Learning to Swim

* a sermon preached at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on May 17, 2015 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Text: Romans 6:1-14


Pray with me this morning:

Cleanse us, and make us new, Holy One.
Today, and every day.
That your resurrection might be our hope,
And hope for the world.


It has been suggested to me, on more than one occasion, that perhaps, just maybe…that I have “too much fun” asperging the congregation on Sundays that we have remembrances of baptism.

And I just have to say…that I am really quite shocked…and it is just totally…patently…absolutely…true.

Are you kidding me?!? I love flinging water! Who wouldn’t?!? Maybe it really is just that fun to flick water. Maybe I enjoy, maybe too much, soaking some of you in the face. Maybe it’s just a way for me to be passive aggressive. “This is your warning. Don’t tick off the Intern.

Maybe the promises of baptism made tangible in a simple ritual act are so incredibly joyful that I just can’t help myself.

…Maybe I just love water. And I always have.

Maybe it’s a combination of any and all of those things…

Texas, where I grew up, is…some would say…rather “hot.” And in a place where 100% humidity on a 100 degree day is not at all considered abnormal, you can imagine, there are a lot of pools. We never had one, but I had lots of friends that did. And so, I learned to swim at an early age.

Parents, if you’ve ever tried to teach your kids to swim, you know this is true. You can spend all the time you want trying to teach the motions: the front paddle, the back paddle, the leg kick, and some really awkward combination of all three of those all at once…but at some point, you just gotta go for it. You just gotta jump in.

It’s a terrifying proposition.

And I think it’s a bit like what Paul is doing here. See, up to this point in his letter to the community in Rome he’s been teaching the motions: this is the law and this is the gospel, salvation through faith, justification by grace, boasting in suffering… And right here, in our reading today, is where Paul reaches his pinnacle.

This is getting thrown into the deep end, so to speak.

This is like the Lutheran equivalent of the sharp drop between the shallow end and the deep end of the pool. It would be like the shallow end is all those nice Lutheran words we throw around: “Grace! Justification! Sanctification! …Saved by grace through faith for the sake of Christ!”

And here’s the deep end of Lutheranism… The one you’re not sure about. The one that you don’t know how far it goes. The one that you can’t see the bottom of.

“Do you not know that those who are baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into his death?”

A terrifying proposition.

You know, this passage is one of the ones we focus on in our baptismal seminars, where we bring in parents and children and those preparing for baptism and talk about what baptism means. And it’s difficult for parents to hear these words from Romans. And so we ask the question, “How do you feel about the thought that you’re baptizing your child into death?” And, basically 100% of the time, the answer is what you’d expect, “This is NOT what I signed up for!”

And honestly, I don’t blame you. Tiffany and I don’t have kids yet, but I can tell you that I will have the same reaction, “This is NOT what I signed up for!”

But just like last week, just like boasting in our suffering, we need to put away our western ears and minds for a second. And hear this from the perspective and context of the Christ-believing community in Rome…

The community for whom death was all but certain… The community who would gather behind locked doors, because if they were ever found out there was a lion in the coliseum waiting for them…

Hear Paul’s words in this way, “In baptism, you die. But not only that, you get to choose the terms. Your life is not taken from you, but you give up your life. If death is certain, be dead to the ways of the world and live. Live as children of God.”

THIS is Paul’s message.

In baptism, you die to the patterns of this world that separate you from God. In this refreshing bath you are cleansed from the grit and grime of self-absorption. In these waters you are released from all that which shackles you to yourself, and you are freed…to live lives in complete service of others.

Luther would say, “Christian, you are lord of all, subject to none. A servant of all, subject to every one.”

By dying with Christ, you give up your own life for the sake of the Gospel, so that the Gospel might be birthed in and through you…

And not only all of that, but…if we have been united with Christ in a death like his, how much more surely, dear friends, will we be united with Christ in a resurrection like his…

And this is the hope on which all of our hope is based. People of God, this is resurrection hope.

This is the hope that is at the crux of all of this. That by living as Christ lived; by dying with Christ in baptism; by becoming dead to our selves; by laying down our lives for others; by emptying our selves to give to others…that Christ’s resurrection might be our resurrection as well. And not just ours, but the resurrection of all of creation.

And I think that hope is desperately needed in a world that is hyper-individualized, that glorifies violence, and celebrates death as a punishment.

And it’s not an outdated and stale hope. It is a hope that is living, and active, and present, and still yet to come. Paul uses an interesting choice of verb tense in our Scripture today. In referring to being baptized into Christ’s death, Paul uses what’s known in Greek as the past perfect tense. It reflects a completed action, with lasting and ongoing effects. Done, and yet still happening. Already, and not yet. Was…and is…and is to come.

