It's Time to Start Over . . . a sermon planned for the Palisades Community Church on January 13, 2019 but unable to be given due to snow.
Begin by reading Mark 1:9-11
Anyone here on the second Sunday of January already in need of a new start?
You thought you’d stop eating so many cookies when January 1 rolled around, and well. . .
You thought you’d begin walking more every afternoon or at least take the steps instead of the elevator if you had the choice and well . . .
You thought you’d start the new year off in a more spiritually grounded place, meditating each morning before you got out of bed or grabbed your phone and well. . .
Well, it not going as you planned at all.
We make a lot of fuss it seems in weeks like this of being better, doing better, living better. Because we not only believe we need to, but because everybody’s doing it.
Everybody it seems is starting over. Isn’t that what early January is all about?
Mark’s gospel opens in such a different way from the others tellings of Jesus’ story. Rather than hearing a genealogy or birth narrative or even beautiful prose like, “In the beginning was the Word” Mark simply gets to the point. And the point is this: the ministry of Jesus began after John the Baptist prepared the way for him.
Particularly we read, “In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
Just as hundreds of people had followed the call John made . . . to come to the wilderness, to confess their sins and seek forgiveness . . . Here shows up Jesus and asks for the same from John.
I can remember the time in Sunday School in the Tennessee church I grew up in, when one of my classmates raised their hands (trying to outsmart the teacher) and asked, “Why did Jesus have to be baptized? Didn’t you say last week that he was perfect? What did he need to ask forgiveness for?”
After looking puzzled for a moment my teacher looked this little guy in the eyes and said: “For Jesus, baptism wasn’t about forgiveness. It was about showing us the way.”
I’m not sure any of us fully understood in the class what we heard that day, but the older I’ve got the more I’ve realized that that Jesus’ baptism was all about his humanity.
Jesus, as Emmanuel, God with Us for whom we celebrated the birth of only a few weeks ago on Christmas Eve—embraced his full humanity as baptism.
Jesus was not asking us to do anything that he wasn’t willing to first do himself. Jesus would begin his ministry with a ritual signifying a new start, a new path, a new calling. Jesus would say with his public baptism that his time on earth belonged to God. And even in his frail, complicated and pain producing human skin, he would be faithful to what God called him to do on earth.
And what came next? Scripture tells us that “Just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart.”
What I find so interesting about this narration is the choice of verb that Mark uses “torn apart.”
Because couldn’t he have just used the word “open?” Did he really need to be so dramatic?
Yes, in fact he did. Mark told us the heavens “tore apart” because this was a water shed moment in the life of Jesus. It was a moment of clarity, of knowing, of believing!
Jesus was not just your average guy coming up in tattered sandals and a sweaty brow asking to enter the Jordan.
Jesus would no longer be known Joseph’s son in Nazareth working in the carpentry shop.
The verb “torn apart” as Mark uses it here in the first chapter is used only TWICE in the entire book. Once here. And once at the end of the book when the temple curtain is “torn apart” at the moment Jesus breathes his last and provokes a confession of Jesus’ true identity made by the Roman centurion “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
Which makes so much sense when we read what comes next in the post-baptism narration: “and the Spirit descended like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The heavens had to “tear apart” you see because a declaration or a naming was about to occur!
And here, too a confession was made over Jesus’ life but on this occasion by Jesus’ Father: “YOU are my Son, the Beloved; who you I am well pleased.”
Baptism, you see, became a moment for the truth about Jesus’ humanity to be spoken aloud. Not only is Jesus called Son, God’s Son. But, he’s also claimed as the Beloved one.
And then baptism came to play a central role in what it meant to share the good news of Jesus through the centuries as Jesus’ parting words to his followers were: “Go ye to into all the world and preach the gospel, baptizing them in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.”
One way is right. Another way is completely wrong.
I’ve even been privy to churches where a pastor will speak to a person whose considering becoming a member of their church and call this potential new church member’s baptism by another congregation invalid. (Deep sigh and know that you’ll never hear such foolishness from me).
