Lent Devotion, Saturday, March 10, 2018

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When he had received John’s baptism, Jesus heard a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

These words, notes C. Clifton Black, “blends different portions of Scripture.” The references are Psalm 2:7, in which God declares the king of Israel to be God’s Son; Genesis 22:2 which speaks of Abraham’s love for his son Isaac; and Isaiah 42:1, in which God expresses delight in his chosen servant.

In bringing these three stories together, Mark is telling us of the intimate and close relationship between Jesus and God. Recall that the Spirit also descends upon Jesus at his baptism. This is the “stuff” out of which arose the church’s chief teaching, the Holy Trinity. One way of expressing this teaching is to say: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in a deep, continuing conversation of love; a love so deep that it flows out from them to fill all creation with life and mercy.

Holy One, Holy Three: Have mercy on others and on me. Touch us with your Fatherly love, that you send from heaven above. Teach us to follow you each day, guide us to live the Jesus way. Open our hearts to your Spirit, too, that daily we born anew. Holy One, Holy Three, have mercy on others and on me. Amen.

Lent Devotion, Friday, March 9, 2018

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When I was growing up, I enjoyed reading “Li’l Abner” in the comic pages of the Reading Eagle. One character in the strip was named Joe Btfsplk (yes, that’s the correct spelling!) He was a likeable sort of guy but was jinxed with incredibly bad luck. The symbol of this misfortune was a dark cloud that always hovered over his head.

Hovering over Jesus’ head at his baptism was a dove; the evangelist Mark writes that Jesus saw “the Spirit descending like a dove upon him.” This hovering dove was not a sign of bad luck, but of God’s presence. This presence did not assure Jesus of an easy or care-free life. The Jesus we meet in Mark’s Gospel faced intense temptations, and experienced sorrow, disappointment, and suffering. The Spirit is not a guarantee of worldly success; rather, the Spirit is the power of God leading Jesus to trust God and love neighbor, even when it is costly to do so.

In Holy Baptism, we receive this same Spirit; not as a magic charm to ward off all that can hurt us, but as a sign of God’s presence in the midst of whatever comes our way.

Father in heaven, in grace you have sent your Spirit upon us, surrounding us with your love. Through the Spirit, strengthen us to live the obedient way that was modeled by your Son. Amen.

Lent Devotion, Thursday, March 8, 2018

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When Jesus had received John’s baptism, “just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

I’ve never seen a hole in the sky. Although a few weeks ago, it almost felt like one was there. Snow was in the forecast, but there wasn’t a flake in the air as I walked to my car in our driveway. I opened the door, sat down, and as I put my arm out to shut the door—BAM—snow suddenly began pouring down. I had never before seen a snowstorm start with such intensity. It was if the heavens were torn apart, and the snow came tumbling down.

The story of Jesus’ baptism isn’t about meteorology, but theology. And as is often the case, there’s a hint of the Hebrew Scriptures here. Isaiah 64:1 says, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, . . . .” The prophet yearns for the reality of God to come near, and longs for God to come to earth.

God responds to that yearning with Jesus. In Jesus, we see something of heaven on earth. In his life, death, and resurrection, the compassion of God is poured out for the renewal of all creation. All things are not yet made whole, but God is at work, giving signs of healing to our hurting world.

Our Father, your will be done on earth as it is heaven. Break through barriers that separate. Tear down walls that restrict. Pour your Spirit upon us and open our hearts to the life giving word of Jesus. Amen.

Lent Devotion, Wednesday, March 7, 2018

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“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” (Mark 1:9)

Jesus’ baptism raises the question, “Why?” John’s baptism was one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And Jesus, according to traditional Christian belief, was without sin. So why would he choose to receive this washing?

A compelling answer is this: Jesus steps into the river as a sign that he has come to be with and among the people. He chooses to lead not from a position of power and prestige, but through participation in our everyday reality. He chooses to emphasize not how he is different, but how he is the same.

A modern example of such humility is the Dalai Lama. The Dalia Lama is the leader of Buddhists; and at one time also held civil power over the people of Tibet; he was a kind of Pope and Emperor rolled into one. With such an exalted status, he could easily believe himself unique and better than others.

