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January 13, 2019

“Baptism: Sheltering and Nurturing the Spiritual Fellowship of God’s Children”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Isaiah 43.1-7

Luke 3.15-17, 21-22

January 13, 2019

The second Sunday into the new year we are still probably full of hopes and expectations. If you made a resolution, perhaps you still are moving along and feeling strong about it. The new year often becomes a marker for people to start over; to hit the reset button. People make resolutions to improve themselves and make changes – whether for health reasons, or to change bad habits, or to start a new hobby or hone a new skill. It is a time when people often try to reinvent themselves, perhaps because we are always trying to understand our identity – who we are in relation to others, who we are in relation to God, and who we are as individuals. The scripture passages today remind us to Whom we belong.

The New Year also tends to bring out the optimism of many. Last week, on Epiphany, we wrote our hopes for the year on the doors of the sanctuary – an ancient tradition of chalking the doors. In the Luke scripture passage we read that the people are gathering around John as he preaches, full of hope and expectation.[1] The people were looking for a messiah – someone to save them from the political and social turmoil they were experiencing. John the Baptist is preaching a word of comfort and challenge, and they are all ears.

Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord Sunday. We move from toddler Jesus to adult Jesus, not hearing much about his younger years. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell this story, but not exactly the same. Typically, we think of John the Baptist doing the baptism – after all, baptism is in his name. Yet, what we don’t read in the lectionary, in verses 18-20 is that John has been arrested.[2] So, who did the baptism? We don’t find out. The entire event is somewhat ignored.

The fact that Jesus was baptized at all was somewhat controversial. If Jesus is fully divine, why would he need to be baptized?[3] What does it mean to be fully human and fully divine, and need to be cleansed of sin? Was he sinless? I was intrigued by how professor Carol Lakey Hess described the reasoning for his baptism as being a response to living in a world with systemic sin. We sin often, sometimes without even knowing, because we participate in systems that are harmful to others. For example, when we invest our money in companies that create weapons, we are harming someone else, even though we are physically removed from the situation. Yet, what are our options? To change our investment to a company that pollutes the environment? To invest in a company that doesn’t pay workers enough? We might consider how we participate in systems that keep people in poverty, as well. We want quality products that are cheap, but that is often at the expense of someone’s living wage. Often when we participate in the systemic cycles of sin we do not even realize it or the consequences, and sometimes we have to break out of those cycles because the only way to stop it is to quit participating – which might be easier said than done.

Hess gives a quote from author Marjorie Suchozki that describes an experience as a juror in a difficult case. The jury declared the defendant guilty, but she struggled with how she had unknowingly participated in the crime, as well. She writes: “The sorry world of the crack house…had seemed so distant from my world as the academic dean of a theological seminary. But in truth, that ‘other’ world was only a few miles from my home. Where did that world start, and where did it stop? ‘My’ world was geographically close, but had I ever intentionally done anything at all to touch the lives in that ‘other’ world? Was I only involved to judge its inhabitants? Or was there not a sense in which I was a participant in that world as well as mine, even if that participation were as an absentee neighbor?”[4] Perhaps sometimes the sin is not the action or words, but the inaction and lack of words. We participate in systemic sin in the world whether we mean to or not.

Jesus came into the world as fully human and fully divine. Yes, he was divine, but he also experienced the world as a human. Perhaps the baptism was not about whether or not he was sinful or sinless, but that he participated in a world so drenched in sin that he experienced the systemic pain, and this was his way of being one with humanity. He could unite with humans by being with them in baptism, as a statement that “I am here with you – and I am feeling your pain – and I understand.”[5] When Jesus came to earth to be with humans, it was the ultimate compassion of God, connecting with sinners – connecting with people who are broken and hurting. Do we do the same? Are we connecting with those who are hurting in our own community?

The description given after the baptism is of the wheat and the chaff. This would have been a familiar metaphor to the farmers of the time this was written, but to those of us relatively removed from agricultural practices, we may need some guidance. Winnowing was the practice where the wheat was thrown up into the air and the wind, powerful and mighty, would separate the wheat from the chaff. Eventually the chaff was burned in fire. Mennonite minister Joanna Harader notes that readers often believe this is a metaphor for separating the good people from the bad people, but she approaches it from another perspective. What if this is more about “separating the good from the bad within ourselves”?[6] She goes on to comment that this is “comforting because nobody is being hurtled in the air or completely destroyed by fire. Disturbing because we all are being shaken up and partially destroyed by fire.”[7] John’s message was one of repentance. It wasn’t for the “bad” people – it was for all people. We all are sinners and we all must repent. The good news is that Jesus is with sinners and cares for us.

The Isaiah passage refers to fire, as well. The people will go through the fire and not be consumed.[8] The people were in exile and are beginning to return to their homes. God is telling them that God will cleanse them of their sins, and it will be difficult, but they will survive. After all the time that they have been separated from their homes and from the familiar they are in a critical place of starting over, trying to figure out their identity.[9] God gives them their identity: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” From the very beginning we are searching for our identity throughout crucial points in our lives, as a child we figure out our place in family, in middle school we begin to sense our own identity within peer groups In early adulthood we go off on our own and figure out identity as an individual away from our family of origin. In our career we attempt to figure out our identity in a workplace. In marriage and parenting we try to maneuver our identity with growing relationships. In retirement we figure out our new identity outside of our career. We are constantly trying to figure out who we are and where we belong.

In baptism we know where we belong and to Whom we belong. Throughout Advent and last Sunday we have been exploring the Great Ends of the Church – the call of the church in the world, also printed in your bulletin. The final one is the nurture and spiritual development of God’s children. As a faith community it is our job to remind God’s people that they are loved by God – that we are all loved by God and that we belong to a faith community. We baptize as a symbol of that claiming of God and then we promise to nurture that person in their spiritual journey.

As a church we are currently exploring our identity. As we approach the retreat next week we pray and discern where we will continue as God’s people. Wherever we go, we know that we belong to God. Sometimes we will have to go through the fire, the difficult times, but it will not consume us. The Spirit is with us, and we are filled with God’s Spirit, which gives us hope for the future. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Ernest Hess, “Luke 3.15-17, 21-22” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 237.

[2] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: C (Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1994), 76.

[3] Ibid., 76.

[4] Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, The Fall to Violence: Original Sin in Relational Theology (New York: Continuum, 1994), 11.

[5] Robert M. Brearley, “Luke 3.15-17, 21-22” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 236.

[6] Joanna Harader, “Reflections on the Lectionary: January 13, 2019” in Christian Century December 19, 2018, Vol. 135, No. 26, p. 20.

[7] Ibid., 20.

[8] Rick Nutt, “Isaiah 43.1-7” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 220.

[9] Craddock, et. al, 74.