Manifesting God’s Love, Epiphany 1(C) – 2016

[RCL] Isaiah 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22; Psalm 29

As long as most of us have been able to remember, modern day so-called prophets have been crying that Jesus is coming sometime soon in our lifetime. For that matter, any quick glance at Church history reveals that generations of folks have been anticipating the Second Coming. Even St. Paul thought that Jesus was going to return during his generation. But here we are 2,000 years later still awaiting the coming of our Lord. The Church continues to be filled with expectation, not unlike those who listened to John the Baptist, wondering if the coming of the Messiah is nigh. It seems humanity has a deep-seated longing for someone to come and deliver us from all that is wrong with the world. The world’s three great monotheistic faith traditions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – all eagerly await the coming of the One who will rectify the world’s wrongs, set the record straight, and establish a reign of righteousness.

It’s easy to see why the people gathered around John mistook him for being the long-awaited Messiah. He was a mighty preacher, boldly proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God, and warning people to repent of their sins in preparation for the coming of the Christ. John, like Jesus, challenged the status quo of his day. He called the leaders vipers when they came seeking baptism from this man in the wilderness. John didn’t pull any punches, and in the end, it proved to be his undoing. Nevertheless, Jesus proclaimed that John was the greatest among all prophets. John baptized with water, but he prepared the way for the one who would baptize with fire.

On this day, the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we are still waiting for the Messiah to return. Many are busy trying in vain to interpret the signs of the times in order to determine when the Christ will return as promised. The world has become a very scary place for many of us. Terrorist attacks are happening around the globe, wars and rumors of war fill the airwaves and electronic media, natural disasters seem to be on the rise with ever increasing ferocity, and governments struggle to find solutions to what ails their countries. Each generation sees their time as being worse the any other time in history with fear and foreboding. People are divided over what is the best approach to solving all that is wrong in our world. Even in the Church, Christ’s followers cannot find consensus. Division is rampant and faith seems to be replaced with fear.

In light of all that burdens our souls in today’s world we are called to remember that Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire. The Paraclete comes not to only provide us with comfort, but to empower us to carry out the work of the Lord in a world that is desperate for answers for what ails it. God is separating the wheat and the chaff. Despite all the disorder in the world, God is still firmly in control of the situation. Nothing is happening that God is not aware of. God’s Beloved Son has already won the victory for us, we only have to learn to walk in that victory as we face all the challenges that lay ahead.

It helps to keep in mind that the world has always faced great adversity. When the Mongols invaded the Roman Empire the Church was convinced that was the end. When the Norsemen invaded Europe, wreaking havoc wherever they landed, the Church was certain that was the end. And when the Ottoman Empire was at the gates of Vienna, once again the Church was prepared for the end to come. No generation has lived that hasn’t witnessed great social upheaval, indescribable suffering, or cataclysmic disasters. But the world continues to spin, history rolls on, and the Church must learn to rise to the occasion and proclaim that God’s love knows no boundaries. The end may be near, but we are called to be overcomers in Christ, not merely survivors who are barely hanging on until the Lord returns.

Today’s Gospel states that Jesus will separate the wheat from the chaff, but how do we know the difference? What separates the wheat from the chaff? Fear. When we allow fear to rule our decision-making process we give into irrational thinking and actions. Fear tells us to shut the alien out, to deny mercy to those seeking asylum, and to hoard our resources out of fear that there won’t be enough. Fear compels us to distrust our neighbors, and arm ourselves before we leave the relative safety of our homes as if we are going out for battle and not just a simple trip to the store or movie theater. Fear, if given into, can become our prison master that prevents us from living our lives to the fullest as intended by God.

Those who have been empowered by the Holy Spirit have nothing to fear. As Scripture reminds us, “If Christ be for us, who can be against us?” Fear is the opposite of faith. Fear tells us that God isn’t big enough to handle our problems. Faith, on the other hand, says that God is bigger than all our problems combined. Jesus, the one God calls his beloved, conquered fear on the cross and He is coming back. But until that day comes, we are called to occupy the land (spiritually speaking). Perfect love casts out all fear, and love is perfected a little more in us each time we face a fearful situation and declare God’s victory over the situation.

