Have you noticed a lot of honking and flapping overhead in these early spring days? Half a dozen times this week I witnessed Canada geese in flight over head. Did you know that geese fly in a V formation because that way they can cover 70% more distance than if they flew alone? And did you know that geese share the leadership of the V? Whenever the lead goose gets tired, she or he rotates back in the V and another goose takes the point position. And do you know what all that honking is about? The honking is encouragement. The geese in the back honk to encourage those up front to keep up their good work and good speed. And did you know that when a goose in the formation gets sick or is injured and falls out of formation, two other geese fall out of formation with it and follow their wounded or sick friend down to the ground to help give it protection? They stay with the injured or sick one until the crisis resolves, and then they launch out again together, sometimes joining another V until they catch up with their original group.
And so it is that our wild, honking, feathered friends hold up a mirror to us, members of the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ which is the church- that great and sacred mystery into which we will soon be welcoming Garett and Finnegan, through the waters of baptism (at the 10:15 service). The Body of Christ that, as described in our first reading from the Book of Acts, started out like a flock of wild geese, connected with bonds of care, affection, encouragement and support for every member.
(8am: Though you won’t be present for the baptisms at 10:15, you are part of the community of faith into which little Garett and little Finnegan are being welcomed.) As we welcome Finnegan and Garett, today we all share in the spiritual responsibility this community takes on in promising to help them grow into the full stature of Christ. And so this morning as we prepare for this work of holy hospitality and responsibility to those who will soon be the most newly minted Christians among us, I want to offer a prayerful supplication for them and for all of us in this part of the Body of Christ – this flying V we call St. Paul’s Church:
Lord Christ, we pray for Finnegan and Garett, who are soon to become members of your body the church. May they come to know what so many of us have learned. May they come to know that, as it is with geese in flight, our journey of faith – through the beauties of your creation, but also through the bent and broken parts of our world and our own selves- this journey is made easier when we share it with You. And may they grow to marvel as they discover, the truth that we get where we are going faster when we travel on the trust of one another. And may we as members of this parish be your witnesses to them. Witnesses to the reality that though evil may seem to win, it never triumphs in the end. And may it always be that they experience safety and strength, among your flock here gathered.
And may it also be that they hear frequent, loud and raucous honking among us. And may that glorious song ring in their ears as they grow, so that they become numbered among the daughters and sons of encouragement who are so desperately needed in our world. And may we model for them patterns of partnership – partnership in which the hard jobs are shared, and heavy burdens never carried by just one of us.
And may they grow into the confidence that they will never be left to walk the dark and fearful ways of life alone. May your rod and your staff comfort them there. And may they always trust that some from among our number will fall out and be with them in times of need; sharing faith when doubt arises; being your hands of healing for any wounds which might assault their body, mind or spirit; and in that final hour of their earthly life – years hence -may members of Christ’s body be by their side to keep the vigil of death, as living reminders to them of the promise of your resurrection to eternal life breathed upon them in the gift of the Holy Spirit here today.
And may we do and be all of this, for them and with them, ever secure in the knowledge that you, Christ Jesus, are the wind beneath our wings. In your Most Holy Name we pray. Amen+
Each year as I go through the Triduum – these 3 great days of sacred observance, which we conclude with this joyous Easter worship, I get all caught up in what it must have been like to be with Jesus in those final days and hours of his earthbound life. As we reenacted the last supper on Thursday night and washed each other’s feet – as Jesus did for his disciples- I was awash with a love that I imagine those first followers must have clung to as they were sucked into the vortex of the horrors of Jesus crucifixion. Then in our Good Friday services when we sang “Were you there when they laid him in the tomb” I trembled a bit and wondered how much more those first ones must have shook with the trauma of everything they witnessed first-hand.
Their grief must have been searing. I imagine that his presence in life had been so amazing, so nourishing, so refreshing –I imagine Jesus was like a cold drink of water when one is dying of thirst. For three years they had basked in that presence – when he was taken, his absence must have been overwhelming. I imagine they missed Jesus more than they had ever missed anyone else. And fear must have layered in with their grief. If the authorities could come and take him and kill him, were any of them safe? Disoriented and afraid they ran and they hid. Where was the God he had talked about – the loving Father he called Abba?
