What’s The Point?

 

Thanks to the scholarship of Karoline Lewis and Bruce Epperly for inspiration and direction in writing this sermon, and to Black Lives Matter – Birmingham Chapter founder Cara McClure for reading it over and loving it.

Closing poem is by Elisabeth Elliot, found here.

Image: 2016 Alabama Poverty Data Sheet, available through Alabama Possible.

Isaiah 58:1-12

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Today, in churches all across the country, in Sunday schools and Bible study groups and sanctuaries of every denomination, individuals and congregations will be struggling with —wrestling with — our Gospel reading. I mean, let’s set aside trying to explain how salt can become not salty, there’s all this stuff about keeping the Law… yeah, the Mosaic Law, which the Apostle Paul, and millenia of Christian theology and doctrine, have taught that we are no longer under! “Whoever breaks… the least of these commandments… will be called least in the kingdom of heaven…”

How do we faithfully approach such a Scripture? Do we ignore it, focusing on the safer parts, “salt of the earth,” “light of the world?” Do we construct a to-do list in making sure our righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees? Do we skip it and concentrate on the Epistle reading, from First Corinthians? Do we declare that, all this time, we’ve been doing it wrong, and we have to start today keeping every letter of the Mosaic Law, because obviously God must care if we go to church on Saturday and eat bacon and shrimp and wear clothes made from polyester blends?

I don’t think so. I think there’s something deeper at work here, and not just because I like bacon. In fact, I think that the whole idea of simply keeping the letter of the law, even to the degree that the Pharisees strove to be faithful to the finest distinction of the intention of every tenet, is not only the easy way out, it’s the core of the problem.

And it was not a new problem. In our Old Testament reading, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah about the same issue: in short, slavishly following the letter of the law while completely missing its spirit — missing, if you will, the point.

Isaiah was writing to a Jewish people who had returned to a ruined Jerusalem after seventy years of exile in Babylon. Bit by bit, they’d rebuilt — repaired the walls, cleaned the rubble, cobbled together a Temple that was less than a shadow of the glory of Solomon’s Temple. And as they worked, as they scraped together enough food to barely survive day-to-day, they were very careful to follow every letter of the Mosaic Law.

It could be argued that they sacrificed and prayed and fasted for fear that, if they neglected the rituals, God would again send an army to destroy the city, again compel their conqueror (currently the Persian, Cyrus the Great) to exile them — perhaps even erase them from the face of the earth. But there was more: there was an expectation that, if they did everything right, if they prayed and fasted and sacrificed enough, God would make things better: more food, easier access to water, and an end to living under the rule of a foreign oppressor.

But time marched on, and things didn’t get better. Either nothing at all changed, or it got worse, depending on who you asked. Eventually, people began asking, “What’s the point?” “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

And maybe folks in Jesus’ day were asking the same questions. Six hundred years after Isaiah, Caesar had replaced Cyrus, and despite a grand new Temple, despite all the sacrifices and fasting and worship and prayers and rituals, most people toiled endlessly for a enough bread and beans to survive another day, for enough coins to pay the taxes, for enough water to wet their tongue… nothing ever got better, so what’s the point?

It’s a valid question, even today, isn’t it? What is the point?

Oh, I don’t mean that we are in as dire straits as the Jews of Isaiah’s time, or of Jesus’ time. Though Alabama is the fourth poorest state in the nation, though one in four Alabamians lives in poverty, though thirty-one percent of the residents of the city of Birmingham live in poverty, you and I have it all right. There’s food to eat, money to pay the bills, plenty of food on the table and more than enough water to drink at the turn of a tap.

But do we think this comfort, this success, this sufficiency is contingent on going to church?

Why do Christians spend so much time on doctrine — making certain that what we believe is the right thing to believe, making sure that how we worship is the right way to worship, making sure that we Christians are telling others how to live and think and worship and act? What’s the point?

Now, let me be very clear: yes, worship and study and prayer are very important. The focus of our faith journey is a closer relationship, a more consonant identification with our loving Creator and Jesus Christ, the Author and Finisher of our faith, through the guidance and fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

But can it be that God has only ever cared about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s? Is the whole point of worship and prayer and theology and doctrine — the whole point of sacrifice and fasting and ritual in Isaiah’s time and in Jesus’ time — to make sure that when God tallies the score, we make the cut? Is that really the point?