The love that gives us power over fear is rooted in God’s beloved – Jesus. Just as God is well pleased with the Son, so too is God pleased with all his children who put their trust in His grace. This is the central message of baptism; the old being has been buried with Christ in baptism and the new creation has been resurrected. This is a spiritual truth that must be worked out during our lifetime; nevertheless, we can be assured that God’s love for us is eternal and trustworthy. No trial or tribulation we may face can separate us from the love of God.

Christ has come into the world to set us free from fear and spiritual oppression. He will come again as he promised. Until that day comes, let us continue to manifest God’s love for all His creation as we continue to love and serve Christ in all people. Amen.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 1C.

Written by The Rev. Deacon Timothy G. Warren

The Rev. Deacon Timothy G. Warren is a 26-year retired Air Force veteran with more than 15 years’ experience as an educator in the private and public sector. Deacon Warren is the founder of Trinity Victorville Outreach, an emergent ministry in the High Desert Region, Calif., and founder/president of Lifeskills Development, a newly formed nonprofit dedicated to providing assistance to at-risk young adults.

Sharing Frensdorff’s dream, 1 Epiphany (C) – 2013

January 13, 2013

Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Wesley Frensdorff was the bishop of Nevada in the early 1970s. He also served as assisting bishop of Arizona and interim bishop of Navajoland. He was one of the early visionaries of a movement called “total ministry,” a strategy for living out our Baptismal Covenant in community.

Our Baptismal Covenant, the promise we make together at every baptism, calls us, among other things, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

At its very heart, Frensdorff’s ideas of total ministry push the limits of how we carry out our baptismal promise in the world, and how we “do” church. His ministry was not without conflict and opposition.

Tragically, he died in a plane crash on the rim of the Grand Canyon in 1988. But 30 years ago, before he died, Frensdorff wrote a poem called “The Dream.” The poem begins:

“Let us dream of a church in which all members know surely and simply God’s great love.”

This first line of Frensdorff’s poem brings to mind a metaphor that the great Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, used in the sixteenth century: “Can a rock that has been in the sunlight all day not fail to give off warmth and heat at night?”

Martin Luther leads us to ask ourselves, Can a Christian who has lived in the sunlight of God’s love not fail to give off warmth and love?

The answer is no. But we can’t radiate God’s love until we’ve opened our hearts and let it in.

We can’t expect ourselves or anyone else to simply start loving each other and be nice. We must first live in the sunlight of God’s love. We need to bask in the sunlight of God’s compassion. We need to absorb God’s light, allowing it to replace all those parts that are not of God within us – all of those past hurts that take up our inner space and block out God’s life-giving light.

Once we allow God’s love in, we can then begin to give off that love.

Let us dream of a church that radiates God’s love.

Thirty years ago, Frensdorff dreamed of a church unafraid of change. Is the church any less afraid of change than it was 30 years ago?

Maybe not. In fact, it may be even more afraid, which is understandable. Our world is changing so fast that sometimes a changeless church might seem the only refuge in a world that may be almost unrecognizable from what we used to know.

So we cling to what was, for comfort. But in so doing, we cut off the growth of new generation.

A woman tells the story of how, when she moved into a house in Connecticut, she decided to trim back the wisteria vines on the front of the house. The vines grew with abandon and flowered prolifically. In her attempts to shape it up a bit, and redirect it, she went out and bought some electric shearers, which she described later as being a big mistake. Not being an experienced gardener, she began to cut and cut and cut. And you know what? That wisteria never flowered again.

It didn’t die, she explained. It was still alive. Sort of. It lived as a brownish stalk that would only shoot out a few weak green bloomless tentacles each spring. She later learned that wisteria only produce flowers from the previous year’s new growth, and those few weak green shoots were unable to capture the nutrients necessary to bring forth flowers.

Let us dream of a church so vital and alive that it grows and flowers with abandon.

Thirty years ago, Frensdorff wrote in his poem that he dreamed of a church “so salty and yeasty that it really would be missed if no longer around.”

Let us share that dream and envision a bold church that exists beyond its walls, a church that fearlessly speaks out against the unjust structures of society. A church that doesn’t always choose the safe route. A church that is nimble enough to continue to be relevant and responsive in our rapidly changing social context.

