Let God be God

Rev. Sarah Buteux
January 13, 2013
Epiphany 1, Year A
Isaiah 42:1-9 Luke 3:15-22

Watch the video of this sermon here or on Youtube.

Well friends I am just back from a conference, and when I say just back I mean I arrived home last night at 1:00 am, so if I fall asleep during this sermon it’s totally me… not you. You’re doing a great job.  


The conference was a “National Conversation about the Emerging Church:” two days of conversation with people like Phyllis Tickle, Brian McLaren, and Diana Butler Bass, about the future of the church. And I really wanted to be there - even if it meant being a part from my family and losing a lot of sleep - because, in case you haven’t noticed, the Church as we know it is in a major state of crisis.   


Now when I say “The Church,” I’m not talking about our church here in Hadley, which is actually doing remarkably well all things considered, but about the Christian Church in general. The truth is that things for the Church as an institution have not been looking good for some time.  


Polls will tell you that every major Christian denomination in this country is now in decline, and due to the fact that the mainline churches of which we are a part have been in steep decline since the 1950’s, the people who study those polls estimate that somewhere between 30-40% of churches like ours will close their doors in the next 15-20 years.  


That’s shocking to me but not all that surprising. As anyone paying even the least bit of attention can see, the times they have a’changed but the church, for better or for worse, has not been so good at a’changing with them.  


And yet I still believe in the value of what we do here: the value of owning and maintaining actual buildings with steeples, the value of singing the same old hymns that have been sung for generations, the value of telling and retelling and telling again the “old, old story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.”  


I’m not ready to give up on what we do here. I don’t want to see the good old-fashioned institutional church die.  Not on my watch. Which is why I go to these conferences and try to learn everything I can about what is happening to the church and why. I go hungry for anecdotes of what is working for those churches that are thriving and I’m always surprised by what I hear… just not for the reasons you might think.  


It’s not the brand spanking new technology or music or rituals that people are creating from scratch that amazes me, though some of that is pretty darn cool. It’s the fact that some of the most successful churches out there are attracting a whole new generation to follow Christ not by reinventing the wheel, but by rolling the wheel back…. way back… like all the way back to the middle ages back - and reclaiming very old things: ancient spiritual practices like labyrinths and chanting, fixed hour prayer and fasting, recitation of the ancient creeds and tithing (which I think we may have to start talking about around here, but that’s a sermon for another day).  


I love going to these conferences and hanging out with Christians who are pretty hardcore when it comes to practice, and yet a lot more relaxed than previous generations when it comes to how they talk about their faith. There is a humility and an openness about what it all means, not just a tolerance of differences but a celebration of diversity, a willingness to let people belong before they know precisely what it is they believe.  


But even more than that, I have the sense that these folks have their priorities straight. Rather than putting the church first and evaluating every decision by what it will mean for the institution, they are putting Christ first and following wherever he might lead, even when he leads them to places the institution had previously told them not to go.  


And I believe it is that spirit of humility, that willingness to trust that God is still speaking so we don’t have to have all the answers, that openness to letting God continue to be God, that is breathing new life into these churches.  


Diana Butler Bass, who is one of the leading authorities on all these changes, points to Christians such as this when she talks about the church of the future.  


She actually gave a beautiful example of such a church at a conference I went to a few years back. She closed her talk with a story about an Episcopal church service where her friend- who is the openly gay dean in a big old fashioned Episcopal Cathedral - was doing a baptism.   


Now to get the full effect, I want you to try and picture this baptism with me in your mind. As the congregation sang Taize chants (which is contemporary music written in Latin), the parents brought their baby forward stark naked. The children of the congregation followed, each holding a bowl of water. They processed from the back of the church all the way down the long aisle and up the steps of the chancel to the baptismal font where they tipped their bowls into a great stone basin until it was filled to overflowing with water.  The priest in his long white robe then took the baby from her parents, anointed her with oil, and gracefully dipped her down into the font three times, causing the water to spill down over the sides while the children remained up at the front of the church, dancing and splashing around.  


Diana let this image sink into our minds for a moment, and then told us that as she watched this scene unfold, she felt deep in her soul that she had somehow stumbled into the church of the future.  