That’s the challenge that God, through Isaiah, laid out to the Jewish people: Do you really think the whole point of fasting is to abase yourselves, to prove to Me that you’re humble enough, to impress Me with your piety? Do you think that the whole point is to be more holy than the next guy, more religious than her, more pure than him? Do you really think I care about that? Really???

That’s what Jesus is saying to the people who came up the mountain with him — sure, the Pharisees and Scribes are passionate about the rules. Some of the things they believed and taught were, in fact, not different from Jesus’ beliefs and teachings: quite in contrast to the Temple elite and Sadduccees, they believed that a life of faith was lived apart from the Temple, God was present at all times, and to be worshiped in everyday life. But it wasn’t the number of steps someone could walk on the Sabbath that God cared about. It wasn’t whether or not one performed a hand-washing ritual before a meal, or never dared to step foot on Samaritan soil, or took part in scheduled fasts. That was not the point!

And this is what Jesus says to us today: Do we think that going to church every week, that being a Presbyterian, or a Methodist, or a Lutheran, or Catholic, or Orthodox, is all that God is looking for? Is it really of utmost importance to the Almighty whether we sprinkle or pour or dunk to baptize, or whether we baptize infants or adults? Does God examine us based on whether we see the elements of the Lord’s table through a transubstantialist or consubstantiationalist or virtualist or ordinalist doctrine? Do we lose points on the big scoreboard in the sky if we don’t understand what any of those words even mean? Are we awarded extra brownie points for being Reformed as opposed to Calvinist or Armenian, for preferring a Liberation theology to a systematic one?

Make no mistake, what we believe matters, but what matters more is why we believe it — and what we do with what we believe.

That’s what Isaiah’s telling the Jews, isn’t it? “Hey, the whole idea behind fasting is to make sure everyone has enough to eat. You humble yourself so you can lift up someone else! I don’t care about ritual, I care about injustice and poverty and homelessness, breaking yokes and freeing the oppressed!”

According to what God said through Isaiah, that was the point.

But what about our Gospel reading? Are we committing the sin of isogesis, of reading in to the Scriptures what we want them to say?

If our reading this morning existed in a vacuum, I’d have to say “yes.” But Jesus gives us a thread to pull: “…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The Scribes and Pharisees appeared pious, appeared holy, but we need look no further than Matthew’s twenty-third chapter to see Jesus comparing that piety to “whitewashed tombs,” or cups that are only washed on the outside. He says, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; [t]hey love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues… to be greeted with respect… to have people call them rabbi…” Jesus says, repeatedly, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees,” calls them “blind guides,” out and out calls them hypocrites, accuses them of locking people out of the kingdom of heaven! And the key phrase of it all is the twenty-third verse: “you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”

If we believe what we believe so we can not go to Hell, we miss the point. If what we do with our faith is centered only on worship and ritual, and if it is intended to benefit only our selves, we miss the point. And if what we do with what we believe doesn’t involve mercy and justice and faith, we miss the point.

Jesus says that we are the salt of the earth — are, not should be or could be or ought to be, are. Salt serves to improve the quality of life, that is the point of salt: it makes food palatable, sure, but in Jesus’ time it was believed to have medicinal and purifying qualities as well — it was a preservative, newborn babies were rubbed in salt, Roman soldiers were historically paid with salt (that’s where someone being “worth their salt” comes from), so it had an intrinsic value so far as it benefited others, but no further — if it didn’t serve to improve in some way, it was worthless.

Jesus says that we are the light of the world — are, not should be or could be or ought to be, are. Light illuminates, it serves to drive out darkness, to call attention to, to bring comfort from fear, awareness and knowledge and protection. That’s the point of light, to be a benefit to others. Hide it, obscure it in some way, and it becomes worthless.

Humans were meant for more than scraping by, day to day. We were meant for more than just working, paying bills, and dying. Our faith in Christ is meant for more than a personal panacea, a “get-out-of-Hell-free” card.

There are plenty of things to do, countless ways we can act to use our faith in Jesus Christ to make the kingdom of heaven a reality in the lives of others. We can and should feed the hungry, we can and should clothe the naked, we can and should welcome the alien in our midst, we can and should speak the truth to power and defend the powerless and bring the marginalized into the fold…

And no, of course, we can’t do everything. But, as Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred hungry people, feed just one.”

