a strange new land where even people like us are made holy.

Nothing unclean can enter the city and we can’t make ourselves clean. No amount of goodness, no down-on-our-knees prayers of repentance, no righteous acts of piety or mercy can wash away our sins. 

The old hymn is right: What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Therefore, I can understand the hatred that came from the boy I baptized in Whiskey Creek. To be made clean implies there is a need to be made clean. And no one likes to admit there is something wrong with them. Moreover, baptism is the beginning of a journey into discipleship and following Jesus isn’t easy! I mean, look at who he decided to gather together as a church! Us! We’re stuck with each other whether we like it or not! 

Now, could that boy articulate his hatred in the river with such theological insights? Probably not. But his emotional response to the cold waters of his baptism is a truth we often forget. Baptism changes everything. 

The blood of the Lamb, who comes to take away the sins of the world, flows forth from the throne and makes a way where there is no way. It is the great cleansing flood that makes the impossible possible. Baptism is God’s way of saying yes to us when God has no good reason to say yes at all. 

I, myself, was baptized at 19 days old. I had no choice. It was done to me. 

But those who were gathered in the church 34 years ago took seriously the vows they made to raise me in the faith, with God’s help. So much so that I wound up going into the ministry.

Beware of baptizing your child! You never know what God might call them to do!

Anyway, when I was 25 and about to start serving in my first appointment, I had the opportunity to return to my home church and preach one last time as a layperson. I preached on the power of baptism and how I was a product of their promises. 

After the service ended, and I was shaking hands in the narthex, a woman I had known my whole life approached me with a well worn Bible in her hand. She opened it up to the inside front cover and I saw names and dates covering every available inch. And with her index finger she moved across the name until she came to mine and she said, “Whenever we have a baptism I write down the name and date of the person and I pray for each of them every morning. Which means, I’ve prayed for you almost every single day of your life.”

I don’t know “why” my parents had me baptized. I’m not sure they were ever asked, or if they even gave it much thought. But that conversation with that woman in the narthex of the church is the beginning of an answer to the question.

The boys I baptized in Whiskey Creek, one of whom socked me in the face right after, that moment started a journey that is the adventure of faith. Each and every day they are learning more about what it means to love God, and to be loved by God.

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 in the water, right where we are.

The radical nature of the sacrament is made manifest insofar as our baptismal identities are more determinative than any other part of who we are. The waters of baptism wash away any notion of our being defined by our faults and our failures. Each drop of baptismal water contains an ocean of grace and mercy and love deep and wide enough to engulf the entirety of everything that ever was or will be.

In baptism, the heavens are torn apart, the past, present, and future are confused in the best possible way, and the Lord declares, “you are my child.”

And we are who God’s says we are. Amen. 

Don’t Be A Jerk

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Wayne Dickert about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent [C] (Joshua 5.9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5.16-21, Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32). Wayner is the pastor of Bryson City UMC in Bryson City, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including fresh expressions, summer internships, stones, dis-grace, mighty waters, praying by listening, new creations, ambassadors for Christ, prodigals, and Robert Farrar Capon. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Don’t Be A Jerk

Gone Fishing (With Jesus)

Luke 5.1-2

One while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 

Jesus enters the town like the lone ranger. He barely receives a nod from the movers and shakers as he makes his way around. The people are good country folk, they know how to mind their own business, and someone new in town is sure to make a mess of things.

And Jesus, well, that’s exactly what he does.

He starts teaching, if that’s what we want to call it. He tells stories. He makes people laugh, he makes people think, and he makes some people mad.

Talk of the first being last and the last being first always sounds like good news to those on the bottom, but it doesn’t ring with the same kind of joy for those with all the power in the world.

Anyway, it doesn’t take long before this stranger attracts a crowd wherever he goes. At first it was just an opportunity for people to leave their lives for a moment, disappearing into the stories about good neighbors, and wandering sheep, and prodigal children. But then Jesus started the healings and the feedings. The hungry walked away with full bellies and the paralytics, well they just walked away which was miracle enough.

And it all started to get a little out of hand.

So much so that one day, while standing by the lake, the crowd had grown so large that the Lord in the flesh decided to do something about it.

Down the way, along the shore, were a few boats and the men who had been out all night fishing. They were busy cleaning their nets when Jesus walked up, hopped into a boat, and said, “Hey, what are we doing here on the shore? Let’s get out on the water.”