I was deeply moved by her story. In fact I can’t even repeat it without tears in my eyes, and I said as much during the question and answer period that followed her talk. But I was also troubled, so I raised my hand and said: “Your story… this vision of the gay priest, the wet and oily baby, all the children splashing, and the Latin chanting - the whole picture – it fills me with joy. It is beautiful to me. It feels real. It feels right. I wish all churches could experience something like that even as I know that the majority of churches out there would never let anything like that happen. And I wish I knew why. Why do you think there are so many people out there who find a vision such as this so threatening?”   


Diana was quiet for awhile and than she said something I will never forget.  “Because it’s messy,” she said. “It’s messy. And people aren’t comfortable with messy.”   


Now I had expected her to say something conventional about how church people don’t like change. After all, isn’t that what everyone points to when asked why the church is shrinking? But the moment she said that, I realized that she was absolutely right. It was messy and I think that’s what really scares us here in our nice, neat, orderly churches. Mess.  


But if there is one truth I want to convey to you this morning it is that good church, living church, a church where people are real and the Holy Spirit is moving - good church is always messy, because reality is messy. Life is messy. People are messy. Scripture is messy. Creation is messy.  


Theology and tradition and society try to impose some order on the mess, but the truth is, if you’re going to try and work with both the Bible and people, over time – if it’s real – then it’s going to get a little messy. But that’s okay, because God works best in the mess. That’s the way it’s always been and that’s the way it should be.  


Look at our reading this morning if you don’t believe me.  Here, right in the scriptures, we have another baptism, perhaps the most important baptism that ever took place.  Jesus, in his first public act, shows up at the Jordan river to be baptized by his cousin John and friends, whether you think about it logistically, prophetically, or theologically, Jesus’ desire to be baptized was extremely messy. So messy, that John doesn’t even want to do it.  


Let’s talk logistics first. Imagine John the Baptist with me for a moment. Trust me when I say he was not some middle aged pastor with a neat comb over in a long white robe singing “Softly and tenderly Yahweh is calling, calling for you and for me…”. No.   


John is hip deep in muddy water. His camel skin tankini is soaked through.  He’s probably sporting dreads that haven’t been tended to in a really long time, and yelling like the late Sam Kinison. People are delightfully terrified and queuing up as much for the show as they are for the ritual cleansing.  


John’s been calling people away from the temple in Jerusalem out to the wilderness to receive repentance.  He calls the priests and scribes a brood of vipers when they come out to see what the heck is going on.  And he keeps talking about this messiah who will come with spirit and fire.  


His winnowing fork is in his hand.  His ax is at the foot of the tree. He’s going to separate the good fruit from the bad, the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff.  “And when he gets here,” says John, “he’ll be so holy that I won’t even be worthy to untie the thongs of his sandals.”  


Only when Jesus finally does appears he forgets to bring his winnowing fork. He doesn’t yell or accuse. He doesn’t say, “I am the messiah, bow down before me.”  He doesn’t even ask John to untie his shoes.  He just shuffles in like an ordinary person, gets in line with everyone else, and waits his turn to repent and be baptized.  


And so I imagine John, in the middle of the river, dunking one guy after another. He helps the individual in his arms back up on to the bank, reaches his hand out to receive the next person in line, and stops short when he sees Jesus. Jesus steps forward to be baptized anyway and John says, no, wait, “I need to be baptized by you,” Why are you coming to me?  


This isn’t part of the script. This isn’t what we talked about. Come on Jesus, you’re gonna mess everything up. Look, cousin, I’ve set the stage. They’re ripe.  They’re ready.  Let ‘em have it and let’s get this kingdom party started.   


But Jesus doesn’t do what John expects.  Jesus doesn’t do what John wants. He isn’t the messiah John thought he would be.  This Jesus does not cry or lift up his voice. He does not yell in the street. People who feel as vulnerable as bruised reeds, as exposed as dimly burning wicks, are safe in his hands because his coming is so gentle as to be almost imperceptible.  


Jesus blows his entrance. His first public appearance and rather than take charge he humbly submits to be baptized, not just messing with John’s head, but messing with the heads of every theologian who has come along since.  


