SERMON Beloved Child

I didn’t reach today, but if I had, it would have looked something like this.

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17 ESV)

I remember a conversation once with Kaylie Mendoza. She was talking about how much she hated language of adoption in scripture. Because in all her years in the foster system, no one adopted her — and for some fairly complex reasons I won’t explain here, no one could — and so, she wasn’t really anyone’s beloved child.

Which is why it has always been important to me to say to the kids who look to me as a parent-figure of some kind (and you know who you are), to say what this voice says from heaven.

“This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”

I have said it to Kaylie. Not as often, perhaps, as I should. I have said it Michaela, because as bright as she is, as successful as she has been in here life so far, she struggles and fears and wonders what will come of any of it. She fears failure. And so to her I say what I say to Kaylie or to any of those young people who stick around longer than to simply find safety:

“You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. And John — troubled, bug-eating, misfit and malcontent John — knew that. He knew this man had no need of repentance, no need of water and word, of the promises of God. Jesus is the promise of God. Made flesh in our midst. He doesn’t need this.

But we need him to do it. We need him in the water with us, wet, soaked, penitent, having words of blessing pronounced as he goes under and dies that symbolic death we all die when we go under.

We need him.

Because when we come to that water, when we go under, when promises are spoken and the blessing of God called down upon us, we join him. In the water. On the road. On the cross. In the tomb. Bearing wounds. Calling disciples to follow. Ascending to the heavens.

And he joins us. In school. Eating dinner. At boring, repetitive, poorly paid work that means little and seems to accomplish less. With friends, hanging out.

He joins us. At night, when we’re alone and frightened, when those who creep and lurk and hurt come and do their worst. He has been there, alone, frightened, beaten, broken, tortured.

He went into the water. And came out beloved child of God.

And so when we go in, we too come out, and even if we do not hear those words — because I didn’t — God speaks over us:

“This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”

Child of God. You. Me. All of us. Whether that water is a river or a font or a bowl on a pedestal, or tears are have cried in sorrow and shame and loneliness, we have been washed. Clean.

We are his. We are children, beloved and adopted, of one heavenly Father who is there with us. No matter how alone or scared or abandoned we have been. Beloved children of God.

Wanted. Needed. Called. Cared for. Redeemed. Risen. Alive.

Amen.

Tradition Versus

I meant to write about this earlier, but the week has been a busy one — I was invited to speak to a theological gathering in Iowa this week, and drove 2,100 miles in four days to get there and back! — and so this has gotten away from me. And I need to be at work soon, so I’ll have to make quick work of this.

Conservative Catholic New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has made much of the yawning gap between progressive Christians and Conservatives, especially their vastly different approaches to the weight given to the historic teaching of the church. Douthat writes that it is always “Year Zero” for progressive Christians (a reference to the Khmer Rouge and their desire to completely reconstruct Cambodian society based on a terrifying amalgam of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist theory and an appeal to “traditional” values of Cambodia’s imagined rural and small town past) who look both to the aboriginal Christian community and to modern times but seem to want to ignore the accumulated centuries of Christian experience, thought, and teaching — especially on sex and marriage.

And again: part of the point of being Catholic, I would have thought, is that we don’t have to keep having these arguments anew in every generation, like a megachurch in the midst of a succession crisis or coping with a superstar pastor’s theological drift; rather, we can treat past teaching as essentially reliable, and indeed treating past teaching as reliable is essential to what being Catholic means.

Now yes, not every question can be settled by precedents, the church must sometimes think and act anew, and other criteria, likes the ones that Martens invokes, can matter for present-day debates.

But the point that conservative Catholics keep pressing in the current moment, without a satisfactory response, is that when the precedents line up the way they do in the case of marriage and divorce, there is a very heavy burden of moral-theological proof resting on the innovators, one that can’t just be answered with appeals to the signs of the times and the movement of the spirit.

Otherwise Catholicism would basically be left in a perpetual year zero, in which just about any change would be possible … and, for that matter, any past development could be simply undeveloped when the time seemed ripe.

Part of the revolutionary/liberationist way of viewing the world is to see the urgency and immediacy of now. “If not us, then who? And if not now, then when?” There’s justice to be done and people to be liberated. The conservative rightly asks — what if we are not the people, and what if now is not the time? Because human history — especially modern secular history — is filled with this fierce anticipation of the ultimate now, and the need to work purposefully toward history’s ultimate end or perfect justice, and in virtually every circumstance the human actors seeking some kind of final resolution to the human condition have been utterly and completely wrong.

