Jesus, John and your Baptism
How many birthdays have you had? Only one actually. You have enjoyed many anniversaries of your birth, and been often celebrated I hope, but you were born only once. And how many baptisms have you had? When was that? I know from the parish timeline that Nick Kirby was baptised in 1957, and Declan Liddiard in 2000. And were you baptised Episcopalian? The answer there is easy – No. You were not baptised Episcopalian or Methodist or Lutheran. You were baptised Christian. The denomination, your tribe, came later. You may be Episcopalian but you are baptised into a worldwide family which numbers 2.2 billion, 31% of all the people of earth, a family with a mission, the Christian family.
There are many faces to Christianity these days, most favorable, some not so much. Christians come with different attitudes, different policies, different rallying cries. I remember a bumper sticker which read, “I love Jesus, but his followers frighten me.” Whatever your tribe, somewhere in your present or past, your religion has been frightening. It was when your religion was great; when your religion had power. Honoring your Christianity these days means taking stock of your belief and asking, “Would Jesus endorse my personal Christianity?”
John the Baptist appears in the Gospel this morning, my third and last opportunity to preach about Jesus and John. John appeared December 11, but weather kept me away that Sunday. Jesus and John appeared last Sunday, at Jesus’ baptism, but you were away. Now today, John is reflecting on Jesus’ baptism, saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.” And remember that Jesus said of John, “Never has there appeared on earth a mother’s son greater than John the Baptist, and yet the least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.” (Matt 11.11) What might that be about?
It must be there are differences between John and Jesus, attitudes and policies distinct to each. Baptised into Jesus? Baptised more into John. Which is your religion? Let’s have a look.
You remember John the Baptist was a wild man, stark and strong and aggressive. He preached God was cleaning house, cutting down the wickedness and corruption in the old order, casting all into the fire and starting over. “Even now the ax is aimed at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire… I am plunging you in water, but one who is stronger than I is coming… He will overwhelm you with holy spirit and fire.” (JD Crossan paraphrasing Matt 3.7-12 in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p38) For John the time for mercy was past. He knew only good and bad people, and the bad were just about to be whacked. His message trumpeted God’s righteous outrage, and if the people did not repent, they would go with the trees into the fire. His baptism demanded amendment of life, and carried a warning against backsliding.
John expected Israel to be an exclusive community of the righteous, a system of sanctified individuals. He was a new Elijah who would scourge the people and bring them back to God. John believed the kingdom was coming. Be warned, he shouted. God is coming to clean house, and it will not be pretty. The corruption of the times was real, the abuse of power rampant, so there was reason for John’s tirade. The kingdom is almost upon you, and it will come with unquenchable fire, so you’d better get right with God. Does that sound like your Christianity?
Jesus was baptised by John, not so much endorsing a fear of divine retribution, but as a way of standing not opposite from his people, but with his people as a savior. He accepted the baptism of John to be with and among us, one with us, God with us. A first distinction.
Second, Jesus believed the kingdom of God, but not that it was coming as judgment. Jesus believed the kingdom of God is already here, in and among us. Further, the kingdom is among us for hope and reconciliation, not an end of all things. The face of God that Jesus saw was of mercy, of reconciliation, and though the wages of sin are still pain and death, for Jesus there was always a way home. He preached no exclusive community, but all were welcome. And where John talked of the coming fury, Jesus believed that the fulfillment of the kingdom would come through the unrelenting love of God. His kingdom was non-violent. Jesus knew, you and I know, violence only breeds more violence. Have we ever had a recession in our weaponry? Weapons only get bigger and more destructive – stones, then arrows, then bullets, then bombs. In Jesus’ day weapons were capable of death, but not destruction of the whole planet. That is our generation’s legacy. Grace is costly, and the way of Jesus can mean sacrifice, but the kingdom is about grace and hope, a light that the darkness cannot overcome. Even if incomplete, the kingdom is here, and in Jesus God is not out there somewhere as prosecutor, but among us as savior and friend. That is the God Jesus called, “Abba”, beloved Father.