After 3 days of weeping bitterly in hiding I imagine they needed to do something. In the early morning, when no one had yet stirred, when most were still in their beds, before humans or animals were roused up for the work of the day, three of the women stole away to the tomb. The only shred of normalcy they had left was the ritual of anointing. He had been wrenched away from them and they did not understand why, but at least they could do what was required, and let our tears mingle with the oils and the spices as they tenderly touched him one last time and made his body ready for permanent burial.
But when they got to the tomb they froze – the stone was rolled back. I imagine them still as deer in the shadows of that early morning, listening for any sound any indication of danger, not moving a muscle, not daring to breath, ready to run for their lives if need be. Finally one of them breaks the spell and moves into the open mouth of the tomb, the others following close behind. Once their eyes adjust to the gloom they see that Jesus is not there. Instead there is a young man they had never seen before. They are about to bolt when they hear his voice – calm, gentle, sweet on the ear.
I wonder what they thought of is message – he is not here – he is risen as he said- he has gone ahead – back to Galilee – you will see him there – go tell the others. Oh yes and he says one more thing – Do not be alarmed. I imagine that as this mysterious young man tried to comfort those women with his words images flashed into their minds of times when Jesus had in word and action told them the same – be not afraid.
But what else can they be? If Jesus is alive through the power of God, then the whole march of history is reversed and the world as they have known it is turned upside down. They had always believed that death is final – isn’t it? Everything must die – that is the truth that humanity has lived with since the dawn of time. We all have our ways of dealing with it. But if Jesus is risen, life has out maneuvered death, and God is on the loose and on the move.
I imagine that those woman ran from the tomb that morning, not afraid for their lives, but rather afraid of life, which had risen up and challenged all their expectations and assumptions. I imagine they caught sight of the world according to God with all its new possibilities and I bet it scared them more than anything they had seen before. I imagine that they knew that radical change was coming their way, and like most of us they were scared by change.
So if the last word of this Easter Gospel according to Mark is the word AFRAID, what happened? How did the word get out? I imagine that as they ran into the uncertainty of their future, those first followers of Jesus kept hearing Jesus calling them. I imagine this because I know this to be true for myself. And I know from knowing a good number of you that you have experienced this too. We hear Jesus call us – sometimes through the lyric of a song on the radio, sometimes through a passage of scripture that comes alive for us in a new way, sometime in the off handed comment of a friend, sometimes in the exquisite beauty of music or the natural world – we hear Jesus and we come in here and we talk with one another – just as those women must have done all those years ago. We talk as we are serving meals at Among Friends, or knitting prayer shawls, or preparing the altar for worship. We talk with each other as we are balancing the finances of figuring out how to repair the roof. We talk with each other as we attend Church School or study a book together. And there are so many other ways I don’t have time to name here this morning. Suffice it to say that here in the church as we work together and talk together, we test our experiences with each other, and we are nourished by the holy meal Jesus urged us to share in remembrance of him and we begin to hear him together. We experience him alive and moving among us. And we realize as those first followers must have, that there is no going back to the way life was before we heard him – only moving ahead with each other and him in a new way. And the longer we are knit together in his mystical body – the more strongly we feel Christ is among us, guiding us, leading us into deeper connection with each other and God. And as we pray and seek to strengthen those connections, Christ shows us how to serve the world in his spirit and in his name. That is the power of his presence among us. Let us never forget that and always trust that he is with us!
All those years ago in the half light of that empty tomb the tender voice of an angel bid the women to gather the others and to meet Jesus in Galilee where he was going ahead of them. In Gospel of Mark there is no Bethlehem- chapter 1 of Mark begins with Jesus as an adult being baptized by his cousin John. He begins his ministry in Galilee the home region of many of his closest followers. So this reference to Galilee is an invitations to those first followers and to us to go back to the beginning and to consider the whole gospel again, so we will understand what the empty tomb can mean.
If we go back to Galilee, back to the beginning of Mark’s Gospel and read it all again, and if we listen carefully to what Jesus is saying and doing we see that by the standards of our current world, his ways and teachings are radical. In the Gospel Jesus preaches that real power comes when we serve each other and to care for the least, the last and the lost. He tells us and shows us that it is only through that path of self spending care for others that we will find abundant life. And he is not just talking about charity work – as important as that is – he is preaching radical realignment of societal priorities!
Interestingly, studies show that most adult Americans report that compassion is a core value for them. Theologically that lines up with our Judeo-Christian vision of the image of God dwelling at the center of every human being – at our core we are love and compassion, just as God is love and compassion. But that does not line up with how we operate much of the time in groups. Collectively our behavior indicates that we are often more driven by our fears and greed than by our core value of compassion.
