The Waters of Baptism

“The Waters of Baptism”

John the Baptist – Jesus MAFA

Mark 1:4-11 (1:9) – January 10, 2021

            When you or I think of baptism today, what comes to mind? A family with a precious infant or young child, the little one dressed in a special outfit. The congregation rejoicing as the minister performs the sacrament. Such a special and meaningful way of extending God’s grace.  

            But, let’s go back to our Gospel reading, when John the Baptist preached repentance. Certainly quite a different scene comes to mind. We see John as an outsider, some say a preacher of doom and gloom, and others a mighty prophet of God.

Reading from the Gospel for today, “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”

            You may remember bracelets and t-shirts with the initials “WWJD” imprinted on them. The words “What Would Jesus Do?” were a Christian, and even pop-culture, trend some years ago. Remembering this trend brings up a valid question. Let’s reframe it into a question about baptism. Who would Jesus exclude? For that matter, who would John turn away from baptism?

            I’d like to develop that question. St. Luke’s Church, our church, is a member church of the United Churches of Christ. This denomination has taken the radical stand of radical welcome. UCC churches are supposed to welcome everyone. That means a radical, open-hearted, open-handed welcome to all people, no matter what. No matter who.

No matter if someone is grumpy, or mean, or stingy. You are welcome here at St. Luke’s Church. No matter if someone is painfully shy, or has some physical or mental infirmity, or has a really strong personality. No matter what your gender or sexual orientation is, either. All are welcome here, in this particular church, too.  

            As we ask “Who Would Jesus Exclude?” from membership in this church, this brings to mind what the Rev. Dr. David Handley often proclaimed from the pulpit in his long tenure at First Presbyterian Church of Evanston. I remember hearing when I was a member there some 15 and 20 years ago. Dr. Handley would often insist in his sermons that the church is not a private club for the righteous, but instead a hospital for sinners.

I mean to say that our church is not to have arbitrary, unspoken rules for who to include and who to exclude from membership. God does not discriminate. God does not blackball prospective members. The UCC has taken the stand of radical welcome to everyone. That means that as a member church of the UCC, St. Luke’s Church takes that stand, too.  

I would like to return to our Gospel reading for this morning. Can you imagine John the Baptist saying, “I’m not baptizing that person!” because John didn’t like him or her? Sure, John had a strong personality. John was headstrong, and determined, and definitely spoke his mind. Many of the Jewish leaders and bigwigs in the Sanhedrin were upset with John the Baptist.

However, I suspect many of the ordinary members of synagogues throughout the region heard John’s message. Some people who had been turned away from synagogues, too. John the Baptist extended that radical welcome – telling all to repent of their sins, get right with God, and come and be baptized as an outward expression of an inward change.

Even some Jewish leaders and synagogue bigwigs heard John’s preaching, and were convicted of their small-minded and biased point of view. Even people John knew who had bad-mouthed and shunned him. I am sure John did not turn them away, but baptized them, too.  

Do you think God was surprised about the conflict in synagogues, and at the Temple? How about the conflict in the early churches? What do you think Paul and Peter, James and John were addressing when they wrote their letters that are included in the New Testament? Sins like hatred, conflict, bitterness and envy do not somehow “scare” God.

Just as in this past week here in the United States, the heightened rhetoric and the storming of the Capitol building did not shock God. God was not surprised or scared of the massive conflict and disruption. God recognizes that people are human. People sin – that is what they do. That is why John the Baptist came, to make people aware of their sin, and to call people to repentance. Baptism lets everyone know about people’s individual, internal change.

This church baptizes infants and small children. As commentator Carolyn Brown says, Infants and children “didn’t even know what was going on; [and] God, their parents, and the congregation loved them and claimed them as their own for all time.” [1] That can be extended to ALL of us. We all have been loved and claimed by God for all time. We are all God’s beloved.

The waters of baptism are here to wash away our sin, in this day and age. And not only that, but to extend God’s grace to those who have gone through the baptismal waters. Yes, we continue to sin, and yes, God does extend grace. We do not become suddenly sin-less, but as we walk with God, we will sin less and less. (At least, that is the hope.)

            I say to you, in the spirit of John the Baptist, Repent, and remember your baptism! Determine to journey with Jesus from this point onwards. Alleluia, amen. 


[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/12/year-b-baptism-of-lord-first-sunday.html

Worshiping with Children, Baptism of the Lord, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Sought by God

“Sought by God”

luke-15-lost-word-cloud

Luke 15:1-10 – September 11, 2016

Many people have expectations of leaders and important people. I am not sure whether these expectations are realistic or not, but regardless—many people do have them. Think of teachers or professors. Executive directors, or CEOs. Partners in executive firms, or coaches of athletic teams. And—what about pastors and ministers? Leaders of houses of faith? Do people have expectations of them? Sometimes, unrealistic or disapproving expectations? Of course they do.

Here in Luke 15 we have a crowd of tax collectors and “sinners” gathered around the Rabbi Jesus. But, the Pharisees and teachers of the Mosaic Law Code—the righteous religious people—were disapproving. These self-righteous folk had misconceptions. They had the wrong kind of expectations about how the Rabbi Jesus was “supposed to” minister. Imagine that!

