A Sermon about Stories and Baptism (or, Who says Snapchat is a frivolous waste of time?)

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Augustana Lutheran Church
8 January 2017 + Baptism of Our Lord
Matthew 3.13-17



I confess that, as of late, I have become obsessed with Snapchat. I normally consider myself to be pretty tech- and social media-savvy, but it was only a few months ago that a friend introduced me to this app. I have quickly become something of an expert.

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If you’re not familiar with Snapchat, it’s essentially designed to share photos and short videos with friends, but the content shared only lasts for up to ten seconds before disappearing. I think it’s a brilliant concept. Suddenly I can post all the selfies, pictures of food, or feline photo shoots I want—with no lasting evidence to suggest that I might be a self-absorbed, gluttonous, crazy cat person.

While “snaps,” as the messages are called, can be sent to particular friends, you can also post them to a feature of the app called “My Story,” which anyone can view for up to 24 hours—the idea being that your “Story” would capture your day over a handful of individual moments.

As a preacher, I can’t help but imagine the idea of stories through a theological lens. In pastoral care classes in seminary and one-on-one conversations with many of you, I have come to greatly value stories as windows into what makes a person who they are and what motivates them to do what they do.

Stories are crucial to human existence. They’re the ways we order and make sense of our lives. We tell stories about when we were born, where we grew up, when we fall in love, when loved ones die. We tell stories to understand our origins and to give us a sense of meaning and purpose.

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Scripture too is full of stories. Whether  or not these stories are literal accounts of history doesn’t make them any less true—true in the sense of what Marcus Borg has called their “more-than-literal” meaning. In other words, the stories of our faith are  essentially metaphors that convey some truth about who God is and who we are.

There’s the story of creation, fall, and promise that shows us a God who yearns to be in relationship with human beings, whatever the cost. Or the story of the exodus, that speaks of God’s desire to liberate those who suffer oppression.

More recently in our church year, we heard the story of the nativity, the moment when God became one of us in Jesus of Nazareth, as an act of solidarity with human beings.

Regrettably, the gospels offer us precious little in the way of the childhood stories of Jesus, aside from his circumcision and that unfortunate episode where Mary and Joseph lose their pre-teen son in downtown Jerusalem.

Instead, in the gospel of Matthew, we go immediately from Jesus’s birth and John the Baptist’s preaching to the first story of an adult Jesus, just before he begins his public ministry: his baptism.

Wait a minute, though: Wasn’t the whole point of John’s ministry of offering baptism to his followers for the sake of repentance and the forgiveness of sin? It’s no wonder, then, that we get this skirmish between John and Jesus. I need to be baptized by you, John begins, and do you come to me? It seems a little backwards, doesn’t it?

Let it be so now, or perhaps truer to the original Greek text: Permit it at this specific time, for this specific purpose.

Like the other stories of our faith tradition recorded in the pages of scripture, this episode too tells us something more-than-literal. Of course, Jesus is not in need of forgiveness, but he comes to John “to fulfill all righteousness,” righteousness as an act of discipleship, a way of participating in the unfolding of the reign of God and the message that Jesus came to share.

So Jesus’s baptism is at once drastically unlike our own baptisms—I don’t remember any doves or voices from heaven at mine—but it also tells us something familiar about the life of faith. To paraphrase biblical scholar Karoline Lewis, baptism assumes wilderness.

Immediately after his baptism follows the other familiar story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness. When Lewis suggests that baptism assumes wilderness, she reminds  us that being in the wilderness is part of what it means to be God’s people (just look at the ancient Israelites in the desert!). But I would even go so far as to say that wilderness is part of what it means to be human.

After all, there seems to be plenty of wilderness to journey through in this life. I was sitting in the chapel at Trinity Cathedral just this Friday when my phone buzzed with a news alert of yet another mass shooting at the airport in Fort Lauderdale.

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Wilderness, though, is often a lot more personal: grieving the death of a loved one, coping with the aftermath of a breakup or divorce, living in the uncertainty of unemployment or underemployment. Wilderness assumes that there will be ups and downs and more downs in the life of faith, but wilderness also assumes company.

There’s a reason that baptism takes place in the midst of the Sunday assembly. In turn, the pastor asks parents, sponsors, and the whole congregation if they promise to help, nurture, and support the baptized as they grow in the Christian faith and life.

Yes, in baptism, we are named and claimed as God’s own, but we are also incorporated into the body of Christ, made visible in our local congregations. Baptism assumes wilderness, but it also means that we never have to go through that wilderness alone.

viewer-23g97nmIn just over a week, we as a congregation will embark on a book study, exploring together the meaning of our faith in order to be better equipped at telling our stories—our stories which begin in baptism but continue to unfold over our lives as people of God. Telling our stories offers us the chance not only to reflect on our own lives but also to offer strength and presence to others. It’s an act of discipleship and of community, as we live out God’s reign of love and justice.

Like the stories of scripture, our own stories are also sacred, revealing the ways that God continues to speak through us to a broken world.