In this moment, in this spot in the history of humanity, on this morning when we celebrate resurrection let us seriously consider this disconnect between our core values and the way we act together. What if before making significant choices and decisions we consciously stepped outside of the fear and self interest that so often drive us? What if we demanded the same of our leaders and then committed ourselves to supporting them in doing so? What if this moment is the perfect opportunity to meet the risen Christ back in our Galilee – back at the place we started – here in church, back in the core of our identity as compassionate creatures? What if we followed the divine source of all compassion on a new road? What if we were partners with God in building a world where loving concern for all is our highest societal value and priority? What if?
I can’t imagine a grander collaboration with the Resurrected One whom we profess to follow – can you? Our resurrected Lord is out there ahead of us – do you hear him calling? What will you do? How will you embody resurrection in this world?
Alleluia Christ is risen! Amen+
This night is so incredibly special. It is a bit like the eye of a hurricane. So much turmoil began to swirl as Jesus and his followers entered Jerusalem. Allegiances were made among those who wanted to silence Jesus and the crowds that followed him. Plots were set in motion, but then in the midst of that, Jesus gathered his closest followers and observed the Passover meal with them. This was a meal enshrined among the Jewish people since their ancient ancestors had been freed from slavery and oppression in the land of Egypt. The ritual of this meal had been passed down and embellished through each generation. It was a sacred remembrance of a past event that had powerful ongoing future significance for them. And so Jesus chose it as the moment when he would deliver to his followers his last words and actions among them.
Looking at all four gospels under the cover of the Bible you see that though there are differences among them about this last supper of Jesus with his disciples, all four agree that he delivered to them words and actions about, self-giving love and humble service. In Matthew, Mark and Luke- and later through Paul in our second lesson from 1 Corinthians, chapter 11- we receive the actions and words of the Eucharist, in which Jesus becomes the new Passover lamb, mystically uniting himself with the bread and wine of the Passover meal. He gives himself in this way to nourish those who follow him, just as he will give himself the next day to let God defeat death through him and open our way to eternal life. These are powerful and potent words and actions, and in this night we will again repeat them. They are for us a sacred remembrance of a past event that has powerful ongoing future significance for us. And so we find ourselves in mystical congruence with our Jewish sisters and brothers who celebrate their Passover meal around this same time of year. May God bring powerful healing to the world through this congruence!
There are moments in Matthew, Mark and Luke when Jesus talks with his followers about their approach to power. In each case he exhorts them “whoever would be great among you must become the servant of all.” But it is only in John’s Gospel- in the passage from the 13th chapter that Jay proclaimed among us tonight- that Jesus radically inserts this teaching into the Passover meal by taking off his robe, girding his loins with a towel and kneeling down and washing the feet of his followers, one by one, as a humble servant would.
When he is done he dresses again and asks them “Do you know what I have done to you?” The words are important here – we might rather expect him to ask, “Do you know what I have done for you?” Yes, you have washed us, giving us an example of humble service. Yes you have fed us with bread and wine that we are to raise high at altars over and over throughout time and across the globe as symbols of your love. But if that is all we take away from his words and actions, we have missed something essential. He did not ask if we know what he has done for us – he asked if we know what he has done to us.
In this night what has he done to us? He has changed us. Through his mystical presence in the bread and wine that we consume he has taken up residence within us. And not just us as individuals – yes we have shared sweet communion with him– but even more importantly we who have eaten of one bread and drunk from one cup – we have communion with one another in him. He has fashioned us into a community – into a mystical body – using nothing more for tools than bread and the fruit of the vine.
And with water splashed over our feet – he has changed us! He has changed us from people a bit embarrassed to show our feet to one another, a bit fumbly with the pitcher and the towel in to washers of feet. He has changed us, because this is not to be a once a year event. This foot washing is to go on every day among us, and by us to others who aren’t even in the room tonight or who aren’t even part of the church. This annual foot washing is like training for an athlete, or practice for a musician – it makes us ready to live out humble service through muscle memory in our lives. It is a sort of code of conduct that can take on many forms among us, and is to be our approach to the world. Not many of us were born with a desire to stoop and wash the feet of another. But just like he gets inside us and changes us and binds us together in one body with bread and wine, so also, if we let him, he gets inside and rewires us to be willing and loving servants, literally washing the feet of others, so he can work that kind of action through us the other 364 days of the year.
