A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

Signs of Life Sermon for Lent 1B February 19, 2021

This sermon was preached for the community of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on Feb. 21, 2021. It can be viewed on our YouTube channel Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC. Please subscribe!

The texts were:

Genesis 9: 8-17
1 Peter 3: 18-22
Mark 1: 9-15

It was riveting to watch the Mars Rover, Perseverance, land this week. The joy of the Nasa and JPL crew was palpable as the rover transmitted first pictures of the surface of the red planet. The rover projected a barren terrain: only sand and rocks, no plant life, trees, lakes, or rivers. The mission is to determine if life is possible or was ever possible on Mars, as currently, it appears that there are no signs of life to be found. But the recent discovery of the possibility of water, 4 million years ago in the Jezero Crater, opens the door and the imagination to dig deeper, literally, into the sand and rocks, to see if life is indeed present and possible. This most certainly captures my imagination, as if there is life on Mars, it will be unlike anything we have ever seen. The possibility exists of life and we might miss it because it will be so foreign to us and outside our scope of experience. This scientific mission names a truth for us on this planet earth. I often only take in at face value the surface of the terrain around me, whether that’s the actual earth, which at this time of year seems to be as lifeless as Mars, or my day-to-day encounters with people and places. I don’t take the time, possess the curiosity or have the imagination to wonder about what I don’t understand and what I don’t know. I make assumptions about situations and people sometimes writing them off as lifeless, useless, and arid. I assume that there is nothing life-giving able to come from that place or relationship. I don’t dig deeper; I don’t allow for the possibility for my mind to be changed. I believe that what I see, is all there is to see. Only sand, only rocks, only snow, only barrenness.

Lent beginning at the end of winter, when most life is dead or hibernating, is not simply a happy coincidence. Lent was wisely ascribed by the religious folks to begin the six weeks leading up to Easter, when signs of life are harder to find. And the texts that we encounter in worship, call us to dig deeper, go beyond the surface terrain and look under the rocks, dig in the sand, and the see past the barrenness to see signs of new life. Every first Sunday of Lent we read about Jesus in the desert. Each version from Matthew, Mark and Luke are slightly different, offering a myriad of insights, but Mark’s our reading today, and it is the briefest, two verses. After Jesus is baptized (also a brief version) the Holy Spirit drives Jesus, or literally in the Greek, throws Jesus into the wilderness or the desert. He’s tested by Satan, is with some wild beasts and the angels who erve him. This story would have been much kinder and easier to digest if it went right from Jesus’ baptism with the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit and the loving words from God, to Jesus proclaiming that God’s kingdom is here, turn around and believe in the good news! But that’s not what we have. In between those two stories, Jesus is thrown into a dangerous place where few people could survive. No water, no food, no shelter, only sand, rocks and the blazing Middle Eastern sun. Not a very hospitable place for life. Yet, Mark adds the detail that there are wild beasts there. So, there is apparently SOME life to be found. And if that isn’t enough, the angels are there too, serving Jesus, that is to care for his life. Despite Satan’s attempts to prove otherwise, there were signs of life in that wild place. Maybe not the life that Jesus would have preferred, or the kind of life that brings comfort and ease, but it was life finding a way against all odds.

This is the good news that Jesus then proclaims in Galilee. Yes, John is arrested and most likely will be killed, yes, you might be surrounded by desert, death, lifelessness, hopelessness, but God’s kingdom is also here! God’s kingdom is the sign of life that you are looking for! It’s life that meets you at the waters edge, in the cold, parched, and dead places in your life, in suffering, in hopelessness and helplessness. God never gives up on revealing abundant life, over and over God chooses life. God creates life from the chaos of the void, calls forth life from a flood, gives life to God’s people in the desert for 40 years, God offers a new life to the exiles, and in Jesus, God proclaims that death will not abound for humanity or creation only life eternal.

God sends signs of life: The bow in the clouds, manna on the ground, water from a rock, a sprig from the dead stump of Jesse, a baby in a feeding trough, God’s son on a cross and a tomb that is empty. Not always the signs we look for or can understand but signs of life, nonetheless. Signs of God’s promise of life are all around us today: people volunteering to give vaccines, Navy pilots rescuing sea turtles in TX, animals keeping their humans warm in subzero temps, people serving their neighbors who live on the streets in the bitter cold, hospital staff working overtime to heal broken bodies, voices in unity demanding equity and dignity for Black, Indigenous and LBGTQIA folks, there are signs of life.