A Sermon for the New Year on the Feast of the Name of Jesus

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First Lutheran Church of Avoca
1 January 2017 + Name of Jesus
Luke 2.15-21



Well, it’s finally over. 2016. It’s been quite a year. An understatement if ever there was one. I’m sure I was not alone last night in watching the ball drop in Times Square as we said “good riddance!” to the past year, in eager anticipation of turning the page and looking ahead to the future.

New Year’s Eve has the tendency to make us reflect on the past year, which gives us pause—especially this year, it seems. Of course, there are the happy, joy-filled moments: engagements and marriages, new births and milestone birthdays, memorable vacations. But it can also be outright depressing, combing through headlines of tragedy after tragedy,  or even just calling to mind those somber moments closer to home: a broken relationship, the death of a loved one, an unsettling diagnosis, the loss of a job.

These things and more are the reason that many churches during the holiday season hold Blue Christmas services for those who experience some degree of “disconnect from the joy and cheer” of these weeks that seems to come so easily to others. So much so that it can even make us feel isolated. [1]

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Blue Christmas at Table Grace Café, December 20, 2016

At my internship congregation in Omaha, we hosted one such Blue Christmas service at a local nonprofit cafe, sensing the need for some kind of ritual space to name the complex emotions that come from difficult experiences. It was an opportunity to provide safe, sacred space for those who needed it, and in that space, as I heard in feedback after the service by so many, comes a reminder of our belovedness by God and our inherent sacred worth as individuals.

Like Blue Christmas, the turning of the year brings up a lot of feelings—some of anguish and despair and sadness that seem like they will never end over what and who we may have lost in the past twelve months, and some of an anxious and timid hope over what the future holds.

In this liminal space between endings and beginnings, our readings for this feast day of the Name of Jesus could not be more appropriate. They speak of blessing and being named and chosen as God’s own.

The account of Jesus’s circumcision in the gospel of Luke is only one verse long, but this ritual for observant Jews in the ancient world was one of tremendous importance that signified God’s everlasting covenant with God’s people. And yet the even greater emphasis in this very short account is on the naming of Jesus, hence the title assigned to this feast day — Name of Jesus. Jesus’s name, which means “God saves,” signified both an act of blessing and a bold declaration of who this child was.

This twin act of blessing and naming is not a foreign concept to us who are Christian, either. In baptism, we are named and claimed as God’s own beloved children, baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, sealed by that Spirit and marked with cross of Christ forever. Baptism gives us our identity as beloved children of God, and it also gives us a sense of holy purpose: being so named and claimed as God’s own, we are sent — or we might say blessed — to love and serve all people and proclaim God’s extravagant love for them and for all creation.

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The church indeed does a lot of blessing. In baptism, we bless water, and at the table, we bless bread and wine. At other times, we bless homes, and pets, and backpacks, and bicycles. We bless these things not necessarily to make them “holy” or to transform them into something else. But we bless these ordinary things to remind ourselves of the source of all that is — that source that is so very good at blessing ordinary things, as our offering prayer for Christmas reminds us, coming to us a baby in a manger, sleeping on straw, and being greeted by shepherds. The holy blessing the ordinary.

Blessing comes to us most often at significant passages of time, and it reminds of who we are and what we are called to do. The act of blessing and receiving blessing gives us an opportunity to pause, to be renewed, and to begin again.

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Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree, c. 1797), abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, died  November 26, 1883

 

Isabella Baumfree, who was born into slavery but later escaped, went on to become an outspoken abolitionist and one of the earliest proponents of women’s rights. Of course, you might know her better as Sojourner Truth, the name she gave herself when she converted to Methodism, telling her friends, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go.” Her name literally became the theme of her life’s work, a blessing as she traveled and preached justice and equality until the day she died.

As for looking back on a year that seems scarce in blessings, maybe it’s not all that bad. In the midst of a wave of tragedies and celebrity deaths, many have blamed the calendar year for these things. But a recent Washington Post article points out that it only seems like 2016 has been the “worst year ever.” This is because violence and natural disasters are sudden events that are reported instantaneously. But the more positive, albeit quieter, trends get lost in the cracks: improving global health, falling poverty, and environmental progress all take years, decades, even centuries to really notice. [2]

This is not meant to sugarcoat the terrible things that happen in our world on a seemingly daily basis, or to excuse our failure to do the work of justice where it is most needed. But it is meant to suggest that we take a broader view.

Poet John O’Donohue speaks of the ups and downs of the year is his blessing for the end of a year:

We bless this year for all we learned,
For all we loved and lost
And for the quiet way it brought us
Nearer to our invisible destination. [3]

Indeed, there are always going to be ups and downs, but a broader view takes seriously the acts of blessing and naming. Let this new year be for us a time of blessing, remembering the ultimate blessing of being named as God’s own dearly beloved people, an identity which no one can ever take away.


[1] https://www.elm.org/2016/12/22/blue-christmas/

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/12/29/stop-saying-that-2016-was-the-worst-year/?utm_term=.9873bfcad3d6

[3] John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 160.