But that’s not how the Dalai Lama sees it. He says, “I never consider, even when giving a talk to a large crowd, that I am something special. . . . I always emphasize that when I meet people, we are all the same human beings.” (The Book of Joy, page 130)

Lord Jesus, you are Messiah of Israel and Son of God. Yet you choose not to exalt yourself over others; instead, you enter everything that makes us human; you take upon yourself our joys and our sorrows, our hurts and our hopes, our successes and our failures. Thank you, Jesus, for bowing down so that we might be lifted up. To you, along with the Father in heaven and with the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Lent Devotion, Thursday, March 1, 2018

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One source of John’s baptism (and ultimately Christian baptism) is the ritual washing practice of ancient Judaism. Like any ritual, these washings could become rote and thoughtless. Thus Old Testament prophets warned the people not to forget the moral and ethical implications of life with a holy and pure God. One example is Isaiah 1:16-17 which says, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, love to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

John stands in this prophetic tradition of connecting washing to action. He urged those who had extra to share with those who did not have enough. He told tax collectors, who would sometimes pad the bills for their own benefit, to collect no more than the amount prescribed. He told soldiers, who had a reputation of threatening people with violence in order to extort money, to be satisfied with their wages. (See Luke 3:10-14)

John baptized people in the Jordan River so that they might be closer to God. For John, being in God’s presence also means living in a way in which all have financial security. John’s example energizes us to work for a world in which everyone has what they need.

Dear God, you have blessed this world with bountiful resources. Teach us to share that bounty with one another. Empower us through the Spirit to follow your Son’s example of service to others. Amen.

Lent Devotion, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018

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The evangelist Mark tells us that “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4).

It feels odd to be talking about John during Lent, for he has traditionally been associated with Advent. The Advent association is for a good reason: John was sent to prepare the way of the Lord, and Advent focuses on the coming of Jesus to earth. But John’s story is for Lent also, for Lent is a time of being renewed in our baptism. What John did in his baptismal ministry is not exactly what we do in the Sacrament today. But thinking about his words and actions helps us think about our own.

John’s baptismal ministry emerges out of the Jewish practice of ritual washing, a concept that is something of a puzzle to contemporary minds. Professor Jodi Magness writes: “Jewish ritual purity is not well understood by most modern Westerners—and that includes most modern Jews. The Torah describes certain categories of things and certain natural processes that cause ritual impurity. However, the causes of ritual impurity, according to biblical law, appear to us today to be quite random.” (Jesus and His Jewish Influences, page 84)

The purpose of these washings was to purify oneself to enter the presence of God. They were repeated as many times as possible and were administered by the individuals themselves.

This ancient practice of ritual washing is the forebear of John’s baptism. But there was another influence, too. We’ll talk about that tomorrow.

Holy and Pure God: Our ancient spiritual ancestors sought your presence. They recognized their sin and separation from you, and so they sought to be cleansed by the waters of the Spirit. We are grateful for their commitment to you, and for their desire for faithful living. While we do things differently today, keep us always mindful of your holiness and purity. In your Son’s name we pray. Amen.

Baptism at the Stream

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In this eighth and final sermon of my series called “Jensi’s Story,” Jensi’s child is baptized in the presence of family and friends, who represent a variety of races, cultures, and faiths.

IMG_0612 Stream

We’ve been hearing the story of Jensi, who is expecting the birth of the child to be born to her and her late husband. I’m happy to announce that early one morning Jensi’s great-aunt called their pastor and said, “The baby is here, arriving late last night.”

         The pastor quickly set aside what he had been doing, and drove to the hospital. He knew he had to visit today, or he would miss Jensi. They don’t keep Moms and new-borns as long as they used to. And he really enjoyed visiting mothers who had recently given birth. They were exhausted, yes; but there was a glow about them that was delightful to see.

         During the visit, Jensi said, “Pastor, I have a request that may seem a bit strange. I was wondering if instead of having my child’s baptism at the church, we could have it at the stream along the trail?”

Jensi made that request because the voice of Jesus had spoken to her at the stream. The pastor didn’t know about that, though. Other than Aunt Elizabeth, Jensi had told no one about the voice.

         But from previous conversations, the pastor knew the stream was an important place for Jensi. She had many fond memories of special events that had occurred along that trail.

