Follow Your Call – January 19, 2019 (MLK Observed)

John 1:29-42

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Sermon Text

There was a saying among the Rabbis that, “Everyday a heavenly voice resounds from Mount Horeb, proclaiming, ‘Woe unto the people for their disregard of Torah.’” This is true for us today, a voice constantly crying out and telling us, “Woe to you who disregard the instructions of Christ.” Each of us has received a call to follow Christ, that is what brings us here week after week. Each of us has received instruction, in the form of scripture and the form of preaching and study. The life of other Christians who we are in community with, mentors, the saints who have gone before us, all provide ways for us to live into our call, to regard the instruction of Christ.

There is a definite danger that arises in the life of Christians when we let ourselves become stagnant. Worse than acting out against our Christian call is to sit and do nothing with it. If we do evil, perhaps we did it because we were mislead or we acted out of good intent with poor results. However, someone who does neither good nor evil is effectively useless. We can remember the words of Revelation – water that is Hot has its uses water that is Cold has its uses, but lukewarm water is only good to be thrown out. When there are problems in the world, we should know when it is our place to step into a situation and when to sit out. However, if we find ourselves only ever sitting out than maybe we should be honest with ourselves about our lack of conviction.

Today our scripture tells us of the inciting incident in the lives of Jesus’ first apostles. They like us were told second hand to pursue Jesus. Following the call of John, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away our sins,” the apostles follow Jesus to see what this teacher was about. To see what lessons they could learn. They followed a call without knowing hardly anything about the final destination of it. Jesus, the Lamb of God, was enough to fascinate them.

None of us know what lies ahead for us in life. We pursue a life initiated by God that ultimately is a mystery. We do not know what dangers we will face, what opportunities will come because of God’s work and ultimately where it leads us. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, German minister and anti-Nazi activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in simple words – “When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die.” Die to self, die to desire, and yes even die for the cause of the Kingdom.

The idea of call, and our need to live into it. Is relevant every day. No aspect of our life is removed from the call of God which is given to us day after day. However, tomorrow we as a country celebrate a minister who followed their call to the very end. The idea of chasing after Christ without knowing what may be at the end it epitomized in the life of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. One of the most controversial figures the twentieth century and one of the most necessary for us to hold up as an example here and now, to understand the way that we are called to cause Holy trouble for the good of God. Especially today in a world which is so full of conflict, so full of hate.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born Michael King Jr. His father decided, after visiting Germany during the rise of the Nazi party, that he and his son should be named for who they considered to be the most admirable of protestors in history. Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant movement. King Jr. was raised by his father, also a minister and lived his youth in a state of internal conflict. He was deeply depressed, attempting suicide at age 12. He also faced profound doubt about his faith, nonetheless pursuing a life as a minister of God. He also, of course, lived in a segregated America. His memoirs of his youth are full of incidents where he and his family were pushed to the edges of society, reviled, hated, mistreated, simply because of the color of their skin.

He would go to college, excel in all he did, and take on his first pastoral roles. His life as a minister. It was hardly a year into his ministerial duties that he became involved in the Civil Rights movement. An action which King felt was the natural outpouring of his service to the church. The Montgomery bus Boycott, campaigns across the South, the historic march at Selma, and the world-shattering march on Washington – these and so many more defined a life that was lived out loud in service to the Kingdom of God.

Throughout all this King faced criticism from others. Especially white ministers criticized how he worked. There was a desire to see a tamer version of King’s ministry. Their voices cry out in a tone that is not unfamiliar to us today. “Rather than disrupting the bus lines, couldn’t you just write letters to them?”, “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?”, “If you have a problem, that’s fine, but this isn’t the right time to express that problem.”, “Rev. King, I just think you have made your ministry too political. Isn’t your business the Gospel?”

All these complaints were not met with silence by King. An excerpt of one of his most powerful responses, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, is printed on our bulletins in place of my usual letter. The critique which is gives is only partial, it does not speak to the fullness of these accusations and “advices” given to Dr. King. In summation to all those that asked why his movement could not be more, “Respectable,” and less disruptive to those who were being protested against, Dr. King had these things to say.