Let’s take a step back, and look at the setting of this passage for today. Luke 15:1-2 tells us that the Rabbi Jesus ”welcomes sinners and eats with them.” It seems to be the case that Jesus was the host at dinner—at least, part of the time. But that isn’t the main thing, for the self-righteous folks. What about those tax collectors and “sinners?” What was the matter with them?

Yes, it was all about those evil, disreputable “sinners.” The people who did not keep the Mosaic Law Code were considered “sinners,” by the orthodox, observant Jews. A Pharisee and any of his family were forbidden to have anything to do with “those people.” No business dealings, and certainly no meals together.  According to the Pharisees and teachers of the law, Jesus was mixing in really bad company, especially for a decent, self-respecting Rabbi. At least—that was an unrealistic expectation a lot of people had about Him.

Luke chapter 15 is all about Jesus telling three stories. The first two stories—the two parables we had read to us in our Gospel passage today—could be about anyone, anyone at all. Not necessarily about Pharisees, observant people who were extremely strict about keeping the Mosaic Law, but about anyone. Anyone at all.

Do you remember high school groups and cliques? The popular kids, the cool kids. The math nerds, the science geeks. The jocks, the honors students. The Pharisees and teachers of the Mosaic Law considered themselves to be the ultra-cool kids. The kids who wouldn’t hang out with anyone else. They were the only kids who were going to make it into the presence of God. Everyone else? Tough luck. No way. Maybe—just maybe if the other people followed the Mosaic Law especially closely, dotting every “I” and crossing every “t”. Maybe, just maybe, God would allow the other groups and cliques into heaven, too.

What does Jesus say to these ultra-cool kids, these Pharisees and teachers of the Law, He tells some stories. The first story is about a shepherd and his hundred sheep. It was hard work being a shepherd. There was not a lot of arable pasture land in Palestine. Being a shepherd took a great deal of grit, persistence, and self-sacrifice. In this story, the shepherd lost one of his sheep—one out of one hundred.

To today’s loss prevention and quality assurance mindset, one sheep lost out of one hundred was an acceptable loss. Think of the rough and rocky terrain. Expecting a shepherd to keep track of all hundred sheep? To some people, that could be an unrealistic expectation. Shrinkage happens. It isn’t a huge deal. Except—to that one little lost sheep. What’s more, shepherds were excellent at tracking. They were personally responsible for each sheep under their care.

Let’s take a look at the second story. The Rabbi Jesus tells a parable about a woman. (Unusual for the Bible! Out of the ordinary for Jesus, too.) Reading from Luke 15:8-9, “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ “

This second parable is a similar story about a lost thing. The typical Palestinian home was not huge. One room, two at most. Can you imagine this woman, losing a precious silver coin? The interior of the house probably did not have many windows. So even in the daytime the interior was dark, necessitating the lighting of a lamp. Can you see her sweeping carefully, methodically, listening for the clink of a metal coin?

The woman’s coin was lost. It didn’t grow legs and run away. All the same, the coin was lost. The sheep may have strayed away, but it still got lost. Both parables have lost things. What is to be done?        

Let’s go back to the ultra-cool kids, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. If you can imagine such a thing, they avoided all contact with anyone—anyone at all—who did not keep the Mosaic Law Code to the absolute maximum degree. If you can go a further step in your imagination, these ultra-cool, ultra-strict Jews looked forward to the destruction of the “sinners.” Not, as Jesus said in 15:7, ”I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” And in 15:10,  10 ”In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

This is something radically different. Jesus sends a message of lost and found. Jesus sends the welcoming message to everyone, to anyone, a message of radical welcome. At least, as far as the Pharisees and teachers of the law are concerned.

Both of these parables are about God seeking the lost. How dare God forgive sinners! This is about false expectations about God, just as much as Pharisees had false expectations about Jesus.

Do we have false expectations about God? Is there someone who we don’t think God should look for? The woman in the parable was diligent in finding that lost coin. The shepherd was determined to seek out that lost sheep.

As one of the commentators on this passage said, “Many of the flocks were communal flocks, belonging, not to individuals, but to villages. There would be two or three shepherds in charge. Those whose [sheep] were safe would arrive home on time and bring news that one shepherd was still out on the mountain side searching for a sheep which was lost. The whole village would be upon the watch. When, in the distance, they saw the shepherd striding home with the lost sheep across his shoulders, there would rise from the whole community a shout of joy and of thanksgiving.” [1]

Do we have faulty expectations about God? Or, is the woman from the parable diligent to search and search, turn her whole house topsy turvy until she finds that lost coin? Is the Great Shepherd of the sheep concerned about absolutely every sheep that wanders away—no matter what? That is the picture Jesus paints for us in these two parables. God knows the joy of finding someone who was lost. No Pharisee ever dreamed of a God like that, a God with extravagant welcome, a God who would seek and save the lost, no matter what.

And both parables? They end with a grand celebration. “Then the shepherd calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” God does not want sinners—or anyone else—to be lost. These stories from Jesus illustrate that the goodness and mercy of God is for everyone, especially the most neglected and despised. Truly, good news for us all. Alleluia, amen!

 

[1] Barclay, William, The Gospel of Luke (The Daily Study Bible Series), (Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1975).

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)