And without thinking twice about it, Peter pushed the boat in, and started oaring the Lord away from the crowds.

“This is perfect right here Pete,” Jesus remarked, “Now I can see everyone and everyone can hear. Keep it steady for a bit, okay?”

And then the teaching started up again. There was talk of loving enemies and praying for the people that make the world a messy place. There were stories of fig trees and lost coins. There were apocalyptic proclamations about all things being made new.

Most of it went right over Peter’s head. Literally and figuratively. 

But then Jesus looked down and said, “Pete, let’s go a little deeper and see if we can’t find ourselves some fish.”

“No offense, Lord,” Peter sheepishly replied, “But I’ve been out all night fishing. You see, fishing is what I do. And there ain’t no fish to be caught. But you seem to be on a roll today, so why not?”

Within 15 minutes they had caught more fish than could be safely get aboard the boat and they had to call for the other fishermen to help.

10 minutes later they had so many fish that the boats started sinking.

Peter saw all this happen right in front of him, with his arms giving out from hauling in all the fish, and he fell to the bottom of the boat and shouted, “Get out of here Lord! I’m not worthy of all this!”

And Jesus said, “No one is. But you don’t need to be afraid, from now on you’ll be catching people.”

And Peter, along with his partners, left everything at the shore and followed Jesus.

What a great and confounding story.

Theologically, it points to the bewildering nature of Jesus’ command over creation and how, whether we like it or not, we’re all caught up in something far greater than any of us realize. 

But practically, it’s also an awesome story about fishing.

Those who enjoy fishing inevitably know how to tell tales. For, most of the time, the fish we brag about are never quite as large in real life. The amount of effort that goes into fishing, getting the gear and the bait, finding the right water, going at the right time of day, practicing patience… It’s all a lot of work for a slippery little thing that, most of the time, you just toss back into the water anyway.

Notably, there’s a good deal of fishing in the New Testament and no one EVER catches a fish unless Jesus is with them. It’s doesn’t matter whether they’ve been doing it for years, or they have the right bait and gear, or if they’re in their lucky fishing spot – If Jesus isn’t in the boat, then there will be no fish.

And I’ve always loved how this little story ends. Luke puts all the attention and all the details on the fishing, but in the end, they leave all the fish behind to start fishing for Jesus.

It’s hard to know when it happened exactly, but somewhere along the line Jesus caught each of us. 

That’s what Jesus does – its not just the telling of tales, and the proclamation of parables, and the making of miracles. Jesus delights in gathering all of us into the great net that, in the church, we call salvation.

And Jesus is very good at what he does.

Life, as we often perceive it, is little more than going through the motions over and over again. But Jesus comes to bring us life and life abundant. That’s what Christmas is all about – the lengths to which God was willing to go to come and shake up the monotony of life, to set us free from the chains of sin and death, and to welcome us to Supper of the Lamb that never ever ends.

Jesus’ divine fishing charter is not merely about gathering in whoever he can whenever he can, but it is also all purposed to bring us to a place we could never arrive on our own.

The tall and the small, the good and the bad… Jesus’ net is wide enough for all of us.

Thanks be to God. 

Baptism Isn’t A Choice

Matthew 5.14-16

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 

Dear Lucia,

You’re not going to remember today. 

In the church we call what we do to you today a sacrament, an outward sign of an invisible grace. It is a way in which God communicates something to us about us. And, you’re too young to have any idea what any of this means.

So I’m writing you a letter.

Hopefully one day your parents will sit you down and explain what happened to you, perhaps they will even apologize for the unenviable course this set you on (at least according to the world), and if you’re really lucky they’ll let you in on the secret of all secrets: It’s not just you who can’t understand what happened, none of us really do.

Baptism, at its best, is a people called church fumbling around in the darkness hoping God can make something of our nothing.

And, to make matters even stranger, getting baptized is a whole lot like getting married: A bunch of people gather together to hear promises exchanged knowing full and well that, as humans, breaking promises is precisely our cup of tea.

No matter how good we are or how bad we are, we never quite live up to the expectations we place on ourselves.