Jesus calls us to be God’s signs of life in the world. We are part of the promise that life finds a way even when it seems impossible. Drenched in the life-giving waters of our baptism and nourished by Jesus’ very body, we are walking, breathing, loving signs of life. We are signs of life when we refuse to allow any person be denigrated, we are signs of life when we ensure that children and families have safe and adequate housing, food and medical care, we are signs of life for MillCreek Elementary families, we are signs of life for Family Promise guests and Linus Project children, we are signs of life when we realize that we can’t sit silently on the shoreline, we have to get into the water, we go into the desert, not alone but by and with the Holy Spirit and each other to usher in the life that God has envisioned from day one of creation. Life in harmony, life in balance, life abundant and life for all. It’s risky to be those signs of life, like the Mars Rover, we might feel like we’re being hurtled through space towards an unknown future. But unlike the Mars Rover we know that we go with God and one another and God knows what’s coming: God’s realm where signs of life aren’t hard to see but are abundantly found, in creation, in you, in me and in us all. Amen.

 

So Many Questions, Baptism of Our Lord Sunday Year A January 19, 2020

This sermon was preached on January 12, 2020 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT. The texts were:

Isaiah 42: 1-9
Acts 10: 34-43
Matthew 3: 3-17

Children’s sermon: Play 20 questions with the answer being Jesus.(FYI a little girl asked the very first question: “Is it Jesus?” Ha!) Asking questions helped you to realize that I was thinking about Jesus. Asking questions helps us to learn things and understand things differently. Do you think you know everything there is to know about God? What do you wonder about God still? I have a lot of questions about God too! Well, really I have a lot of questions for God if I’m honest. Our bible story today is about Jesus being baptized. Now that seems like a straightforward thing but when Jesus came to John for baptism, John had a question for Jesus! Why do you come to me for baptism, you’re Jesus! John asking Jesus a question reminds us that even people who we think know a lot about God, still have things to learn and so do we! John didn’t quite understand that Jesus’ baptism shows that we don’t have to go to God, God always comes to us-every day.  We are baptized like Jesus to know that God is with us always and that every day is a new beginning to learn more about God in our lives and in the world. God doesn’t expect us to know everything, and our baptism isn’t about having answers but loving God and sharing God’s love with other people. Baptism gives us a job to do, and that job is to love. To splash other people with God’s love-that is our most important job-no matter what you grow up to be a teacher, a doctor, an accountant, a musician, our big job is to make sure that everyone knows God’s love: what are some ways that we can do that as children and adults? Those are all great ways to share God’s love! Let’s pray:

I’m noticing an interesting trend in our culture in the past few years: everyone wants to claim that they have all the answers, even if it’s not possible. From celebrities, to athletes, to nation leaders, to religious leaders, to random people on the internet. Someone always has the answer-for weight loss, younger skin, better relationships, to more complex issues such as wage equity, taxes, foreign policy, civil rights, and the list goes on. When these answers are shouted loudly enough, with certainty, and projecting that other people’s certainties are wrong, it has a devastating side effect: it shuts down relationships. When we are dug in about what we know and won’t ask questions of one another, we aren’t willing to learn something new or be in hard conversations we are cutting ourselves off from each other.

For me, and maybe most of us, asking questions is a posture of vulnerability, of admitting that we don’t know something. Not knowing something can leave me feeling useless, or that I have nothing to contribute. And as a pastor, people expect me to have all the answers about God. And the truth is that I don’t! I have as many questions as you, maybe more! You will also hear me say, “I don’t have answers, but I have some responses” as responses invite others to respond as well.  I tend to get into a lot of conversations with people who are very certain what the Bible says or what God is thinking and that to be a “Christian” I have to understand the Bible or God in a specific way-their way. And when I question their certainty-their response is to claim that I don’t have faith. Faith for many is to have all the answers, certainty and to never question. I love the Anne Lamott quote “The opposite of faith is not doubt: It is certainty. It is madness. You can tell you have created God in your own image when it turns out that he or she hates all the same people you do.”