One small distinction remains. John was a sole proprietor. He had disciples, but he was the COO. On the other hand, Jesus commissioned his disciples, and sent out 70, thirty-five teams of two, to go and teach in his name. John was solo, Jesus franchised. When John was executed his movement was over. “Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter”, as the proverb goes (cf Matt 26.31). Jesus, on the other hand, commissioned and empowered his disciples, gave the message for them to give away. That is why the movement continues after twenty centuries.
So is John misguided? No indeed, but he is not Jesus. He knew that, and said so. Jesus sent his disciples to carry on – that is you and me. Even the least in the kingdom of Heaven, you and me, have a mission. Bishop Patrick is coming next Sunday. The Church will be whole then – laity, deacon, priest and bishop - all four orders of ministry. We will all renew our baptismal vows - to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers, to persevere in resisting evil, and when we fall into sin repent and return to the Lord, to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
Perhaps before the Bishop’s visitation next Sunday you might recover the date of your Baptism.
22nd January, 2017
There is a story about Henry St George Tucker, the 19th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, who died in 1959. A reporter, hopefully being clever as he covered Bishop Tucker’s election, asked, “If you were scheduled to visit a parish on Sunday, and it burned down the night before, what would you do?” Bishop Tucker, without hesitation, responded, “I would take up a collection for missions.” Admirable hope and conviction, yes? Just what you’d expect from a bishop?
I am reading a new book, The Book of Joy, about two mischievous old men who gathered for a week to celebrate the younger’s 80th birthday. The two old men, who call themselves mischievous? Desmond Tutu, Archbishop of Southern Africa, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. These two have known prominence, and suffering. They have been on the forefront of issues such as apartheid in South Africa and the military conquest of Tibet by China. They have felt the world’s fear and pain, known its despair, yet the wisdom of their years is about hope, and the story of their meeting is The Book of Joy.
Here is an excerpt, the Archbishop writing: “Hope is quite different from optimism, which is more superficial and liable to become pessimism when the circumstances change. Hope is something much deeper” (Joy, p122).
Optimism “… depends on feelings more than the actual reality. We feel optimistic, or we feel pessimistic. Now, hope is different in that it is not based on the ephemerality of feeling but on the firm ground of conviction. I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless. Hope is deeper, and very, very close to unshakable.”
In a time of national uncertainty, when public voices of conscience were being silenced by threat or execution, Jesus went looking for disciples. In a day when his nation was under the fist of an aggressive foreign government, Jesus went looking for colleagues. At a time when disease and poverty and uncertainty cowered people into fear, Jesus went looking for companions to change the world. Jesus looked first to four fishermen to be his partners in a journey of hope and reconciliation. Admirable hope and conviction.
First, a thought about those four. Why did Jesus choose commercial fishermen for disciples? Jesus was a little known itinerant rabbi at first, and perhaps those were the best he could hope for at the beginning. There is that clever line in the Gospel today, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Or maybe he desired the fisherman’s no nonsense philosophy – life can be hard, getting by depends on hard work, and there are no guarantees. You may have your own ideas.
I remember, though, an intriguing idea of Nancy’s, when she preached on the call of these four disciples. Why fishermen? Nancy believes fishermen are able to bring the visible out of the invisible, bring to light truths that may be hidden. She wrote yesterday, “Fishermen in their profession are trained to see life that is invisible, under the water, and to bring that life into visibility. You can see the equation with discipleship, bringing unseen holy moments into the seen world.” Peter and Andrew, James and John, bringing to light things that were forgotten, bringing to memory truths which were buried, bringing to conversation holy moments which were hidden. They accepted the invitation.
I lay these words before you, aware as you are that our country has just celebrated the inauguration of our 45th President, and we have seen intentional resistance from marchers in Washington and all across the country. For some of us this is a time of rejoicing. For others, a time of distress about our present and future. Some ask, “What’s the fuss?” For others, there is real fear, fear among those “masses yearning to be free” who the Statue of Liberty would welcome. These are troublesome times, but not hopeless times, and they are times we have faced before as one nation under God.
Jesus looked first to four fishermen to be his partners in a journey of hope and reconciliation. Today he looks to you and me. Again from Archbishop Tutu: “No dark fate determines the future. We do. Each day and each moment, we are able to create and re-create the quality of him a life on our planet. This is the power we wield.” (Joy, p122).
