Thursday, January 17, 2013

Baptism and Community

First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Holy Baptism: January 10, 2013
Isaiah 43:1-7
Ps. 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Today we are hearing some news that is both very new and very old. In our Gospel story, Jesus comes up to John, so he can be baptized in the Jordan River. This is something very new. Jesus is not there to “repent of his sins.” Jesus does not do this to join a new religion. There is an astounding rush of a mighty wind. The Holy Spirit comes down over Jesus’ head and a heavenly voice booms out, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

When Jesus joined that throng of people coming to John to be baptized, we can imagine that he, like them, was longing for something powerful to happen. They were a group of people who wanted to turn their lives around, and who believed that the whole world could turn around: they were filled with expectation, Luke tells us. For them to want “the Messiah” is to want a world in which God’s justice reigns, where families and communities are whole and prosperous, where there is enough of everything to go around, a world full of hope that the future will be better than the past. When the people – Jesus included – came to be baptized, it was not just about themselves, alone: they were coming to be part of a community, to be part of a new world, to be part of the world that God had always promised was the way things would be.

Luke, unlike the other gospels, gives us some stories about Jesus’ childhood and youth. Luke tells the story of Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to be blessed in the Temple, and how people there recognized him as the promised one who would bring about God’s reign. Luke also tells the story of Jesus as an older child on another trip to the Temple, where he leaves his parents and sits and talks with the scholars and teachers, strong and confident, even as a child, about his place in God’s world. These stories give us a hint that in this story, as Jesus comes to be baptized, and lingers and prays by the river, that he is not surprised when God’s voice, proclaiming him “the Beloved,” booms out from heaven. Jesus knows that he has a place in this world, and a role to pay, in making this world the beloved and blessed place God intended it to be.

I said before that this story is about new news and old news. God has always loved this world, and this is the old news about baptism: when we are “marked as Christ’s own forever” it means that we should remember each day who we are, and whose we are, and who we are called to be. And every day, especially on those days when things get difficult, don’t each of us long to hear those words, that we are beloved? That God has loved us from the beginning of time, just as our mothers and fathers and friends have loved us, and just as we love them back?

Our first reading today is one that Jesus himself knew. The prophet Isaiah tells the story of that old news: that God has created us, that God sticks by us in difficult times, and that God wants everyone, all sons and daughters, to come home – to come from the ends of the earth to this party, here, in this place, here in the heart of God. In a few minutes, when we pour water on your head, as Jesus had water poured on his, you will know the old truth: that you belong to God, and God loves you. With this baptism, as with all baptisms, God is saying to each of us, "No matter what happens and no matter how low and discouraged you feel, no matter what is happening around you and in your life, don't you ever let anyone tell you that you are anything but a precious and beloved child of God."[1]

So today, this party is about you, and about how happy we are that you found us. And this party today is about all of you, children here for "First Communion," to take communion together, and how you understand how beloved you are by God. You all are here today to teach the rest of us something so very important: Baptism connects us. It ties us together as a community. We are so much more than a collection of individuals, making our own way, struggling alone with our own burdens. You being here today, taking communion together as a group, are showing us that we are part of something much greater than ourselves, that we are part of a community engaged with God in the transformation of the world – that we, like Jesus, are standing here in this mighty stream of people who from the beginning of time, have worked with God to make this world the blessed and beloved place that God created it to be.

[1] Kathryn Matthews Huey, Sermon Seeds Year C (Pilgrim Press, 2012), p. 45

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Even people we thought were enemies long to see the Light

Jan. 6, 2013
Isaiah 60:1-6; Ps. 72
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

In our hyper-rational world, dreams are the product of a troubled mind. We have alarming dreams of forgetting a homework assignment, of missing an exam, of showing up at a job interview in our pajamas. We have terrifying, strange dreams, finding ourselves at the brink of death, waking up heart pounding and haunted. And occasionally we have dreams of astoundingly wonderful wish fulfillment, dreams from which we never want to awake.

We no longer view dreams as things which tell us what to do, as dreams told the wise men to avoid Herod and go home another way – as dreams told Joseph to flee with Mary and the child to find safety in far-away Egypt – as dreams told an earlier Joseph, of the coat of many colors, how to save the people of Egypt from famine by storing up their bounty for the hard years ahead. When the famine came, it was his brothers that Joseph was also able to save – his brothers, the children of Israel, who had sold him in slavery in Egypt in the first place. Dreams in those “old days” were like twitter feeds, e-mail announcements, facebook posts: dreams were how people interpreted what they were experiencing when they were awake. Dreams were how people understood what they events of the day meant.

It is easy to get caught up in the magic of old language like these bible stories. The old language can distance these stories from our current lives. Those “magical” things happened then; this is now. But let’s look again at this story of the wise men: Matthew was trying to tell his readers something important, in the words they could understand – what is he trying to tell us?

The wise men – and Matthew doesn’t tell us how many there are – come from “the East.” From Asia, Persia, Babylon. From the place where hundreds of years earlier the people of Israel were held in captivity by their conquerors. People from “the East” are the enemies of the people Matthew was writing to. Yet even these people see something important in the birth of this child. These people can see it in the world around them – in a star, in a wonder of the natural world. Everything points to this birth as something miraculous, something awaited – the ultimate “aha!” moment – the key interpretation that unlocks the meaning of the dream that everyone has been having.

The other theme in Matthew’s story is that of Herod, the frightened, the powerful, the violent. Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, and here he depicts Herod, the leader of the Jews, as reprehensible and cruel. Herod is the one who does not dream. Herod is the one who wants no interpretation of the world around him other than his own – that it is a world completely under his power and authority. Soon after this passage, of course, he looks for the baby Jesus, and when he can’t find him, he kills all infant boys. Herod’s world is the world of ultimate rationality, ultimately ruled by fear.

Our two readings from the Old Testament – the passage from the prophet Isaiah and Psalm 72 – tell us what all the dreams point to. They tell us what Matthew had in mind, when he described Jesus as the true king and Herod as the false one. God’s vision for the world has always been one of justice, one of abundance, one of mercy. This is the light God shines on all the world – all the peoples – not just the ones who came out of Egypt as “God’s chosen people.” The kings who rule as God would have them rule defend the needy and rescue the poor and crush oppressors.

Given human nature, it is likely that there will be more people like Herod in this world, people who get power, and fear loss, and take revenge by shedding blood. But lessons like these let us know that we are not alone in condemning that way of doing things – that even people who we thought were our enemies yearn to live in peace and prosperity – that peace and light and justice are not only vague dreams but the means by which we interpret what is going on around us, even now, even today, “as the day dawns, and the morning star rises in our hearts.”[1]

[1] 2 Peter 1:19