Monday, March 11, 2019

Baptismal Service Commentary, Part 1

The following is the Service of Holy Baptism from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2019). The text is black from that service. The blue text is my commentary on the service. Same with the green. This entry takes us through the first half of the baptismal service, prior to the act of baptizing. 

PRESENTATION

God, who is rich in mercy and love, gives us a new birth into a living hope through the sacrament of baptism. By water and the Word God delivers us from sin and death and raises us to new life in Jesus Christ. We are united with all the baptized in the one body of Christ, anointed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and joined in God's mission for the life of the world.

This is when the family members of the person to be baptized, infant or adult, come forward with the candidate for baptism. Notice that the presentation, as an invitation, explains what baptism is. This explanation does not mention hell. In Lutheran understanding, the defeat of hell has already been accomplished for the baptismal candidate and for all people by God in Christ through the power of resurrection. Thus, baptism is not removing the threat of hell, but is bringing the baptized into a new life in Christ. Both coming to be baptized or to have baptized andthe living out of the new life are responses to what God has already done. 

God is the prime mover, the originator of all things. All we do is notto earn grace, but in response to it. This is specifically and most certainly true in baptism. 


PROMISES AND COMMITMENTS

As you bring your children to receive the gift of baptism, you are entrusted with responsibilities:
to live with them among God's faithful people,
bring them to the word of God and the holy supper,
teach them the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments,
place in their hands the holy scriptures,
and nurture them in faith and prayer,
so that your children may learn to trust God,
proclaim Christ through word and deed,
care for others and the world God made,
and work for justice and peace.
Do you promise to help your children grow in the Christian faith and life?


Sponsors, do you promise to nurture these persons in the Christian faith as you are empowered by God's Spirit, and to help them live in the covenant of baptism and in communion with the church?

People of God, do you promise to support  name/s  and pray for them in their new life in Christ?
We do.

In the Promises and Commitments, the baptized or the family and sponsors of the baptized are committing to the shape of their new life in Christ. The baptismal life is not lived alone, but is lived out with other believers (and in the world). This life involves participating in faith community life, encounters and wrestling with the written word (scripture), regular participation in communion and affirmation of baptism, praying for others in word and deed, and becoming familiar with the most foundational texts of the faith (10 commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Creed). 

This life is lived out for this purpose: so that the baptized may learn to trust God and, through that trust, live a life that proclaims Christ, crucified and risen. This proclamation will be evident in the baptized life in what the person says and does, what she prioritizes and what he rejects. Indeed, it is to be hoped that, with the help of the Spirit, works of justice and peace flow in the wake of the baptized person, leading people to ask about the source of their courage and strength. 

Baptismal sponsors agree to help with this work, as do congregation members. Even if a child is baptized in a “home” congregation, but lives elsewhere- the local congregation is committed to these promises to all children of God who come through their doors. 


PROFESSION OF FAITH
I ask you to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, reject sin, and confess the faith of the church.

Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
Response: 
I renounce them.
Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?
Response: 
I renounce them.
Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?
Response: 
I renounce them.

Do you believe in God the Father?
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.


The Profession of Faith is a statement of what the candidate or their family and the congregation both trust to be truthful about God and also ask God to help them believe. This profession begins in the via negativa, that is with what is not of God. 

God will not defy Godself, thus we forcefully reject spiritual forces that tell lies about God and attempt to make us feel separated from God’s love. 

God will not rebel against Godself, thus we forcefully reject the social and political forces of this world that attempt to subvert God’s will and purposes for reformation, restoration, and resurrection. 

God will not deliberately harm or separate Godself from the beloved creation, thus we forcefully reject our own internal forces that cause us to make idols of ourselves, falsely elevating self above God and neighbor. 

Once we have rejected what cannot be true about God, we are left with the Divine Mystery. In approaching that Mystery, all we have is the handful of ways that God has chosen to be revealed- through creation, through Jesus, and through the eternal work of the Holy Spirit, specifically in the church. We use the Apostles Creed, during baptism, to attest to these revelations, knowing that they do not represent the full nature of God, but a glimpse into the gift of eternal truth. 


This first part of our baptismal service teaches and reminds us that: 

1)   God moves first. 
2)   We respond to God’s grace. 
3)   The world needs and is waiting for our response, because the faithful response of the baptized person points beyond their actions toward God, the Source and Ground of their being and all grace. 