And yet God remains steadfast to us precisely when we don’t return the favor.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Today we baptize you into the Good News of Jesus Christ which, upon first glance, might actually seem like bad news. You know, the whole turn the other cheek and love your neighbors as yourself stuff. I promise you will discover moments when turning the cheek seems like the worst possible decision and I guarantee you’re going to find a neighbor with whom love appears impossible. And, contrary to how you will probably see baptisms in your own future, whether in the church in some movie, it’s not a picture perfect rainbows in the sky moment of bliss.

You are baptized into the death of Jesus so that you, to use the language of Paul, might become the gospel.

It’s actually quite strange.

Lucia, decades ago, when your great-grandparents and even grandparents were baptized into the faith, it was done so under the cloud of what we call Christendom – a time in which Christians thought they knew how to identify the difference it meant to be Christian. Those differences were often defined by what the church said you could or couldn’t do. But those differences were relatively indistinguishable from what the country or community thought would be best anyway.

It was a time when it was assumed that just about everyone went to church on Sunday morning, that to be a good person was synonymous with being Christian, and that so long as you said your prayers and put the right amount of money in the offering plate and made sure you did more good things than bad things everything would work out in the end.

That time is long gone and its not coming back.

And that, my dear niece, is truly Good News. What makes it Good News is the fact that you are being baptized into a radically different time for God’s church, a time of rediscovery for how unusual it is for us to be the church in the world. 

It is not an overstatement to say that what happens to you in baptism makes you different from other people. What I hope you come to know and see and believe is that the difference has little to do with you and everything to do with Jesus who is the difference who makes all the difference. 

In time you will come to discover that we who call ourselves Christians are a weird bunch – After all, we worship a God who became one of us, a Lord both fully human and divine, who rather than beating the world into moralistic submission, died on the cross and was resurrected three days later. 

Even your baptism, this solitary moment in the life of faith, is a pretty bizarre endeavor. Should someone have walked by when I held you in my arms dumping water on your head they might’ve thought, “Is he trying to drown her?” And the truth is, yes, in a sense. Baptism is about drowning you in the Holy Spirit that you might arise different, because of Jesus.

Lucia, according to the strange new world of the Bible, Jesus says you are the light of the world. If that’s true it is only and forever because Jesus is the light of the world first. He shines in the darkness, he is the Good News in a world drowning in bad news, he is the divine Word dwelling among us.

The best we can hope to do is reflect that light.

For, the more we think we’re the light of the world, the more we screw everything up. That I used “we” in that sentence is indicative of your baptism incorporating you into the church, a church that will forever be fallibly messing up the words from the Word. 

And we’ve certainly messed this one up from Matthew’s gospel.

For years, centuries even, this little bit of the story has been used to defend the example that Christians are supposed to make for the world to follow. Which is to say, you shine as a light for others to see the errors of their ways. 

Just as a city on a hill can be seen by all, so too will your faith shine gloriously in order to transform the world.

But that’s a little backwards. For one thing, as I already noted, Jesus is the light of the world, not us. And secondly, the proclamation of the Lord here actually calls into question the very habits and practices that have so hindered the faith.

Let me put it this way: You are like a city on a hill, like a lamp in full view. The desire to appear perfect as an example for others is all good and fine, but you’re going to fail. We all do. That’s the reason we need Jesus. 

Therefore, instead of self-righteously proclaiming that you, or any other Christian for that matter, is the perfect example to follow, perhaps we should consider how visible we are to the world and to God. That is, God already sees and knows you better than you will ever know yourself. And knowing that you won’t live up to the promises made in your baptism and in the proclamation of the gospel, God already nailed to the cross every one of your sins before you even had a chance to make them.

Or, to put it another way, God has imprisoned all to disobedience in order that God might be merciful to all.

Lucia, when you read this one day and you wonder why I rambled on and on about all of this, don’t blame me – your parents picked this text for your baptism. I think it’s rather notable that, right before this passage, Jesus offers what we in the church call the Beatitudes. 

And, I must confess Lucia, I’m not sure why the baptized are not included in the list. Surely it would’ve been better for the Lord to say, “Blessed are the baptized for they will be surprised by what God has in store for them.”

Perhaps Jesus did not include what is done to you and for you today because the baptized either make the choice for themselves or, as in your case, the choice is made for them. Whereas the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted name the different states of life that happen to those who are baptized.