Do it immediately;

Do it with prayer;

Do it reliantly,

casting all care;

Do it with reverence,

Tracing His Hand,

Who placed it before thee with

Earnest command.

Stayed on Omnipotence,

Safe ‘neath His wing,

Leave all resultings,

DO THE NEXT THING.

That is the point.

 

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The Beatitudes: A Message For Now

I am indebted to the scholarship of the Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton, Sarah Dylan Breuer, and The Girardian Lectionary.

The photo is by Judy Hand-Truitt, from “White Birminghamians For Black Lives,” a weekly witness in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park.

As you watch the news, remember the words of the prophet Micah: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

What did I just read?

It’s a serious question, and I don’t mean it objectively. I want every one of us to think about how we hear the Beatitudes. Are these verses poetry? Advice? Feel-good fluff, the kind of stuff you put on coffee mugs and really bad Bible-store art?

I ask this because most Americans suffer from an affliction called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” or MTD for short.

MTD has five basic tenets of belief:

1 — A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.

2 — God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

3 — The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4 — God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.

5 — Good people go to heaven when they die

When we view the Beatitudes through the lenses of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, we tend to see these verses as advice: What the Reverend Rober Schuller called “Be-Happy-Attitudes.” All we really need to do in order to be happy — blessed — is to have the proper mindset. Be appropriately meek and pure in heart, and presto-changeo, we get to go to heaven!

Only it is hard — even impossible — to just jinn up the correct emotions on command.  “Hey you, quit being satisfied with your life! Don’t you know you’re supposed to be poor in spirit?” “Or you, what are you smiling about, that’s no way for a mourner to look!”

And we who claim that Christ has done away with the Law — is it not creating a new law to use the Beatitudes as behavior-modification tips? Maybe part of the problem is that we are always looking for an answer to some form of the question that the Rich Young Ruler asked Jesus: “What must I do to be saved?”  So, Jesus proclaims a promise – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” – and we hear a command – “Be a Peacemaker!” And sure, being a peacemaker, or hungering and thirsting after righteousness, are good things and making efforts toward peace and righteousness never hurt anybody.

Only the Beatitudes are not a checklist. The Beatitudes are not good advice — the Beatitudes are Good News!

Jesus doesn’t take his disciples apart from the crowd to give them a pep talk. “The meek inherit the earth,” “those who mourn are comforted,” and so on aren’t commands to be meek or mournful. These are promises! Promises that in the coming kingdom those who are already meek and mournful, those who work for peace or hunger and thirst for righteousness; those who pure in heart and merciful – these will come into their own and find their faith and constancy rewarded and honored in a world that has come more and more in line with God’s will and God’s way.

…wait a minute. How does this change anything? If I’m honest with myself, I’m not meek, I don’t seek peace all that much, I’m too full of myself most of the time to be poor in spirit, so what do I do to bring myself more in line? It’s still a to-do list!

Unless it isn’t. What if the whole point of the Beatitudes is found in the one “blessed” that Jesus expands on? “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”?

At this point in Matthew’s account, he has called four disciples: Simon and Andrew, James and John. He’s been preaching and healing and gathering massive crowds. It isn’t hard to imagine that, to the disciples, it looked like Jesus was spectacularly successful, to think that they’d hitched their wagons to a real winner!

But Jesus, and you and I, know that these adoring crowds will, all too soon, be screaming for Jesus’ death. Jesus knows that, all too soon, instead of sitting on a mountain, Jesus will hang naked from a cross. This “success” is temporary, and it isn’t the point, anyway.

Jesus came to set us free. And the path to that freedom would be long and tiresome and painful and bloody and would seem to dead-end with a cross and a tomb. And even though the tomb was not the final word, these disciples Jesus is talking to, and millions more, would, in sharing the Good News of the risen Christ, encounter rejection, poverty, pain, loss, mockery, torture and death.

This doesn’t sound like a blessing, does it?

After all, the very act of being a follower of Christ was rife with opportunities for someone to lose their livelihood, their families, their worth their position, even their life.

Followers of Christ were “meek.” Far from our usual idea of “meekness” as someone who is “overly submissive or compliant, spiritless, or tame,” the kind of meekness Jesus refers to is “turning the other cheek,” being specifically nonviolent, even in protests, like Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr.

