“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Luke 12:32
I spent the week in Milwaukee at the Churchwide Assembly of our Lutheran denomination – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The days were very full. We had lots of decisions to make, which I look forward to sharing with you in greater detail. Perhaps my favorite part of the assembly was the worship. It was a joy to gather each day with hundreds of Lutherans from all 65 synods of the ELCA to sing and to pray and to clap and to hear powerful preaching and to receive Holy Communion.
On Tuesday the preacher was my colleague from South Carolina, Deacon Sarah Bowers.[i] Sarah and her husband have a 17-month-old, and Sarah says that shortly after little Romney Ann was born, she felt a deep need to apologize to her parents. She was totally overwhelmed by how much she loved her daughter, and it made her realize in a different way how much her own parents must love her. And also how much some of her words and actions when she was growing up must have hurt them.
When Romney Ann was just a few hours old, Sarah found herself in the hospital room with her own mother, and she told her mom how sorry she was for things she had done that had been hurtful.
Her mom replied: “It’s OK. One day Romney Ann will say something mean and hurtful, and she will tell you NO, but it won’t change how much you love her at all.”
Sarah sarcastically said: “I’m sorry, but I’m certain she will never tell me no. Can you not see how perfect she is?”
Her mom replied, “You keep living in that fantasy world.”
Sarah was kidding, of course, and sure enough, it wasn’t long before Romney Ann was saying no in her own way. They would tell her not to touch something, and she would give them a dimpled smile and head straight for it. She hasn’t yet learned the actual word “no,” but that day is coming soon.
What I loved is that Sarah then admitted that she hopes her daughter does learn to say no. In Sarah’s words: “[To say] no when it comes to comments and actions and systems that hurt her neighbor and cause death – because we know that’s not the way of the empty tomb. That’s not the way of the resurrection.”
I kept thinking about what Sarah said throughout the week as I looked forward to Grace’s baptism this morning. Grace isn’t yet saying the word “no,” but she’s already practicing how to use her voice. And it won’t be long before she says that word defiantly.
What I hope Grace will learn – and what I hope we will show her how to do – is to say no. No to greed, no to violence, no to racism, no to all the other isms, no to conflict, to exploitation, to evil.
In our baptismal rite, we do say “no.” We did it just a few minutes ago: “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?…Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?….Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?” Each time we answered “I renounce them.” That’s one way of saying “no.” No to anything that harms others. No to all that makes us selfish and small. No to what moves the world farther away from God’s vision for it.
We declare this “no,” but living it is much harder. Most of us probably don’t believe in a two-horned devil who wields a pitchfork and runs around wreaking havoc in the world. But there is no denying that evil is on the loose. How do we say no to that evil?
We start by remembering that we do not do it by our own strength. We rely on a God who has said “no” first. No to exclusion. No to all the death-dealing forces that leave trauma and suffering in their wake. No to death itself.
God also says “no” to the idea that we must be good enough to be worth saving. We want to believe it’s up to us, but it’s not.
Jesus reminds us this morning: It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. God gives us all we need. It is not a reward for good behavior. It is not because we live perfect lives. It is not because we are free of sin. God knows us well – our gifts and our temptations – and still God chooses to give us the kingdom.
God does not give us these gifts of life and hope begrudgingly. God gives them freely, with good pleasure, in the hope that we in turn will know the good pleasure of being God’s own children. We call that grace. For her entire life baby Grace will carry in her name the reminder that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. And anything that tries to stand between us and God will hear a resounding “no.”
Grace Marie Beadle, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Forever. What is true for Grace is true for each of us. Marked and made whole. Sealed and sent out.
And so, having been sealed by the Spirit and marked by the cross, we’re equipped to do some things. Not required, but equipped. Jesus tells us to be ready: “Be dressed for action, and have your lamps lit.” He later uses the example of a break-in to remind us to stay ready for the unexpected. That example might seem a tad dramatic, but it’s not a bad comparison. When God’s kingdom breaks into the world, it summons us to act on behalf of our neighbors who are being violated and traumatized. We cannot predict when we will be in a position to stand up and say “no” to what is at war with God’s will for the world.
Maybe it’s speaking up when someone tells a joke that demeans another person or a group of people. Maybe it’s intervening when we know someone is being harassed. Maybe it’s getting so frustrated about a particular justice issue that we get involved with that issue personally. Maybe it’s the way we use our financial resources, knowing that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. Maybe it’s learning more about something – or someone – we don’t understand.
We won’t all say “no” to evil in the same way, but we do say “no” in the name of the same God.
I hope that Grace will always carry with her the power of her name. I hope we will show her how to receive that grace again and again. I hope we will surround her with our prayers and with our love and with examples of how to say no.
But most of all, I hope Grace always knows that the God who says “no” to sin and death looks at her with love beyond measure and says, “Yes, yes, yes!”
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]You can watch Deacon Sarah’s beautiful sermon in its entirety at the following link (starting at 21:50): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2DlrkkKGCs&fbclid=IwAR3ur3OymggRI7olBGFRfxXX3BrbWKv9GIHOyOQUOw2Co_JeRPHSHb222FA
“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Luke 3:16b
Biblical imagery is weird. I’m guessing most of us haven’t wielded a winnowing fork or cleared a threshing floor or separated wheat from chaff.[i] I know I haven’t. If you have, I’d like to know more about it.
Fire and water are at least familiar to us. But they have so many different associations that it’s hard to know how to make sense of them when we encounter them in scripture.
