All In The Family

* a sermon preached at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on January 11, 2015 *

Text: Matthew 3:1-17

***************
Please pray with me:

Please pray with me.

Living God,
We are often forgetful people.
Remind us and keep us mindful
of who we are and whose we are
in the waters of our baptism.
In your most holy name, we pray.
Amen.

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“There’s always one in every family…” We’ve heard this before, haven’t we? Maybe you’ve said this yourself. This phrase gets tossed out to explain why Uncle Fred insists on wearing his hawaiian shirts during the holidays when there’s snow on the ground. Or used to reason away why your 24-year-old second-cousin Paulette has 14 cats but hasn’t signed up for eHarmony yet.

Or…at worst…we use this phrase to excuse, and even condone bad and destructive behavior…

Maybe you are the “one in every family…”

You know, I was privileged to spend my holidays here with y’all at LMC, which meant I wasn’t blessed with the warmth of a Texas Christmas. But it also meant that Tiffany and I got to host our families up here this year. Let me tell you, 9 Texans navigating a Chicago winter is quite a hilarious sight to witness.

But we got to spend the holidays with our families, which was wonderful, but I’ve got to tell you…I think I’m the “one” in my family… But that’s just speculation at this point.

I suspect that John was probably the “one” in his family, too. Seriously. I mean, camel’s hair? Locusts? Honey? Yeah. “Cousin” John was definitely the one drawing the sideways glances at the dinner table…

And yet…Jesus comes to John to be baptized. Not the other way around. Curious…

It was suggested to me this week that I take a look at the pronouncements of the births of John and Jesus by the angel Gabriel, and so I did. They’re in Luke 1, by the way, if you want to check them out for yourself. Most of you are pretty familiar with the pronouncement of Jesus’ birth, I think. Gabriel, Mary, “my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord…” You’ve got it.

But the foretelling of John’s birth, probably not so much. Instead of appearing to John’s mother, Elizabeth, Gabriel comes to John’s father, Zechariah, in the temple. The content of this pronouncement is what’s interesting to me. Gabriel tells Zechariah that Elizabeth will bear a son, and his name will be John. He will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn the hearts of the people back to their God, and he will prepare the way of the Lord. And there’s also this strange tidbit: He must never drink wine or strong drink.

Hmmm. It’s interesting to me that no such conditions are placed on Jesus by Gabriel. Apparently we want our prophets to be focused on prophesying, and not preoccupied with such frivolous things as wine or strong drink. The Messiah? Yeah sure, go ahead, whatever you want. But God forbid that the one preparing the way enjoy a nice Pinot or 2 fingers of the dark stuff…

We laugh, but this understanding is important to the story. See, John didn’t drink, he lived simply, he ate simply. John was an ascetic. From the Greek word askesis, which means ‘exercise’ or ‘training,’ ascetics abstain from so called “worldly pleasures” in the interest of pursuing spiritual goals. John was baptizing people into this simple, ascetic way of living, this spiritual discipline. For John, baptism was a ritual cleansing, replete with repentance of sins and a commitment to this self-denying way of living.

And then along comes Jesus. Interesting to note that Jesus comes to John to be baptized. Was Jesus seeking to be baptized into this way of living simply too? Maybe. Certainly if we take what we think we know about how Jesus lived, we might say he lived quite simply. He traveled, he didn’t own a home, he didn’t have a career, he taught, he ate what people offered to him. This…is our Messiah? This is the one through whom God will redeem the world? Homeless? Jobless? Eating what he was given by others? Doesn’t sound like much of a savior…

John recognizes this, and tries to stop Jesus saying that Jesus should baptize him. But Jesus prevents him, and is baptized by John in the Jordan. It’s counter-intuitive; it doesn’t make any sense. And this is the kind of subversive, flipped-on-its-head thinking that we get from Jesus. Jesus’ baptism is subversive; just like his birth, life, ministry, death, and ultimate resurrection. It defies our conventional ways of thinking and challenges our expectations. We expect a king; we got an infant in a feed trough. We expect a warrior; we got a teacher. We expect our enemies to be vanquished; we got a crucified rabbi. We expect that death is final; we get resurrection. Life from death.