Today, your baptism, is not a choice that you, or frankly even your parents, made. That Jesus has to the gall to call you a city on a hill is indicative of it. The only decision possible for you was made on another hill 2,000 years ago on top of which stood a cross.

The only thing you have to do Lucia, is be what you are. How you live and move in the body of Christ called the church will be a visible act that will forever separate you from the rest of the world. 

Today you are made different. Not because of me, or your parents, or Godparents, or even the church. You are different because Jesus is the difference that makes all the difference. 

So welcome precious lamb to the strange new world of the baptized in which in spite of your worst, and even best intentions, God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. Amen. 

Empty

Exodus 17.1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Who elected him king of this whole enterprise in the first place. I mean, who does he think he is? We’ve been out here wandering and wandering, and it’s not like he has a map or anything. And compasses haven’t even been invented yet!

I think that it’s high time someone gave him a piece of our minds.

Fine, I’ll do it.

Hey Moses! I need a word.

We’ve been camping here at Rephidim for a while now, and, um, what exactly are you going to do about the water situation? People are thirsty, you know!

And, I hate to be the one to bring this up with you, but back in the place that must not be named, we at least had food to eat and water to drink. I know they worked us to the bone, but we had beds to sleep in at night when we were exhausted. And sure, they killed all of the first born sons all those years ago, but things got better. All we want to know is, what’s the plan man?!?!

Why did you drag us all the way out here just to die?!

Lord, what am I supposed to do with these people? They’re just about ready to kill me. I told you back when you showed up in that bush that no one would listen to me. And then that advice, the whole, “tell them I AM sent you,” that went over really well. And, frankly Lord, I have to agree with the people, what exactly is the plan, because right now, Egypt isn’t looking so bad…

A voice cries out: You fool! Go grab that stick over there on the floor, take some friends, hit the rock and water will come out so the people can drink.

So Moses did as he was told. And the people drank. And they continued to wander and grumble and complain. He named the place of the miracle water rock, Massah and Meribah, because the people kept fighting and saying, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”

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That story has been told and relived in our own lives over and over again. In the wilderness it was the people complaining about the water. For some of us, it has sounded like this:

A husband sits down with his wife – I know I shouldn’t have cheated on you honey. But it was only the one time, and really, you haven’t been available and what was I supposed to do? I come home from work, putting in all those hours so you can have the food ready for me on the table, and then I’m not even greeted with a smile, and heaven forbid a compliment. And so, yeah, I cheated. It felt like what it used to feel like with us…

Or:

A wife sits down with her husband – I don’t think we should stay together. Neither of us have broken our marriage vow, but it just doesn’t feel like this is going to work. You never listen to me, you never care about how I feel. You’re gone all the time and you’re so distant. I work so hard to have everything ready for you, and have you ever thanked me? Have you ever even noticed everything I do? In my last marriage, as horrible as it was, at least I felt seen and noticed. But with you, it’s like I don’t even exist sometimes…

Or:

Parents sit down with their child – These grades are simply not going to cut it. We’ve sacrificed too much for you to throw your education away like this. Who do you think paid for the tutor, and have you even considered how much time we’ve given up to stay up night after night to help you with your homework? Why can’t you be like Jimmy from down the street? He listens to his parents, he gets good grades, he never gets in trouble. But you? You’re making everything so difficult!

And so it goes.

We look to other people and other things all the time to fix whatever is wrong or broken or empty within us. 

It’s what individuals do when they find themselves in a rut at work – they will spend more time looking through job postings for other companies than working for their current employer, and then they run off at the first opportunity for something else only to discover more of the same.

It’s what dating couples do when they’re not ready to get married because they’re fighting and not communicating at all and they assume that getting married will force them into a place where it will all get sorted out but it only gets worse.

  It’s what married couples do who fight because maybe they shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place and they decide to have a kid because surely thats the best solution to the problem.

And then, in the midst of all of that hoped-for self-discovery, we spend more time looking backward or in other places, than we do observing the present. 

Well, at least back in Egypt we had water to drink. My last job didn’t make me stay so late on Friday afternoons. My last boyfriend really listened to me. My neighbor’s kid is so much better behaved than my own.

And it’s not long before everyone is left feeling empty inside.