And where this has gotten us is that we’ve forgotten the GIFT of baptism. The gift Jesus received that day in the waters of Jordan. And the gift that any of us also receive when we embrace baptism.
And that is what baptism offers us: a new start.
It was an honor to be there and to represent PCC in my presence to say that Max didn’t just have one church tradition in his mother’s family’s Catholic roots, but that he had a home and a heritage with us going back generations in the Palisades.
I attended with tribulation as I do as a clergy person in a Catholic setting. As much as I’m so grateful for this church tradition and its rich history that shaped my becoming as a person of faith in the world, I also know that I’m not fully welcomed there.
I can’t take communion, even though the words of institution are words I lead you in regularly and know by heart.
And even though I am a minister called by God, women of my gender are not welcomed into the pulpit there. I tip toe in trying to guard my heart from hurt that I can know can come from this branch of the Christian church.
For these reasons, maybe it’s why I wore my clergy collar to the service. I wear it infrequently being a Baptist and all, but there’s just sometimes I’ve found when it I want to make a statement that indeed I am a pastor. It’s kind of fun to shock people.
So, sitting with Rev. Beth that day, we went through the order of the service watching several babies and toddlers like Max come forward and have the priest bless them with words and water poured over their heads.
It was a beautiful moment to witness baby Max being blessed by so many words and well-wishers.
And then came time for the service to conclude. Only some closing words of blessing were left. The chatter of the small children in the room was growing by the minute.
At this point, the priest leading the service, turned toward me saying how much he welcomed me, his colleague to this service. To my shock, he stepped aside, called me to the center of the room, handed me his gold-plated worship folder and said,
To tell you I was floored is the understatement of the year. Me, asked to pray in a Catholic church? The male priest stepping aside? Me given his holy book?
I thanked this man after the service the best I could saying, how much hope this simple act gave me for ecumenical relations with the Catholic church. I said that his allowing me to be seen as I was at that baptismal service—a minister with people to serve--- encouraged me to re-consider my bias. It encouraged me with hope to begin again when I might be tempted to judge.
I have to tell you I walked out of that church more confident with my head held high. I was seen as I was that day! And with the church I got a new start!
In the same way that this baptismal service was for me in reclaiming hope in an unexpected way, I think the same is true for any of us who might risk the experience of remembering our baptism today.
We are beloved sons and daughters of God, we’re made into a new creation in Christ.
And, we’re called good— as was the word said over us at the beginning of all creation.
We’re welcomed as we are, just as we are, with God handing us the holiest of books and saying, here read, your part of my story too.
It’s easy to stray way from the enormity of what this means, or not even to realize it in the first place.
Yet, if we believed it, if we claimed it and if we lived it, this identity would change everything about how we carry ourselves in this world. Imagine it!
No more defeat.
No more low self-esteem.
No more woe is me, nobody loves me.
You are beloved!
Say with me: I am a beloved child of God.
In response to this word, this morning I want to give us a tangible reminder of our baptism.
Can you remember the day you were baptized? Some of us can.
But others of us might not intellectually remember ours.
It could have been done on your behalf by parents or loved ones who made the choice to raise you in the faith—a decision, Kevin and I made for Amelia over a two years ago now. And so today, you might be saying, Pastor, “How can I remember my baptism?”
You remember it by giving thanks for those who loved you and lead you to faith. And give thanks for the work of God that has been a part of life since then, leading you to this moment in your life—here in a worship space on this Sunday morning.
So, baptized church, in just a few moments, I would like to invite any of you to come forward to receive the sign of the cross from the basin of water on your forehead or on your hand to remember your baptism.
Maybe some of you are realizing today that baptism is something that you’ve never got around to YET, but something you’re interested in having a conversation with me or Pastor Beth about sometime. If that’s you, hang tight today. Let’s talk soon. May the next few moments be for you a witness of hope.
Church, we remember our baptisms today not because there’s any magic in the water or that it does something do us, but because sometimes you and I need tangible symbols of remembrance.