Sometimes we associate fire with destruction. I can’t get out of my mind the awful images from the California fires, especially the almost complete leveling of a town ironically named Paradise. Sometimes we associate fire with judgment – “Liar, liar, pants on fire!” Our imagined versions of hell usually involve fire.
But remember that not too long ago we gathered on Christmas eve and sang “Silent Night,” each of us holding a little bit of fire as we remembered that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. We give the newly baptized a flaming candle and say, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Ordinary fire can have a divine power.
The same is true of water. We bathe in it and wash our dishes in it. We are soothed by the sounds of a gentle rainfall. But water can also take the form of a tsunami or a rising flood that sweeps away everything in its path.
Fire and water. So ordinary, so powerful.
This morning, in Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus, we hear John say that it’s one thing for a person like him to baptize with water. Jesus, though – Jesus will be different. Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. That sounds powerful – and a bit ominous.
What is this baptism that Jesus brings? Let’s start with what it is not.
Baptism is not an opportunity to label different baptismal practices as “correct” or “incorrect.” Christian traditions have many ways of understanding baptism. Some baptize infants; others don’t. Some sprinkle; others dunk. Some believe that one baptism is effective for your whole life; others think that two baptisms are necessary – one involving water, another involving the receiving of the Holy Spirit, often made evident by speaking in tongues. If you have questions about some of those differences, please ask me, and I’ll do my best to share what I know. The differences are meaningful, but our methods do not make God love us any more or any less.
Baptism is not an invitation to judge others. Sometimes when we hear this language about how Jesus is going to save the valuable wheat and burn the useless chaff, we’re tempted to sort people into categories of wheat or chaff. Who do we think is so terrible that they will end up burning as chaff? Who will make the cut and survive as wheat? But as a colleague reminded me this week, it would be more valuable to see that each of us contains both wheat and chaff. Our Lutheran understanding is that we are all both sinners and saints. The good of which we are capable and the bad to which we so often turn – they are both part of us, deep down to our marrow. Only Jesus can do the kind of purifying that untangles one from the other.
Baptism is not a magic spell that keeps us from being hurt. I wish it were. After his own baptism Jesus will head into the wilderness for forty days of hunger and temptation. Later his own neighbors will try to throw him off a cliff. Religious leaders will accuse him of breaking God’s law.
There will be countless people who need to be healed and need to be heard, and Jesus will do that work until he is absolutely wrung out with exhaustion. He will try again and again to slip away from the crowds and have a moment of peace and prayer. He will seldom find that peace.
And of course there’s the cross. For Jesus pain and horror and death lie ahead. Baptism does not keep Jesus from all of that, nor does it keep us from running headlong into suffering.
So what is baptism?
Baptism is a promise that we are never forsaken – in this life or the next. It is the voice of God saying to each of us, “You are my Beloved, and nothing – absolutely nothing – will keep me from loving you always.” In the rite of baptism we promise as a community to support each other in making the world look more like what God wants it to be – a place of peace and justice. And though we know we will fail again and again, we trust in another promise of baptism – the promise of God’s forgiveness. That promise helps us keep going in the face of so much that threatens to discourage or defeat us.
Many of our hearts broke this week when we learned that Chatham fourth-grader Tessa Handerhan died Thursday night. Tessa mysteriously collapsed in early December and never recovered. The magnitude of the grief when a child dies is beyond words. I feel it without having known Tessa or her family. I know many of you do too. A tragedy like this one always brings questions. Why did it happen? Why would God allow it to happen? What possible reason could there be for a nine-year-old to die?
There are no clear answers to those questions. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but logic cannot withstand the mysteries of death and suffering.
All I can tell you is that we are not alone. God is with us in every circumstance, in joy and in grief. The best we can do is to sit beside those who are grieving – with our presence and with our prayers. To do so will seem ordinary and insufficient, but it is what we can offer. God is good at using what seems ordinary.
Last week I mentioned that the name for this season – Epiphany – comes from the Greek word that means “appearing” or “revealing.”[ii] It calls us to look for God’s presence in ordinary places and moments.
I was sitting at Starbucks yesterday doing some work, hunkered down at one of those long tables to finish today’s sermon and to study some of the readings we’ll hear in the coming weeks. I was praying too – for you, for our congregation, for Tessa’s family, for a dear friend of mine who is very sick. One by one, my tablemates left. (I was praying silently, so I don’t think I scared them away.) Eventually there were just two of us– I was there, typing away, as was a young woman who looked to be preparing for some kind of big test. One of the baristas came over and said they had made some extra hot chocolate. Would we like some on the house? Well, of course.
That hot chocolate was like a little epiphany. I didn’t have to pay for it. I didn’t earn it in any way. I just got to enjoy drinking it. The hot chocolate tasted a lot like grace.
As I sipped the hot chocolate, I watched a little girl come in with her parents. She was under two – barely walking – but she caught the rhythms of the music playing overhead – the Hamilton soundtrack, I think. And she started dancing. She held a green straw in each of her toddler hands and she boogied like it was her mission in life. She giggled with total delight. I smiled through tears, thinking of another family without their daughter. That little girl dancing looked a lot like grace. Defying the cold around us with the warmth of her joy.
God comes to us in the precious, ordinary things of daily life. In fire. In water. In bread. In wine. In a dancing toddler. In the tears of a neighbor. In a voice that whispers “You are beloved.”
Be alert, people of God. We never know where God will meet us. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]I am indebted to Pastor Joanna Harader for her column in the recent edition of The Christian Century, which can be found here: https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/sundays-coming/water-and-fire-psalm-29-isaiah-431-7-luke-315-17-21-22
[ii]Thank you to Debie Thomas for her essay for Journey with Jesus this week: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2047