And here’s the amazing thing of it all to me – we don’t have to live up to any of it perfectly! In fact if we are reaching for perfection, we are missing the point. We are human beings- complex mixtures of glory and grime. That is why we started this service off with the opportunity to confess our brokenness, our screw-ups, our sins – and to receive absolution. He has changed us, but we are still fallible humans who will time and again need to confess and be forgiven. And yet if we hang around with our Lord and this community of the church for very long, he will change us from the inside, until one day we will wake up and realize we are not the same. We will wake up and realize that we have an easier time letting God lead, letting God shoulder our burdens with us, letting others serve us, letting ourselves serve others. And then we will know that we are truly part of the beloved community which he started on this night all those years ago.
Later this evening we will move out of the eye of the storm and tomorrow we will have to enter again the swirl of turmoil as we sit in the shadow of his cross and contemplate again the mysteries of that heartbreaking reality. But for now – in this night- let us say “Glory be to God” – say that with me – “Glory be to God” – yes my friends, “Glory be to God” for what Christ has done to us since we grabbed hold and became part of one another in him.
In his name and for his sake. Amen+
It is good to be back here with you on this second Sunday of Lent. Last Sunday I was in Washington DC with my family. We planned the trip a few months ago, and the centerpiece of our trip was seeing the Religion in Early America exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, which features our wooden Bishop’s Miter finial and Bishop Bass’s prayer book. The curator of that exhibit, Peter Manseau, gave us a personal tour, and sent me back to you with a beautiful hardcover book of pictures and commentary on all the holy artifacts shown there. It will be on the table at coffee hour if you are interested in looking at it, and copies of the pages related to our artifacts are in the Bell Tower entryway as well.
So, it was good to be away, especially knowing that our parish was in the able hands of our Deacon, Jay Jordan – thank you Jay – but I am also relieved to be back among you as we all once again try to make sense of what is going on in our country. Once again we have been shaken by another high profile mass shooting, this time in Florida at the Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland – may those who died there know the abundant life of God’s full reign. And sadly this is not an isolated occurrence. If we drill down a bit deeper than the high profile events in the news, we find that there have been at least 5 incidents of shootings in schools that caused injury or death since January, and at least 10 more incidents where guns were fired on school grounds but no one was hurt – hurt physically that is – it is harder to measure the psychological injury that is going on.
If you have been listening to me preach for very long, you will likely be aware that I am a strong supporter of gun control efforts. This is based in my sense that the commandment “Though shalt not kill” and Jesus injunction to “Love your enemies” does not leave much room for us shooting a weapon of deadly force at anyone. I believe guns are a major problem in our society. I do understand that guns in and of themselves do not kill anyone – they need a human to fire them – but I don’t find that a convincing argument for the prevalence and easy availability of guns among us. After all, a person armed with a knife is not able to kill 17 people in rapid succession the way someone with a gun was, a week and a half ago.
But our most recent gun related tragedies, have made me recognize that holding my opinion and stance with a sort of righteous indignation, simply writing off opposing opinions, is not what I am called to by God. What I have been hearing God call me to do recently is to hold on to my convictions, but to be curious about and listen carefully to good and faithful people who hold different perspectives than I do on these matters. Again the Holy Spirit has broken through and shown me that staying isolated in our silos or camps of opinion is not going to get any of us where we need to go. So I have been trying to listen carefully to the reasoning behind perspectives that differ from mine. One thing that I have come to understand is that many gun owners and proponents of second amendment rights, feel that owning firearms is the best way to protect themselves from other people who might wish to do harm to them or their family members.
That understanding led me to try to mentally put myself in their place. So I closed my eyes and imagined waking in the night and seeing an armed intruder in my home threatening me and my family. I felt the fear of that scenario take hold of my stomach, and make me shake in my boots. And I forced myself to wonder “If I had a gun available to me in that situation would I pick it up and use it?” My answer to that question is no. However this scenario and this question have made me face the fact that my perspective on gun ownership and my stance of non-violence are untested on this personal level. This difficult exercise has made me understand that for many gun owners the basis of their desire to have guns available in our society comes from the basic human drive to survive – a very human drive that is hard wired into all of us.
