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Baptism of our Lord B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

For now, we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.
—1 Corinthians 13:12

We navigate by the uncertain light of epiphany. Without all the details, we make decisions. Unsure where it will lead, we choose a path. Despite not knowing fully even ourselves, we commit to truths and values to live by.

“We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Epiphanies are a part of everyday life yet, for most of us, they do not occur every day. That is why you must remember what you saw, what you experienced, or what you heard about the character of God from the Sacraments; or beside the font; or at the Table; or in the Living Word of holy scripture; or in the prayers, or in the church engaged in mission; or in the testimony of prophets, poets, and artists; or the testimony of activists and organizers; or the testimony of other religions; or from the voices of the oppressed; or in the face of a neighbor—remember what you learned from moments of Epiphany that shine out in your memory when you realized just a little bit more about your life.

It is rare that the feast day commemorating Epiphany corresponds with an actual epiphany, let alone a national one. Yet, last Wednesday, on January 6th, it happened. What did you see? Remember what you saw. Ponder it as Mary pondered the words of the Angel Gabriel. Talk among yourselves for greater clarity. It is never entirely clear what an epiphany means. It can take a lifetime to unpack. Yet, with grace, we see just enough to steer by.

We had ourselves an Epiphany this week –really—we’ve had so many this past year. Sometimes, when the lights come on, we are unhappy about what we see. We see there is a lot of dirty work that needs doing the morning after a party. There may be a personal reckoning that must be faced in the aftermath of our mistakes. Epiphanies can be like that.

On Wednesday, I saw how whiteness—the belief that white people are superior—is a big lie and that it’s killing us. The commitment to white supremacy is ripping the people of this nation apart and separating us all from the democratic values we hold dear. I saw that democracy is fragile not inevitable. Democracy must be nourished. It requires our participation, civil debate, and trust.

It’s not an overstatement to say this year has taught many of us systemic racism is real and diminishes us all. Misogyny is real and diminishes us all. Xenophobia is real and diminishes us all. Climate change is real and diminishes us all. Despite this, a record number, more than 73 million people, showed by their vote a willingness to ignore, if not condone, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and climate change. 40% of these people are evangelical Christians. Covid-19 showed us how interdependent we really are including people and nations around the world. Social media has shown us that too. Social distancing may be right for the pandemic, but it is not the solution for these other problems we see that plague us today.

So, what to do? We turn for guidance to another epiphany the church calls baptism. Jesus said, ‘Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28:19). Very simply, we baptize because Jesus commanded us to. This gift has been given to you not as a loyalty test, not as a prerequisite that must be accomplished before receiving God’s love, not as fire insurance to get into heaven, but as a sacrament of graceful intimate presence with you to have and to hold from this day forward, in joy and in sorrow, in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish all the days of your life, from now and until forever.

You recognize those words? The gift of God’s love in baptism makes possible the preposterous vow we make in marriage to love one person the way God loves all people and all creatures of creation. This gift makes also makes possible the covenant we share to be citizens of this nation, and more simply, to be neighbor. By grace, the Samaritan climbed down from his horse to assist the man in the ditch. By grace the Father kept constant vigil for the return of the prodigal son.

Belovedness is a central theme in the baptism of Jesus. In Mark, the heavenly voice speaks directly to Jesus for his own sake: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

It is part of the majesty and glory of God that God is not only the creator. God is a creator of co-creators. God is a lover of artists. God delights to see what new and beautiful things we can make from what God has given. Artists creatively bring into existence from what did not exist, that which gracefully transforms and renews. God made baptism as a sign for us of the new life we share in Christ as artists of grace—as co-creators with God of a more hopeful future.

Baptism is an epiphany. Helping other people in need matters. Speaking up when other people have been wronged matters. Contributing to the greater good of the world makes a difference. As Jesus was coming up out of the waters of baptism, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10).

The baptism of Jesus tore through the boundary between heaven and earth. Now presumably, what is opened can be closed again. But what has been torn apart must remain open for all time. Through Christ Jesus, Mark says, the realms of heaven and the realms of earth have become mixed together.

The Spirit of God is mixed and folded within you. It’s a theme Mark will repeat at the moment of Jesus’ death on a cross. Just as Jesus breathed his last, the curtain in the Temple that separated the profane world from the Holy of Holies was torn in two, from top to bottom (Mark 15:38).

God cannot be contained by our holy spaces. God will not be confined to the heavenly realm. God is loose in the land. God’s presence fills the world. We meet God through encounter with our neighbor regardless of their party affiliation, gender, race, ethnicity, ability, or sexual orientation. All are endowed with dignity reflecting the likeness and image of God. Dearly beloved, the grace of God is revealed in the shadow of human hearts when we walk together by the lantern light of epiphany trusting in what God has shown and taught us to create order and blessing from the chaos of our lives.

Lent 4A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Three weeks ago, was Ash Wednesday. Back then, we still gathered for worship and went about business as usual. If you would have asked me, I would have thought social distancing was a dating strategy not public health policy. None of us expected to give up so much for Lent. Now Lent threatens to overrun Easter. It’s surprising how quickly our lives have changed.

