Tuesday, January 13, 2015
Manifesting God's glory to the world around us this season of Epiphany . . .
A number of people asked me last week if i was always so intense. When i asked what they meant, they thought there was no real happy warm up period, that i just jumped right into the Gospel lesson and preached, as if they knew me and I them. As I explained to them and also now to you, the beginning of any pastoral relationship is tough. Both of us have been journeying toward what we all hope is Zion, God’s city. As a group, you have been walking a path over here headed that way, and I have been walking a path over here walking this way. Then, as if our paths cross for a second, we end up together on the same path. So far, we have not had many brambles, potholes, sprained ankles, or other diversions to give us much of a common story. But that will change as we continue along this path together.
I suspect that much of the perceived intensity comes from my ministries at my last cure. Around 160 individuals suffering from addiction would come through our doors each week, many of whom used me for their fifth step—what you and I in the Episcopal church call Reconciliation of a Penitent. In my last few weeks there, I was dealing with a possible murder and an attempted suicide, on top of what I would characterize as my “normal” pastoral ministry. At my kids school, they and their classmates and a few of their parents were dealing with the passing of a mother of four. Her two older boys were now orphans, their father passing away about eight years ago. At a place of some privilege, not unlike Brentwood, the idea of orphans and the loss of a mother was horrific to some. Such tragedies happen to other, less fortunate people, but not to them or those like them. Add to all that the normal depressions of the Christmas Season, the stress that comes with the season, my formal leave-taking of a ministry, and you get an idea why I might seem a bit more intense than what you expected. And, oh, did someone mention to you that I have seven children? And it was Christmas?
Part of why I jumped right in to Matthew and John was that there will be lots of time for us to get to know each other in the weeks, months, and years going forward. None of knows, however, if someone sitting here has never heard or never really considered the claims of the Gospel. As much as you might have wanted me to talk about myself and my family, I am here, I think by God’s command, to remind us all, but especially those who do not yet believe, that God loves us, that Christ died for us, and that we each, by virtue of His death and Resurrection, have been given unique gifts by the Holy Spirit to serve and to glorify Him. You have each set aside time to come and worship and to be fed by God, I would be anything but a good steward of the charge given me were I not to teach you a bit about God while you are here. Sure, I hope we have fun doing it, but our task is to worship God and be fortified by Him, through the preaching and teaching of the Word and the nourishment of the Sacrament, to head back out into our mission fields, prepared to witness to Him to our friends, our co-workers, our families, and even the strangers in our lives.
That all being said, if you think I was a bit hardcore, you should spend a time in Mark’s Gospel. 41 times he uses the word immediately in his text. It makes you feel like you have been running a long sprint . . . immediately . . . immediately . . . immediately. Mark tells this wonderful story of Jesus’ Baptism today. The parts of the story that have probably piqued your interest, however, are not in Mark’s version of the baptism. John does not argue with Jesus about the appropriateness of such an act. The voice of the Father is heard only by Jesus and not the crowds. Notice what happens, though.
John has introduced this baptism of repentance into the cultural awareness of the Jews. To understand what is going on, pretend you are a Jew living in this age. Your grandmothers and grandfathers and aunts and uncles tell of a time when Yahweh was actively involved with your people. God would declare that he was going to do something, He would do it, then He would point out how He had accomplished the very thing He had promised He would! Now for a couple hundred years, God has been silent. Not since Malachi has there been a prophet of God. Has He abandoned us? Are we a lost cause? Has God been defeated in some cosmic battle in the sky? Then comes forth John! No one doubts John’s calling. No one. John comes strolling out of the wilderness looking more like the Nazarene we talked about last week than does Jesus. He offers a baptism of water for forgiveness and then reminds them that the One coming after, the Messiah, will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Finally God is speaking again! Finally, God has remembered His promises to our ancestors! Can you imagine the hope? The joy? The excitement? People come from everywhere to be baptized into this baptism of repentance. They want God to stay with them. They want God to keep speaking to them. Now, perhaps, you understand a bit more of why John’s work was so important to the Jews.