Followers of Christ were “merciful” and “peacemakers,” seeking reconciliation with, rather than revenge on, someone who wronged them. Followers of Christ were “pure in heart,” and as Jesus defines purity, that meant doing things – like eating with any who would break bread with you – which were bound to render them impure in others’ eyes.

Being a Christian meant that one was most likely going to end up being cast out from their family, they were going to lose relationships and associations. And while you or I might survive this kind of thing in today’s society, in first-century Judean culture, it was suicide.

In the New Testament world, the esteem you commanded was in large part a function of how important your connections — your family members, your patrons, and your clients — were. If you were (whether by birth, adoption, or being a slave or freedperson) part of a very important family, you were very important. If your family was less important, you were less important. And if you weren’t connected at all, that didn’t make you “your own person”; it made you nobody. That’s serious stuff, because nobody wants to do business with a nobody; being pushed out of your network of social relationships could also mean being left with nothing to live on and no way to get out of that position.

The one pushed out could be destitute. The Greek is ptochos, traditionally translated “poor in spirit.” The hunger and thirst that Matthew 5:6 talks about — literal hunger and thirst incurred for righteousness as Jesus redefined it — would certainly follow, as would mourning.

You get the idea. Jesus was preparing his disciples — those standing and listening as he sat and taught, as well as those who read and heard his words in persecuted churches in the first centuries of the Church, and those enduring real persecution in countries around the world today.

And one of the important messages Jesus is giving them is that they are not alone. Not rejected. Not destitute. By giving them the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus gives them a family. They are children of the God who created the universe, to whom all honor belongs. They are children of one Father, and that makes them brothers and sisters. They will never be bereft in a community that sees themselves as family, and that cares for one another in ways that show that they take that family relationship with utmost seriousness.

Cool, huh? So this is the point in the sermon where I tie it all up, saying that we need to treat the poor with honor in exactly the ways I’ve already mentioned: providing for their needs, recognizing them as humans deserving dignity as opposed to ridicule, disgust, and rejection. It’s a nice, safe, comfortable way to end a sermon, pass the plate, sing, ‘don’t forget to dance.’

But as much as The Beatitudes are not poetic pick-me-ups, they, like all of Scripture, hold much more depth than a single definition does justice to. If these words were only relevant to the men and women who were poor in the first century, if they only impacted those persecuted for Christ in the centuries leading up to Constantine, then why preach them? No, the Beatitudes speak to us today.

Over against the disease of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which says that God exists but doesn’t really care, exists but only to cater to our desires, exists but only as doorkeeper of the Sweet Bye-and-Bye, the Beatitudes promise us that God is present and active and cares about all who hurt, all who hunger and thirst, all who seek righteousness and hope. The Kingdom of Heaven is promised to them — the ability to experience God is promised to them.

Eventually? When they die?

No. Now.

Notice the part where Jesus says that the meek will inherit the earth? That’ll be a little difficult if, as we read in the Book of the Revelation, earth is done away with, won’t it?

Heaven is God’s space, where full reality exists, close by our ordinary, earthly reality and interlocking with it. When we pray, in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done,” we are praying about the rule of heaven coming to earth. In Jesus Christ, God is establishing his sovereign rule not just in heaven, not just someday, but on earth, here and now, as well.

But if I am not already peace-seeking, not already meek, not already any of those things Jesus mentions in the Beatitudes, how do I get there? I have to ask, like the Rich Young Ruler, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus came to save us. All of us. The poor in spirit, and people like me, too. The merciful, and people like me, too. The meek, and people like me, too.

Our relationship with the risen Christ, our adoption by our loving Creator, is a journey. We aren’t where we’re going, but we aren’t where we’ve been.

We pray. We study. We learn from those who are meek, who are poor in spirit, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and we grow.

Yes, the Beatitudes speak to us today.  They speak words of challenge, instruction, hope, and comfort to our spirit, in a very real way.