We’re reminding ourselves of the beloved identity that was given to us a long time ago.
I’ve been a part of all kinds of baptismal services in my life—my own when I was baptized as a child in my father’s church in Tennessee at age 7 . . .
The ones where babies have been brought forth to be claimed in the waters by their parents . . .
And, the ones at the sick beds of those who are dying and ones by faith professing teens and adults who want to claim Jesus for themselves . . .
But I have to say the most memorable baptismal service I’ve ever experienced happened two months ago when Kevin and I were in Nairobi, Kenya.
One of the joys of our work with Feed the Children is that wherever we go, I get to be known as the unofficial pastor of the team.
Sometimes this means staff ask me to pray for them or their families that are sick.
Sometimes this means I get to enter into the deep waters of God related conversations.
And then sometimes I am asked to baptize people—something I never expected would occur.
As our relationship with the children’s orphanage in Kenya has grown, we learned there were several children who never were baptized and wanted to be. But no pastor was around to do it.
These are kids that grow up learning about God and God’s love for them, but don’t have the opportunity to be a part of a church community, where baptism would normally take place.
So on our last trip (and as part of the staff Christmas worship service), four children and one staffer from the US came forward for baptism.
As I thought about all the traditional things that are said at baptismal service about being supported by your family and having your parents by your side at such a momentous occasion, I was sobered in my planning of the day.
For these kids did not have parents. Most of them had no known biological relatives—that is why they were there in the first place.
We even had to make our own certificates because I couldn’t just buy some at Christian bookstore. All of them contained a slot where parents were listed. And of course we didn’t want them to feel isolated or uncared for in any way.
So what did this liturgy I was about to perform mean?
First of all, started with what every other baptism ceremony began with: repentance.
These children know understood who Jesus was and wanted to follow Him in their life. They knew they’d already made choices that were less than God’s best for them in how they treated their peers. They wanted their life to to be about Jesus' teachings.
So in the service, each child declared Jesus to be Lord to the gathered community—even those with learning disabilities. It was awesome (in the truest sense of the word!) how clearly and passionately they projected their confession.
And then, it continued with the naming as I placed water over their heads and said, I now baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.
Though these were the words that I are ones I say at every baptism and have been said through the centuries by other clergy that have gone before me, I knew in this room with these children it was different.
For in baptizing them in God’s name and reminding them that they were God’s child and their life belonged to God—they were beginning a brand new story.
And not that all of us who are baptized don’t begin this same story but that with them—this newness was all the more profound.
This is why: no longer were these children orphans. They were adopted, adopted by Christ Jesus Himself, the adoption that Paul would later write about in Ephesians, chapter 1:
God predestined us for adoption to sonship (and daughtership) through Jesus Christ . . .
Can you imagine the scene? Getting to tell a child who was abandoned by their relatives, “You are an orphan no more.” POWERFUL!
And the same is true of us—all of us who have followed the example of Jesus into the waters of baptism—no matter if that day was one we remember or it was a covenant made on behalf of our parents for us as a baby--- we too have been given a new identity.
I'm so glad for the witness of these kids and how they helped me see in this ritual in a whole new way. I, too am, God's child and in my own way-- an orphan no more!
P.S. The reason we all had on Feed the Children shirts that day was for the staff photo afterwards. It wasn't like we were proclaiming the church of Feed the Children or anything 🙂
Today marks the final installment of my summer blog series on Pentecost with a fabulous word from my seminary classmate and friend, Dana .Dana has a powerful story to tell and I'm glad to have her words to share with you here. If you've missed any of these posts, might I suggest catching up before you start with this post one explaining the series.
The Turning Point: How the Spirit Changes Everything
I was baptized on Pentecost by an ordained woman serving south of the Mason-Dixon line, a miracle for Baptist churches of the 1990s. At that time, only the most progressive worshiping communities were hiring female ministers to serve in a capacity other than serving as Christian educators.