And it’s this life that we are baptized into as well. And not just the life that destroys death, but also the alternative way of living and being in the world that Jesus was baptized by John into. Through our baptism, not only do we affirm the grace, mercy, and love of God that continually washes over us from the very moment of our existence, but we are called into a life, into a way of being in the world, that bears witness to the life and ministry of Jesus. In our baptism, we are charged to let our light so shine, so that the world sees Christ shining through us, reflected through our lives.

Finally, we baptize into a family, into a community, just like Jesus was baptized into a community. At his baptism, a voice from the heavens declares of Jesus, “This is my Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.” Jesus is affirmed as God’s child. In our baptism, we too are affirmed as daughters and sons of the living God. We affirm our place in God’s family. And we are also baptized into the family of a faith community.

And just like our families of origin, we’ve got all types, don’t we. I suspect that we have a few Uncle Freds with a hawaiian shirt among us… Joking aside, just like our families of origin, we take the good with the bad, but this doesn’t mean that we allow destructive or harmful behavior to go unchecked. We hold each other accountable to the promises we make to each other in baptism.

I was privileged to see this family on full display as we laid our brother to rest this week. On Tuesday, I saw and heard this community say, “Charlie is part of our family too.” This family doesn’t supplant or stand-in for our biological families, and yet, sometimes this family might be the only family any of us has when we’re ostracized or forced out of our families of origin. You are welcome in this family.

All are welcomed, and affirmed, and respected, and so deeply loved in God’s family…

Last thing; in the Small Catechism, Blessed Martin Luther tells us that we should remind ourselves of our baptism every single day. Legend has it that Luther once said, “Every morning, when you wash your face, you should remember your baptism.” That’s beautiful imagery, I think. That my first thought every single morning isn’t about how freezing cold it is outside, or any of the million and two things that are on my to-do list; but the very first thought I have every single morning is, “Christian, blessed child of God, remember that God’s grace and mercy are new every morning, and you are so loved, more than you could possibly imagine…”

It’s one of the reasons that every time I walk in this sacred space, I stick my hand in the font, play in the water a little bit, and retrace the sign of the cross on my forehead.

We’re going to be blessed by the waters of baptism now, so if you’ll stand and face the font, and in a minute, when you feel the cool, refreshing water fall on your face, remind yourself: “Blessed child of God, know that God’s grace and mercy are new every morning, and that you are so loved, more than you could possibly imagine.”

Welcome to the family.

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Realign — or ‘The Call of a Scraggly, Strange-Dressing, Bug-Eating Prophet’

*an Advent reflection given at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on December 10, 2014*

Text: Mark 1:1-8

Prepare

Wilderness. Untouched, undomesticated, unknown. Full of lush foliage, I imagine. Or lying barren and uninviting. Or sitting under ages of crumbling infrastructure, rubble, and dust.

Certainly not the picture we have of our beautiful city. There aren’t many “untouched” parts of Chicago.

Though, maybe, if we were to press ourselves, we might find that there are parts of this space we share together that we avoid, or ignore, or actively work to cover up. They might feel “untouched.”

And what might it mean to make a path through this kind of wilderness?

Why would paths need to be made straight, unless they were already crooked?

Tonight, John calls us to repentance from our sin. Our own Blessed Martin Luther referred to ‘sin’ as incurvatus in se, Latin for “turned in on oneself.” We might say ‘navel-gazing.’

Turned in on our self, instead of turned outward, where we encounter the world. Where we encounter other people. Where we encounter those that could use a little help. A warm touch. A hot meal. A kind smile.

 

If we’re honest, I think we could all use those things…

 

Pastor Tim is fond of saying, “Lent is like house cleaning, and Advent is life house warming.” And if we’re being called by this scraggly, strange-dressing, bug-eating prophet named John to prepare for the Advent of the Messiah, the recognition for me is that we’ve got to do a little cleaning, a little straightening, before the house begins to feel warm.

And the season of Advent is a ripe time to do some straightening, some preparing. Preparing our hearts to be filled by the love of God made manifest. Straightening the paths made rough by years of overuse, neglect, or apathy. Raising up the lowly places that go untouched. Laying low the mountaintops of self-absorption.

There are days that I feel put together and buttoned-up. But not most days. Most days I need to be realigned.