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


Friday, January 4, 2019

Revelation Read-Along: Day 18

Reading: Revelation 14

Advent Theme: Absence

I am still reading Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I began reading it in 2005. I am, perhaps, a quarter finished with it. In my view, this is the most significant theological work of the 20thcentury. According to him, these are the things Bonhoeffer wrote after he truly understood the cost of discipleship. None of us truly comprehend that cost until we realize that we are paying it. 

Very early in Letters is this passage:

…God is teaching us that we must live as humans who can get along very well without God. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who makes us live in this world without using God as a working hypothesis is the god before whom we are standing. Before God and with God we live without God. God allows Himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which God can be with us and help us. Matthew 8:17 (he took up our infirmities, and bore the burden of our sins) makes it crystal clear that it is not by his omnipotence that Christ helps us, but by his weakness and suffering.

This is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man's religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; he uses God as a deus ex machina. The Bible, however, directs us to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help. To this extent we may say that the process we have described by which the world came of age was an abandonment of the false conception of God, and a clearing of the decks for the God of the Bible, who conquers power and space in the world by his weakness…
After I read this for the first time, I closed the book and didn’t open it again for five months. I could not stop thinking about this phrase, “Before God and with God we live without God.” What did it mean for one of the most faithful people I can think of- one whose heart for serving others did not let him stay safe but to throw himself into the mess of trying to overthrow Hitler- what does it mean that he believes in an active and compassionate God who does not give us an adequate framework for living

This is what comes to mind when I read Revelation 14. I think of all the people who have told me that their religious practice is “private”. What they believe or how they imitate Christ is an interior practice, not meant for discussion, reflection, or for display in public. It is true, however, that everything we do reveals to the people around us what we believe. To follow Jesus, to truly be a disciple, to show that one’s heart is at rest in the one true God means paying attention to the details. It means spiritually reflecting on one’s habits, purchases, hobbies, time spent, time wasted, words said, words unsaid, generosity shown, generosity withheld. What we do and what we leave undone is what makes the mark on us- revealing to all who will see it where our loyalties lie.

Which brings me back to Bonhoeffer’s cryptic writing. There are parts of the Bible that are just mysterious. They are neither road map nor pointillist painting. They are written for a people that we are not. The Spirit is present in these words, but She may not be speaking a language we understand. Before God and with God, we admit that we do not always comprehend the words of God and then we go on. Frankly, my dear, we have enough to work on with what we do understand.

Potential Takeaway: Throughout history, faithful people have had to make difficult decisions and felt as though God was silent as they struggled. They were never alone. It is a painful part of being human that we are not always as fully connected with our Creator as we could or should be. It is not a matter of letting go and letting God, but rather trusting that God is present, is acting, and will make all things new. Our consolation in this is that when we feel this way, we are not the first to do so, nor the last. 

Holy God, in the beginning, the Spirit brought creation and order out of chaos. Your creation has never known a time when You were absent, when your love was not intimately present. Strengthen me to trust you ever more deeply and yet to live out my faith more boldly and bravely- showing your truth to all whom I encounter. Amen. 

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Revelation Read-Along: Day 17

The series took a hiatus while I gave time and energy to be with a grieving family and a dying saint. I appreciate your patience. 

Reading: Revelation 13

Advent Theme: Simplicity

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them. For the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14) I think about that verse when I read Revelation 13. So much has been made about this chapter, gallons of ink spilled on it alone, that it can be hard to read it with new eyes. Thus, think about how you might explain this to a child. If we cannot explain the scripture to a child, then either our interpretation is off-base or Jesus was wrong. Which one of those two would you like to pick? (I do realize that creating a binary there isn’t necessarily helpful, but please let it stand for this post.)

Let’s approach chapter 13 as though we were going to explain it to a 9-year-old. We have a different relationship with dragons now, but imagine if you didn’t have books and movies about dragons. Imagine the rulers of the world used the images of power and fire, like a dragon, to make people scared. How would you feel if you saw shields with dragons or red flags, like dragon fire, carried on long poles as an army rode by?

Then what would it be like if your friends and their families all said, “We have to follow the emperor. He is looking for all the people who don’t decorate their house with dragons. If you don’t sing the dragon song, he will send the army to kill you.”

Your family and you believe that a house should only have words from God in it and no pictures. Your family will not get on their knees when the emperor’s dragon flag goes by. Your parents say that you are not allowed to sing the dragon song- not at home, not on the playground, not if you’re by yourself. They say that the emperor says he is God, but you know that he is not. Your friends aren’t allowed to play with you anymore because their families are scared and they believe in the emperor, or at least in the emperor’s power.

Sometimes the emperor makes things that seem good happen. His army triumphs over invaders. He allows extra grain to come into the market. He slows down the sacrificing of people in the Coliseum since it is for his entertainment that this happens.

When your parents talk about the emperor with their friend, the ones they know from house church, they use a code. In this code, a different number represents each letter of the alphabet. They use the numbers in conversation so that no one will overhear them speaking ill of the emperor.

What do you do, oh, proverbial 9-year-old?  

This is the essence of chapter 13. It is revealing the symbolism of Rome and the emperor as a cult. Like most cults, this one demands the worship and devotion of those who wish to benefit from the cult’s power and resources. As the cult grows in power, those who are uncomfortable or even fully dissenting will have to work harder and harder to resist and to survive.

Gematria is the system of determining the numerical value of letters. Jewish people at the time of John’s writing would have been familiar with this system and it has counterparts in Greek, as well as in other languages around the world. The name “Nero Caesar” has a numerical value of 666 in Hebrew. In textual variants, the number is sometimes 616, but that also becomes “Nero Caesar” in Greek or Latin. The famous number is just a coded way of talking about the emperor. “I’m thinking of a number. It’s for someone’s name. Can you guess who?” 

The other significance of 666 is in relationship to the use of the number seven (7) throughout Revelation. John uses 7 as a number of completion and perfection. Six falls short of seven. It can never be the perfect number. The use of 6 in relation to the beast and the dragon is to remind the readers, once again, that the empire is NOT the same as God’s kingdom.

Potential Takeaway: John’s readers are shown through more symbols (apocalyptic literature for the win!) that what the world offers cannot reach what God freely gives. We often mix up those two systems, believing that we can easily acquire worldly stature, but we will have to work hard for heavenly grace. Grace is grace. It is free and is truly appreciated when we realize what it cost God to give it (becoming human and suffering our rejection in the flesh). As we grow in appreciation of grace, we will then be led to respond to it by correct worship, caring for others, and stewarding the world that God made. 

Gracious and generous God, Your power is so much greater than anything the world can show us. Yet we remain bombarded with the signs of earthly status and success. Guide me into faithful worship in thought, word, and deed- that I might resist that which fades and find strength and hope in what is eternal. Amen.