A church that is not satisfied with feeding its members pablam, but instead takes risks, speaking out, and acting, regardless of consequences, against those things that are not of God.

A church where the members are so on-fire by their own conversion experiences that they can’t help but reach out and share the good news, both with people “like” themselves, and people who are very different.

Have we lost our salt? Let us, as Frensdorff did, dream of a salty church.

Thirty years ago, Frensdorff dreamed of a church where “each congregation is in mission and each Christian, gifted for ministry; a crew on a freighter, not passengers on a luxury liner.”

Let us also dream of a church united by a common vision defined by Christ’s teachings. A church where the mission of the church is the mission of Jesus Christ, and each member, regardless of ordination status, is part of the one crew.

Frensdorff’s vision was of each member as part of a crew on a freighter. But when we look at the church universal, with an estimated 38,000 different Christian denominations, when we look at the fractured Anglican Communion, and even when we look at the dynamics within individual communities, it’s hard to see one freighter. Instead there appear to be thousands of individual life rafts floating adrift.

Let us dream of a church where each member is part of that crew on one boat with a common vision. How much more could we do if our forces were united?

And finally, 30 years ago Frensdorff dreamed “of a people called to recognize all the absurdities in ourselves and in one another,” and a people “serious about the call and the mission but not, very much, about ourselves.”

Let us share his vision of a playful church, a church that takes its ultimate goal seriously, but itself – not so much.

A church that acknowledges that we might have a lot to learn. That we don’t know all the answers. And that we fall short, corporately and individually. A church where the members are blessed with hearts that forgive, and a sense of humor. That worships a God who we know also forgives, and who, we pray, has a sense of humor.

Consider this image of one day coming to know the nearer presence of Our Lord.

God is there to welcome you. You talk. God reminds you of your Baptismal Covenant – the same covenant that we will reaffirm together today. God reminds you of the teaching of Holy Scripture.

By now your post-earthly-life stomach might be turning, whatever that feels like.

But the conversation moves on to one of mercy, with God’s eternal words of welcome: “My dear child, you tried. Sometimes you even came close to getting it right. But other times, well, you missed the mark. Sometimes you fell a little short, and sometimes you got it really wrong. Sometimes your efforts were actually silly, and they even amused, giving us a good laugh. But my dear child, you tried. Your heart was in the right place. You are forgiven; you are loved; come on in anyway.”

Let us dream of a church that is serious about God’s love, and just maybe, not so serious about itself.

Today as we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, and all the baptisms today throughout the church, let us ask ourselves, What kind of a church are we bringing our new members into?

Will it be the kind of church that we dream it could be?

Will it be the kind of church that Frensdorff dreamed it could be?

Will it be the kind of church Jesus dreamed it to be?

All of us who are gathered have a part in shaping the answer. What kind of church are we going to create for these beautiful children?

 

— The Rev. Suzanne Watson has served in congregations in California, New Zealand, Connecticut and on the staff of the Presiding Bishop in New York. She is currently exploring a call to medical missionary work, and just completed her first semester of medical studies at St. George’s University in Grenada, West Indies, where she is also serves as  a priest.

A call that cannot be denied, 1 Epiphany (C) – 2010

January 10, 2013

Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky.” These lovely works by poet John Masefield talk about the sailor’s almost irresistible draw to the water.

It’s been said that since our bodies may be up to 75 percent water, we are automatically drawn to water. We know certainly that the body cannot exist without water – picture the old cowboy movies where the pioneers in covered wagons are overcome with heat and exhaustion in the desert, no oasis in sight, a burning sun scorching the sand. Whitened bones of humans and animals, wagons with rotted canvas coverings flapping in the wind are soon all that’s left. No flowing streams, no rain, no hope for those caught unprepared in the desert. It’s as if heat and drought themselves yearn for water and so pull the water of life out of living things until bones collapse and blanch on the desert floor.

“I must go down to the sea again.”

Our hearts ache for the touch of water on our dry skin when we consider the desert. But then we imagine other movies, “The Perfect Storm” or “Moby Dick.” We remember the desperation and horror of those caught in real-life tsunamis. Plenty of water there. More than plenty – too much. Instead of being life-giving, the water brings death. The sea, the blue-green and tranquil sea that painters love to capture on a beautiful summer’s day, becomes an enormous force, bigger than life, dangerous, frightening. It becomes black with fury, tossing ships like toys, overwhelming miles of landscape and claiming to its black depths lives, villages, and a future’s hope.

