WORSHIP THIS WEEK: “Increase our faith!”  That’s the cry of the disciples in this week’s gospel – and perhaps our cry too.  Where might we plant small seeds that God can grow into something beautiful?  Join us this Sunday, October 2, at 10:00, in person or via livestream here: https://youtu.be/P916MfOl2c8.

baptism

January 9, 2021

I got curious recently about how New Year’s resolutions originated.  There’s conflicting information out there, but some historians trace their beginnings back to the Babylonian Empire.[i]  In 2000 BC the Babylonians celebrated the new year during a 12-day festival at the start of the farming season. They would plant crops, crown their king, and pay their debts.  People often resolved to return the farm equipment they had borrowed from their neighbors.

The Romans eventually adopted the practice of having new year’s rituals, shifting those to January 1 on their calendar.  January, a month named after Janus, the Roman god with two faces, one looking back for reflection and one looking forward to new beginnings.   Later, in the Middle Ages, medieval knights would take time at the dawn of a new year to renew their vow to chivalry by placing their hands on a peacock.

Resolutions in this country were often religious or spiritual in nature.  People in the early 1900’s sought to have a stronger moral character or to resist temptations to earthly pleasures. But in looking at a list of the most common resolutions from 1947 and from today, I noticed some commonalities.  At least three resolutions appeared on both top ten lists: Get healthier.  Lose weight.  Save more money.  Lose weight moved from the #10 resolution to the #1 slot.  Being more religious or going to church more often disappeared from the list altogether.

It’s worth asking what voices are shaping our resolutions.  I should no longer be surprised – and yet I am – by how the ads in my online feeds are flooded at this time of year with all kinds of products and programs that promise to help me lose weight, get organized, and change my life in countless other ways, usually as quickly and easily as possible. The suggestion seems to be that I am an absolute disaster in need of immediate intervention.  So many of these ads prey on our innate insecurities.  They whisper in our ears: “You are not good enough.  You are not a good person or partner or parent or student or friend.  Your body is definitely not good enough.” Those voices are insidious, and as much as we try to ignore them, they can often leave us feeling inadequate, unworthy, unloved.

Today’s gospel begins with telling us that the people were “filled with expectation,” in this case the expectation that their long-awaited messiah might finally have arrived.  They longed for the liberation that the messiah would bring, freedom from the various forms of oppression that they had long faced, an assurance of protection in the midst of danger.  They’re so eager for the fulfilment of these promises that they think John might be their guy.  But of course John points to Jesus, the true messiah, who shows up to begin his earthly ministry.

That ministry begins with baptism.  In Luke’s account we don’t get too many details about the baptism itself, which suggests to me that we often fixate too much on the logistics of baptism more than what is actually happening in that moment.  The Gospel of Luke focuses more on what happens just after the baptism – heaven opens, the Holy Spirit descends, and a voice from heaven says: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The same thing happened when you were baptized.  God said: “You are my child, and you are beloved.  Nothing can every change that.”  I wonder what would happen if we could hold on to that voice more clearly than all the voices telling us how we fall short.

I’m not saying that we should ignore opportunities to be healthier and happier.  If you are trying to repair a relationship that is broken, if you want to bring more energy to your daily life, if you seek some calm in the midst of the chaos, by all means set those goals and be intentional about pursuing them. But don’t believe for a second that you have to do any of those things in order to be more loved by God.

Our spiritual lives can be central to all of those pursuits.  Notice that Jesus hears that voice from heaven most clearly when he is praying.  He’s still dripping with the waters of his baptism, and as he prays, he is reassured: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

Whenever Martin Luther felt emotionally or spiritually tormented (and that happened a lot), he would often say to himself: “Baptizatus sum”…I am baptized.”[ii]  He reminded his tortured heart that he was a beloved child of God, and it comforted him.

Professor and Pastor Henri Nouwen dedicated an entire book to reflecting on what it means to be beloved, using the story of Jesus’ baptism as his inspiration.  He addresses the book to a friend, and in it he observes that friendship is all about giving to each other the gift of our Belovedness.[iii]  Nouwen acknowledges how vital it is to take that voice that breaks into the world – “You are my Beloved” – and to hold it within us, even as the voices in the world shout at us and try to make us feel unworthy.

What might it look like if we lived so that our friendships and other relationships gave each other the gift of our belovedness?  What if we everything that we did and said honored the belovedness in each other, so much so that those other voices that are trying to sell us quick fixes are silenced?  They no longer get to drown out the truth that God loves each of us in an unshakeable way.

I want you to hear this morning the same words that Nouwen wrote to his friend, which are these: “All I want to say to you is ‘You are the Beloved,’ and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being— ‘You are the Beloved.’”  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ


[i] https://www.almanac.com/history-of-new-years-resolutions

[ii] https://www.ucc.org/daily-devotional/baptizatus-sum/

[iii] Nouwen, Henri J. M.. Life of the Beloved (pp. 30-31). The Crossroad Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.

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February 21, 2021

Each year on the first Sunday in Lent we hear about Jesus heading out into the wilderness.  I say Jesus “headed out” into the wilderness, but that’s not really accurate.  We’re told the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.  The Greek means “threw him out,” as if the Holy Spirit hurled Jesus out there like a fastball thrown when the pitcher is really getting warmed up.