“My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.”

The protests of all those who wished for a more respectable protest. One that asked less of them, silenced in the sight of the reality of the oppression which others faced in the world. Silenced in the face of Scripture. Silenced in the witness of the Early Church. Silenced, so that perhaps in the uncomfortable space where we find our own guilt, we may hear our call.

We spent some time with a particular example of a call,  because the work of Christ executed through Dr. King is not yet finished. Though we are no longer legally segregated as a country there is much that still divides the life of People of Color and the life of the white majority culture. Almost universally in the United States studies have shown that when businesses are given resumes with identical credentials, one of whom with a traditionally white name and one that is more, “ethnic,” the white name will be receive an interview and the other name cast aside.

In a similar vein, you can still be sent home or terminated from your job in many states for having your natural hair as a person of color. Not to mention expectations about dialect and a variety of other expectations which see anglicized speech as the norm.

Beyond matters of simple discrimination we can talk about matters of life or death. The amount of hate crime offenses against people on the basis of race has increased 40% since 2012. This number of course only reflects reported instances, so the numbers in either year could be higher, but the growth trend pans out across data pools.  People are dying. People continue to be discriminated against and killed because of who they are. Where is the outrage of the age? Where are the voices from the church? Crying out once more for a more civil dialogue, or championing the needs of those who are perishing, accepting uncomfortable silences and moving toward something better.

A cry comes out every day, “Woe to you who disregard the instructions of Christ.” Will we listen to the Messiah who tells us to take up our cross, to give up our advantages in life? Or will we be disregard him, creating our own Gospel which asks nothing of us, pursuing the good only of the things which preserve our own powers and our own households. – Amen

To Fulfill All Righteousness – Baptism of our Lord 2020

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.”

Sermon Text

Baptism is that act which brings a Christian into the full communion with the Church. When we are washed in the waters, whether that be by a full dip into a river or by effusion of water over our heads, we join with Christ in the reality of a new Kingdom. The waters leave us dead to the world, alive in Christ. We are killed, after-all Baptism means “drowning,” as much as it does “dipping”. But we are also reborn. The waters of the font becoming the waters of a new womb, a birth into a life removed from our previous sins.

As a sign of God’s grace, no one is barred from receiving baptism. Any adult who earnestly pursues a repentant life is ready to be washed. Any infant who is born is immediately prepared for baptism, God’s grace cannot be denied to someone because of age. From the cradle to the grave, all can be washed. A final declaration of the death of our former selves and the start of a new life. In our washing there is a simultaneous proclamation of God’s work and our acceptance there-of. God moving like the waters around us, God taking away sin as water washes away dirt.

The church has practiced baptism uninterrupted for two thousand years. Occasionally sects emerge to try and minimize the practice. Other groups, many which are popular today, will try and explain to people how, “You know, you say you were baptized, but that’s not true.” This latter camp insists that full immersion is required, or that infant baptism is not really baptism, or that baptism outside of a single denomination is false. These all place the wrong sort of emphasis, they all make human beings the primary actors in baptism. The only thing needed for a baptism is a person, a minister, some water, and the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” all other acts and words are secondary.

As with anything in human life we do not go into this alone. The sacrament of baptism is a participation in God’s grace which we see modeled for us in the life of Christ. Jesus does not tell us to be baptized from on high without showing us the significance of it. The Baptism of Jesus is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry on Earth. It is the example of our own pursuit of baptism. It is also one of the most debated facts of Jesus’ life.

Why would Jesus, the Incarnate God, the Divine Logos, the Sinless sacrifice, need to be washed in a baptism of repentance? Baptism is for sinful humans, not the sinless Messiah. What is Jesus up to by being baptized by John in the Jordan? The various answers given by this have led to controversies and heresies galore. Whenever we look to the life of Christ, we see a way made for us to walk. Whether or not we all agree what the way is not always clear. To quote a mentor of mine, “Wherever two or three are gathered, there will be four or five opinions.”

