The sermon for week January 09, 2011
Isaiah 42:1-13 and Matthew 3:1-12
Jacob the Baker by Noah benShea is a great little book. It is about a baker named Jacob who scribbled his thoughts on bits of paper as he waited for the bread to rise. One day a small paper fell in and was baked into a loaf and the person who found it returned to the bakery the next day for more. That is how Jacob became a wise man and started teaching his community. There one of Jacob's stories that I think fits our gospel lesson today… one story that fits for our upcoming baptism today.
The story goes like this: Jacob would often teach the children. They would sit on flour sacks in the back of the bakery and Jacob would tell his stories. From time to time, Jacob would shut his eyes. It was as if he were remembering what to say, not by searching through his mind, but remembering what he saw. Somewhere, he had a perfect picture, and the words he spoke were a description of this vision.
"What do you see when you shut your eyes, Jacob?" asked a little girl.
"Well," Jacob said, "once upon a time there was a man who had a vision and began pursuing it. Two others saw that the first man had a vision and began following him.
In time, the children of those who followed asked their parents to describe what they saw. But what their parents described appeared to be the coattails of the man in front of them. When the children heard this, they turned from their parents vision, saying it was not worthy of pursuit."
Jacob leaned toward the little girl who had asked the question.
"So, what do we discover from this story?"
The children were quiet.
"I'll tell you," said Jacob after a short pause, "we discover children who deny what they have never experienced. We discover parents who believe in what they have never experienced. And from this, we discover the question is not ‘What do I see when I shut my eyes' but ‘What do you see when you open yours?'" (benShea 29-31)
Many churches are in decline. Our denomination, all the mainline denominations, and believe it or not, we're seeing evidence in the newest polls that even the Mega-Church movement is starting to decline. The big question is why... why is this happening? Why is Christianity in decline in America?
I think it is because we are only describing the coattails of those who have gone before us. When I asked a confirmation class why we baptized people they stated "Cause our parents were baptized and because Jesus did it." While this answer may suffice for some, but it didn't for me, as I found it to be evidence that baptism, for many, is just a meaningless ritual driven by tradition or worse, the superstition that believes unbaptized children will go to hell. None of these reasons are given in our lesson for today.
Today our story goes by quickly: Jesus comes to John to be baptized but John didn't want to do it. Instead John wanted to be baptized by Jesus. Jesus is baptized and the Spirit of God descends like a dove, echoing the words from the servant song we heard in Isaiah, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." This happens in the Jordan River, which isn't just a river. It's the border of the Promised Land that the Israelites crossed after 40 years in the wilderness. Just think of all the stories with water in the Bible the creation, the flood, the exodus from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea, the entry into the promised land, Jonah and the fish; there is water everywhere! It always seems to point to God's faithfulness, God being ever present with us, and God offering new and unexpected directions to God's children. It always points to God's redeeming grace that is constantly offered to us.
It is that grace that adopts us into the covenant family of the church and we show that through the sacrament of baptism. Baptism is both corporate and individual. It takes only a few drops to declare adoption and we gathered to witness the baptism can't help but be reminded that we are part of a wider family, a church family. I remember the first baptism I took part in back in Pennsylvania. It was a 6 month old baby girl who was so sweet. Pastor Nancy performed the baptism, walked out to the church with the baby, and as she was walking back to give the baby back to her parents she said "Oh, you are a bundle of love. I don't want to give you away, but there comes a time when we have to let go and then trust that the Lord will uphold you forever." There wasn't a dry eye in the church.
We are upheld through the Lord by the church. There is talk these days that we're in a postmodern culture, that a shift has taken place from a solid culture to a liquid one. This should be nothing new to us gathered here as the church as we've been adopted into a liquid culture. Jesus presents a liquid alternative to the solid cultures of Rome and the Temple. Columbia Theological Seminary Professor, Rodger Nishioka writes, "The early church was like liquid. The disciples traveled easily, they flowed, they spilled out, they splashed, poured, leaked, flooded, sprayed, dripped, seeped, and oozed into the world. They were not easily stopped and when they were subjected to stress they did not hold their shape" (Hickman 125). They did not hold their shape. Many want to think of the church as a solid, unchanging institution forgetting Paul's own words that he would be fluid. That he would be all things to all people, among the Jews he would be a Jew, and among the Gentiles he would be a Gentile all for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor 9:19-21).
The fluid church is agile and responds to stresses and even welcomes them for that is the nature of living. Life in a liquid church is as inviting as the cool pool of water in the baptismal basin, it is as challenging as the movement from death to resurrected life, and it is as comforting as the blessing "Oh you are a bundle of love. I don't want to give you away, but there comes a time when we have to let go and then trust that the Lord will uphold you forever."