Now, for a spiritual wedgie this morning, we are going to play a bit of interactive sermonizing. When you were baptized, or when you renew your baptismal vows when someone new to the faith is baptized, what are the first three questions asked of you during the examination once you state your public desire to be baptized? I’ll help. Do you renounce . . . ? Ring a bell? We renounce all that draws us from the love of God, do we not? We renounce Satan, evil powers, and even our sinful desires. We are baptized into a baptism of repentance. But do we stop there? Are there any more questions in the liturgy? Do you turn to Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? Do you put your whole trust in His grace and love? Do you promise to follow and obey Him as your Lord? What do you think is going on in our liturgy? WE are baptized into a baptism of repentance and into a baptism of the Holy Spirit. Like those who came to John so long ago, we ask for forgiveness for those things which we have done wrong and for those things we failed to do. But our baptism, thanks to the work and person of Jesus Christ, goes further. Just as we die to the old self when we are baptized, we are raised to a new life in Christ. Sound familiar? We no longer live for ourselves but for God. And here’s some fantastic news, brothers and sisters. When we pledge to live as God would have us live, the Holy Spirit is there ready to embrace us and gift us with those things we will need to effectively glorify God in our lives! We are asking God to cleanse away from us those things which mislead us and fill us with those things that please Him. And, usually more than we can ever ask or imagine, that is precisely what He does! He wants us, to use Epiphany language, manifesting His glory in our lives so that the world might be drawn to Christ’s saving embrace.
The real challenge to an effective sermon, I think, is to make it applicable in your lives. No doubt all of you can see what John was talking about and what Paul was talking about in our readings assigned for today. But I am sure that some of you have doubts. Some of you sitting here wonder if such is really true. Maybe some of you doubt that there is any significant regeneration occurring in your hearts. Thankfully, I had time to spend in the car again this week. I had about 31 hours to reflect upon our short life together and to see if I could think of an illustration of what I mean. Now, my usual practice is to ask people whether I can use their story as a sermon illustration. Had I realized when they happened that I would need them this week, I would have asked Lynne and Jerry if I could use them this week. As it is, I will use them and then seek those waters of repentance for causing them any embarrassment. I think they get it, so I do not think I am taking a huge risk. Besides, both of them said that if I needed any help . . .
Sunday, after the concert, a lady appeared at our door. She needed help to do laundry. Lynne, our youth pastor, was the one who first saw her and struck up the conversation. As we were exiting to the Parish Hall, Lynne grabbed me and asked me to stay with the lady while she raided the coke machines, wherever those are. As it turned out, the lady was desperate for quarters to do laundry. She was broke, she had laundry to do, and she was more concerned for her kids going to school than her own clothes. Lynne had already decided she had means to meet this need and was doing that, while making sure the lady was made to feel welcome. As the lady and I got to talking, it turns out the fact that our lights were on and that there were cars in the parking lot caused her stop in and ask. She had only been to Advent once, many years ago, when Advent was hosting a group called “A Night in the Inn.” You all are nodding, so you know the name of the ministry. She stayed here one night, ate a couple of great meals, and was able to get cleaned up, all before heading back out into the streets of Nashville the next day. That was before she got married and had kids. She always remembered Advent fondly whenever she passed it on the interstate. Now? She was taking a shot that we were people who still cared for those on the margins.
Pay attention to what happened last Sunday, brothers and sisters. Lynne’s job is youth and young adult ministry—we do pay her to do that, don’t we? Her focus ought to be on her job and our youth, right? Yet, when confronted with a need that made sense and pulled at her in ways she probably has not considered, Lynne thought quickly how to meet the need. Now that lady has had two interactions with Advent. Once, she was ministered to when she was younger and single. Now, we have helped her be a mom to her kids. They will go to school this week in clean clothes. And how did the Holy Spirit work? A youth pastor doing adult needs, change in the pop machine, and a fond memory. To those outside the faith it might seem silly. But what just happened? perhaps those outside the faith and maybe even some of us within think this silly when compared to parting the Red Sea or giving sight to the blind, but it was every bit as important to this lady Lynne helped? She leaves Advent for the second time, having met another star in Lynne that was trying to point her to The Star, Jesus Christ, of salvation history.