That Pentecost morning, I was born into the Christian community with water and Spirit. But my baptism sparked a chain of events that would, ultimately, reach beyond the membership of Christ’s Church. It would lead to my early Christian formation, my decision to attend seminary, my ordination—and—an extraordinary turning point—my marrying outside the Christian faith.
Pentecost: A Promise Comes to Life
Pentecost marks a liturgical season in which the Christian Church celebrates exactly how she became Church: through the work of the Holy Spirit, received by the apostles and other followers of Christ in Acts 2.
At the ascension, Jesus told his disciples that “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5, NRSV).
Jesus’ promise manifested days later, when the followers of Christ were gathered for Shavuot the Jewish Feast of Weeks that commemorates the law given at Mount Sinai. Scripture tells us that “tongues of fire” rested on them, offering the power of God through the Holy Spirit.
It was their turning point.
The Fruit of the Spirit
Later, in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we learn more about what this “turning point” brought to the Christ-followers: the empowerment to share Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection to all whom they met. We know that the power of this Spirit spread, and it bore the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-26).
But Paul cautioned the early fledgling church: “if we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25).
Then and now, this means fostering a posture of love and humility.
But that is not how many people would describe the trajectory of the modern Christian Church.
As Christian minister married to a devout Hindu, I’ve seen first-hand the hatred Christians can spew toward non-Christians. And, that is not the work of the Spirit that was so graciously bestowed upon us in Jesus’ absence.
When we concede that we know all there is to know about God, sacred texts, and how religion should be run, we’ve neglected our Pentecost roots. We’re forgetting the “turning point” in which the Church was birthed. The Spirit was not given to us to spread dogma and draw lines between who’s in and who’s out. The Spirit was given to unite us.
Perhaps the “turning point” we need in 2014 is to re-visit Acts 2 and remember the “awe that came upon everyone” that day. It was a day of unity, not division.
One Spirit: Interfaith Marriage
Since marrying Fred, I find myself advocating for how the Spirit unites us across religious and non-religious boundaries. I believe in a God who is Creator of us all—not an exclusive God who loves and listens to a chosen few.
But, we often take the initial reaction the onlookers had at Pentecost. We assert that those who are eager to unite are actually “drunk” with ignorance. We have difficulty conceiving that there are mysterious forces that unites us, not divide us.
While my mixed-faith marriage challenges everything I’ve known to be “true,” living with a Hindu helps me see the unifying Spirit at work. Our willingness to learn more about one another’s spiritual journeys is how we reach the pivot: when we look closer, we discover connections we never dreamed possible. And that is our turning point.
J. Dana Trent is an ordained Baptist minister and the author of Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk. When she’s not procrastinating with episodes of “The Young and the Restless,” Dana blogs at jdanatrent.com and tweets @jdanatrent.
Who You Really Are: a Baptism Selfie
Preached January 12, 2013: Watonga Indian Baptist Mission Watonga, OK
It’s a picture you take of yourself when there is no one else around to take your picture and then it is usually posted right away to Facebook or other social media sites (I took the one to the right when I was writing this sermon).
One of the responsibilities I have with Feed The Children is to volunteer with their social media department so I’ve watched the headlines closely on this growing trend. Teenagers in particular love it (Checked out Instagram lately?) And so do politicians. It made the headlines of the national news on Friday, June 14th of last year when former first lady and secretary of state, Hillary Clinton posted her first “selfie” a photo of herself with her daughter Chelsea. And then posted the photo to Twitter. Then, religious folks are into it too. Pope Francis is known to allow students—when they met him to pose for selfies.
We are a self-obsessed culture it seems. We like taking pictures of ourselves. We like taking pictures of important people.
But let’s continue the trend here this morning. Have a phone with a camera in it? I am doing something that a lot of pastors would not ask you to do in the middle of the sermon. I want you to get out your phone and if it I has a camera function I want you to position your screen on this page. Now, what I want you to do is get in groups with folks sitting in the pews beside you and take a picture of yourself with them.
(Later if you want you can share this with your friends/ family who aren’t with us in church this morning and show them through your smiling face what they are missing out on! Or you can post it to Facebook or the like).
