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Category Archives: Baptism

God’s Own

(a sermon for January 7, 2018, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, based on Isaiah 43:1-7 and Mark 1:4-11)

Maybe it’s because we’re just starting a new year with all its mystery and possibility, or perhaps it has to do with the fact that I realize that I’m now beginning – slowly, mind you, ever so slowly – to creep into the latter phase of my middle-aged years (!); but I have to confess that lately I’ve been asking myself a question that I’m guessing most of us have asked at one time or another:

Just who am I in the scheme of things, anyway?

Seriously… wouldn’t you agree with me this morning that this might well be one of the single most crucial questions you and I face over the course of our lives and living?  Understanding, of course, that this is not merely a matter of name, rank and serial number; the knowledge of one’s credit rating or pin number; or even if one happens to be a dog person or cat person!  No, this is a question that has to do with the search for self; it’s nothing less than the very quest for one’s own place amidst the conflicting claims and utter confusion of human life! I guess that’s why a question like this is not reserved for the young, but also for those of us who… well, let’s just say those of us who have the benefit of additional life experience!   It’s a question of all of us, to be sure; in fact, it’s what the renowned author and journalist Gail Sheehy refers to as the “one continuing, never-ending, life-long crisis of identity; the ‘Who am I?’ [that’s] asked all the way from womb to tomb, through one passage to the next.”  Simply put, figuring out exactly who we are in the scheme of things can be a long process, and it is by no means easy!

And what makes it all the more difficult is that literally from the time we’re born and continuing up to today and beyond, there’s always some person, some group, some cause or another, some social or political manifesto out there that that proposes to answer that question for us; to give us an identity, as it were, forged in their image!  For instance, pick up any magazine at the checkout line at the supermarket, or for that matter, turn on the television any night of the week and the message is crystal clear:  that we are beautiful, physically perfect, sexual beings who live wholly unto the ideal of pleasure, popularity and affluence! Never mind that such an ideal is not only unattainable but also potentially dangerous (!), nonetheless that’s what all the advertisers of this world seize upon.  Madison Avenue would in fact convince us that we are all merely consumers, makers and spenders of money; and that our primary purpose in life is to accumulate all those things that make us like the people on the magazine covers!

And it goes on and on: we’re told by the business and academic world that who we are is defined by what we do; more to the point, by how successful we are at what we do, even if that success comes at the expense of family, friends or even God.  The political pundits, especially these days, quickly and way too easily seek to label us as “Red State” or “Blue State,” liberal or conservative, democrat or republican, progressive or “deplorable.”  And then, of course, there are those in just about every walk of life who proclaim the gospel of self-centered, self-made autonomy; in other words, “It’s all about me,” except when it involves you, and then… well, it’s still all about me!

My point in all this is to say that for most of us it’s hard to get a clear sense of who we are in the scheme of things when the rest of the world is offering up all these warped and confused ideas of what it means to be a person of some kind of depth and integrity! And this is particularly true, I think, for those of us who would carry the mantle of “Christian,” because the world most decidedly does not seek to instill that sense of identity within us; in fact, such is the radical nature of the Christian faith is that more often than not, the world would seek to pull us away from that identity!

So that’s why, friends, it is so very important – crucial, really, most especially in these times– that you and I remember our baptism.  It seems like such a simple thing, but when it comes to who we are, it’s truly everything!  For just as at the moment of our Lord Jesus’ baptism, “a voice came from heaven [saying]: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” so by the baptism of water and the Holy Spirit we are also affirmed and identified as God’s own beloved children.  It is by our baptism that we can truly know who we are!

You see, whether we’re talking about the baptism of young children or the confession of faith of an adult, we understand baptism as ultimately a rite and sacrament of identity.  William Willimon, in fact, gives one of the best definitions of this I’ve read in recent years; he writes that baptism is when “a Christian first and finally learns who he or she is.”  I like that; in other words, it’s not about what “we ought to be,” or “what we have to work toward,” or “what we will be someday if only we can quit messing up and get it right for a change,” and it’s most decidedly not what the world says we can be if we just get with the program!  Christian Baptism is about what we are – here, now, today – and what we are, is “God’s own, claimed and ordained for God’s serious and joyful business.”