Saturday, March 9, 2019

Taking Stock

Lent is an invitational season. We are invited into deeper discipline, longer reflection, more community time, and to pay greater attention to Jesus' journey to Jerusalem, the cross, and the resurrection. It's good time to take stock of our commitment to the First Commandment: "You are to have no other gods before me."

Note here that God isn't saying that there are not other gods. Instead, the Creator is saying, "I'm first. You are to fear, love, and trust Me above all else."

There are little gods all around us. If we did an audit of our time, energy, and expenditures, would someone who didn't know us be able to tell that God was our priority, that we placed the Holy Divine above all else?

Lent invites us into this spiritual audit, an examination of thoughts, words, and deeds. We have a season in which we can change our habits so that our bottom line is truly more reflective of our priorities. I encourage you, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to accept the invitation.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Getting Ready for Lenten Discipline


Some Christian traditions observe the season of Lent and some do not. 

Lent is a six- week period before Easter, wherein churches that observe the season focus on 1) Jesus' journey to Jerusalem and the cross, 2) preparation for baptism or renewal of baptismal vows, and 3) corrective spiritual discipline with a prayer toward increased faith and deepened trust in God. 

Sometimes when people think about spiritual disciplines for Lent, they think "giving things up"- a setting aside of something enjoyable for a season of deprivation (only to resume the habit or activity at Easter). The purpose of spiritual discipline isn't (usually) deprivation, but instead an exercise to make one stronger in internal and external faith demonstration. We should be setting aside things that cause us to feel separated from Christ and/or taking up actions or practices that help us to connect with the Ground and Source of our Being. 

For most of us, chocolate is not getting between us and Jesus. In fact, when we set aside candy or sweets as our discipline or make a new diet our Lenten focus, there can be a detrimental side effect of demeaning our body, which is a generous and valuable gift from God. We may need to make changes in how we treat our body, but that often begins with how we think of it. 

Back to the spiritual disciplines of Lent. What one takes up or sets aside should be connected to reflection on the life of Jesus and to the sacrament of baptism. Let's take a quick look at the baptismal vows spoken by parents or baptismal sponsors (or by an adult candidate for baptism): 

As you bring your children to receive the gift of baptism, you are entrusted with responsibilities:
to live with them among God's faithful people,
bring them to the word of God and the holy supper,
teach them the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments,
place in their hands the holy scriptures,
and nurture them in faith and prayer,
so that your children may learn to trust God,
proclaim Christ through word and deed,
care for others and the world God made,
and work for justice and peace.

Those are some hefty promises, only really possible with the help of the Holy Spirit and when we have learned not to fear death and hell because of our freedom in Christ. Our Lenten disciplines, then, should be connected to these promises, helping us to take up habits that relate to our baptized status or setting aside the things that get in the way of living into that same baptized status.

We are not baptized into a "Jesus and me" life; we are born again into a life that is lived in Jesus for the sake of the world, from our closest neighbors to the people across the planet whom we will never meet. Each year, we are invited into a season of course correction for the sake of those relationship. Our redirection, our repentance, in anchored in Christ, so we are not floundering about, trying to find our way. Instead, we imitate the words and deeds of the pioneer of our faith, Jesus.

So, as you prepare for Lent, prayerfully consider your disciplines. Ask God to guide you into good work that will deepen your understanding of baptism, your awareness of the Spirit, and your trust in God's presence. Be prepared to be changed.

I think, and this is just me, that it is only when we have done the hard work of Lenten discipline and still realize how much grace we need that we are truly able to glimpse the powerful grace of the empty tomb and the resurrected Savior of the world.

This will be my dismissal phrase for Lent (at the end of church services) and I'm offering it to you now.

Go in peace. Be diligent in discipline and strong in faith. 
(Thanks be to God.)

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Resurrection of the Body


Luke 6:27-38
1 Corinthians 15:35-50
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year C

Memories can be faulty, but yet this one feels clear to me. There we were, a group of students from
Yale Divinity School, gathered for the smaller section portion of our New Testament class. One student, after permission from the section leader, asked us all, "Do you actually believe in the resurrection of the body?"

The room, long and narrow, was very quiet as we all looked around at each other. Slowly, I raised my hand and said, "I do." There was incredulity all around, with some people unsure of how to put their own beliefs into words. Clarification was sought- did the questioner mean the body of Jesus or our own bodies? He meant both, but more the latter.

Wherever the conversation went, I maintained my affirmation, my credo. Of all the things in the Apostle's Creed that might be difficult for me, belief in the resurrection of the body as a real, not metaphorical, promise of God is not one of them. I can believe it for two reasons: first, I believe God loves bodies and, second, I believe Divine love is more expansive (and mysterious) than we can comprehend.