Water – life and death, hope and despair. In a way, we have absolutely no control over water; some pray for rain, others pray for the rain to stop. Water, like the air we breathe, is completely essential, and yet it brings death as well as life. Perhaps it’s those properties of water that make it such a perfect symbol of the grace of baptism.

Water is one of the most evident features in scripture. From the graceful beginning words of Genesis where the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, through the story of Noah and the covenant between God and God’s people, to the Red Sea, and then to today’s anointing of Jesus’ ministry through his own baptism, water has woven the story of God’s life and ours together.

Baptismal water flows over us today. In our passage from Isaiah, we’re reminded that even as we pass through raging waters, God is with us. Overflowing rivers will not drown God’s people. And why? Because the word of the Lord through Isaiah says, “Fear not: for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, and you are mine.” Of course water here is an image. Earthly water and fire – another image in today’s passage – can do us bodily harm, but when we dig deeper and hear what God is saying, we realize that God is reminding us that no earthly thing can keep us from the love and comfort of God. Even if natural water or fire overwhelms our bodies, God’s spirit is with us. God’s love comforts and heals.

In the gospel, water is used both figuratively and literally. John the Baptist offers the people of that time a baptism of repentance. The Jews are drawn to the waters of the Jordan to be cleansed of their unfaithfulness to God’s law. They are drawn by John’s words. Many may be drawn by the simplicity of his message. This is how you can live lives faithful to God’s law: tax collectors, don’t cheat; soldiers, don’t threaten or extort; all of you, share what you have with the poor. John offered them a chance to be renewed. And this was a very good thing. The Jordan’s water cleansed both body and soul.

It seems sensible that some would mistake John for the Messiah, but John introduces Jesus by using the two images we heard in Isaiah: water and fire. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” This is a new baptism. This new baptism will do more than forgive sins, it will create the community of God. This community would be guided by the Holy Spirit. This baptism announced that the kingdom of God was at hand. As the heavens opened at Jesus’ baptism, the voice of God anointed the mission and ministry Jesus would live out among God’s people. God has pitched a tent among the people.

This isn’t just an historical telling of the start of Jesus’ ministry. This message is for us, too. But you might say, we know this story. We know it’s important to be baptized. We even baptize babies, not only adults, as they did in the early church.

But do we really know? Do we really take our baptisms seriously today? We certainly still take water seriously, its ability to effect both life and death, but if we really took our baptism seriously, wouldn’t our world and our church look different? Think about those promises we all made at our baptism. We promised to keep alive the apostles’ teachings and the prayers. We promised, as those people did at the Jordan, to acknowledge our sins, repent, and return to the Lord. We promised to see Christ in each other and to respect the dignity of every human being. We promised to work for justice and peace. We didn’t promise just to think all these things would be nice. We promised to do something about them – to work for them. Are we? From the look of the world and the church, we must not be doing too good a job.

This is why we have a lectionary cycle. This is why the church asks us to consider the story of our salvation, and everything that entails, over three years’ of readings. It helps us to look at all God has done for us. It helps us to remember that no matter what, God cares deeply for us and promises to be our strength. Hearing again and again the story of John and Jesus at the Jordan should cement in our minds that we must keep the mission and ministry of Jesus alive. We are asked to pray. We are asked to keep Jesus’ teaching alive by sharing in the liturgy, preaching God’s word, and then taking what we have learned out to others.

“I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;”

Our call to keep alive the good news of the gospel and to spread the love and compassion of God cannot be denied.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tenn., and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of “Tuesday Morning,” a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.

You are my beloved, 1 Epiphany / Baptism of Our Lord (C) – 2007

January 7, 2007

Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

What does it mean to be God’s chosen? What does it mean to be God’s Beloved? The four gospels tell the story of Jesus’ baptism a bit differently, but a core truth emerges from all of them: that Jesus is God’s chosen one, God’s beloved son. A voice from heaven belonging to God or God’s Holy Spirit declares about Jesus or directly to him: “You are my beloved.”