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the poor in spirit, who have failed, those whose self-dependence is exhausted, and whose only recourse is grace, Those who know that, without the love of Christ they are, for all intents and purposes, bankrupt: without hope, without purpose, without a real future. The kingdom of heaven, God’s reign experienced and lived on earth, belongs – lock, stock, and barrel – to them.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are those who mourn, both for the things which should be better in the world, and for the things which should be better in themselves; for the relationships and triumphs they’ve lost, and those they will never have. They will be comforted, God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the meek, who speak the truth to power, refusing to encourage or engage in violence, yet standing for truth, and for fair treatment for all inhabitants of the earth. These are the ones whose inheritance is the planet itself.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, both within themselves, and for justice in the world around them. Those who speak truth to power, even when their voice shakes. Those who see events in the world around them, and stand in the gap against the forces of marginalization, exclusion, oppression, and bigotry. Their hunger and thirst will certainly be satisfied!”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the ones who practice mercy when it matters most, and when it is least convenient. God’s grace will shower them with mercy.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the pure in heart, who don’t wonder “what’s in it for me,” who love without reservation, who insist on seeing the good in others. They will see God, both in the faces of those they love… and in that now-and-coming Kingdom.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the peacemakers, the finders of common ground, those who beat swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks, who don’t fear conflict, but who face it and defuse it. These folks are called ‘children of God.’”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are those in Laos, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Algeria, who are persecuted for being Christians, the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are you who live in Indonesia, China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Libya, Turkey, Columbia, Cuba, and so many other countries, where you are imprisoned, reviled, persecuted and killed for believing in Jesus Christ. You’re in the company of all of God’s prophets, and your reward in heaven is immense.”

Allelia. Amen.

 

The Greater Things Start Here…

I am deeply indebted to Kimberly Knight and “A Lesbian’s Lectionary Journey” for insights and assistance in writing this sermon.

Featured Image by Elieser Wright of Cubster Photography.

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

 

This is the Word of the Lord.

When we look at the baptism of Jesus, there has always been one question I’ve struggled with: “why?”

John’s baptism was specifically stated as serving to signify repentance for the forgiveness of sins – what we would today call “believer’s baptism.” And while we Presbyterians typically don’t practice that form of baptism, we do live in Alabama, and our understanding of theology is heavily influenced, whether we like it or not, by Evangelical, Southern Baptist theology. So the idea of Jesus needing to be baptized is… confusing.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. John the Baptist himself resists the idea of baptizing Jesus – depending on how someone translates the original Greek, he might have had a quiet conversation with Jesus right then and there, or there might have been an ongoing argument about it, where this was the final confrontation… or John might have been physically blocking Jesus from getting in that muddy water.

I don’t know.

But there are a few things I do know, which is probably a good thing, since otherwise that would be the end of the sermon.

Up to this point in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has had everything done for him: Angels have declared him, have given warnings for his safety, Joseph has protected him, his parents have raised him… we are three chapters into the narrative before Jesus speaks a word!

And when he speaks that word – when the King of kings and Lord of lords makes that first decisive step into his own story, it’s a step into the mud and mire common to all humanity. When the Messiah, the Son of God, the firstborn of all creation, present at and active in the creation of all that is, speaks his first words, they are words of submission to the will of God. “…it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

It can be argued that, up to this point in human history, God was transcendent – separated from humankind, existing independent of natural law – “up there” somewhere. At least, that’s how everyone viewed God. Some people – prophets, kings, folks like that – were present at times when the barrier between heaven and earth grew thin, and God poked through with a Word, with a sign or a miracle… but for the most part, humans made sacrifices and followed the Law as best they could, and hoped for something more. Waited for something more.

John the Baptist knew that Jesus was that something more – in the two verses just prior to today’s reading, he said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

I wonder – we see a bit of John’s protest against Jesus, and Jesus’ reply… I wonder if the discussion went something along the lines of this:

John: Wait, what? Me baptize YOU? Number one, hello, I’m not fit to carry your shoes, much less baptize you. Number TWO, you might have noticed that I am proclaiming this baptism for repentance and the forgiveness of sins, and unless you’ve forgotten, you don’t need any of that! Jesus, you’re meant for greater things!

Jesus: Yes, I know. And the greater things start here.

The greater things start here.

We can wax philosophical about God becoming flesh and having to be potty trained and learn how to walk and use a fork, but it’s here on the edge of the wilderness, the banks of the Jordan, where philosophy meets reality.