Idolatry – it’s not a word we use much in the church these days, but it’s a word God uses all the time in the scriptures. Idolatry: looking to others to give you what only God can give.

It’s the first of the ten commandments – you shall have no other gods but the Lord.

And we break that one all the time.

We can’t replace God with a spouse, or a kid, or a job, or a political party, or any other number of things we look to to provide meaning and value in our lives. And, if we’re honest, we know those things always come up short. 

They come up short because no spouse or friend or kid or job or anything else can give us whatever it is we are looking for.

The Israelites had no hope and no future in Egypt. Beaten to death, belittled for being who they were, relegated to the worst imaginable conditions. And God shows up for spectacularly, delivering God’s people out of bondage in Egypt into a strange new land.

But the people grumble, because no matter how much we think the grass is greener on the other side, its still grass.

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And, for some bewildering reason, its in our wandering that God delights in showing up. Hey Moses, go hit that rock with the stick and see what happens. Oh, you all are hungry, I’ll just rain a little manna down from heaven. Still living under the rule of sin and death, I’ll send my Son to turn the world upside down.

God, in spite of our earnings and deservings (which don’t amount to much in the first place), shows up and pours out the living water upon all who are thirsty. In the church we call it baptism, but it really happens all the time. Frankly, it’s one of the reasons we get together so often, to remind ourselves and one another of the story that is our story, the story of what we once were and the story of who we are now, because of God. 

Not because we’ve finally found the right path, or person, or program. But because God is the source of our being and calls into existence the things that do not exist and makes a way where there was no way.

When we begin to see how God is active in our lives, then our friends can let us down and even though it hurts it won’t upend us; our children can drive us crazy and it won’t destroy us; our spouses can speak the deepest and ugliest truths about us and it will be painful to hear, but we can handle it.

We can do all of that because the cross has already spoken the deepest and darkest truth about who we are. We are the sinners for whom Christ died.

I like to call that the inconvenient truth of Christianity. We’ve become very good these days, frankly we have lots of practice, at pointing out the sins in other people. To some degree I think that’s what social media is all about. We either log on to call out the imperfections of others, or we try to portray ourselves as if we are perfect into order to put other down. 

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The inconvenient truth of Christianity is that we are no better than those who wandered in the wilderness of Sin looking for a little sip of water. We are no better than the television pundits who have made careers out of sensationalizing what we might call the news. We are no better than the man who drove from town to town buying all of the hand sanitizer in order to resell it as a huge margin and is now sitting on 17,000 bottles and has been blocked from online sales.

This is a confounding moment for the church and, strangely, some are using this as a moment to defy the calls of the community and are gathering this morning in spite of the danger. And yet, this is a danger that extends far beyond those who gather, because those gather run the risk of sharing the virus with everyone else.

We live in an age of self-righteousness and assertion such that we are all often saying in some way, shape, and form: “I am right and they are wrong – pay attention to me because I’m the one who really matters – you can’t tell me what to do because I am the master of my own universe.”

But part of the Christian message is that God is the master of the universe, that God comes to us in ways that defy and upend our expectations. 

The cross reminds us that God rules in weakness.

And remember, it is from that cross that points at and reflects all of our iniquities and all of our sins and all of our shames that the Lord says, “I forgive you, because you have no idea what you’re doing.”

The story of Moses and the wandering Israelites in the wilderness is a familiar tale because many of us experience it on a regular basis. We thirst for things both tangible and intangible and, more often than not, we look to the people and the things around us to fill the holes deep within us.

But there’s another story in the Bible about someone who thirsts.

Jesus is on his way to Galilee and he decides to stop in Samaria at a well.

At the well, in the middle of the day, he meets a woman carrying an empty bucket.

But it’s not the bucket he notices.

He sees her, truly sees her, and takes in her emptiness, the emptiness that has carried her from man to man to man to man.

And he says to her, “I am Living Water. What I give is from a spring that will never ever stop. It will never run dry. It will fill you with love and meaning and purpose and value and healing and worth.”

And she leaves, gushing to everyone about what Jesus had done for her. 

Jesus does, again and again, what we could not and would not do for ourselves. He speaks a word of truth that can sting and build us up in the same moment. And, in the end, he is the one who saves us, and not the other way around. Amen. 

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.

ReflectionsJeremiah_2_plain-680x300

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.