Douthat, however, fails in a couple of key ways.

First, he has reduced the church (at least here) solely to its teachings, as if it were nothing else. It is not a mystical body, a called-out community, it is not a place where the Holy Spirit can and will work in a amazing and strange ways. Where new things are done. It not a community of people that is the object of God’s attention and affection. The church in Douthat’s understanding is a subject, with God and the teaching as objects we grasp and comprehend.

I can understand why anyone would reduce the church to a set of supposedly unchanging teachings — this is conceptually easy to handle, and makes faith the acceptance and embrace of certain propositions that confer moral status on acts and actors — and this is some of the church. It it reasonable and well ordered. But this is most definitely not the whole of the church. There is that encounter with God, in which we are grasped and comprehended, where we are not actors, but are acted upon. Where reason does us little good.

In this understanding, we are not a people defined and read by (and into) the story of Israel — we are rules bound and rules setting committee where the teaching never or rarely ever changes. This is a church more reliant on Aquinas and the councils than it is Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Second, there is that simple fact that so much of what the church teaches seems so out of whack with what actually happens in the story of Israel in scripture. From war to sex to marriage to even abortion, scripture itself provides us with examples that do not work in concert with what the story of scripture — or even the torah itself — teach. For example, I am very sympathetic and even somewhat supportive of the anti-abortion position, and that it is coherent with a New Testament and early church ethic of life reflected in the Didache and supported elsewhere in scripture. But I have never heard anyone who is pro-life deal with the test for marital infidelity in Numbers 5, a test mandated by God to Moses which appears to induce a miscarriage — an abortion— in a woman guilty of “defiling herself” by lying “with some man other then [her] husband,” though it is hard to tell exactly what happening because verses 5:20–22 are so very steeped in euphemism (womb swelling and thighs falling away).

I could go on, and I have elsewhere. Now, the church catholic and apostolic believes — and rightly so — that is has a divine mandate to teach, and much of the teaching has sources other than scripture. But that is half the problem. Yes, there are sources of wisdom and knowledge other than scripture, because all scripture really tells us is the story of how much God loved Abraham that God made promises to Abraham’s descendants — promises held on to despite failure, defeat, conquest, and exile — and not so much how to live or organize our communities. This is what it means for the church to consider its history as “Israel shaped.” Even the law given in the torah itself is not followed by Israel in scripture, and while that has consequences for God’s people, God never abandons and never fails to love, care for, or remember his people. We may have a great teaching designed to encourage human flourishing, but God is God and the promises of God are true no matter what condition we find ourselves in.

Finally, there is the matter of God himself vacating his teaching without actually undoing it. The gold standard here is the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. According to the teaching of God to Moses in Deuteronomy 23:1, eunuchs are not allowed to be part of the assembled people of God:

No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 23:1 ESV)

No reason is given here. It is just proclaimed. We are free to contemplate the reason, but in the end, God gives none.

So when Philip found himself facing an Ethiopian eunuch who has been reading the words of the Prophet Isaiah, and to whom he had just preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” Philip — and the readers of Acts — likely knew the law. Knew that the Ethiopian was simply forbidden from being one of the called out people of God because God himself had said so.

That was the immutable teaching of God, to Moses — even better than anything a medieval doctor of the church had contrived.

Philip could have simply said no. He could have said “let me think about it” or “let me go to Jerusalem and talk it over and then we’ll do a study about it.” He could have fallen back on the clear and direct teaching of God.

But he doesn’t. Philip commands the chariot to stop, they go down into the water, and the eunuch is baptized. He acts. Because he knows that God has acted.

God doesn’t rescind the teaching. The words given to Moses in Deuteronomy still stand. And yet, God brought to Philip a man who by all rights he could exclude from the assembly and instead, Philip made him part of the body of Christ. Because the Holy Spirit demanded it. Because God put Philip there, in the right place at the right time, to meet someone whose faithfulness could now matter to the assembled community of God’s people. Because sometimes, God does do something new. Because sometimes, now really is the time, and we really are the people.