Paul’s hope in resurrection wasn’t just for himself. It wasn’t just for the community in Rome. It wasn’t even just for the first communities of Christ-followers. It’s for us also.

Paul’s resurrection hope, is our resurrection hope. And this is good news.

Dr. Martin Luther understood this as an ongoing process too. In a wonderful quote that Pastor Tim shared on our facebook page, Luther writes, “This life, therefore, is not godliness, but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.”

At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed…

Be cleansed today. Be open to the renewing and refreshing waters of resurrection. Splash and play and swim in the living waters of God’s promises.

And next week, and in the weeks after, when Pastor Tim and myself come down the center of this aisle flinging water, find unrestrained joy in being soaked in a reminder of your baptism.



Torn in Two

* a sermon preached at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on November 16, 2014 *

Text: A Story from Isaiah (based on Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; and 2:1-4)

The King of Assyria came to Judah and sent a messenger to King Hezekiah in Jerusalem. The messenger called out to the people of Jerusalem, in their own language, urging them to submit to Assyria. Greatly distressed, King Hezekiah ripped his clothes and went to the temple to pray and consult with the prophet, Isaiah. Isaiah urged King Hezekiah to trust in God and used these words:
2:1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Pray with me, as we imagine a future of peace.

Break into our world, God.
Fill the earth with everlasting peace.
Break our hearts, God.
Fill us with love and compassion for one another.

“There is time enough for everything; and, you must make enough time for everything.” These words were spoken to me on Thursday afternoon, in the midst of an extremely full two weeks for me. And they were so absolutely appropriate, and named exactly where my spirit is. Maybe you feel that way, too. That there’s just simply not enough time for everything.

Astronomical ClockKnowing what time it is is not one of my spiritual gifts. Not in the sense that I don’t know how to read a clock, but in that I can become so engrossed in a project that I fail to take time away from that task. I’m someone who gets easily wrapped up in details, and so the most important thing at this moment is this one thing, and anything else is secondary to this and is a distraction from this really important thing.

Except this “thing” may be quite minor, and in fact, may not be all that important at this particular moment… When we have a thousand different things competing for our time and demanding our attention, we can feel…”torn”…

I think maybe King Hezekiah felt torn also. Literally. I mean, here we had this huge army from Assyria, advancing on Jerusalem, and a message from the king of Assyria essentially saying, “Give up, people of Israel. It’s not worth losing your lives fighting back. Jerusalem will be conquered by Assyria, so don’t listen to whatever Hezekiah is telling you, because he’s wrong.” For all of you Trekkies out there, the Assyrian army was basically the biblical Borg; “Resistance is futile.

But Hezekiah knew that the message of the Assyrian army was not God’s message, and that God’s word to God’s people is one of hope. And Hezekiah wants to trust that, he really does want to believe that’s true. But that doesn’t mean that the Assyrian message of fear isn’t still convincing or compelling. I mean, Hezekiah was feeling pulled in two different directions; he was torn…and so what does he do?

He literally tears his clothes. Rips them in half… A visceral reaction to a very real inner struggle.

Maybe you’ve felt that way. Felt trapped because on the one hand you have a pretty convincing narrative of fear, and on the other you know God’s promise is a word of hope. But I think if we’re honest, hope is difficult; and all the more reason that a message of fear is so compelling.

Fear is easy. Our society is set up in such a way that our default position is one of defensiveness. If you tell me that my livelihood, my family, the things I cherish are in danger, I’m likely to believe you. Fear is a great motivator. Cultures of fear create beliefs in things like scarcity rather than abundance, or us versus them, or violence rather than peacemaking, or keeping people out rather than welcoming them in, or…insert your own dichotomies…

And it is precisely into these dichotomies, or gaps, that God enters into our world. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word used there to describe Hezekiah’s actions is ‘schizo.’ It’s where we get our word ‘schism.’ The interesting thing about this word ‘schizo’ is that it’s used exactly twice in the Gospel of Mark.

Baptism of ChristThe first is at Jesus’ baptism; in Mark it says “the heavens were ‘ripped open’ and the Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove.” The Spirit of God enters our world through a ‘schizo’ and is set loose on the world through the teachings and actions of this wandering rabbi from Nazareth.

The second is at the moment of that same rabbi’s death, the author writes that the curtain of the temple was “ripped apart,” from top to bottom. See, in the Temple in Jerusalem, there was the place where everyone gathered, attended worship. And there was this other place in the center of the temple, called the ‘Holy of Holies,’ where it is said that God dwelled. Only the priests were permitted to enter the Holy of Holies. And this ripping, this ‘schizo’ of the curtain is important. See, now there is no separation between God and the world. With Jesus’ death, God has entered most fully into our human experience, even to death.Curtain Torn

And we know that death is not God’s final word in the matter. More than just experiencing death, God defeats death, and brings resurrection—brings life. God’s promise is one of hope, one of life, to a world that desperately longs to hear it.