In Paul's letter to the Corinthians, which we have been examining for six weeks, this is the climax of his argument. He has brought them through some of their disagreements to remind them to be a community, functioning together the way that a body does. He reminds them that love is the hallmark of a community that finds identity in Christ. He teaches them that Jesus appears to all kinds of people and the Spirit gives each person their own gifts and their own vocation for the sake of the community.

He builds, then, to explain the great power of the Incarnation- God taking on flesh. Since Jesus had a real body, then the realities of salvation are tangible and true for this life- not just for someday when we "fly away". Now, in these last verses, Paul is pressing his ultimate point to the Corinthians who are trying to live in the Way of Jesus.

Granted, Paul's not terribly gentle as he roars up to his point. Fools, he calls, the Corinthians as he repeats the kinds of questions he has been asked about life after death. He is dismissive not because he doesn't have compassion, but because their questions miss the point.

The Corinthians don't have long life expectancies. There's high infant mortality and maternal mortality as well. There are wars, plagues, illnesses, and issues that come from the type of hygiene that existed and was embraced. Bodies felt frail and limited. Surely, eternal life would bring a sweet release from the aches and pangs of the bodies that they had known in this life. Certainly, God wouldn't make them shuffle on forever with the scars, wounds, defects, and deformities that they had struggled with in this existence.

For the Corinthians, like us, being rid of the body wasn't necessarily a rejection of Jesus's resurrection or God's promises. It was both hope for something better and a failure of imagination. Paul is trying to break into that failure pointing out that God does not give us something that we are not meant to have. This is not the same as saying whatever happens to us is God's will. That is not true, because free will means that we may make choices or be affected by the choices of others that are not what God wanted for us.

However, if we look at what we have- materially and spiritually, we have received grace upon grace. In that outpouring of grace, Paul is saying, we have real, genuine, tangible, bodies. Yes, they may hurt or fall short or not be the shape of our dreams, but our bodies are gifts from God. And if God gives us a gift, it is meant to be loved, spoken well of, and not discarded. Paul argues that if God gives us a body, it's probably a forever gift- just like grace, mercy, and love.

The sustaining of the forever gift of the body is a mystery, not to be solved in this life. It is meant to be enjoyed and, furthermore, put to good use for all the things that Paul has mentioned in the other 14 chapters of the book. It means nothing to form a community, to care for others, to show love, to live into vocation if it is just done metaphorically or mentally. The only way we can truly form a community of love is by actually caring for other people by doing for them. And doing things requires a body. Even prayer requires our brains, all the systems that feed and care for the brain, and the rest of our body to carry out the actions of the prayer. There is no purely spiritual activity. Anything that we do for God, compelled by the Spirit, will require our body if we are actually going to live into it.

And if our body is what God gifts us for this world, then we will have a body of some kind- a real, tangible, useful body- for the work of the life to come.


In a side note to this point, related more to the Luke reading than 1 Corinthians, when the gospel writer says, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you”- it is notan indication that God expects us to endure abuse- to our bodies, our minds, or our spirits- as a regular occurrence. In the context of the whole reading, the sermon on the plain, it is to be noted that abuse may occur while one is living out the realities of being Christian. One may be called names for standing up for the marginalized or have rocks thrown at them (literally) while working on behalf of the poor. This is where Jesus’ words apply, we don’t fight back in those circumstances because it would take energy away from the good we were doing. Daily abuse, however, in a family, work, or romantic context- the kind that wears away at our bodies and our will, not to mention our ability to do good- this is not something that God causes as a test for us or means for us to endure. On-going trauma to our bodies is not God’s plan or will. Why? Because it is not in line with the reality that God has gifted us our bodies and loves them. 

That is why I believe in the resurrection of the body. God must love bodies because God made them. Through generation after generation, eon after eon, God has sustained the bodies of animals, the corporeal form of plants, the solidity of rocks, and the fragile flesh of humanity. After speaking through fire, whirlwind, flood, and even stillness, God finally chose to take on the human form- embracing the body as the most beloved part of creation. Bodies bring other bodies into the world, show compassion, reveal passion, and devote care at the end of all things. God loves bodies. And, I believe, God does not destroy what God loves.