I hear the same drive to survive in the Gospel this morning – in Peter’s response to Jesus predictions of what was just down the road they were traveling together. Jesus speaks of the authorities in Jerusalem rejecting him, and then he says he will be killed… and I bet that is where Peter stopped listening. I bet that is where he flipped into his amygdala and his fight of flight reaction took over – he probably didn’t even take in the fact that Jesus said he would rise again on the third day. He just hears what seems like very bad news and reacts- rebuking Jesus – saying “no – there has to be a way for you, and for us to survive this looming threat.” This is a classic hardwired response of humanity in the face of threat – the drive to survive.
This all makes me think that this very human drive to survive may in fact be the common ground in our current debate over guns. The drive to survive may be the place, the common ground, where we can all stand to start to work on this issue together. Those who support gun ownership do so out of a desire to keep themselves and their families safe. Those of us who support gun control do so out of a desire to keep ourselves and our families safe. Now I know there are a lot of other complex reasons that people hold these and other positions all along the spectrum in between, but the drive to survive is common to all of them. My respectful yet urgent question for those who support gun ownership is, what happens when the thing they trust most to keep us safe, to help us survive, boomerangs on us? Shouldn’t we change course when the presence of guns is so clearly having the opposite effect – when it puts us or other members of the human family more at risk of death? When our fellow human beings are senselessly killed en mass in night clubs, at music festivals, in churches, in their work places and in our children’s schools, or one by one on our city streets, or in their own homes by their own firearms, sometimes at their own hand? It seems to me the thing we might have seen as the best form of protection has become anything but.
As a Christian I am constantly called to look beyond myself for protection and real power. As a follower of Christ Jesus I am called to rise each day and put my will and my life into God’s loving and caring hands, so that I might be led by God for God’s most loving purposes. Do I do this easily? Uh-uh!! But I do the best I can at the start of each day. And by the way, I feel free to begin my day over as many times as I need to. Because every day without fail I hit bumps in the road. Someone or something threatens my sense of safety or security and my hardwired human response is to take my will back and to begin trusting in my limited perspective and plans, more than in God’s power and purposes. Once I realize what’s going on I do my best to remember to hit the reset. Do you know what I mean? Have you been where I’ve been with this? I see a few heads nodding! That basic human drive to survive is hard wired in for good reason, but it is not meant to be the only faculty we live by in the life of faith.
And Jesus brings that point home to Peter in our Gospel passage. In response to his rebuke, Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me Satan for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Now that is pretty strong language! But as Emily Heath notes in a commentary on this passage that she wrote for The Christian Century Magazine recently,
The Hebrew equivalent of the word Jesus calls Peter is ha-satan, which doesn’t mean ‘devil’ at all. It’s not even a proper name really. It simply means ‘the accuser’ or ‘the adversary.’ Jesus isn’t saying that Peter is evil incarnate. Peter is being an adversary. He is standing between Jesus and God’s plan. So Jesus tells him, ‘Get behind me.’ Put your protests aside and get in line. Don’t oppose me, I have to do this.” (CC, Jan 31, 2018, p. 21)
I pray this example will help me and all of us be strong yet gracious in our interactions with those who oppose our perspectives – which are after all so much more incomplete and earth bound than Jesus’s perspective. If Jesus did not think of or describe an opponent as evil incarnate, as his followers we should resist that temptation in his name.
The invitation Jesus firmly extends to Peter to “Get behind” him is also an invitation to see what he is seeing. Facing Jesus and opposing him means that Peter cannot see what Jesus is seeing – physically and spiritually. Getting behind Jesus and facing the direction he is facing, gives Peter and every follower the chance to glimpse the glory that leads Jesus on, even through despair, suffering, anguish and death. The glory that can do the same for us as we stand with Jesus on the common ground of ever growing trust in God’s goodness and abundant love. May we daily, prayerfully seek to fit all of our earth bound perspective in line behind him.
In coming weeks I will be out in the streets as often as I can following our teens and young adults – seeking to support them in their prophetic calls for laws that I believe will keep us all more safe, secure, alive. But as I do so, I will remember Christ’s words, “Love your enemies” which I have come to see means listening carefully to people who hold opposing views, engaging them with curiosity and care. And I will remember the example he set with Peter, inviting others to see what he sees – God’s love and faithfulness – the ultimate security and power which is available to us, no matter what, when we make trust in God our first line of defense.