Because Jesus couldn’t do the will of his Father by spending all his time the Temple courts or in the palace of a king. The people who really need to know that God loves them usually don’t live in church or occupy the halls of power. In order to do the will of his Father, Jesus had to live among people who knew pain and loss and fear and hunger and thirst and illness and death and oppression and the numbing monotony of spending every waking hour toiling and scraping to cobble together just enough bread and beans to feed the family for one more day. He had to know that hunger intimately, personally. He had to know what it felt like to be thirsty. He had to know what it was like to have sand and dirt blown into your eyes and nose and mouth as you trudged along dangerous roads. He had to know what it was like to be so bone-tired you’d sit in the dirt, back to the shady side of a well in a town in Samaria, and ask the first person you see for a drink of water.

The greater things start here. So yes, John stepped aside and Jesus stepped into the mud, his feet sinking to the ankle and making those loud schlorping noises as he walked down into the barely-tolerable cold water.

The baptism of Jesus was a constructive act of destruction – building the salvation of all creation by breaking down every sociological and theological barrier between God and humankind, a declaration that, once and for all, God really is with us.

The baptism of Jesus it was an act of submission – Jesus giving his life and will over to the Father and to God’s plan for the salvation of humankind.

Because however a group or denomination or faith tradition views the act of baptism, however wet one gets when they’re baptized, what we are saying when we baptize and are baptized is that God has broken down the barrier of sin.

And I want to be very specific about that word, “sin.” Paul Tillich writes, “Do we realize that sin does not mean an immoral act, that “sin” should never be used in the plural, and that not our sins, but rather our sin is the great, all-pervading problem of our life? Do we still know that it is arrogant and erroneous to divide [people] by calling some “sinners” and others “righteous”? For by way of such a division, we can usually discover that we ourselves do not quite belong to the “sinner,” since we have avoided heavy sins, have made some progress in the control of this or that sin, and have been even humble enough not to call ourselves righteous…

…this kind of thinking and feeling about sin is far removed from what the great religious tradition, both within and outside the Bible, has meant when it speaks of sin…

…sin is separation. To be in a state of sin is to be in the state of separation. And separation is threefold: there is separation among individual lives, separation of a [person] from [one’s]self, and separation of all [humanity] from the Ground of Being.”

So however a group or denomination or religious tradition practices baptism, however wet we get, what we say when we baptize or are baptized is that we are no longer a human race searching for ourselves while cowering before a God outside of creation – nor must we cower before the powers and principalities of this world (religious or political) – we are beautiful children of God, unified with God and all of creation, with whom God is pleased.

When Jesus came up out of that water, everything changed. The heavens burst open, the Holy Spirit settled on Jesus like a dove, and the Father spoke words of identification and approval. Jesus stepped up out of that water and never stopped moving.

He moved through temptation in the wilderness. He moved through towns all across Judea, preaching and healing and cleansing and feeding and raising from the dead. He moved through Jerusalem to the Cross and death. He rose again from the dead and moved out from the tomb and up to the right hand of God.

And Jesus still moves today.

Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

We have different vocations, different paths we walk day-to-day, but make no mistake: we share the same calling. Wherever we are and whatever we do, we are called to be Jesus moving and acting in the world today. We are Christ’s hands, feet, eyes, and body: We help, we love, we lift up, we love, we defend, we love, we affirm, we love, we feed, we love, we clothe, and did I mention that we love?

The greater things start here. So… let’s get moving.

God Deals In Reality…

When we say “Immanuel” (“God is with us”), and when we say “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” we are not making conditional statements. If God is indeed with us, God is with us all the time.

I am certain that some preachers can write in a vacuum – Bible open in front of them, whipping out an insightful and edifying exposition of Scripture without a thought for commentaries, scholarly discussions, or the insights and sermons of others.

I ain’t one of those preachers.

So each week, you’ll probably see me list online resources and shout outs to friends whose scholarship informs my work. I *might* even link a YouTube video that has nothing at all to do with anything. Yeah, it’s like that.

This week’s sermon draws inspiration from Scott HoezeeJ. Mary LutiThe Girardian LectionaryPaul J. NuechterleinDavid Lose, and The Associates for Biblical Research.

Your comments, suggestions, and constructive criticisms are welcome.