Because, you see, if Jesus is God incarnate, there should be no need for repentance, and even less for baptism, because Jesus isn’t supposed to have any sins of which to repent.  If Jesus were playing by the rules, then he should know this. He should have shown up with a lot of fanfare, thanked John publicly for all his hard work, poked a few Pharisees with his fork, and then set about baptizing the people himself. But he doesn’t.  


And so logistically, prophetically, theologically; it’s all very messy.   


But John, God bless him, John decides to run with it anyway, and this is where I want to draw your attention this morning. John baptizes Jesus, and because he does, because he accepts in that moment that things aren’t going to work out exactly as he had planned, because he makes room in his ministry for Jesus to be, not who he thought he should be or who he wanted him to be, but who he really is, something truly miraculous happens.  


John also makes room for the Holy Spirit. He lifts Jesus up out of the water, the heavens open wide, the Spirit descends like a dove, and the voice of God is heard saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  


John made room for the Spirit and the Spirit came.  

John made room for God and God spoke.  


And if there is any one reason I can point to for why things are going as well around here as they are, it’s because we have been making room for the Spirit too.  


Here, in this 353 year old church, God is still speaking because we are still listening. We’re making room for God to move here, for God to work here, for the Spirit to have its way with us.  


And I’ll be the first to admit that it is not always neat and tidy. In fact it can be a little messy and even kind of scary. And I’m afraid we don’t know where we are going half the time, at least I don’t.  


But that’s okay so long as we’re following Jesus. That’s what has got us this far and that is what will see us home. So I want to recommit to following him today and I’d like you to join me.  


On this Sunday when we remember Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, it is traditional to renew our own baptismal vows and recommit to following in the way of our savior by participating in the ancient Christian rite known as “asperges” – not to be confused with asparagus, an ancient Hadley rite we observe here in the spring.   


No, asperges is the act whereby a minister dips an evergreen branch in holy water and sprinkles that water over her congregation in remembrance of their baptism after they have renewed their baptismal vows…vows that may have been said in some form by you as an adult or may have been spoken in some form on your behalf when you were just a child. We’re going to do this today.  


If you have never been baptized, but want to follow Jesus and be baptized someday, let this water would be a sign to you on your journey home and let us speak to one another soon.  If you are not a believer, then let this water be a sign to you that you are loved no matter what, as a friend of this body and a member of this community, and that you are invited to share in its joy and its call to serve others as best as you are able.  



Before we begin, I’d like to invite Connor up to help me. Connor asked me just last week if he could get re-baptized and when I asked him why he said, “because I want to feel closer to God.” Well that is really what this about and I hope that as you respond to the vows and feel the water upon your face that you too will feel God’s presence drawing you close and leading you on.  


(walk down to communion table and pour water from the pitcher into the font).  


This is the water of baptism.  

Out of this water we rise with new life,  

forgiven of sin and one in Christ,  

members of Christ’s body.  


Let us renew our vows to follow Jesus.  

I will say the vows and you will respond, “we do.”  


Friends, in the waters of Baptism, you were made new, born again in the spirit, adopted as children of God, forgiven of sin, saved from death, and given new life in Christ.  In the waters of baptism you were recognized as beloved, a precious child of God, and beautiful to behold. And so today, in memory of Christ’s baptism, I would ask: do you promise, by the grace of God, to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ, to follow in his way, to resist oppression, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus, as best you are able? If so please say: “We do.”  


Pastor: And do you promise, according to the grace given to you, to grow in love for God and to be a faithful member of the body of Christ the church, celebrating Christ’s presence and furthering God’s mission in all the world? “We do.”  


Then receive this gift freely, for this, my friends, (raise the font) is the water of baptism. (hand it to Connor). Out of this water we rise with new life, forgiven of sin and one in Christ….  


(asperge as the choir sings and then close in prayer)  


Come, let us pray together: O Lord, as we remember you and your baptism and as we celebrate the sacrament of baptism today, hear your people as we renew our vow to walk in your way.  Grant us the grace to walk in solidarity with those who suffer even as you, Lord Jesus, journeyed with the poor, the forgotten, the excluded, the sick. And let our renewal of our baptism vows be a reminder that we do not walk alone; that you have called us by name, that you have claimed us as your own, that we are your children and you are our God, now and forever. Amen.