But, now that we’ve taken these shots, pause with me and look at the picture of yourself. Who are the people in the picture? And then who are you? What is your full name? What is your story? Where did you come from? Who are your parents? What events in your life have led you to this moment right now when you are a part of this worship service? What does this picture you just took say about you?
In our gospel reading for this morning, we meet Jesus in what one Biblical commentator calls the “Jesus selfie.”
Though we read the baptism stories in the three other gospels—Mark, Luke and John, only in Matthew does the narration focus our attention solely on Jesus. In Matthew’s story, there’s no indication of the heavens ripping dramatically open as there is in Mark’s gospel. And there’s no lengthy description about the Spirit coming down and descending among the scene as there is in John’s gospel. And furthermore, there’s no emphasis on the crowd gathered like in Luke’s gospel.
Nope—in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism what we get is the straightforward story. The author’s intent is clearly to focus our attention not only the main event at this juncture in time, but on the main person we need to get to know: Jesus.
Jesus came forth from Galilee to the Jordan River where a crowd had already been gathered for quite sometime and John comes to Jesus and says (look with me at verse 14): “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
But then Jesus answered John saying, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
And in these few words, I believe that Jesus is giving us revelation into what this “selfie” moment is all about. Jesus wants us to see him as Lord. Jesus wants us to see him as the ONE that John had been preaching and teaching about when he quoted the prophet Isaiah and said, “The voice of the one crying out in the wilderness; ‘Prepare the way for the Lord.’” Jesus wants us to see him the Messiah that Israel had been waiting for all these years—the one who would bring salvation to all.
But it’s interesting isn’t it that Jesus says “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness?”
What does this mean? Often when you and I think of the word “baptism” we equate it with forgiveness of sins. Especially in the Baptist tradition where we don’t baptize infants but we wait for a person to get old enough to recognize their own faith and choose salvation found in Jesus for themselves—it is very easy to think baptism is about repentance.
And then this gets confusing when we see Jesus submitting himself to this act in the passage before us today because what did Jesus do to need forgiveness from? Wasn’t he perfect after all?
Yes. I believe he was perfect and lived a perfect life and this moment was not about making his life pure or right with God (for he WAS God). Rather Matthew is trying to show us Jesus’ moment of commissioning. It was his moment to stand before a gathered group of people and for as verse 16 tells us for the “heavens [to be] opened to him and [Jesus] to see the Spirit of God to descend like a dove aligning on him.”
This was no joke. Jesus was the real deal.
Jesus’ life would be forever changed from this moment on. He had a calling on his life. He had a life path full of places to go and people to see. He had a kingdom to bring to earth.
In baptism, this was the start of great things to come: the binding up the brokenhearted and bringing good news to the poor. It was the start of Jesus teaching, preaching and healing. It was the start of Jesus’ fulfilling the calling that he was born to fulfill.
And so it was a perfect day for a selfie.
If there was Facebook in ancient Palestine, I can only hope that this photo would have gotten lots of shares and likes if Jesus later posted it. Or at least lots of second looks—something was certainly changing by the Jordan River that day and the world would never be the same.
For those of you in this room who have been baptized, do you remember your baptism service? Who was the pastor? Do you remember who attended the service? Or even how you felt being touched by the cold water?
I was seven years old when I first touched the baptismal waters. It was in a Tennessee church. The baptismal pool was positioned in the sanctuary to the side of the pulpit—much like this one. I remember being excited about the big day. My grandparents had come for the service—both sets. I was getting a new Bible from the church with my name monogrammed on the outside cover. My father, the pastor, would be the one immersing me in the water.
I don’t recall much about the actual baptism service other than the waters being cold (it was a especially cool March morn). And being glad that it was all over. I never much like all the attention being focused all on me.
But how did I get there? About out a month prior I’d told my parents I wanted to become a Christian. I felt sorry for the things I’d done that had made God sad. I wanted to be an official part of the congregation. In my church growing up only baptized Christians could take communion. I didn’t want to be left out of that anymore.