Matthew 2:13-23

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

I don’t know if it’s quite fair – we’ve been enjoying the anticipation of Advent, we’ve sung lovely hymns and carols about the birth of Jesus Christ, we’ve celebrated his birth with candlelight and food and gifts and time with loved ones, and on top of it all, it’s New Year’s Day! Hey, nothing like kicking off a new year with a story about slaughtered babies! Come on, can’t we stay at the manger a bit longer? Can’t we reflect just one more week on John’s wonderful creation hymn, where the Word became flesh and dwelt among us?

Yes, and no.

When we say “Immanuel” (“God is with us”), and when we say “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” we are not making conditional statements. If God is indeed with us, God is with us all the time. If the Word indeed became flesh and dwelt among us, that Word dwelt in all conditions and circumstances. God deals in reality. God deals in our reality. And while I can imagine that Mary and Joseph wanted to just raise Jesus in the relative peace and quiet of Bethlehem, the greed and paranoia that the corrupt powerful always feel against those they oppress reared its head.

Whatever Herod had told the magi, he’d never had any intention of worshiping the newborn King of the Jews. As far as he was concerned, there was only one King. After all, Herod the Great had been crowned the King of the Jews by the Roman senate over three decades before! He’d fought to consolidate and protect his power ever since, killing even his own children, even his wife, if he so much as suspected they might be plotting to overthrow him. Caesar himself supposedly once remarked that “You’d be better off as one of Herod’s pigs as one of his sons.”

So it would be a simple matter, once these foreigners told him where the child was, for Herod to send a few Roman soldiers to the house and solve the problem by killing the little king and his family.

And let’s be clear – when it became clear that the magi weren’t coming back to rat out Jesus, Herod the Great didn’t lose a moment’s sleep wondering what to do. Kill one child or kill a few dozen or kill hundreds, it meant nothing to Herod. There was a child who would someday take his throne from him, and that simply would not do.

Why must the world react to the advent of the Christ with violence? Then again, why not? Let’s admit that this is a horrible story. But let’s acknowledge that every day the news is filled with the same thing. Oh, maybe not in direct response to Jesus or the Gospel but the children of Aleppo have been dying for a long time now. So have children in and around Bethlehem; in Juba, South Sudan; in Darfur; in . . . well, you fill in the blank. It’s not difficult to do.

When we think of 2016, and think of places like Orlando, Dallas, Nice, Brussels, St. Paul, Berlin, and Chicago, it’s easy see it as just another bloody year of travail, murder, suffering, and sorrow. So, no, this account of Herod’s murder of children is not the exception to the rule in this fallen, broken world. It is the rule. The fact is that Jesus and his parents barely escaped with their lives, and the Christmas story cannot really be told in all its brutal fullness without acknowledging that even the very salvation of this world could not come without being surrounded by the very mayhem and evil that Jesus came to fix.

God deals in reality. God deals in our reality. Our reality is “A voice… heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Matthew brings her voice into the story of Jesus, quoting the prophet Jeremiah who remembered her grief as he wrote of the calamity that had befallen the Jewish people when they were overrun and deported into exile and slavery in a foreign land. Their Babylonian captors assembled the terrified deportees in the border town of Ramah, and it is there that Jeremiah hears her weeping down through the ages for her own child and for all the children of the Babylonian captivity. Weeping, and refusing to hear words of comfort, because they are no more.

Rachael is a witness to the things in human life that are so awful that they cannot be explained or repaired. She gives voice to all the keening mothers of Bethlehem’s babies, and to the un-voiceable anguish of every parent, family, clan, and nation from whom children have ever been torn away and destroyed by a police state, by Jim Crow or apartheid, by political greed and indifference, by war and the glorification of war, by gun violence, or by crushing poverty. Rachael will not be hushed about these things. She will not be pacified.

These days, it seems we are surrounded by hushing, pacifying voices: knowing voices that explain and justify the “unfortunate necessity” of innocent suffering, as if it happens all by itself without human complicity; voices that cover up or prettify what violence actually does, or paint a sanctified picture of the meaning of suffering. Pragmatic voices of tyrants. Pandering voices of politicians. Patriotic voices of presidents and generals. Blaming voices of the self-made. Aloof, removed, pious voices of the church.

And while we always hope that a new year will bring peace and hope, we will almost certainly see some new atrocity, some new tragedy, in 2017. The stubborn wail of Rachael weeping for her children urges us to resist and refuse these voices of explanation, rationalization, justification, and obfuscation of all the things that are just not right and must not be condoned. Even our own voices that too often echo the hollow pieties of the world.