One commentator suggested maybe “change” isn’t the right word. Rather what we’re experiencing right now feels “apocalyptic.” “After all, an apocalypse, rightly defined, is an unveiling, a revelation of things previously unseen or unknown. Maybe the world hasn’t changed so much as it has been exposed, uncovered, made plain, laid bare. Maybe we were blind before, and the time has now come to see.” (Debi Thomas, “Now I See,” Journey with Jesus, 3/15/20)
The story of the man born blind man is about seeing what we didn’t used to see. It’s a story about the advent of faith and the new life that follows. This story has inspired Christians throughout the history of the church. The blind man appears in second-century frescoes in the catacombs of Rome (as does the Samaritan woman at the well we read about last week).

The blind man’s movement from unseeing to enlightenment is part of the church’s celebration of the power of baptism as far back as the fourth and fifth centuries. His journey into faith mirrors our own. We see what we didn’t used to see. The blind man’s words echo the famous hymn Amazing Grace we sing again today, “I once was blind, but now I see.” Following Jesus’ way of the cross opens our hearts, hands, and minds to those who are suffering.
The gospel of John measures relationship with God relative to what we see in Jesus. When we look upon Jesus through the eyes of faith, we see the living God. In Baptism we put on the body of Christ like a pair of glasses. Looking through the spiritual spectacles of the incarnation makes what matters in the world and our place in it look different—from fuzzy to clear, as though a veil is lifted.

Notice John’s gospel doesn’t regard judgment day as a far distant event. We stand as before the Pearly gates right now to answer St. Peter’s urgent question. Who do you say Jesus is? The Blind man answered. “He is a prophet. He is from God. He is the Son of Man.” (John 4: 17,33, & 38)
In contrast to what many of us learned in Sunday School, for John, sin does not arise from wrong actions, or immoral deeds, but from whether or not we see God revealed in Christ Jesus. The only way to be excluded from grace is to turn your back on it. Bible scholar Gail O’Day writes, “John’s gospel is the most radical statement of salvation by grace anywhere in the New Testament” (NIB, p. 664).

The disciples asked Jesus whether the man’s blindness was caused by sin –either his own or that of his parents. Even today many of us are strongly tempted to see God’s judgment in our own tragic circumstances. But thanks be to God, through faith in looking upon Jesus, we have begun to see things differently. We can stop looking for evidence of God’s wrath when bad things happen to good people. Jesus doesn’t care about assigning blame, but about unveiling and revealing God at work in the world.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, regardless of your infirmities or your failings –so let the world see Christ who is alive in you. Let them see the living God.
When we put on the eyes of Christ, what do we see? When the apocalyptic veil is lifted by some crisis like the coronavirus what is revealed? We see that only a few things really matter. We recognize how connected and interdependent we are with people and communities around the world. We’re all in this together—every continent, country, class, religion, race, age, or gender. Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell, has said, “There’s a way a disaster throws people into the present and gives them this supersaturated immediacy that also includes a deep sense of connection. It’s as though, in some violent gift, you’ve been given a kind of spiritual awakening where you’re close to mortality in a way that makes you feel more alive.” (Rebecca Solnit, On Being, 2016.)
That’s Ash Wednesday in a nutshell. That’s our burial and resurrection in Christ through baptism. That’s what we see in Christ, through Christ, with Christ. The way of the cross reveals itself to be the way into fullness of life.
Like a blind man who has just regained his sight, we follow behind Jesus with a spirit of joy and deep humility, not quite comprehending what it is that we see and comforted in the fact we don’t have to manage all on our own but have someone in Christ Jesus to show us the way.

Perhaps it is easy to understand the blind man’s joy in regaining his sight. But why do I say it was also with deep humility? I say it because it is so easy for us to fall into the trap of believing what we see as being exclusive of what others see that we do not see.
Stories of Jesus giving sight to the blind are found in all four Gospels. Some were healed with a simple touch (Matthew 9:27-28; 20:29-33), others without a touch at all (Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43). One was healed when Jesus touched him twice and put spit on his eyes (Mark 8:22-26). Finally, the man born blind we read about today (John 9:1-42), was healed when Jesus mixed saliva with mud, spread it on the man’s eyes, and told him to go wash. Naturally, since each one thought that their healing was better than all the others, later they divided themselves into different factions: the muddites, spittites and touchites. (Stoffregan). Religious denominations were born.

We are reminded today, that our faith tradition, like a pair of glasses, offer the advantage of a certain way of seeing which otherwise might not be possible for us. In this case, each blind man has a particular insight into Christ’s gospel. Each is partly right, but also partly wrong. None of us can avoid looking for Christ through some set of religious spectacles –without them we would not grasp the gospel at all. So, we shall not to set aside our Lutheran tradition, but celebrate it. Yet, at the same time, we must also watch for the limitations that our own denominational perspective as Lutheran Christians brings. Likewise, we must remain open to learning from others who would inform us about the blind-spots of our own particular privilege, culture, and gender that obstruct our view of the whole truth.