The day after the Parkland shootings I had the great good fortune of hearing one of my sister Dean’s, The Rev. Kate Malin, preach on this gospel passage. I want to close this sermon with the hopeful words she ended her sermon with that day. Kate said:
In these days of Lent let our mouths be open and full. Full of songs of lament and love. Full of praise for a God who invites our complaints and tantrums as well as our hopes and rapturous delight. We, like poets and songwriters, have the words the world needs. The sounds, the melody, the meaning. Yes, words are not enough, yes, it is time to act, no question about it, but first we put our trust in God, we stoop to gather up in our arms the very thing that has the power to destroy us, and we lift it to God, opening our mouths to sing our song of hope.
Hope for heartache and fury to be transformed into deeds of righteousness, not just remembrance. Hope that meets the skeptics’ question “Where is your God now?” with the clear and confident reply, “My God is in a Florida High School, on the streets of Charlottesville, in a first-grade classroom. My God is with displaced Puerto Ricans, victims of sexual violence, at an LGBT dance club on Latin night. My God is always with the persecuted and the vulnerable. My God suffers with those whose flesh is torn and whose lives are recklessly, callously snuffed out. My God doesn’t discriminate. My God is light and truth, and I am going to follow and be part of righting the wrongs of this terrible, beautiful world.” A world that thirsts for the living God. A God who says to all creation, “Fear not. Choose life. Follow me.”
In Christ’s name and for his sake. Amen+
In the down time I took after Christmas, I watched a couple of Netflix movies about the Obamas. The first is titled “Barry” and it chronicles Barack Obama’s college years at Columbia University in New York City, delving into his struggles to define himself – to find his identity. The second movie is titled “Southside with You” which hones in on the first date that Barack and Michelle had when they are both young professionals working for a law firm in Chicago. I so enjoyed both movies because they gave me a window into imagining what went into the making of a couple I so admire.
I liked the movie Selma, which came out a few years ago , for the same reasons – because it allowed me to see how the civil rights movement and Dr. King developed over time. It showed the important decision points, and the risk and uncertainty of taking each step along their journey. It showed that Dr. King and his partners in that movement lived life one frame at a time, with a developing sense of who they were and what they were being called to by a higher purpose. They were human, bound by the same ambiguities and uncertainties that we each face daily, and yet through prayer and community discernment they reached for that higher purpose.
I have to think that the same was true for our Lord and Savior. If he was truly human he was living life one frame at a time as we do. The Gospels tell us almost nothing about Jesus’ formative years. The Gospel of Luke offers only one scant story of Jesus at age 12 staying behind in the Jerusalem Temple as his parents and the group they are traveling with head back to Nazareth, thinking he is with them. Upon discovering he is not, his parents return to Jerusalem and search frantically for him, until they find him deep in conversation with the rabbis in the temple. Mary and Joseph expressed their distress, but the almost adolescent Jesus in nonchalant and unrepentant. I wonder if the story was put there just to comfort parents of budding teens – the message being, you’re not alone, even the holy family had to negotiate the turbulent waters of adolescence! But that is it – that is all the Gospels tell us about Jesus from the time he was born to his baptism in the River Jordan by his cousin John.
This lack of Biblical witness has not stopped people of faith from thinking and wondering what Jesus was like as a child, and adolescent and a young adult. In her book, Loving the Questions, author Marianne Micks describes a painting that resulted from just such wonderings. She writes:
“The title of one of my favorite twentieth-century paintings is ‘The Virgin Spanking Jesus as a Child, Before Three Witnesses.’ Painted by Max Ernst in 1926… The little boy lies across his mother’s lap. Her hand is raised high ready to descent on the small bottom with a resounding thwack, while three witnesses are peering through a small window at the back of the room. A delicious detail is the hallo on the floor, slipped and fallen from the curly head.”(p.97)
Now while many of us in this day and age don’t use spanking to deal with our children’s misbehavior, and might not imagine Mary doing so either, this painting does raise an interesting question – did Jesus do things as a child that would have required discipline or even punishment?
Another artist who wondered extensively about the pre-baptism Jesus was Nikos Kazantzakis, who in 1960 wrote the novel The Last Temptation of Christ, which was later made into a very controversial movie. In that portrayal, Jesus grows up wanting nothing more out of life than to continue in Joseph’s line of work – carpentry. Yet he is tortured by mystical experiences that he cannot understand and that even his rabbi is unable to explain. One scene in the movie that so captured my imagination about what Jesus went through to understand and accept his identity as the Son of God, was one in which Jesus, tortured by a sense that he is being called to something larger, makes a final attempt to resist by physically running from the force that is pursuing him. He runs out along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, but his flight is futile. Every hundred yards or so, the invisible force that pursues him knocks him to the ground. After several such body slams he gives in – he lies prostrate, surrendered, ready to be guided rather than pursued by the hand of God.