If our Bishop Patrick were able to be here, we would be renewing our Baptismal vows. We would be recommitting ourselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to breaking bread and praying together. We would promise to resist evil and when we fall into sin, to repent and return to Jesus. We commit to the teaching and example of Jesus, to seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. We would just about now be committing ourselves to justice and peace among all; people, and respecting the dignity of every human being. We are people of hope, and wherever we go, through whatever darkness, Jesus has been there ahead of us.
No despair then, people of God. For some the possibility of despair is new, for others there is at last the possibility of release from despair. But claim your hope: Remember that you are chosen, remember that you are baptised. We are the kingdom here, but remember we are also the problem, the makers and enablers of mischief. Finally, as God’s own, remember that we are the medicine.
I encourage you to pray for the people in these our United States, for a more perfect union and for the President, the Congress and the Supreme Court. We are in this together. But our highest call is to embrace the grace and heart of God. To hold high the truth that is in, to honor one another, and when our justice cries out ot be heard, silence is unconscionable. “Fishermen in their profession are trained to see life that is invisible, under the water, and to bring that life into visibility… bringing unseen holy moments into the seen world.” Peter and Andrew, James and John, brought to light things that were forgotten, brought to memory truths which were buried, brought to conversation holy moments which were hidden. They accepted the invitation. Now it is up to us.
Sermon for Christmas I
Children’s Homily: Amahl and the Night Visitors
Once upon a time
Runs to his Mother – “Mother, Mother. Mother, come and see. There is a star in the sky, a great star, with a tail as long as a kite.”
She says, ”Amahl, go to sleep. I am too tired for your stories.” “But Mother…” “Enough. Go back to bed.”
But there was to be no sleep. Just when all was quiet there came a loud knock at the door. Mother said, “Amahl, go see who it is and tell them to go away.”
Amahl goes, opens the door, and rushes back. “Mother, mother. Mother, come and see. There is a king at the door.” She wonders, where does this boy get his imagination. “Don’t tell me stories - go back and see who it really is and tell them to come back in the morning.” So Amahl, quivering, goes back.
“Mother, mother. Mother come and see. You were right. There is not a king at the door.” She says, “I thought so.” Amahl says, “There are TWO kings.”
She is frustrated, being tired and worried, and tells him sternly – “Don’t tell me lies. Go and see who it is and tell them to go away.”
So Amahl goes to the door, and rushes back, “ Mother, mother. Mother come and see.” She interrupts, “You had better not tell me there are two kings at the door.” He says, ”No, Mother. There are not two kings. There Are THREE kings.”
She has totally lost patience, gets out of bed, brushes past Amahl, AND JERKS OPEN THE DOOR.
And three grand and stately kings are standing there, with travel animals, and a page.
The kings explain they are on their way, following this star, to take gifts to a holy child which has been born in nearby Bethlehem. But they are weary, and ask if they might spend the night under her roof.
Of course – yes. She goes to neighbors to asks them to bring food for the guests. Meanwhile, Amahl talks to the kings.
His question – what is it like to be a king? What do you do? And they learn from him that he used to care for sheep, but his father died and they had to sell the sheep, and they do not know where their next meal is coming from. Amahl and his Mother may have to beg in order to eat.
One of the kings, Melchior, brought gold as a gift for the baby. Balthazar brought frankincense, and Kaspar, who is quite deaf and eccentric, brought his precious box, and in it are stones, beads, myrrh, and his favorite candy – licorice. He asks Amahl if he would like a piece of licorice, and Amahl eagerly answers, “Yes”, but Kaspar only says, “Ehhh?”
They all retire, and the Mother tries to sneak just one piece of the gold, which would feed them for a year, but is caught by the kings’ page. Amahl wakes to find the page grappling with his Mother and tries to defend, and Melchior steps in to calm things. He offers her gold, and at daybreak they get ready to travel on to find the baby.
Amahl is so impressed with the kings and their gifts for the baby, that he wishes he could give the child a gift. But he is poor, and has nothing – except his crutch.
Amahl kneels to offer the crutch to the kings as his gift to the baby, and they are deeply touched. When he stands up again, his crippled leg is healed. A miracle!