The blind man washed in the pool called Sent. Likewise, we are sent into the world to be God’s people. “During this Lenten season, may we, too, confess our blindness and receive sight. May we also praise the one who kneels in the dirt and gets his hands dirty in order to heal us.” (Debi Thomas) May we open our hearts, hands, and minds to those who are suffering, so that when new life appears in whatever surprising guise God chooses, we will embrace, cherish, celebrate, and share the good news, too.

Can we be thankful?

Lent 3A-20

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

When Jesus tells the Samaritan woman who he is, she leaves her water jar at the well, runs back to her city, and said, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (John 4:29)

She left her water jar. You can’t run a household, cook food, wash clothes, or sustain your body without water. She left her water jar. She forgot all about her timetable and what she was doing.  She left her water jar. Suddenly she ran to all the people she had avoided. She left her water jar. She moved fast, unburdened, excited, and free. Her urgent good news overwhelmed her desire to remain anonymous and invisible. Her painful history of loss and regret no longer weighs her down. Now it becomes evidence she uses to proclaim Jesus is the Messiah. She invites them. “Come and see,” because there are no words, because Jesus can’t be reduced to a platitude or formula. She tells all from the heart with honesty without shame or guile while her faith is still young, still in process, still forming. She doesn’t have answers. She has questions. Her questions spark curiosity in others who come and see for themselves.  (Debi Thomas, The Woman at the Well, Journey with Jesus, 3/08/20)

On one level this story is about evangelism. It is about how we tell the story of Jesus.  We do it with excitement and feeling because to tell about Jesus is personal. We do it with humility because we can only speak of what we know. We do it with urgency because there is the stuff of life in it that makes all the water bearing, schedule keeping, and responsibilities we observe worth it.

On another level this story is about inclusion—all people, all races, all religions, all genders—Jesus honors, blesses, and validates them all.  Jesus rested around 12 noon and struck up the longest conversation recorded in the bible between him and any other person. John writes that Jesus stayed in the woman’s city for two days. She, like John the Baptist, like the Apostles, like Mary Magdalene, like Paul, “prepares the way of the Lord” — and Jesus encouraged her to do so.  “Many Samaritans from that city,” the Gospel writer tells us, “believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.”  Jesus was more radically inclusive of women than we are today.

She went to the well to fetch and carry water. Every gallon of water weighs more than 8 pounds. What have we carried here? What burdens did we bring to the well?  How much does it weigh on us? What timetables, what worries, what fear of our neighbors, what pain from the past, what anxiety do we have squeezed between our shoulder blades, or pounding through our heads, and/or fisting up in our stomach?

Let’s pause for a minute to let this story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman soak in like water into dry ground. Let it make your heart soft and pliable again. Let it make you into good soil again.

  • Here, the Son of God is tired, weary and thirsty. Jesus knows your need.
  • Here, the Messiah, despite that weariness, listens with understanding to an outsider and potential enemy. Jews and Samaritans did not share things in common with Samaritans (John 4:9). Not even hand sanitizer.
  • Here, Jesus breaks through the barriers of nationality; the political separation between warring factions; the social barriers between a man and a woman; and the religious divide between a woman and her God.
  • Here Jesus broke the barriers of orthodoxy and what it means to be religious.
  • Here is the universality of the gospel.
  • Here, grace is poured out like water, on everyone and everything like rain.
  • Here, God acts through Christ Jesus to love the world, not in theory, but in words and deeds.

In Holy Baptism, we give thanks for the gift of water, ‘for in the beginning [God’s] Spirit moved over the waters and by [the] Word created the world, calling forth life in which [God] took delight. Through the waters of the flood [God] delivered Noah and his family, and through the sea led [the] people Israel from slavery into freedom.  At the river [God’s] Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Holy Spirit.  By the baptism of Jesus’ death and resurrection [God] set us free from the power of sin and death and [raised] us up to live in Christ” (ELW p. 230).

Water, like grace, has weird, mysterious properties. Water expands when it freezes. Water seeks its own level. Water is not native to earth. Every drop of water came from outer space. Water remains water even when it is consumed. The amount of water in the world is never diminished but is endlessly recycled. Water, wears, rusts, cracks and soaks through everything because water dissolves almost everything.

Like water, God’s Spirit will not be constrained by false boundaries, social conventions, patterns of injustice, or religious intolerance.  Like water God’s grace is not reduced when shared. Soap of the gospel and water always wins. It will not be restrained but moves—just as God’s love cannot be contained but must flow through us.

That is why we will stay connected. The church was made for times such as these. We are going to have to get creative.  We’re going to have to learn new things. Make phone calls. Connect online. Check in with neighbors. Read and pray God’s word to keep your heart soft and strong. Together we will find a way through this Coronavirus valley.

“Who is speaking the Good News into your life?  How are you receiving their testimony?  In the most unlikely places, through the most unexpected voices, from the minds and bodies of the disempowered and the overlooked, the Word of God speaks, and the Living Water flows.  During this Lenten season, may we have ears to hear it, hearts to drink it in, and humility to honor and bless its proclamation.” (Debi Thomas)