I don’t know about you, but I want to know that I am “God’s own;” moreover, given the cacophony of mixed messages that I keep hearing from the world, let me tell you that I need to know that.  I think that’s why I have always gravitated toward our reading from Isaiah this morning, because this is one of the great and eloquent reminders from scripture of who and whose we are:  “…thus says the LORD… Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

You are mine:  what a powerful message that is… and it always has been.

We need to remember that this word was directed to the people of Israel living in exile: miles from home, their city destroyed, their faith fading into little more than a distant memory, their very existence as a people in danger.  Understand that these were people unsure of who they even were anymore, and that alone filled them with a sense of fear and dread that they would forever remain a people lost and abandoned.  But that we can understand, can’t we; isn’t that, after all, one of the most common fears that almost everyone shares; to be completely and utterly alone?  I’m remembering a classmate of mine from seminary days who apparently as a teenager spent a short time living on the streets.  I say “apparently” because the truth is, she didn’t talk all that much about it; in fact, all I ever remember her saying is that she learned a great deal from the experience, and that the worst part of it was that she felt like “nobody.”  Can there be anything worse than being… nobody, with no identity at all?

And so it was for Israel; but now, in the midst of their worst fear and greatest despair, comes the assurance of the Lord:  “Do not fear… [for] you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire, you will not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”   Or, consider The Message’s translation of this particular passage:  “When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you. When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down. When you’re between a rock and the hard place, it won’t be a dead end – because I am God, your personal God, the Holy of Israel, your Savior.  I paid a huge price for you:  all of Egypt, with rich Cush and Seba thrown in! That’s how much you  mean to me!  That’s how much I love you!  I’d sell off the whole world to get you back, trade the creation just for you.”

That’s just how much we’re loved – we’re not a nobody; and we’re more than just anybody or even somebody – we are “precious … and honored” in God’s sight; bought with a price, named and claimed as God’s very own so that he might love us today and tomorrow and for all of life, now and eternally.  And to “seal the deal,” as it were, he sent to us his own beloved Son, Jesus; so that by and through him we might always know just how deep God’s love truly is, and how, by that love, we can come to know ourselves as we truly are.  We are, you see, ever and always in all things and in all ways, God’s own.

Oh, yes, I know; the fact is that all of us here can claim a whole lot of identities over the course of our lives.  We’re sons and daughters, we’re husbands and wives, we’re parents and grandparents; we’re known by what we do for work, and the things we enjoy doing; we’re known by that which we believe in and the causes that we’re passionate about; we’re known by the words we speak and even more so by the actions we take; and sometimes we’re even identified by the kind of friends we have, but most especially by the kind of friends we are!

The truth is that every one of us here can answer that question – “who are you, anyway?” – and do so in a wide variety of ways. But the good news we’re given today, beloved, is that at the heart of who we are is this pervasive and enduring truth that we are first and foremost, each and every one of us a child of God!  That is the one identity that gives shape and color and form to all the other names and roles that we can ever carry; it is our baptism, this affirmation that we’ve received that we are God’s own that tells us, and the world around us, everything that’s needed about just who – and whose – we are in the scheme of things.

One of the nice things, you know, about coming to the Lord ’s Table as we do is that in coming into the presence of the Lord in the bread and the cup, we are reminded of our “true identity,” so to speak.  Maybe that’s something you need today; maybe these next few minutes can serve as a way of reconnecting with who you really are, as opposed to who everything and everyone else in the world has told you or maybe expects you to be… maybe this is the day you get back in touch with the one who has loved you enough to make you his own.  I can’t think of a better way to start off a new year than that!

Don’t be afraid, God says.  I’m with you, and I will be with you till the end of the age.  That’s how much I love you.

The table is set, beloved; so let us come and feast on the presence of our Lord; and to remember our baptism!