Douthat (and other conservatives) are correct that too many liberal and progressive Christians have been thoughtlessly tossing away the historic teaching of the church, and have been doing that for some very frivolous reasons — equality and freedom — reasons that will likely not stand the test of time. (Progressives and liberals, for their part, are too busy trying to reason their way through or around or out of things that are not reasonable, because no one wants to be a sinner in need of repentance and penance, and few have looked at Acts 8 and been willing or able to live with the tension of a practice that seems unfaithful to the teaching.) There is wisdom and the Holy Spirit in the accumulated teaching of the centuries, and we are fools to discard it for the vagaries of sentiment and social science. But it would be wise to remember those teachings, however valuable and wise they may be, are also the products of human endeavor, informed by the prejudices of time, place, and culture. They may have lasted the centuries. But they are not infallible. And likely not God’s last word.

Because even divine teaching is sometimes undone by divine acts. By a neighbor, faithfully seeking, right in front of us. Touched by God’s grace.

SERMON: Through Unquenchable Fire

I didn’t preach this Sunday, but if I had, I would have preached something like this.

Baptism of Our Lord / First Sunday After Epiphany (Lectionary 1, Year C)

  • Isaiah 43:1–7
  • Psalm 29
  • Acts 8:14–17
  • Luke 3:15–22

15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:15–22 ESV)

There’s something about threshing floors in scripture.

They aren’t just the place where the wheat and barley are brought in, where the hard physical work of pounding the stalks of grain to separate grain from chaff. They are sacred places, where the sweat of human endeavor meets the all-too capricious grace of God — grace given in soil, sunlight, rain. Or the lack of these things.

Scared places. It was a threshing floor on the far side of the River Jordan where the sons of Israel mourned their father’s death before buying him in the promised land. It was upon a threshing floor that Gideon laid a fleece and twice tested the command of God to go and save Israel. It was upon a threshing floor that Ruth, the Plucky Little Moabite Girl™, seduced her redeemer Boaz, guaranteeing that David would be born and become king of all Israel. It was upon the threshing floor of Oran the Jebusite that David and Solomon built the temple, the house where the God of Israel dwelt amidst his people.

Sacred places. Holy places.

And places of judgment. Because here, at the threshing floor, we finally know — is what we’ve done enough. In this place the work of human hands meets the all the things God gives us that are beyond our control. Do we have enough? Have we done enough? Will there be enough? Farmers — and that was most of humanity throughout most of history — understood just how subject they were to things they didn’t control and couldn’t even begin to understand. All they knew is that the stuff of life, today’s and tomorrow’s meals, and of future harvests, came from this place, and as they worked beating out the harvest they tossed clouds of sharp, itchy and swirling chaff, good for nothing except kindling.

Or to disappear in a stiff wind.

We have today John speaking of judgment. He begins this conversation with the crowds that come to him by calling them a brood of vipers and asking them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” And yet, despite the verbal abuse, the people come to John, in anticipation and expectation. They sense, feel, know, that the time of judgment and redemption is at hand. Is John the one?

No, John says. Another is coming — he will baptize with fire, and he will work that threshing floor until the harvest is in, all of it, and there is nothing left but grain in the barn and chaff in the fire.

An unquenchable fire.

Judgment is coming upon that sacred place where the dirty, sweaty, daily work of human hands meets the overwhelming power of the divine.

It’s hard to speak of judgment. Especially a harsh judgment of separation that ends with chaff tossed into an unquenchable fire. We seek a God of love, mercy, forgiveness, and inclusion. A God who leaves the 99 to look for the lost one. A God who welcomes the wastrel son who absconded with his part of the fortune and squandered it on riotous living. A God who forgives and welcomes even penitent thieves into his kingdom.

But there can be no forgiveness, no mercy, without judgment. I’m not merely an unfortunate soul. I’m a sinner. I am lost. I am afraid. I am faithless, a coward when it counts. A betrayer. I trust too much in the work of my hands. I put my faith in gods that did not make me and cannot save me. I have been judged. Am I fruit or am I chaff? What will I become when I hit that threshing floor, when all that I am meets all that God has done and is doing? Will I bear fruit in keeping with repentance?

If I’m chaff … well, that fire of judgment awaits. Maybe it’s the eternal fires of a place we’ve taken to calling hell — some smooshing together of Hades, Gehenna, the special hell that is Tartarus, and the Lake of Fire where all of those places will be consigned. And maybe that unquenchable fire is the destruction brought about by war and conflict, in which Babylon, in which a Roman army, in which Modernity and Enlightenment, destroys the City of David, knocking down the stones of that very temple built upon a threshing floor.