Rachael’s grief urges us to rip apart the greatest lie — that it just can’t be helped, that we have no choice but to stand by and accept the suffering of the innocent, the enslavement and destruction of the future, the murder of innocents – whether it be lives destroyed in office buildings in New York, in hospitals with inadequate supplies in Syria, famine in Ethiopia, orphanages in Rwanda, school buses in Tel Aviv, shot-up elementary schools in any quiet American town, or razed homes in the little town of modern Bethlehem.

Think of it! The God who came to save us needed to first be saved from Herod.

That part of us which is like Rickey Bobby from “Talladega Nights” might have wanted a “Chuck Norris Jesus” or a “GI Joe Jesus With the Kung-Fu Grip” to step in and take care of Herod, but God deals in reality. God deals in our reality, and the sad and stark reality is that this Jesus, this God-with-us, was a toddler, a child, and he needed protecting.

Like the children of Israel during the long-ago famine, Jesus had to seek refuge in Egypt, out of the jurisdiction and reach of Herod. And like Moses, Jesus had to come out of Egypt when the time was right.

He came out, but Herod Archelaus had taken Herod the Great’s place, and to no one’s surprise, he wasn’t any better.

The sad reality is that there is always another Herod.

The Holy Family fled to Egypt to escape one Herod, then settled in Nazareth to avoid another, and in the end it was another Herod, Antipas, who was complicit in the state-sanctioned murder-by-crucifixion of Jesus.

There’s always another Herod, always another bloodthirsty tyrant – Hitler or Pol Pot, Kim Jung-Il or Kim Jong-Un, Osama Bin Ladin or Khomeni or Sadaam Hussein, Hosney Mubarek or Bashar Al-Assad, or ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, there is always another Herod.

Why, though? Why is there always another Herod, why is there still so much violence and greed and hatred in the world? It could be that it’s like the joke where an atheist said to a Christian, “If your God is so all-powerful, ask him why he allows killings, starvation and homelessness in the world?” And the Christian replied: “I would. But I’m afraid God might ask me the same question.”

God deals in reality. God deals in our reality. God’s ultimate answer to our reality, to pain and violence and injustice and the inconsolable weeping of Rachel is Jesus Christ, who faced violence and hatred and danger and death with love. With healing. With hope. With resurrection.

In Jesus Christ, God has chosen a whole new way of living to win us salvation. This new way does not run away from the violence but faces it. Neither does God resort to the old way of doing things, which is to fight force with force. God will not stop the madness by getting caught up in the same madness. God neither runs away from the madness, nor gets caught up in it, but stands there in the face of it and continues to love. Love. God came into the midst of the madness, and did so with a suffering love.

Why is there still violence? Because love refuses to violently snuff it out. Love only knows love.

Love affirms that God is with us! Honestly, I don’t think that God-with-us, the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, would mean all that much if the Word was only dwelling among us during the tender moments, during times of celebration, during the Christmas Eve services of our lives. Yes, those moments of joy are gifts from God and it’s right to give God thanks for them. But if we’re glad that God is with us in times of rejoicing, we’re desperate to know that God is also with us in times of grief, loss, and fear.

Yes, this reading is tough to hear a week after Christmas, on New Year’s Day, but it’s important, because we must remember – we must proclaim to a world which suffers under the reign of Herod after Herod – that God is not only with us, God is also for us, promising to bring us through difficult times to the other side, if not unscathed, nevertheless still victorious.

I think that Matthew structures this account around prophecies – the calling out of Egypt, Rachel weeping, Jesus being called a Nazorean, to demonstrate that even the darkest portions of Jesus’ story turn within a larger narrative of God’s providence and protection. This is not to say that all these events are simply part of some larger, dark “plan” – God did not kill those children, Herod did! – but rather to remind us that nothing that happens to Jesus – or, by extension, to us – is beyond the bounds of God’s love and activity.

God deals in our reality, and God is with us, even in the darkest times. Above all, God is also for us, promising not only to accompany us through difficult times but also to bring us to the other side so that, in time, we might know the fullness of joy that is life in Christ.

Not a bad message to hear on this first day of the New Year after all, huh?