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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One Lord, One Faith, One Birth

img_9581One of the great things I get to do as pastor of East Church is to lead a monthly service of communion at Havenwood-Heritage Heights, a local (and United Church of Christ sponsored) retirement community.  It’s generally a small and informal gathering, mostly members and friends of our congregation who are part of that community (with a few retired clergy as part of the mix!), but it’s a time that is unfailingly sacred as we’ve shared and prayed together; in fact, I must confess that I’ve always come away from this experience feeling as though I’ve been ministered unto at least as much as whatever has been imparted by the pastoral care I’ve sought to offer!

It’s also been a wonderful reminder of who we are as the church and of our shared ministry; a point that was brought home to me recently in, of all places, the express check-out lane of one of our supermarkets.  I was actually there purchasing the “elements” for our service at Havenwood later that morning – a small loaf of bread for breaking and a small bottle of grape juice to be poured into a makeshift chalice – and the young man behind the counter immediately took notice, saying, “Now, if I were to guess I’d say you’re getting ready for communion!”

I know my eyes popped open wide as I told him he’d called it correctly, and went on to explain about our upcoming time of worship at Havenwood.  And the thing was, this young man was not only complimentary of what we were doing, but also genuinely interested; turns out he himself was a part-time youth pastor serving at a nearby church of the evangelical tradition who was currently seeking to help the children in his congregation understand what the Lord’s Supper is all about.  “It’s just so important,” he said, “and it’s not so easy to explain.  But I would never want our kids receiving the bread and cup without having at least some sense of the Lord’s presence in it.”

Truly, it was an unlikely discussion in a place where “10 Items or Less” is the rule; but we actually had a nice chat.  I shared with him my contention that children often have a deeper sense of the spiritual than we adults give them credit for; he commended me for doing “the good work” of ministry day in and day out, a word I very much appreciated.  And at the end, as the line of shoppers behind us began to grow (!), he asked for my card and if we might talk again, a request I was happy to accept.

Just a random encounter on another ordinary day; but one that served to remind me that though we in the wider church may well have our differences in tradition and customs, polity, process and, occasionally, the finer points of theology, the fact remains that we are all in this ministry together.  For instance, we might not approach matters of baptism in quite the same way – do we baptize children as infants, or wait until they are older and can make a believer’s confession of faith – and we may debate who can properly receive (or serve) the Eucharist, but there is no denying that the same Lord is present whether that baptism happens by sprinkling or immersion, or if the bread and wine is shared in the proper liturgical context of Sunday worship or rather passed hand to hand amongst youth gathered at outdoor ministries such as New Hampshire’s Horton Center or Pilgrim Lodge in Maine.  And certainly, while it’s true these days that so many of our churches have been forced to deal with all the swift changes in our culture and our changing (some would say shrinking) place in the world – and perhaps have chosen different approaches in doing so – we still have, as Paul said to the church in Ephesus, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”  (Ephesians 4:5-6) 

It seems to me that now, more than ever, our strength as the church – locally, denominationally, and ecumenically – is to be found in that unity and in our shared ministry of God’s extravagant and radical love shared with the world, personified in Jesus Christ.   We do indeed have “the good work” to do, each and every one of us in this particular time and place. This was the thought I shared with our own gathering of saints at the Havenwood Chapel as I told the story of my supermarket encounter earlier in the day; adding, incidentally, that given all the rancor and division of that week’s upcoming inaugural activities and protests, this exhortation to unity, service and, above all, love also might be a good lesson for our divided nation to learn as well.

And so might it be.

c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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Promises to Keep

snowy-woods1

(a sermon for January 8, 2017, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, based on Matthew 3:13-17)

It was many summers ago now, back when all three of our children were still quite young; and we were in the midst of a week-long camping trip at one of the state parks in Vermont (Silver Lake, if I remember correctly).  We’d been spending a lot of time that week exploring the backroads of rural Vermont, and we made a discovery that most natives already know: that there are as many dirt roads in Vermont as there are paved, and just because there’s a black line drawn on a road map doesn’t mean there’s actually going to be found there any kind of highway at all!   So we got lost… a lot (!), and especially given this was in the days before GPS units quite often we’d find ourselves literally “following our noses” as we drove along these beautifully unimproved roads winding through hill and valley, forest, field and village!