We get the feeling that this time in the wilderness is not going to be a spa retreat for Jesus.  And it isn’t.  He’s out there for 40 days, where he has the delightful experience of being tempted by Satan.  The other gospel accounts go into greater detail about what the specific temptations that Satan serves up, but the Gospel of Mark is brief and to the point, leaving us to imagine how Satan taunted Jesus throughout those long days.  What did Satan try to offer that would be better than being the Son of God?

This year I kept thinking about two details: that Jesus was out there in the wilderness with the wild beats, and that the angels waited on him.  What was it like for him to face – in addition to Satan – the snarls and pacing of those wild animals who might have looked at him like he was a juicy morsel served up exclusively for their dinner?  What was it like for Jesus, as he struggled with all kinds of dangers, to receive the tender mercies of the angels who cared for him?

When we read this story on the first Sunday in Lent each year, I always think about my internship in southern Arizona.  My own year in the high desert offers up some very particular images of wild beasts.  I think immediately of the javelina, those medium-sized animals that look like wild pigs.  They’re not technically pigs, but they have some sharp-looking teeth and always look at you as if they’d like to tear you to shreds.  And they usually travel in groups, so when you’re staring at eight to ten of them at the same time, they can be pretty intimidating.

Truth be told, the javelina aren’t really that dangerous.  They mostly eat plants – agave, mesquite beans, prickly pear.  While they have been known to go after dogs, that’s most likely a response to years of being hunted by coyotes.  Usually if a javelina gets aggressive, it’s because it thinks that someone or something is a threat to their young.  The same could be said for many of you.  So for all the time I spent worrying about the javelina, I probably should have been more worried about the rattlesnakes and the scorpions.

My angels that year were many.  A supervisor who spent countless hours showing me what it means to be a pastor.  All the parishioners who enthusiastically participated in the different endeavors I cooked up as an intern that year – and helped me figure out which ones worked and which ones didn’t.  The colleagues in town who shared their wisdom.  No matter how overwhelmed I felt or how impossible a situation seemed, there was someone – usually several someones – ready with a word of encouragement, a prayer, or a baked good.

That’s how the wilderness works, I think.  In the wilderness times we don’t have any expectation that life will be safe or easy.  We know from experience that it won’t.  Sometimes we feel the threats breathing down our necks, and at other times we feel a constant hum of anxiety like a low-grade fever.  It’s hard to feel calm and safe in the wilderness.

Each Lent we enter a figurative wilderness.  We commit to spending some time over these forty days really grappling with how much we need God – how much we need God’s sustenance in the difficult times, how much we need God’s forgiveness for all that we have done and left undone, how much we need God’s resurrection hope.

In many ways the Lenten wilderness doesn’t feel so figurative this year.  We’re coming up on a full year of pandemic disruption in our lives, and even though we technically finished the season of Lent last year, it kind of feels like we just stayed in it – stayed in that place of fear and vulnerability that is like gasping for water in the desert.

I want you to think about what your wild beasts are in the wilderness of this year.  What’s got you scared?  What’s scratching at your door?  What do you wish you could chase away so it would just leave you alone?  Or what feels like Satan whispering in your ear, trying to persuade you that you are not worthy of love just as you are?

Some of our wild beasts are like the javelina.  They look more threatening than they actually are.  But some of them are like a scorpion that hides in a shoe.  You don’t see them coming until the pain radiates through you.

When the pain comes, we need our angels.  So what about yours?  Who or what are your sources of support when you are feeling gripped by fear or worry or anger or despair?  To whom might you need to reach out right now to hear a word of encouragement?  To ask for a prayer?  To be heard without interruption?  The angels are all around.  They don’t all have wings, but they are waiting to care for us.  Sometimes receiving help from the angels can seem harder than fending off the wild beasts, but it is necessary for our survival. 

Remember what happens right before Jesus finds himself in the wilderness.  He is baptized.  He’s baptized by John right there in the river.  And then Jesus is hurled straight from that baptismal river into the desert.  There was barely a moment to catch his breath from being underwater before he finds himself surrounded by danger and desolation.

That’s how our baptism works too.  We should probably be more clear about that during the Service of Holy Baptism.  We might say: “Let your light so shine before others that they will see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.  And by the way, life is going to be wonderful and terrible.  It’s going to make you laugh until your sides hurt and then turn around and break your heart.  But you will be held by God in all of it.  You will never be alone.”

Baptism is what saves us from the wild beasts.  We can face them down with confidence because God has torn open the heavens to be with us and tells us again and again, “You are my beloved child.  With you I am well pleased. I have claimed your life, and no matter what happens, I will not let the wild beasts win.”

At University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley, California, there are some words from a former pastor, the Rev. Gustav H. Schultz, inscribed on the window above the baptismal font.  Rev. Schultz said: “Baptism is intended to acquaint us with a ‘brush with death’ so that following baptism we know that we can live out the risk of being faithful.”[i]

I love that.  Baptism as a brush with death.  We can live out the risk of being faithful, not because we are extraordinarily brave, but because we are extraordinarily loved. Loved by a God who has also known wilderness and will not leave us to face the wild beasts alone.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ


[i] Thank you to the Rev. Jeff Johnson for reminding me about that detail in “Preaching Helps” found in Currents in Theology and Mission 48:1 (January 2021)

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