Looking back on my seven-year old self now, I am not sure quite I had any idea what I was getting into. And maybe I was too young to have making such a life decision but regardless it was a choice I made and waters I entered into and my life was never the same.
For me it would take a church camp experience as a 12 year old to begin to understand what happened to me when I made the choice to follow Jesus—and for me to begin to really claim Jesus for my life slowly but steadily of course with some major bumps in the road. And in those moments at camp as I tried to make sense of my life and what God wanted from me, the thing that came back to my mind was my baptism.
I remembered my baptism. And I knew that in remembering it my life’s direction was no longer just about what I wanted to do. Rather it was about connecting my life to a greater mission. And that mission was of Jesus—a Jesus who wanted to know me personally.
See because in that moment when my dad baptized me in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit—calling upon the names that were present at Jesus’ baptism, my life was affirmed as not my own.
And yours, oh baptized friends of mine is not yours either. Hear me say this: baptism is not about you. I dare say it is not about feeling guilty about sin. It’s not about making sure you’re on the rolls when you get to heaven. Rather it’s about you following in the footsteps of Jesus in such a way that you allow Jesus to have ownership over your life.
Though we often celebrate in our churches baptism as happy, celebratory times (we get cakes, we threw parties afterwards or we might even give the person being baptized a gift), I believe that baptism as Matthew’s gospel shows us today is about death as much as it is about life. It’s about dying to our self—our own desires, our own plans, and our own goals and saying to Jesus, “What do YOU want from my life?”
Before performing a baptism, the pastor approached the young father and said solemnly,' Baptism is a serious step. Are you prepared for it?'
'I think so,' the man replied.' My wife has made appetizers and we have a caterer coming to provide plenty of cookies and cakes for all of our guests.'
'I don't mean that,' the priest responded.' I mean, are you prepared spiritually?'
'Oh, sure,' came the reply.' I've got a keg of beer and a case of whiskey.'
We can laugh about it but also know that this father had missed the point altogether.
It’s about a moment of spotlight yes. It’s about a moment to take a picture. It’s about a moment to take a picture and share with others—as we do in 2014 called a selfie.
But it is also about what we DO when we get out of the waters.
In whom do our loyalties lie?
By whose life do we model our life after?
In Marcus Borg recent book: Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, describes the conversion experience of baptism in this way: it’s “more than changing religions or joining a new church. It can also mean [and should mean] ‘a process, whether sudden or gradual, whereby religious impulses and energies become central to one’s life.”
Baptism, thus is not something that we do, or is done to us, or gets us into membership at the church (as many might think), but the first step in our process of formed in a completely new way of thinking and being in the world than is natural to us.
Because no longer as a baptized follower of Jesus do we get to sit on the sidelines of life and pretend like being a Christian is someone else’s job or just the preacher’s responsibility. It is all our responsibilities because it all of our stories to tell.
You may have been baptized years ago, so long ago that you barely even remember the occasion or who was there or how you felt. But it doesn’t matter. You are still a baptized believer and because of this you have a calling on your life.
Take a minute and go back again to see who you were sitting next to as you took your selfie this morning—look at the picture again. And consider it your remembering your baptism photo. That on this day when you came to church, this picture can remind you of whose family you belong to and whose you are.
You are a beloved child of God for in whom God is very well pleased.
Say it with me: “I am a beloved child of God in whom God is very well pleased.”
For some of you in this room, baptism is something that you’ve thought about or maybe even considered but you’ve never chosen for yourself. You’ve never had a pastor place you under the water. Today, on behalf of this entire community that loves you and earnestly wants to know more talk to one of us about being baptized in the near future. It’s a big choice. It’s a scary choice. But I have to say that it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
And for you it will be too. For in giving up control of our lives and allowing God to do what God can only do, we actually become who we were really meant to be in the first place: first and foremost a child of God with purpose and mission for your life today and moving forward in the future.
Thanks be to God for the gift of baptism and for this day to remember it!