Well, one afternoon we’re driving through this deep, rich green expanse of forest which as near as I could tell was several miles from anywhere (!), when suddenly from the back of our mini-van, I hear one of my children ask the question, “Whose woods are these?”  And friends, immediately when I heard that, the memory of high school English classes of many years before stirred within me; and I had an answer:

“Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.”

(“Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” by Robert Frost)

And suddenly, here I am driving down this road reciting Robert Frost… and from memory!  Of course, this ability didn’t impress my children one lick, and Lisa probably just rolled her eyes (!); but for me the realization that I’m actually on this very land which inspired Frost to write all that wonderful poetry was a powerful thing, indeed.

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.”

Understand it’s mid-August, many months away from the first snowfall, but still these woods were “lovely, dark and deep,” and I found myself thinking how good it might be to live out there amidst the beauty and the quiet of just such a forest; to follow in the poetic footsteps of a Robert Frost or a Henry David Thoreau, to be dwelling in harmony with nature, living simply and somehow outside the confines of the rest of the world and all its confusion (trust me here, it’s a bit of a daydream that still enters my mind and heart from time to time!)

However, as is the case with most such daydreams, sooner or later I come to realization that as nice as it sounds, it’s not going to happen; but not for the reasons you might think.  Actually, it’s because in the end, these woods – wherever they happen to be – are not the place of my life’s calling.  You see, I, too, have promises to keep; many promises, in fact, that I have made freely, gladly and joyfully in the midst of my life.  These are the promises, for instance, that I’ve made as a husband to “love, honor and cherish” my spouse and partner in life; there are the promises I have made as a parent to love and nurture my children (even now when they’re all grown up!); and then there’s the promise I made as a Christian to love and serve God as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ.    The bottom line is that who I am and what I do ultimately has a great deal to do with all these promises I have made in my life and more. Likewise, I am responsible and accountable to the commitments I have made; to myself, to others and to God. So… while the woods are lovely, dark and deep, I do have promises to keep; and miles – a great many miles, I trust – to go before I sleep!

Actually, I’m mindful here of another poem, a little free verse piece I found years ago in some pastoral resource or another:  “And God said, ‘You are free… free… FREE (!)… to be bound in any way you wish.’”  Truly, even in these uncertain and swiftly changing times, if there is one value upon which we all can agree, it is most certainly the value of freedom; and yet, would you not agree that the exercise of our freedom exists and rests wholly on our full commitment and allegiance to that which sets us free?  Think about this: a free nation must from time to time be forced to zealously guard and defend that freedom, even if that regretfully means going to war.  A marriage vow shared by free and loving hearts must be held sacred against all the temptations that would seek to destroy it; likewise, the task of raising children to be free and independent adults requires us to keep a fairly tight hold on them as they grow and learn about the world around them.

Even our faith – our very freedom in Jesus Christ that comes to us in our baptism by water and the Holy Spirit – even our faith must be embraced with the spirit of obedience to God’s righteousness.  This is why we do not merely sprinkle water on the baby’s forehead without first asking the parents if they promise to hold that child’s Christian faith in trust until they are old enough to confirm that choice as their own.  That is why we ask all those being baptized if they promise, “by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciples, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best [they] are able.”

All of life, you see, and our faith itself is wrapped up in the promises we’ve made; the same promises we are charged to keep.

Isn’t it interesting that the very first words that our Lord Jesus speaks in Matthew’s gospel is not about freedom, but rather about obedience.  Actually, our scripture reading this morning is one of those passages that have raised questions for theologians from the early days of the church.  We pick up the story as John the Baptist is baptizing in the Jordan River as a sign of the forgiveness of sins and of the “breaking in,” so to speak, of the kingdom of God.  But John, as it turns out, is actually surprised when Jesus shows up asking to be baptized; and in truth, so are we.  After all, this is Jesus, the one who is pure and without sin; what does he need with a baptism of repentance?  And at least at first, John will have no part of it:  “I need to be baptized by you, and [yet] you come to me?”  But Jesus explains that this is the way it has to be; so “to fulfill all righteousness.”