My second reason for believing in the resurrection of the body is this: Divine love is more expansive (and mysterious) than we can comprehend. Western Christians, especially Americans, often try to make the world into neat categories. We want black or white, cat or dog, apple or orange, male or female, Grizzlies or Bobcats, John Deere or International Harvester, downhill or cross-country, regular or decaf.

And, yes, sometimes there are only two choices. But more often than not, there's a third way. And a fourth way, a fifth, a sixth, and so much more. We have salt water and fresh water, but there are also marshes and estuaries when both kinds of water mix. Life in estuaries exists in that place for the health of both the fresh and saltwater systems. The things that live in estuaries exist in a third way, with their bodies.

Mountains and plains are both amazing and necessary, but mesas, canyons, dry riverbeds, deserts, and jungles also serve purposes for creation. We cannot simply limit the landscape to our favorite, because there are life forms beyond our knowing that live in all kinds of terrain- and their existence may make ours possible in an inter-relational way. We need their bodies and they may need our care.

God who made otters, beavers, and ducks- all who have their own purposes- also made the platypus- a venomous duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-bodied egg-laying mammal that intrigues, terrifies, and delights. Apparently, God even likes to mix categories.

My point is that God's majesty and mystery, God's power and might, God's love and mercy are so much higher, deeper, and broader than we can imagine. We attempt to limit God's expanse to what we understand, but instead, God's call beckons us to let go of the illusion of control and instead say, "Isn't this amazing."

When we do that with the concept of the resurrection of the body, we come to the same place as Paul. We have a body now that may end and there we will someday have a concrete form that will not end. We have spiritual gifts from God and the gift of our bodies for the sake of the world. We have brokenness now and we will have restoration, in this life and in the life to come. We have knowledge and strength and we have confusion and questions.

We ourselves are marshes, mixing salt and fresh, trust and doubt, physical and spiritual gifts and blessing. We are marshes, combining the real presence and the felt absence of living in the imitation of Christ. We are marshes, working for healing, renewing, and refreshing the world with our God-given gifts.

Yes, I believe in the resurrection of the body.

I believe in it because Jesus' body was resurrected as a demonstration of God's power and God's love.

I believe it because the Spirit helps me and the Bible tells me so.

I believe it because God's revelation since the beginning of all things shows a love for the real and the concrete, particularly bodies.

I believe it because God is bigger than what I know and what I can imagine.

I believe in the resurrection of the body, from the tomb, from the pains of this life, and in the life of the world to come.

Amen.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Abide With Me

This prayer was originally written for and posted on revgalblogpals.org on Friday, 18 January 2019.


Holy Breath of Life-

There is a fine edge in my world.

The space before the ledge is the area wherein I acknowledge the idols in my life,

Attempts and desire for control,

Tasks that busy my day and prevent rest and stillness,

Issues that I have made my own without consulting You,

Frustrations and hurts that I feed as though they would produce nourishing fruit.

The small border of the larger space, the tiny strip, just before the very edge…

This is the space where I admit, oh so quietly, that my life has become unmanageable.

This is the space where Your air gives me enough strength in my own mouth to shape the words- I am not doing as well as I pretend to be.

I have taken up residence, now, in this tiny borderland- the territory between denial and what seems like it might be a freefall, but is more likely a float in the everlasting arms.

I am not thinking of causing myself pain, but instead wanting to dwell in a tent of honesty and hope.

Abide with me here. Send ravens with food.

Save me from times of trial.

Hear my prayer.

Amen.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

An Epistle on Baptism

This letter was written to be read in the congregation during my absence on the date below, for the celebration of the Baptism of our Lord. 


Dear friends in Christ at Big Timber Lutheran on Sunday, January 13, 2019-

Grace and peace to you from God our Creation, Jesus our Savior, and the Holy Spirit who directs our days. I do give thanks to God when I think of you because your good work in Big Timber is inspiring to me and because I believe that God has brought us together for a purpose in our town for the sake of the gospel, the good news of Christ’s work in the world.

Today is the celebration of the Baptism of our Lord. If I were with you, I would ask if there were any among you who were unbaptized and wished to come forward to the font. In our tradition, we so frequently witness the baptisms of infants and children that we forget that adults are welcomed to the water to be washed in the same way. In fact, part of the way that Lutherans think about baptism is this- since baptism is a gift from God; it treats children as adults- giving them expectations in response to the gift. The gift of baptism treats adults like children- surrounding them, cleansing them, and gently relieving them of fear and strain.

