Sunday, January 13, 2013

Marked by Love

My sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday at the Deer Creek Charge United Methodist Churches! I had a woman in her seventies tell me that she had never thought of herself as being Beloved of God before. 

See also my communion liturgy used on this Sunday.

Scripture: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 (The Message)

The Gospel reading this morning will be from a paraphrase of scripture, Eugene Peterson's The Message. Hear now these words:

The interest of the people by now was building. They were all beginning to wonder, “Could this John be the Messiah?”

But John intervened: “I am baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I'm a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He's going to clean house--- make a clean sweep of your lives. He'll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he'll put out in the trash to be burned.”

There was a lot more of this--- words that gave strength to the people, words that put heart in them. The Message!...

After all the people were baptized, Jesus was baptized. As he was praying, the sky opened up and the Holy Spirit, like a dove descending, came down on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”

Sermon: Marked by Love

Let us pray:

Patient teacher, we praise you for your warm embrace,

that in the midst of our fear and doubt, still youhope,  remind us

of your most important teaching: love.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,

guide us all to better understand this teaching.

In the name of Jesus, whom you proclaimed your beloved. Amen.

My sister Kate, the blonde one, really changed the way I look at baptism. It was early two summers ago when we were at Norrisville United Methodist Church and there was a baptism. Now, we were preacher's kids, and preacher's kids who went to multiple services on a Sunday, so when the second service rolls around, you pay a little less attention to what's going on. I was goofing off a bit, but when I happened to look at my sister, she was crying. Now Kate did not use to be a very emotional person. For example: when she and I did a presentation on our mission trip to Bosnia, I cried because the trip had been such a powerful experience and I was so in love with the people we had met there. Her reaction to my tears was to tell me in the car on the way to the next service, “I hope you don't cry this time. That was embarrassing to me.” Kate's a real sweet girl.

So when I saw Kate was crying during the service, I thought she was sick or something; I was very concerned and asked her what was wrong. She said through her tears that she just found moments like this baptism so beautiful because they signify our family growing. She was touched by the love in the room, the warmth and the smiles on everyone's faces that just radiated the power of God's love.

I don't think before this moment I really thought about or at least felt baptism in this way. I confess that I am, to the chagrin of my mother (who is a pastor), a bit of an anabaptist. Anabaptists believe in re-baptism, that baptism should be something you choose as an adult to signify your commitment to a new way of life. I also like the idea of rebaptism because I always wanted to be baptized in a river but can't because I have already been baptized. Total immersion, the kind of baptism when you are dunked under water, just seems very glamorous to me. Now, though there is merit to anabaptist's focus on a ritual to signify a new commitment, less so to my desire for glamor, I think my understanding of baptism before seeing Kate cry missed the point of baptism. Baptism is less about us and the work that we do to arrive at the point of making that commitment to God and more about those words that were spoken as the Holy Spirit descended like a dove upon Jesus on the day of his baptism: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Or, as we read from The Message this morning, “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love.

When we think of baptism, we usually think more of washing away our sin than we think of entering into a family. And of course, baptism does symbolize how God cleanses us of our sin and offers us a new life. And baptism, though we only do it once, symbolizes how God offers us new life again and again throughout our lives. But the power of baptism is that it doesn't just offer us a clean slate--- because, let's face it, in The United Methodist church we often [but not exclusively, as we will see today] baptize infants who do not need a clean slate at that particular moment in their lives. The power of baptism is that it marks us as beloved children of God, enveloping us in a love that will never let us go.