John in our gospel story and Peter in our story from Acts, remind us of the importance of questions, curiosity, wonder and that certainty has never been part of the faith equation. The story of Jesus’ baptism from our Matthew gospel this morning was an embarrassment in the early church because of all the questions it raised. Why would Jesus, who is supposed to be without sin, need a baptism for repentance? What would Jesus need to repent from? And how could an ordinary person such as John, be worthy of baptizing the son of God? Jesus needed John?

The other gospel stories of Jesus’ baptism offer a picture that doesn’t raise as many questions. But Matthew wants us to be uncomfortable, to wrestle and to float in the questions and uncertainty of what we think we know about Jesus and baptism. John’s question to Jesus of “how can I baptize you?”, sparks more questions of what John did or didn’t understand about Jesus, his own cousin, whom he, himself, had been paving the way for all these years. Shouldn’t John have been certain in his role by now? Shouldn’t he have faith in who Jesus is? Yet, when the reality of God coming close, when the reality of being pulled into the work of God’s kingdom was palpable, John realized perhaps in a split second everything he didn’t know and that he might be in over his head. And Jesus didn’t offer John an answer or certainty but simply relationship and connection into God’s mission.

And then in Acts we drop in on Peter, oh dear Peter, right after his certainty rug had been pulled out from underneath him. This mini sermon in Acts 10, is the culmination of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius and God opening Peter up to question what he knew about who was included in God’s grace and love through Jesus Christ. Peter had been praying and during that prayer time God confronted him with a vision of animals to eat that were forbidden by Jewish purity laws. Peter was greatly puzzled by this vision as it brought into question his whole understanding of living as God’s people and his faith. Cornelius, at God’s bidding, sent people to bring Peter to him. Peter went and in the interaction with Cornelius and his household, Peter was opened up to God’s work in all people, Gentiles and Jews alike. What we read for scripture this morning is Peter working out that there were things he didn’t understand and maybe still doesn’t, but he is learning a new way through Jesus. Peter had to set aside his certainty and ego to see what new thing God was doing, that God had a role for him in this kingdom expanding work, and that faith in Jesus, ultimately is a gift from God and not in his to control. When Peter let go of his certainty, he was able to fully witness to God’s radical inclusion, care and grace for all people, even those whom Peter had previously considered outsiders. God and God’s law was no longer in Peter’s image but had taken on the image of the Gentiles in his midst. God used Peter’s confusion and uncertainty to proclaim the good news of Jesus and to bring Peter into deep relationship with people different from himself.

It’s hard for us to admit when we’re in over our head or that what we thought we knew with certainty perhaps has another response. But God coming to us in Jesus pulls us into relationship with God where questions, wonder and curiosity are the heart of our faith and the heart of baptism. Baptism isn’t about our certainty and our answers-baptism is a response from God of who we are and whose we are. This is why we baptize infants in the Lutheran tradition, baptism is all about God and not about us or what we know. The scandal of the Matthew text is that Jesus was baptized by an ordinary and questioning human to reveal God’s extraordinary love and need for relationship with us. Jesus came to John to be baptized because that is the promise of baptism-God comes to us wherever we are, nothing separates us from God, and we simply float in the waters of faith and love. Baptism frees us from needing to have pat answers, from worrying if we have enough or the correct faith or wondering about our worth. Baptism frees us for relationship with God and one another. Baptism frees us to live into our true identity: beloved. Baptism washes our eyes and our hearts so that we see all people how God sees them, in God’s very image. Through our baptisms, God takes us by the hand and brings us into the beloved community and into the work of proclaiming God’s grace, peace, mercy, hope and love to a world who is in bondage to the need to be certain and right instead of in relationship with each other. Baptism is the promise that God comes to us through Jesus Christ to be with us, to connect us and to draw us all into new life today and always.

Jesus fully immerses himself in our humanity to dwell with us in the questions of life and to open to us the reality of God’s loving response to us and creation. God’s response to Jesus’ baptism says it all “this is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We have worth because we are God’s. We are important in God’s kingdom not because of what we know or what we do but because of what God does through us. Amen.