If I’m fruit, it’s because Jesus was light and heat and good soil and rain. It’s because Jesus waded into the water with me. Even as John the Baptist warns the people — and tell me, which of you would go seeking redemption and salvation from a preacher who had rather pointedly called just one of many wriggling, poisonous snakes? — that another is coming with fire and the Holy Spirit, they keep coming. Into the water. It didn’t matter that John said he was unworthy. The people knew what he was giving them. They knew the word and promise of God when they heard it.

So they kept coming. Into the water. Until there were none left to be baptized. Then Jesus came, last, after “all the people.” There he was, at the banks of the River Jordan, the only one in no need of this water, of repentance, of forgiveness. And he waded in. Together, with us, in this water.

He is the beloved Son. We share in that, his anointing, that deep and intense love with the Father and the Holy Spirit. And he … he shares our judgment. He is thresher and harvest. We nail him to that cross and raise him high outside the walls of Jerusalem in anticipation of the judgment to come. He dies, not for us, but with us.

And just as he walked into that water with us, he walks through the fire of judgment with us. And he is not burned. He is not consumed.

Like a grain of wheat, Jesus is beaten out upon a threshing floor by calloused human hands covered with blood. Jesus is planted. In the ground. And he rises from the dead — new life out of death. This is the promise of God. That the judgment to come may separate the wheat from the chaff, and consign the useless bits to an unquenchable fire. But we who are with Christ need not worry. We will rise again with Jesus.

Because he has gone through water and fire with us.

Sermon – The Vengeance of God

This was a sermon I gave at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Dixon, Illinois, a few weeks ago. It didn’t really work as a sermon, at least not for that congregation in that place at that time. But I’ve wanted to post it for a while because this is an example of where my thinking theologically is moving.

* * *

Sermon for the Weekend of August 30-31

  • Jeremiah 15:15-21
  • Psalm 26:1-8
  • Romans 12:9-21
  • Matthew 16:21-28

“Lord, you know. Remember me and visit me, and take vengeance for me on my persecutors.”

These are the words of Jeremiah, his lament, in the first reading today. A reading which comes in the midst of God’s angry and unyielding judgment upon God’s people, a judgment they have earned because of their faithlessness and their idolatry. In the previous chapter, God has commanded Jeremiah, “Do not pray for the welfare of this people,” for God “will not hear their cry” and “will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence.”

God is speaking this. About God’s people.

It’s a harsh message, this message of earned judgment, of coming defeat and destruction. It’s a message no one wants to hear, especially in the midst of war — because for much of Jeremiah’s prophetic career, the Kingdom of Judah is at war with Babylon, a war of defense and survival, and Judah is losing. Jeremiah pays quite a price for the things he says. Imagine, for a moment, how someone counseling defeat and surrender would have fared in the weeks and months after 9/11.

God says a lot to Jeremiah, and sometimes it’s not entirely clear whether God is speaking to Jeremiah, or through him to Israel, or both. Right before today’s passage, God tells Jeremiah, “Your wealth and your treasures I will give as spoil, without price, for all your sins, throughout all your territory. I will make you serve your enemies in a land that you do not know, for in my anger a fire is kindled that shall burn forever.” That’s Israel’s fate. But is it Jeremiah’s, too?

So when Jeremiah asks for vengeance against his persecutors, is he asking for himself, thinking of the priests, court officials, and army officers who have — and will continue — to try and kill him as he counsels defeat and surrender? Or is asking as besieged Judah, as the people of God, who will lose this war to Babylon, whose leaders will be dragged into exile far away?

Vengeance. It’s a tough subject. A tough subject for us to even consider. We are, after all, the people of a kind and loving God, a God of grace. We are the people who are told to turn the other cheek when assaulted or offended, or walk a second mile when compelled to go one, or give up our cloaks to whoever wants to take our tunics. That’s the virtuous people we are — in theory. That’s what Jesus tell us to do. That’s who Jesus tells us we are.

I get the feeling sometimes we think we’re not even supposed to want vengeance. To even feel anger and resentment, or the desire to get even. But Jeremiah wants vengeance, for himself or for his people. Or both. And he prays for it. Scripture does not shy away from that very human desire. The psalmist in our reading today seeks vindication, for he has done everything right — avoided sin and sinners, he’s worshiped properly and faithfully proclaimed. Vindicate isn’t quite vengeance — there’s no implication of violence and destruction, just a very public demonstration to everyone that the psalmist is correct. It’s kind of the same thing, though. Revenge is a theme in a few psalms.

None is more graphic, and more troubling to us, I think, than Psalm 137, which was composed in exile, after Judah had lost that war Jeremiah preached against.