Jerry’s ministry was a bit more difficult in some ways. I don’t know the full background story yet, but Jerry noticed the obituary for a Mary B, a member of this parish. Anyway, I suppose after his morning cup of coffee and a bit of time engrossed in the newspaper, Jerry noticed Mary’s name in the paper. He came over to the office to make sure I was aware. As you all know, I was in Iowa, retrieving my car on my “off day.” Jerry and Tina thought for a bit, Tina checked in with the Funeral Home who said arrangements were still pending, and then she decided, rightly, I should know. There was also a bit of back history to this particular call. I see a nod or three, so I am guessing some of you know better of what I am speaking than do I. But, I got the numbers from Tina and called the husband and the daughter trying to offer our willingness to assist, our condolences, and an apology for our perceived or real failure with respect to Mary. How easy would it have been for Jerry to assume that someone else was aware of all this? How easy would it have been for him not to go out in the cold to come see me? Yet, Jerry embraced the tug on his heart and made sure, made absolutely sure, that someone was reaching out to the family of a deceased parishioner now. Ironically, perhaps the best part of Jerry’s ministry Friday was that it prompted me to leave them an apology. As I said, I cannot speak to the full story yet, but I can remind a family that God loves them, that He is there in the midst of His suffering, and that His people at Advent would sorely like to help in any way possible at this time. Manifesting God’s glory, even through repentance, to the world around us.
The last illustration comes from the area of human trafficking. I would be remiss and you might get weird looks at work tomorrow if your priest, the Church Fellow who just return from the Consultation in Rome, did not mention something on the National Day of Human Trafficking . . . (those there can share this story with those not. It was about Christian business owners taking the extra step to make sure their temporary workers get paid)
It sounds rather simple, does it not, that we are called not only to repent, but to obey and follow Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit? Certainly the illustrations that I used are not “knock your socks off” miracles, unless you were one of the ones on the receiving end. There is one last lesson we need to share because it speaks to our life in the Holy Spirit. When Jesus is baptized and hears those words, what does He immediately do next? He goes off into the wilderness for what the Church calls the Messianic Temptations.
Our baptisms, brothers and sisters, does not mean things are going to get easy. Hopefully, when you were baptized, someone told you that life’s vicissitudes would still happen. Baptized people still experience financial problems. Baptized people still experience health issues. Baptized people still experience relationship woes. Baptized people still get stabbed in the back by co-workers. We deal with all the same issues we had before we were baptized. But notice the big change. In our reading from Genesis today, the Spirit broods over the waters. Water, as many of you know, symbolized chaos to the world of the Ancient Near East. It makes sense when you think about it. The sea was unpredictable. Big storms would blow up with no warning. Most ships were coast huggers. One of the teachings of Genesis is that God brought order to chaos. But think about what God is promising each of us in that baptismal covenant. Yes, you will encounter chaos in your life, son or daughter. But that same Spirit which brought order to creation will be with you to bring order, My Word, to the chaos of your life. That is My covenant with you. Have you ever really pondered the significance of your baptism? Have you really ever thought that as you are embracing God, that same Spirit that brooded over the waters at creation is embracing you? Promising you, that He will redeem whatever circumstance in which you find yourself?
I did not intend for this to be either a study of baptism or a Holy Spirit Sunday, but, as you have seen, sometimes these things are so intertwined it is impossible to separate them. Perhaps, as we enter this season of Epiphany, that is appropriate. You and I are called to manifest to the world the saving grace of God in our lives. How could we ever hope to do just that with only a few snippets? Perhaps it is just as well that our stars point to The Star, that the world might turn and embrace the Lord who, since the beginning of time, has been reaching out His hands of love to embrace them.