It’s the first thing that Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel, and it’s important for a couple of reasons: first, because it points up what God has done in Christ Jesus.  When we think of God, we think of power, mystery and glory; we ponder the grandeur of creation, and the wonder of miracles.  And truly, elsewhere in the gospels, there are such “signs” that point to Jesus as the “son of God.”  But here, the divinity of Christ is expressed in his obedience to the will of God; or, as William Willimon has described it, “his willingness to get down in the water, so to speak, to ‘get his feet wet,’ standing knee deep in the Jordan with all the rest of us sinners.”  Jesus’ baptism is a sign of his total, complete linkage to the will of God and to the fulfillment of God’s righteousness in the world. And at the end of this passage when a voice from heaven speaks, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” that voice is expressing God’s pleasure with Jesus’ obedience; it is a celebration of Jesus’ complete submission to becoming a servant of God!  Our test this morning offers up the  first example we have as to what would become the very course of Jesus’ life and ministry; a journey that would culminate in his willingness to go even unto the cross.  So you see, these short verses we’ve shared this morning provide us an important piece in understanding everything that is to come in the gospel story.

But there’s more:  what’s also important is that in telling us about Jesus’ baptism, Matthew is reminding us of the meaning of our own baptism.  Now this may sound a bit harsh, but let me say it straight: baptism is not something we have to “get done,” either for ourselves or our children; a task to be taken care of in the same manner as making sure we have a yearly physical.  Likewise, baptism is not to be thought of merely as an act of church initiation, any more than it’s about whether it’s properly done by sprinkling or immersion, or if the one baptized is an infant or a deciding adult.  Whatever the particular tradition or theology, whatever the attitude toward the ritual or the liturgy employed, baptism is ultimately something much more.

Baptism is nothing less that our declaration (either for ourselves or in trust for our children) of obedience to God.  It’s our promise to submit to the movements of a righteous God; it’s our commitment to be faithful members of Christ’s church, to celebrate Christ’s presence in our lives, to further Christ’s mission in the places of the world where we dwell.  Baptism is the promise we make that we’ll let God’s will surpass and supplant our will; so that by our very lives we will show forth the righteousness of God!

Kind of changes the whole idea of what we do around the baptismal font, doesn’t it?  But then come to think of it, it kind of changes our whole notion of what you and I do once we finish the service this morning and start out on “life as usual” in the week ahead! We are called to be obedient believers; but in the end, you see, obedience isn’t such a bad thing.  As Richard J. Foster writes in his book, Prayer:  Finding the Heart’s True Home, “Obedience is not as burdensome as it seems at first blush.  We are doing nothing more than falling head over heels in love with the everlasting Lover of our souls.”

Beloved, as the church of Jesus Christ, we are claimed and named as the people of God; we have been sought out and gathered together into the community of the baptized.  We come to bask in the warmth and the fellowship of this place as we worship the Lord in spirit and truth… and well it should be.  But we’re also not meant to remain here; as baptized believers, we’re meant to go… to go out there into the community and the world, to live in obedience to God as disciples of Jesus Christ.  We are a people called and led; a community directed and disciplined; men, women and children empowered and encouraged for the work of the kingdom of heaven.  You and I are each and all ministers of the gospel and even now are becoming servants to God’s will and God’s righteousness.

Oh, yes, there are times we’d just like to step back and “let the world go by,” so to speak; but there’s a deeper call on our lives, yours and mine… and it’s that…

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep

But [we] have promises to keep,

And miles to go before [we] sleep,

And miles to go before [we] sleep.”

May we be blessed on the journey ahead; and may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN.

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on January 8, 2017 in Baptism, Epiphany, Jesus, Ministry, Sermon

 

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