1 By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
3 For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!
7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
8 O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!

There is probably no greater desire for vengeance in scripture than that last verse. It’s a human desire, a deep lamentation of despair and anger, given up to God in the midst of exile. We should not be ashamed of this. Each one of us has had that desire. Perhaps even today.

The whole thing is even more troubling if we consider that Martin Luther saw the psalms as a prayer book, the very very best words, spoken by the saints of God themselves, in deepest earnestness, directly to God. Not just words of happiness, joy, and praise, but words of sorrow, anger, despair, words that help us peer into the deep darkness of the human heart.

Our hearts.

Before I go any farther, I want to make it clear what is being prayed for in Psalm 137. “Blessed shall he be…” This is not a rallying cry for action, not “Blessings to us as we…” It is merely an acknowledgment of the anger, a very real and legitimate anger. As God’s people, we can be angry. We can want vengeance. We just aren’t empowered to do anything about it.

Because Babylon is doomed. It will fall. And it does fall, many years later, to the Persians, who will then allow the exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild it.

This is where Paul comes in. Never avenge yourselves, he tells the faithful at the church in Rome, but leave it to the wrath of God. Trust God to do that work, and go about the business of loving neighbors and enemies. He then gives’ Jesus’ command to love enemies some flesh — feed your hungry enemy, give them something to drink if they are thirsty. If nothing else, it will shame them.

“Vengeance is mine,” Paul writes. “I will repay, says the Lord.”

Heard that before? It’s from Deuteronomy, chapter 32, and it comes from a long song Moses sings — yes, sings — to the people of Israel as they are preparing to enter the promised land. In that song, Moses lays out the history of Israel that has passed and that will come, and the vengeance he speaks of — the vengeance Paul quotes — is God’s promised vengeance upon God’s faithless and idolatrous people if, or when, they fail to keep their end of the covenant.

God’s vengeance upon us.

There’s another reason we need to let God have vengeance. Because maybe we don’t know what God’s vengeance, what God’s wrath, really looks like. Yes, we envision the destruction of the wicked, the suffering of those who have done us wrong, and maybe even fire and brimstone raining down from the heavens, but consider Paul, who I suspect knew a thing or two about the wrath of God. In the Bible, we meet him as Saul, when Stephen is stoned to death, and he is ravaging the early church, banging down doors and taking the followers of Jesus to prison. He is on his way to Damascus, breathing threats and murder against the church, when he is struck down blind by Jesus. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

And Saul becomes Paul, preaching Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord to gentiles, kings, and the people of Israel.

Couldn’t we call that striking down, that grasping of Saul and not letting him go, the vengeance of God? No doubt many cursed Saul, and some very likely wanted him dead, but what better vengeance can God possibly have but to take someone so vigorously and murderously opposed and make him God’s own? You and I think we know what vengeance is, but we are called to trust God. And maybe God knows better what vengeance really is. The exiles who sang their lament along the Euphrates River and said “Blessed shall he be…” most likely never lived to see Babylon defeated. They would never see home again. They lived as a defeated and conquered people, and had to trust that God would deliver, not them, but their children and grandchildren.

That’s a hard trust. Especially when we hold in our hands the power of death and destruction, the ability to exact vengeance and the willingness to call it justice. To do it right now! It’s satisfying, that power. Why trust in God when we can do something ourselves?

But that’s the power Moses sang against, and he told Israel where trust in that power would lead. Jeremiah preached against that power as it pointlessly tried to save itself. And Jesus faced that power, that desire, in the crowds, the high priests, the soldiers, the Roman governor, and the executioner.

And we face that power, too. United in death and life to the risen Christ who overcame death and sin for the glory of God.

And that’s how are we not overcome by evil. And how we overcome evil with good. By remembering that we are baptized. By remembering whose life, death, and resurrection we are joined to in that baptism. By remembering the promise of eternal life that comes with the water and saving word. By remembering that Jesus went to the cross, knowing he would be tortured, that he would die, and that he would rise again three days later, Lord of all. By remembering that the world is saved by an act of power and might that emerges out of suffering and death. Jesus rose, showing us — showing the whole world — that death and sin are powerless and defeated.

By remembering that, in words Paul himself writes in Romans, we too, all of us, were once enemies of God, reconciled to God by Jesus’ death *and* his risen life.

*That*, sisters and brothers, is the vengeance of God. And it is a marvelous thing to be a part of.