This is what I see when I open my eyes, this is a vision for the future church because it was the first vision for the church by the earliest of Christians. We are adopted into the liquid church through baptism and we find that the blessing we receive from this sacrament is liquid too. It flows out of our lives, spills into our days, runs out into the streets where we live, splashes our neighbors, pours out on strangers, leaks into conversation and floods the world with the grace of God.
As Christians bathed in this water, our lives are about figuring out how to put that liquid blessing into practice. How do we practice being liquid? How do we practice baptism in the world? How to we describe what we see without describing the coattails of those who have gone before? How do we get our children not to deny what they never experienced, but to confirm it and flow into the world?
I think the answer can be found in the Taoist concept of "wu wei." Wu Wei is the principle of flexibility and adaptiveness to one's surrounding that creates openness and effectiveness. The image most often used to depict this concept is water. The Tao Te Ching states:
Nothing in the world
Is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
Nothing can surpass it.
The soft overcomes the hard:
The gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
But few can put it into practice.
So the Sages say,
Fulfill even the lowest position
Love even the weakest creature
Then you will be called
Lord of every offering
King of all below Heaven. (Tzu 99)
This has great implications for how we live and exist in the world! How we treat our friends, our enemies, our co-workers, how we respond to stressful situations! This maybe a Taoist teaching but it feels so Christian to me. It sounds exactly like Jesus and the servant song from Isaiah. This also has great implications on how we respond to the tragedy in Tuscon that happened yesterday.
Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot by a gunman, along with many others, as they gathered at her sidewalk townhall in Tucson. We need some sustained spiritual reflection on how badly we have behaved in recent years as Americans--how much we've allowed fear to motivate our politics, how cruel we've allowed our discourse to become, how little we've listened, how much we've dehumanized public servants, how much we hate. Everyone will say what a tragedy it is. Then commentators will take sides. Those on the left will blame the Tea Party's violent rhetoric and "Second Amendment solutions." Those on the right will blame irresponsible individuals and Socialism. Progressives will call for more gun control; conservatives will say more people should carry guns. Everyone will have some sort of spin that benefits their party, their platform, and their policies. Each side will offer up solid solutions. Neither side will talk about what they share in common, and one of those things maybe baptism. Neither side will talk about a fluid response. A fluid response just seems so weak, so ineffective. Yet being baptized means that we do not need to put our opponents in crosshairs, or reload, but affirm our positions without personalizing, marginalizing, or threatening. We need to place the path of Christ - non-violence, forgiveness, and prophetic hospitality - ahead of our limited viewpoints.
Yet I get the sense that many in our world today feel that the prime message of Jesus, love of God and neighbor, can't possibly be the right answer. And if it is the right answer then we must be asking the wrong question. Jesus' baptism in water symbolizes life, the newness that comes of cleansing and knowing that you are loved and at home in the universe. Yet there is a darker symbol of baptism in American history: that of blood. In 1862, Episcopal bishop Stephen Elliot of Georgia said, "All nations which come into existence . . . must be born amid the storm of revolution and must win their way to a place in history through the baptism of blood." Baptism as water? Baptism as blood? Baptism accompanied by a dove or baptism accompanied by the storm of revolution? (Bass).
American Christianity is deeply conflicted, caught between two powerful symbols of baptism, symbols that haunt us. To which baptism are we called? Which baptism does the world most need today? Which baptism truly heals? Do we need the water of God, or the blood of Congress Woman on a street in Tucson? The answer is profoundly obvious to me. We need redemption gushing from the rivers of God's love, not that of blood-soaked sidewalks. If we don't act out of baptisms now, then our silence will surely aid evil.
Jesus embodies the wu wei concept. What he does in baptism is allows himself to become the servant to humanity. In his baptism he shows solidarity with sinners, he stands in line with them, and his mission will not be the punishment of sinners but love of and identification with them. I can't think of any more of a powerful statement than the very one we do here today with this water. In this symbolic act, we are witnessing the very means of the salvation of the world. May we be brave enough to confirm it as our response. AMEN.
Bass, Diana Butler. "Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords: Speaking for the Soul"
benShea, Noah. Jacob the Baker: Gentle Wisdom for a Complicated World. Ballantine Books, New York, 1989.
Boring, Eugene M. Matthew, New Interpreter's Bible Volume VII. Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN: 1995.
Garrett, Greg. Homiletical Perspective on Matthew 3:13-17. Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 1. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville KY; 2010.
Hickman, Lisa Nichols. The Worshiping Life; Meditations on the Order of Worship. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY; 2005.
Seitz, Christopher. The Book of Isaiah 40-60, New Interpreter's Bible Volume VI. Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN; 2001.
Tzu, Lao. Tao Te Ching Translated by Jonathan Star. Penguin Group, New York; 2008.