The washing of Jesus in the Jordan, like most things in our understandings of God, must be defined by what it is not before we can understand what it is. We know that it cannot be that Jesus needed to repent of Sin, after all we believe that Jesus, “who knew no sin, became sin, that we might become the righteousness of God.” This cannot be, as some say, the first time that Jesus experiences the Holy Spirit either, because we believe that Jesus was, “conceived of the Holy Spirit,” and more importantly Jesus being God could not cut himself off from himself. Finally, we know that Jesus is not saying that John is the authority in this situation, not only because of John’s own words, but because we baptize today in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – not in the name of John the Baptizer.

In these three ways Jesus’ baptism does not reflect our baptism. Unlike Jesus our baptism is a sign of sin being washed away, it is a sign of our reception of God’s spirit, and it is fully given in the name of the Trinity. Jesus was not baptized so that Christ could be made Holy, but that we through imitation of Christ’s baptism could become Holy. As with so many things, our ability to enjoy the presence of God, the work of God, all comes from Jesus first taking the journey for us, paving a way through the wilderness of our sin.

Jesus the sinless son of God was washed in the Jordan. An act which, some of the early church said, was enough to make all water Holy. Jesus established baptism as the first step of entering into the church, only pursuing his ministry after his own baptism. The waters that pour over Jesus’ head, the immersion that he experiences, is not just a precedent but it is the very form of baptism. In Jesus’ baptism all people can be baptized, in Jesus’ proclamation of God’s work we all proclaim God’s work.

When we are baptized we die to our life and are reborn. We are not reborn as an individual, but into community. We cease to be motivated by our own wants and our own appetites and care only for what Christ would have us participate in. Our baptism is a one time event, a single moment in which a new life begins. However, like so much in our life as Christians – that single moment is a fulcrum on which our life can turn round itself. The washing we once received, the promises we make in dying to ourselves. When we feel lost or lose track of the way ahead of us. We can look to Christ as our example, and there is no better place to start than the beginning. With some water, with some words, with the Spirit declaring us, “Children of God.” – Amen

Even Magi Bow – Epiphany 2019

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for from you shall come a ruler

who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Sermon Text

The Magi are a great mystery. They appear only once and they leave soon after they appear. They are often described as kings, or priests, or astronomers, but we ultimately have no idea where they came from or who they were. The scripture is dense with astronomical terms that tell us they were some sort of nobility that studied the stars, but beyond this we are left to wonder, to imagine who these people were who somehow found their way to the infant Jesus.

The number of visitors is not given, but it is unlikely that a group of nobles traveling through an area would be without an entourage. Servants and supplies to see them through their long journey. They may have gone on foot, but more likely came riding in some kind of cart or chariot. The classic image of three single people on camels fits well into a nativity scene, but there were major disruptions created wherever they went. They would fill up any highway they traveled on and crowd any town that they walked through. Nobody would see this caravan and shrug their shoulders at it.

Though the exact place from which the Wise Men comes in unknown, we have some general ideas. Magi were at one time a class above even priests in the Persian empire. They were the keepers of rituals and secrets that were known only to them. Though we cannot know where they left from, the Magi likely left from the capital of the old Empire – meaning that if they traveled full tilt it would have been a fifty-day journey. Adding in the inevitable need to wait and to stop to resupply, this expedition was months and months of moving tens and tens of people.

The unlikely journey of a priestly class of people from an ancient conqueror of Israel to the ancient city of David: This was the first disruption caused by Jesus. When the rulers of an ancient enemy of God’s people became one of the first to worship the incarnate deity. In a life defined by reversing people’s expectations of God and God’s kingdom, Jesus began his work as an infant, working wonders enough to bring people who, in their own country, were more important to kings, to their knees. The first gentile mission of the church was achieved in the radiance of Jesus, a child so wonderful that even Magi bowed before him.

The celebration of Epiphany, the transition from Christmas into the Ordinary Time, represents the first of Christ’s “Theophanies,” or divine appearances. These were moments when people understood who Jesus was. The writers of the Gospel made it clear that when these occurred it was the people who should have been furthest removed from God’s work in the world that fully understood what it meant. The Gentiles who did not know Israel’s story, the lapsed people of God who did not keep covenant, the sick and the outcasts who could not keep purity laws – all of these saw Jesus for who he really was. Not just a teacher, not just a miracle worker, but God.