Now neither of these 20th century imaginings about the young Jesus would fit very well into the popular view of Jesus as the God-Man who knew what and who he was from the beginning, and who was like us in every way except that he did not sin. But then again, if Jesus was fully human, he was not untouched by the corporate or systemic sin that is woven into the fabric of our communal human existence. Here I want to quote Marianne Micks again – she writes:
“Jesus lived in an occupied country. He was aware of Roman oppression. He was part of a culture that knew as much about governmental corruption as our own, as well as about hunger, poverty and disease. In his public ministry Jesus worked against all of these sins of his culture, but he hadn’t been unaffected by them as he was growing up and trying to figure out what he was meant to do with his life. He may indeed have increased in wisdom and stature and in divine and human favor, as Luke’s Gospel puts it, but not without struggle.” (Ibid. p.98)
To imagine the ways in which Jesus might have struggled with the corporate sin of the world he was living and moving in, is to connect with him on a visceral level, because that is the world we live and move in also. To imagine that Jesus did not simply and easily rise above the sin of the world can draw us to him in our own contexts of struggle. And from that point of connection we can often draw inspiration to more fully follow him. The Gospels are silent on the details of his formative struggles, but the Gospels do make clear that Jesus chose the path he did in order to follow God’s call to free the world from the bondage of sin.
And the first step on that path of liberation was for Jesus to step down into the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin John. And that is where our Gospel Lesson for this morning, from Mark’s Gospel, comes in. Interestingly Mark, the earliest written of the 4 canonical Gospels, is the only one that makes absolutely no attempt to suggest anything about Jesus’ life before baptism. Mark gives not stories or words about Jesus’ background, family lineage, or origin as the Word of God incarnate as the other three Gospels do. Mark just starts off with John and Jesus in their early 30’s on the banks of the Jordan. What are we to make of this absolute silence about all that had gone before in their lives? By telling us nothing of Jesus life before he came to the banks of the Jordan, Mark might be silently communicating that those details are not important in the light of what is about to occur. The one who steps into the water brings with him some 30 years of life lived, but the details of that life for not the issue here. The newness that will occur through this sacred act is what he wants up to hone in on. This is not to say that all that has gone before is obliterated. On the contrary, the message I hear is that all that has gone before this moment in life is taken into the hands of God, who wastes nothing, and is redeemed as the building blocks of the new relationship that is being forged. In God’s naming of Jesus as his beloved Son in this moment, the eternal hold of the corporate sin system, which every person is born into, is broken and a new path of life is emerging.
With the washing of baptism the context of life is enlarged, and grace enters the picture – the grace of God and Child reaching toward each other in cosmic embrace. And God says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This is not just some sort of cosmic pat on the back. This statement of God’s pleasure with Jesus, and all who have followed him into the waters of baptism, is a commission. It signals that God’s pleasure now resides with and empowers Jesus in all that lies ahead of him.
Today in place of the Nicene Creed we will share in the words of our baptismal covenant, as a reminder that the same is true for us. No matter what has gone before – no matter how our hallo has slipped, or how we have attempted to run from God, in the waters of baptism – as was true in the Spirit hovering over the waters in the opening verses of the book of Genesis – God seeks to bring something new out of the chaos of sin. God seeks to bestow upon us grace to turn things around. God seeks to give us the power to raise our arms and be swept into the cosmic embrace which is offered us each time we open our hearts to the power of our baptismal covenant.
The temptation here is to say, ‘and they lived happily ever after.’ But the Gospel is no fairy tale. As our recitation of the Baptismal Covenant will remind us today, this is a daily returning to God and a living of life by challenging moral precepts. And if Jesus’ life is a reflection of and pattern for our own, temptations and suffering are and will be part of the path we walk – there is no getting around that. But baptism does change the context for us – not by being a holy zap that magically transforms life, but by being a starting point for a lifelong partnership with God, who promises us that through thick and thin we will never be alone. God is with us and we are with each other in the Beloved Community we call church.
It is reported that whenever Martin Luther was assailed by temptation or suffering in his struggle to be true to the call he heard from God, he would sit in his study and say over and over, almost as a mantra, “I am baptized, I am baptized, I am baptized…” May we keep those words close to our hearts as well. Amen+