Mark and Luke report the voice speaking directly to Jesus: “You are.”

The Gospel of John says that John the Baptizer saw the Holy Spirit descend and remain upon Jesus as witness of a promise given to John: this is the Beloved, this is the chosen one in whom God is well pleased.

Matthew uses the same assurance in the third person: He is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.

In any version, this is an affirmation, an acknowledgement, and the tender approval of a son by his father. It is also, as the scholars tell us, an act of will – to be beloved – not an evidence of feelings.

We can dare surmise that either Jesus reported this event to his disciples or that there were eyewitnesses, like John the Baptizer, who saw the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, or who also heard the voice saying these remarkable words of affirmation and approval.

But why did it take so long for Jesus to make this decision to become public with his understanding of the character of God? In that first century, which afforded a much shorter life span, thirty years was a very long time.

All the gospels agree that Jesus’ public ministry begins with this open and public baptism in the Jordan river. Even his cousin John is shocked that Jesus wills to be baptized by him. A careful reading shows us that this was a momentous decision and that Jesus must have prayed about it for a very long time before appearing on the bank of the river and asking John to baptize him.

The story also reveals that John knew that he was destined to be a pro-dromos, the marvelous Greek appellation for John: the one who goes ahead on the road to open the way for another person, “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” as Gabriel had promised to John’s father Zechariah. Yet even John did not know exactly who was more powerful than he, the one whose sandals he was not worthy to untie. He had no idea it would be his very own cousin. Oh, it is very possible that his mother and father had prepared him, but the wondrous events of these two men’s births – John’s and Jesus’ – were in the distant past. People forget the stories they hear in their infancy and childhood. Reality has a way of interfering and making the stories appear as myths or as the fantasies of loving, partial mothers.

They both must have been told they were chosen by God for a specific ministry, but in that religious environment, most males probably were told the same thing. However, what we do know about them is that these two cousins never wavered from their chosen path. John grows up and chooses the difficult way of the desert and an ascetic way of life – he becomes a voice crying out in the wilderness. Jesus chooses a ministry that thrusts him into the midst of people and their suffering. John’s choice involves enormous humility. He says clearly, “I am not the one you are waiting for, there is one greater than I coming after me.” Jesus’ choice involves servanthood, a ministry of healing and of teaching, the proclamation of God’s kingdom in the midst of an occupation by the greatest earthly power, the empire of the Romans.

Both of their ways lead to violent death. Ah, the chosen of God, the beloved of God! What a terrible end awaits them. Did the two of them, on that day when one baptized the other, when a voice broke through the silence between God and humanity to proclaim love and favor, did they suspect that they would die violently – they, the favored ones, one calling for repentance, the other offering a new way to look at God and life?

If they did suspect, nothing in their few remaining years showed that they abandoned their chosen path in order to avoid early death.

John’s life is filled with courage. Some would call it madness, to criticize a king like Herod, but John, the voice crying out in the wilderness, had no choice but to call sin by its name and to stand up to a king and his family, unafraid. He was convinced that sin led to death for the sinner, and he didn’t have much sympathy for those who rejected his call to repentance.

Jesus’ life is supremely courageous in his challenge to both the religious leaders of his own nation and the power of Rome over his people. His proclamation of the kingdom of God was proof enough that he was not afraid of either powerful group. He starts his public ministry with the symbolic death of baptism by water and ends it with the actual death of his physical body.

What does this story say to us?

Jesus’ thirty years of preparation before his public baptism remind us that it takes time to get ready for God’s mission. How many countless hours did Jesus spend in prayer? What study, what thought, what agony he must have undergone before appearing in front of John to ask him to baptize him. It is never too late for any of us to say “yes” to God.

The courage of both John and Jesus calls us to repent from fear, to turn our backs to the voices that urge us to be cautious. Justice must be proclaimed, even at the cost of endangering our lives. The chosen of God, the beloved of God are not guaranteed happiness and prosperity, but life in him who calls us to himself. Oh, to hear the words “With you I am well pleased.”

 

— Katerina K. Whitley is an author and retreat reader. For more on her books and presentations, visit http://www.katerinawhitley.net or e-mail katewhitley@charter.net.