In Lutheran theology, as well as among our other siblings in Christ, holy baptism and holy communion are collectively referred to as “the means of grace”. The phrase is used because it is specifically in those two situations that God has promised to show up, to deliver and feed the gift of faith, and to do all the work that truly matters for salvation and wholeness. We may pour the water or serve the meal, but the work that truly matters is God’s alone.

Since it is God’s work alone, we must be careful about what we say is happening and also what we don’t acknowledge. It is easier than you think to be wrong about the Divine. How easy is it? Today’s reading from Luke shows us that it is easy to be wrong about Jesus and if we get things wrong about the Holy Son, we can additionally be incorrect about the Holy Parent and the Holy Spirit.

Among Christians, we are often taught that the Judean people of Jesus’ time were expecting a warrior king in the line of David, who would relieve them from Roman oppression and re-establish the kingdom of Israel. This is not exactly correct. The expectation of God’s anointed, the Messiah, gave shape to the lives of faithful Judeans by helping them to understand that God’s work was still on-going. The work of creating, redeeming, and restoring had not been abandoned after Eden, but was always God’s work into which people were (and are) invited. 

While that was the corporate understanding, sometimes individual people misinterpreted God’s promises, something that still happens today. John is baptizing people toward a life of repentance, a life of corrected behaviors that are oriented toward caring for others and the world that God made. His expectation of the One who is to come is that the Messiah will continue the work of purification, in an even stronger way. A winnowing fork is a tool for dealing with wheat, it is used to lift the wheat the air, moving it around, allowing air to circulate, so that the chaff- the part that is not to be used- can be sifted out and then taken away.

John expects that this is what the Messiah will do, purify the faithful by removing what is in them or of them that is not useful and is unnecessary. In the verses we did not read today, from Luke 3, Herod has John arrested and imprisoned. In Luke 7, John will send a message from prison, with his own disciples, asking Jesus if he actually is the one who is to come or if they’re waiting from someone else.

Why would John ask that? It is because what he heard of Jesus didn’t sound quite like the purifying work that John had expected. John is not bad and neither were his fellow Judeans or others who had come to an understanding of God through the Jewish faith. They were simply human and part of being human is that we look at our own habits and preferences and assume that God wants the same thing, without truly considering what God wants and how we are actually made the be reflections of those Divine preferences and desires.

So, like John, we often reduce baptism to one point when it is meant to be so much more. We treat coming to the font like the chance to give our children or ourselves a holy “Get out of Hell free” card, but it is specifically not that and it is specifically so much more.

The baptism that we are blessed to offer, as a means of God’s grace, is an affirmation of who Jesus was and who Christ is as the One who has defeated death, triumphs over evil, and is our holy brother and one worthy of imitating. Doing the work of baptizing means that:

1)  We recognize that we are drawn together by God and by God’s grace into a holy and changed community. 
2)  We have commitments that are beyond what we might choose for ourselves, including caring for others whether or not we like them and caring for the world that God made in both large and small ways. 
3)  We understand that elements of creation- like water, oil, bread, and wine, carry the Spirit of God and can do more than the sum of their parts. 
4)  Since one does not baptize one’s self, continuing together is an essential part of living a faithful life. 
5)  We are baptized in an active acceptance of God’s will and God’s work, as well into an active rejection of the work of the forces that oppose God. These forces may be spiritual, of this world, or internal. 

This is now quite long for something that I am not there to unpack more for you. Additionally, Steve probably has his own questions that he wants to ask me now and I shouldn’t feed that fire any more than I am willing to own the minute I’m back in the city limits.

Our baptisms are a gift from God that shape and give direction to our lives. When we remember that we are baptized, when we wash our face, affirm our baptisms, or see the font in this church or others, we remember that God’s work is a demonstration of grace and mercy. And it does not stop.

The Holy Spirit continues like a winnowing fork, shifting out the chaff which is not only not useful but also takes up space that is needed for the actual part of the wheat that is nourishing. Thus, it is removed.

We are baptized, by God’s grace, so that we may be nourishing- to ourselves, to our families, to others, to the world that God has made, is repairing, and deeply, deeply loves.

This festival, the baptism of our Lord, reminds us that we are a new community in Christ, to care for each other, to forgive each other, and to encourage each other in spiritual growth and health. It also reminds us that God gives all things freely and in holy love, especially renewal and hope. Let me repeat that: God gives all things freely and in holy love, especially renewal and hope.

May you be filled with renewal and hope today, remembering that you (yes, you!) are beloved children of God, marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Spirit forever.

In Christ’s own peace and joy,

Pastor Julia





-->