         He replied, “I’ve never done a baptism at a stream before. But I have taken confirmation classes there to renew our baptismal vows. So, sure, we can have the baptism there.”

         A few Sundays later, after worship at the church, several car loads of people made their way to the trailhead parking lot. There the procession to the bridge began. It was led by the pastor, a crucifer carrying a cross, and two acolytes carrying banners that moved in the gentle breeze. Then came Jensi pushing the stroller, with Aunt Elizabeth by her side.

         Right behind them were Jensi’s parents: white, Lutheran, of European ancestry. Next to them were Jensi’s father and mother-in-law: black, Roman Catholic, of African ancestry.

         In the procession were many members of her congregation, along with many of Jensi’s friends. These included Clint and Matt, the married couple who were actively involved in social outreach at a near-by congregation. Her next door neighbors, wearing traditional garb of their Hindu faith. Her child’s pediatrician, bearded, and wearing the turban of the Sikh religion. The Buddhist woman, from whom Jensi had learned the value of daily meditation. The Jewish rabbi who lived down the street from Jensi’s parents. The Muslim couple, who owned a store where Jensi shopped; she had first met them years before when her church had sponsored them as refugees fleeing from terror.

         And there was the children’s choir, skipping and hopping as they joyfully sang a baptismal song.

         Enjoying the spirited song, the procession made its way down the trail, and then at the bridge, stopped next to the stream.

         The Pastor looked at everyone, and said, “As I look out at this assembly today, I think of words spoken by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He was preaching at a town above the Arctic Circle in Norway, in 1991. He said,

‘At home in South Africa I have sometimes said in big meetings where you have black and white together, ‘Raise your hands!’ Then I’ve said, ‘Move your hands,’ and I’ve said, ‘Look at your hands—different colors representing different people. You are the rainbow people of God. And you remember the rainbow in the Bible is the sign of peace. The rainbow is the sign of prosperity. We want peace, prosperity and justice and we can have it when all the people of God, the rainbow people of God, work together.’”

         Then the pastor said, “The rainbow people of God. What a wonderful image! We see it alive here, in this gathering. Most of us here for this baptism are Christians, but not all. Yet you have come to celebrate with Jensi and her child. Thank you for your presence. Thank you for being with us.

“Join us in the prayers as your conscience allows. And when you cannot with integrity join aloud in those prayers, pray silently in whatever way you can, asking God’s blessing upon this child.

         “And if what we do today seems puzzling, feel free to speak with me afterwards, and I’ll try my best to explain our rituals and actions to you.”

         Then the pastor went on to say, “Today Jensi’s child is joined to Jesus through the word and water of Holy Baptism, and so receives the command to follow Jesus. On the mount of Transfiguration, the voice of God spoke to Peter, James, and John about Jesus. The voice said, ‘This is my son, my beloved. Listen to him.’

         “When we listen, what do we hear?  When the disciples wanted to dismiss a hungry crowd, Jesus said, ‘Do not send them away. You give them something to eat.’

         “When Jesus was asked, ‘what is the greatest commandment?’ he replied “Love the Lord your God with all your might and soul and strength.” That is, we are to be drawn ever more deeply into God.

         “And Jesus said, ‘A second commandment is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ And your neighbor, said Jesus, includes your enemy. And so we are to work to break down barriers which would separate us from one another.

         “And Jesus said, ‘Look at the birds of the air; they neither toil nor reap, yet your Father in heaven provides for their need.’ And so we are to join with God in the good work of caring for creation.”

         As Jensi listened to the pastor, she recalled that the voice of Jesus had spoken to her at this stream, telling her that the child had a special role to play in God’s work, and that Jensi had a role to play in raising the child.

         When the pastor had finished speaking, he and Jensi, who carried the child, entered the stream. Scooping up water, the pastor poured it over the baby’s head three times, saying, “Jessica Corinne, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

         And so Jessica was joined to Jesus and to the community which bears his name. She would never hear the voice of her earthly father, who had died before her birth. But she will come to know her heavenly Father; she will hear the voice of Jesus; and she will be touched with the power of the Holy Spirit who will move her to draw people to God; to care for creation; to feed the hungry; and to build bridges that bring people together.   Amen.