Sermon for Jan. 10, 2021: "An Outward and Visible Sign" -- Bill Dow

“An Outward and Visible Sign”

Bill Dow

 

Today, during a lethal pandemic, a suffering economy, racial discrimination, and a slow burning fuse that finally reached the core of domestic insurrection, we gather to worship God, remembering the Holy Spirit descending and surrounding Jesus as he was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. 

If we pause and move our awareness from noise of our secular space to the quiet center of our sacred space, setting aside, for a moment, the baggage we carry on our journey, perhaps we can hear the voice of The Creator, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”  It’s like for a brief moment in time, the chaos stops, and it’s replaced by glory, a sense of wonder, when even we get to sample a taste, some would say, a foretaste, of heaven.  And as that moment fades, we gather our baggage, and return to something that tastes totally different.

Why would God choose to completely enter the human experience?  I mean, why not just pull a few strings here and there, and call it a day?  Maybe God has decided to let our politics take care of that part.  Who knows?

We gather to worship God whose love is pure…always has been…always will be.  Pure love is NOT coercive; we get to choose.  God calls but does NOT shove.  God’s love is instructive.  God points us in directions that lead to abundant life.  God’s love is willing to sacrifice for the greater good of all beings.  God’s love is healing, nurturing, forgiving, patient, and slow to anger…wait a minute, God gets angry?

Let’s see, there’s that time in the temple with the money changers.  I guess we’re supposed to use honest scales when we do business.  Jesus seems to get put out by self-righteousness.  We should remember to be humble.  Come to think of it, Jesus did get a little testy with his disciples when they continually failed to grasp what he was trying to say.  Maybe that’s a que to pay closer attention and not be so attached to the things that hold us back, the things we cling to, like we own them or something.

For those who somehow survived Algebra II, there seems to be a balance at work in the equation presented to us through Jesus Christ.  Sharing in His baptism includes both joy and sorrow: weeping over the death of a friend, celebrating the witness of a gentile, weeping over Jerusalem, dining with Zacchaeus, suffering on the cross, and resurrection on Easter.

Baptism is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.  It is imperative for us always to remember that Holy Baptism is initiated by God.  We are responding to God’s timeless call to receive the water of covenant making and emerge into new life.

Licensed Local Pastors in the United Methodist system are required to attend a 5-year course of study.  In my first year, I went to Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.  Our first gathering was on a Sunday evening in the chapel.  There were about 100 of us that included two groups of pastors who spoke primarily Hmong and Spanish.  As I entered the chapel, the very first thing I encountered was a HUGE baptismal fount about four feet in diameter made of hand-tooled copper.  People were entering, touching the water, and then touching their foreheads.  One woman entered, touched the water, and made the sign of the cross.  My grandmother would have dropped her dentures on the floor.  I though to myself, “Wow, they’ve even got some Catholics attending course of study.”  Turned out she was a professor of Wesleyan Theology.  Martha’s oldest grandson was in the process of getting educated.

The gathering included a time of Holy Communion and when it came time for us to say the Lord’s Prayer, we were instructed to say it in the language of our birth.  It was a Pentecostal moment that brought us into the amazing presence of the Holy Spirit.  To this very moment it serves as a reminder that the Holy Spirit is energized by diversity and that the water of baptism, like the water of earth, knows no boundary.  Native Americans understand this so deeply, it’s in their DNA.  When you consider the closed-loop nature of earth’s water cycle and that mater is neither created nor destroyed, the water that touched Jesus’ body in the Jordan River, at least theoretically, is still with us today.  Maybe we should treat it with the reverence of a Native American.

Baptism is a community event.  While there are some circumstances that warrant private baptism, they are few and often involve eminent death.  The Holy Spirit is celebrated in baptism and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit on earth is The Church, with a capital “C,” that we might enter into a covenant relationship with the entirety of creation.  The idea that one baptism is more valid than another undermines the belief that baptism is initiated by the call of God.  Our brokenness and competitive nature moves churches, with a little “c,” to establish borders and conditions.

We love exclusive deals and special treatment.  I remember my great grandmother religiously watching a television show from the 1950s called “Queen for a Day.”  Contestants, always women in their 60s and 70s, would tell their personal story and based upon the content and their ability to tell it, a panel of judges would select the Queen for a Day.  She would be showered with gifts that would address needs indicated by the story.  Tears would flow, including some from my grannie.  And then the next day, same time, same station, another queen would be crowned. 

Fellow sojourners, that’s not how it works on this journey of faith.  If it was, Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane would have been answered.  The agony of the cross would somehow have been avoided.

Baptism is not a first-class ticket for an eternal ride on the Love Boat.  It’s an affirmation of God’s perfect love extended to those who would receive it.  And in receiving, to share that love in ways that nurture communities, secured in faith and trust.

Unfortunately, our ability to trust has been undermined by the message of personal gain with little consideration given to what it might be costing others.  Defiance and rebellion have permeated our nation and we have lost the ability to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  May God have mercy on us.  

I’ve read many posts on social media encouraging people to pray for our nation.  But our prayers often take the form of God, please do this, or God please make that happen.  As the Apostle Paul writes… to be baptized in the name Jesus is to receive the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the Energy, the Source, the Counselor, the Mover, and the Shaker.

The mark of Christian discipleship is to leave things better than when you found them, individually and corporately.  Every evening we watch the news and are overwhelmed by the scope of our disfunction.  A wise teacher once said, “Do the task directly in front of you.  And when that’s done, take a look around and have faith that another opportunity will present itself.  Remember to rest on the Sabbath.”

Over time, when words and actions consistently agree, trust is restored.  It’s a long process and may require the passing of a generation, yet the sacrament of baptism brings us to the threshold of possibilities…an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. 

Our need is ever before us and the grace of the Lord is from generation to generation.  Our trust is in the Lord.  Our journey continues.  Thanks be to God!      

 

 
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