Of course, we are marked by God's love even without being baptized, but baptism, like communion, is a physical reminder of God's claim on our lives. In most Protestant churches, we celebrate two sacraments: baptism and communion. [And today, at Deer Creek, we're celebrating both!] Sacrament is a fancy word that means an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” And that definition I just gave was a fancy definition that just means that it is a physical mark that reminds us of God's love for us--- a love that has a past, present, and future component to it. The liturgy tells the story of our past, of those biblical moments that God has acted through water or bread. We are anchored in the present by the physicality of the act, the feeling of the water on our head, the bread in our mouths. And in the practice, we are entering into a future moment, that kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven that Jesus talks about.1

So this mark of love is a powerful thing, roots extending deep into our history, branches touching us now, budding into something new as we speak. But it is also a ridiculous claim, isn't it? Couldn't we just say, “Oh, when we read Luke, God is talking about Jesus not all the rest of us”? I just jumped to a big conclusion when I skipped from the water to God's words as the centerpiece of baptism. But friends, this is what the Gospel writer does. In both Matthew and Mark's gospel, there is a little phrase about Jesus coming up from the water that is completely omitted in Luke's gospel. In fact, in Luke's gospel, it doesn't even say specifically that John the Baptist baptized Jesus. It just says, “Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus was baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” That's it. One big sentence that reminds us, as Kate's tears reminded me, what baptism is really all about.

And, you may be saying now that neither of these two textual differences, removing John the Baptist from the action and omitting the water, are a huge deal. They certainly don't seem to be a huge deal, except that the effect of them is to remind us that it is not humans who baptize, or humans who choose baptism, but it symbolizes the work God is doing. And it is not the water that is important, but what the symbol ultimately points to: God's love for each and every one of us.

So, yes, though claiming that in saying Jesus was beloved, we all are beloved, seems a bit outrageous, this is what Luke focuses the true meaning of baptism on in his Gospel. And it is this focus on identity proclamation, on naming and claiming that makes all the difference for what we are called to do next. One commentator I read for this week explains:

I am God’s beloved. That’s an outrageous claim. Who am I to deserve God’s love? But that claim, that identity, is what we celebrate with this...story of the baptism of Jesus. We move from Luke’s birth narratives to his account of an adult Jesus in the water of the Jordan, and we hear the words “You are my Son, the Beloved.”

With his identity proclaimed, Luke sets the stage for Jesus’ work in the world. From this identity comes all the rest:

  • his audacious claim that God is here, now, within each one of us, if we but have eyes to see, that God claims us all as beloved, if we but have ears to hear;
  • his daring promise of justice and compassion, a new way to be found outside the walls of the temple and beyond the influence of empire;
  • his healing touch that broke taboos of status and gender and race.

All that comes from this first claim, this foundational identity: you are my beloved.2

This is what baptism is all about, for Jesus, for us. It is about naming who we are and whose we are so that we may go out into the world living into that identity. This is why my sister Kate was so touched that Sunday as we welcomed another child into her true identity as Beloved of God. Baptisms, I saw in that moment, are a time to shower one another in love, to claim one another with love, as God has claimed us.

My mom is having her congregation this morning repeat after her: “I am God's beloved child...called and sent to make a difference in the world.” I thought this was a terrific idea. Being marked with God's love doesn't just end with smiles and a warm feeling, it demands action. So we're all going to say this together: “I am God's beloved child...called and sent to make a difference in the world.”3 Get that stuck in your head this week. Pray those words this week, and as we [remember our baptisms]/[baptize Sue and Patty today]. Can you imagine what the world would look like if we were all rooted in our belovedness? If we all recognized how much God loves us? If we went around acting as the beloved children of God we are?

Let us pray:

Spirit, fill us to overflowing with your love today and everyday. And guide us to love others, to widen the embrace of our church family even more every day. Help us to make a difference in the world, God. In the name of Jesus, Your Beloved. Amen.

1The idea behind this paragraph is stolen a little from my mom's baptism sermon, “A Baptism Shaped Life,” preached at Norrisville and St. Paul United Methodist Churches on 5 September 2010.
2Ann Howard, “Beloved Together,” A Word in Time, The Beatitudes Society, 7 January 2013,
3Melissa McDade, “Who We Are” preached at St. Paul and Norrisville United Methodist Churches on 13 Jnauary 2013.

No comments:

Post a Comment