The Magi are described as having followed the signs of the sky. Some celestial combination of planets and stars that suggested to them that a king was being born that was more important than just being sovereign of a single kingdom. The king forecasted by the skies was greater than Nebuchadnezzar, than Cyrus, than Augustus in Rome, and certainly greater than Herod. This was someone who all people were to follow, the final and perfect king of all creation. However, at this time there was another King in Jerusalem…

The Herod in this scripture is the original Herod, the definite article. He was an Edomite who was able to work himself into the good graces of Rome. In backing Rome following Pompey’s conquering of Jerusalem he was made King of the Jews by the Roman government. He immediately got to work to try and win over the Jewish people, already suspicious of a king who was born to their ancient enemies in Edom and who sided with their enemies. Herod demolished Ezra’s temple and built it to rival Solomon’s. A massive plinth rose up above the city and a full system of pillars and roofs surrounded it to allow for people to gather and trade outside the Temple. To fund these projects he collected regular taxes, but some historians reported that he also stole gold and silver from King David and Solomon’s tombs. An expedition thwarted by Methane pockets under the temple mount that exploded when the robbers’ torches entered.

Having taken the throne Herod did not feel secure in his power. He was willing to kill anyone who opposed him. Though he had a fair number of children, several died because he suspected them of opposing his rule. He killed off his children anytime they seemed too interested in the throne, or even if they were just too popular with the people. To live in Herod’s household was to live with the threat of death over you constantly.

The Magi come to Herod and tell him what is coming. The King of the Jews is born, and more than that he is a king worthy of praise by all people. The scribes show Herod that this is true, that God is bringing something new into the world. Yet Herod sees this only as a threat, he claims he wishes to bow before this king, but as the scripture reveals his intent was to kill rather than to worship. Herod is not only unwilling to submit to God’s will but is willing to kill in order to avoid it. The idea of giving up his power to anyone is too much for him.

There is within each of us Herod and in each of us the Magi. We are rulers over various amounts of things, we have influence over many things in our life, but how we act with the power and influence we are given makes all the difference. The kingdom of God has only one ruler though, and it is our choice whether we accept Christ as King or if we go on trying to rule the world ourselves. We do not lose our power or opportunities when we accept God’s leading, but we do reorient them to the purposes of God, and away from the selfish impulses of our hearts.

While we do not rule countries or provinces, we are each of us rulers of our lives. From our birth to our death we control our actions. Situations may arise that limit the choices we have, but the ability to own our actions is one of the greatest gifts that God gives us. What we do every day has weight, and we have a real ability to impact the world around us. The money we make, the people we meet, the family that we have. All these are domains that we have some amount of influence in if not control over.

We can either be like Herod and decide that there are things we cannot give up. Our right to feel superior, our right to withhold help from those we call unworthy, our right to hoard money rather than give it to those in need. We can meet the Christ in his home in Bethlehem and see a threat rather than salvation, we can see this child who deserves the throne we sit in and do all we can to remove him from our stories.

Alternatively, we can be like the Magi. Seeing that God has entered into the world, we let ourselves be led into a Kingdom. We do not cease to hold influence over the world when we bow the knee toward God, but we accept that we are not ultimately responsible to ourselves. A child who is born to nothing becomes the model of our lives. We put our rights down in front of Jesus, it is no longer important what we can do, but only what we should do. Kindness overcomes our selfishness; a love of our neighbor overcomes our love of self. We are no longer held captive by ourselves but are freed to act with righteousness.

We gather together to worship God. Every week we rehearse the acts of the magi. We put our gifts toward God, we devote ourselves to the King of Kings and let go of our own desires for power. The table fellowship which we participate in is a prime example of what God does for us. As we gather together and share this meal, we share God’s grace. We necessarily put God first. We who for so long wanted to rule over our life and our world now have the chance to acknowledge the true ruler of the universe. A ruler who is not a tyrant, but in all things works for the good of all people. Let us bow down now, and in thanksgiving offer ourselves to our God and King.