What happened then?
The story ends with Amahl going with the kings to Bethlehem to see the child, and he presents his crutch to the baby Jesus in thanksgiving for he healed leg.
(With respect to Gian Carlo Menotti for his 1951 masterpiece)
CHRISTMAS 2016 “Love is not enough”
If Jesus had his way, today we would all be Jews. I will save that argument for another time, but now that I have your attention… I have a story from the teaching tradition of the Rabbis. I bring the story because Jesus was a Jew, was often called rabbi, and we are in the holy season of Hanukkah. So here we go.
The setting is at the shores of the Red Sea in the time we know as the Exodus. An enslaved Hebrew people have been rescued by the hand of God from Egypt. They have journeyed to the east in search of the land promised by their God. The escape from the city of Pharaoh was joyous, but soon the arid journey over desert brought its own struggles. And then, as you remember, there appeared clouds of dust coming up behind the people. As if things could not get worse, the people realized this dust was raised by pursuing chariots of Pharaoh.
There they were, trapped between the thundering army of the Egyptians and the expanse of the Red Sea. You may remember Moses prayed to God for deliverance, and he was told to raise his staff and stretch out his hand, and the water would be parted. So Moses stood forth, raised his staff and stretched forth his hand – and nothing happened! The people began to murmur, but again, he prayed, and raised the staff a second time – and nothing happened. The people were near panic. Moses now prayed with all his heart, raised his staff, and stretched forth his hand a third time. And nothing happened! The waters of the sea remained unmoved. At the peak of despair, a man tradition names Eleazar, standing at the shore, just stepped into the water. And when he did, the waters separated. One person acted on the promise, and the sea parted for the people of God.
How is this a Christmas story? There is a lot of feeling around us this season, lots of love spoken and sung. There is tenderness too, for those who are grieving a lost loved one, and there is pain over suffering in Berlin, and Aleppo, and Mexico City, emotions all moved by love. The predominant song in our hearts is love. With tidings of comfort and joy all round, and hopes that St Nicholas soon will be here, love gets top billing for a few days.
But at the core of Christmas is the gift of a rarer love. Deeper than you might think, this love is indelible, transforming. For example, this indelible love is patient and kind, and envies no one. This transforming love is not boastful, nor conceited nor rude. It is never selfish, not quick to take offense. Imagine that! Christmas love, rare love, keeps no score of wrongs, does not gloat at other people’s faults, but delights in the truth. (I Cor 13.4-7).
This rare Christmas love crosses over boundaries and can connect disparate cultures. It is able to resist prejudice and bigotry. It brings light in darkness, in souls and in families, and this love unites communities. This rare love is not kept, but must be given away. It flows like water. There is no form of life that doesn’t need water; in the same way, Christmas love is life-giving for all people. It is healing. It is freedom. It is joy. It promotes one’s own dignity, but never at the expense of another.
So how it is with your loving? Mine falls short. Especially in the notion that love envies no one, does not keep score, is never selfish and doesn’t take offense. But that is exactly why we need Christmas, and Christmas love – a love that works, not just a love that feels good. Love that works takes practice, and recommitment and reminding. This love we might call holy love, highest love, and it is achievable with commitment, and practice. This love is the story of Christmas. But even that love is not enough.
Holy love is not enough. Even the confidence of God’s love is not enough. Love is not enough because it takes a person to enact that love. Eleazar had to step into the water before the promise to Moses could be fulfilled. Love as an idea, or a prayer, or even a spiritual power is basically empty without a person to bring love, and another to receive the love. Love needs a bearer, or in the Gospel language, the Word must become flesh. We need to see for ourselves. Christians believe, I believe, that Jesus is the bearer of God’s love. Thanks be to God he is not the only bearer, but Jesus is the clearest and purest embodiment of the love of God, and that is why there is Christmas, and tonight a Christ Mass. These days are only tangentially about baby Jesus, shepherds and mangers. Christmas is about a brilliant love so strong that God would come among us to bring it. Here is the most reliable Christmas story I know:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1.1-5, 14)
Good people, love is not enough. Jesus is. Amen.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.