Swords and spears may have fallen out of favor, but make no mistake, we’ve just gotten better at making weapons. You see it every time you open a newspaper or watch the news: 1,839 shooting victims, 363 homicides, just in Chicago, just this year. 73 of those victims are children. Across our city and country and world, hurtful comments. Teasing. Bullying, both in-person and online. Social media, while a wonderful tool for staying connected, has opened up thousands of avenues for people, particularly children, to hurt each other.

Isaiah’s words to Israel are no less prophetic for us in 2014.

I don’t lay all of these numbers out in front of you today to shame you or guilt you in some way. I lay all these numbers out in front of you so that you might gauge your own reaction to them. See, my theory is, we’re so used to hearing these statistics…that we’ve actually become numb to them.

73! 73 young, vibrant, living, breathing, running, playing, beautiful children of God! I lay all these numbers out in front of you in hopes that they break our hearts! That by hearing these, our hearts are ‘schizo,’ ripped open, and that God would come in and fill our hearts with love and concern and care for one another. And that we might be moved to do something about it…

The crux of this Isaiah narrative lies in the tension between hope and illusion. Who are you going to believe? The king of Assyria, whose message is, “You don’t stand a chance against me, Jerusalem. I will lay waste to your city just like I’ve destroyed all these other cities around you.”? The king of Assyria who tells you that the future is already determined, and that the future is one of destruction and violence and death?

Or will you listen to Isaiah, who says that God’s future is a one of hope? Who says “Do not be afraid;” that in God’s kingdom there is no more war, no need for instruments of destruction.

Our actions in the present are shaped by our ideas about the future. I’ll say that again, “Our actions in the present are shaped by our ideas about the future.” If we truly believe that the ultimate line of the story is destruction, we will live like it.

BUT, if we really…truly…believe that God’s final word to us is one of hope—one of resurrection—our actions will not only reflect that, but we’ll actively work to bring that future about. We’ll say it in a few moments, “On earth, as it is in heaven.”

Isaiah saw God’s justice and peace as light that brings life to the nations. But for Isaiah, that light was not just “in the days to come.” Isaiah believed that the extent to which the Jewish people themselves became, or lived into, that light, all the nations would be attracted to that light and would come streaming to learn the ways of God and to hear the word of the Lord.

Traffic Lights

Returning to my favorite question that keeps coming up for me as we work through the Narrative Lectionary—How are we to be together?—I think Isaiah would have us ask ourselves, “How are we being light in this world?”

And our answer to this question, I think, is really important. I would even dare to say it’s vitally important.

You know, I’ve spent a lot of my time here at Luther Memorial these past few months with the youth, with the junior- and senior-high schoolers. Let me tell you, they get it. They’re wrestling with difficult concepts, asking tough questions, and really trying to figure out what this life is all about. These young people, who are the leaders and decision-makers of the future, have this beautiful concept of what it means to live in a world together. They get it.

What we do here matters. Deeply. This…stuff…all of this…matters. If you’re wondering if that’s true, consider that in just a few moments, we’ll baptize a beautiful child of God. And the fabric between heaven and earth will be ripped apart, if only for a moment. And we’ll bear witness to a complete inbreaking of the divine in our midst. And the Spirit of God will be set loose on the world, yet again.

And as a congregation, we’ll make promises to Isabella that we, as a community, will be here for her, and support her in her faith, and encourage her in her journey. And these promises are not made lightly; we’ll hold each other accountable to do what we say we’re going to do. That’s part of what being a community of faith means. And part of what we’ll say to her is, “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works, and give glory to God in heaven.”

Jesus said it this way, “When I was hungry, you fed me; when I was naked, you clothed me; when I was sick and in prison, you visited me.” Vitally important… With real effects. Impacting real people.

Hezekiah’s first reaction was not to rush out of the city with his armies to do battle with the Assyrians. Rather, he prayed. He was quiet, and he listened. He consulted with Isaiah. In a culture of immediacy and instant gratification, the beauty of patience and waiting is bulldozed in favor of ‘I get what I want, when I want it, and I want it now.’ What might it mean for us to not rush into knee-jerk reactions, but instead to prayerfully consider what God would have us do? As we move, and even hurtle, toward Advent, we will be called to be people of patience and waiting.

“There is time enough for everything; and, you must make enough time for everything.”

How will we spend our time while we wait?