Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Fasten your seatbelts


Isaiah 43: 1-7; Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
January 10, 2016



Secure yourself to heaven.
Hold on tight, the night has come
Fasten up your earthly burdens,
You have just begun.




It didn’t take long for that baby in the manger to grow up, did it?  Christmas was two and a half weeks ago; now he’s a grown man beginning his ministry.  He begins with baptism—a baptism of water, for repentance and the cleansing of sin.  In the time of Jesus it was customary (and still is now) for one who is entering the rabbinical vocation to be purified through baptism or a mikvah as part of the ordination.



Jesus also may have already had it in mind that eventually he would be heading toward his own death.  The experience of being submerged in water and rising with the breath of God filling his lungs may have been to remind him not only of the promise of resurrection, but of God’s promise to sustain him through whatever lay ahead for him.



But the question that lingers is this: why would Jesus, the Son of God, need baptism, need to be cleansed of sin?  But then he is human like anyone else.  I think Jesus was aligning himself with the crowds who came for baptism.  They would have been considered outcasts by the religious authorities, the poor, the sick, the sinners, tax collectors, drunkards and prostitutes with which Jesus would be spending most of his time; in essence, the neediest of God’s people, those who were living through the fires of life and were ready to accept God’s hand to heal them and to lead them. 




John said that he baptized with water but that Jesus would baptize with fire and with the Holy Spirit.  Jesus meets his own baptism by fire in Luke 4 when he goes into the desert and fasts for 40 days, where he is met by the tempter, the Adversary, and then later in a garden at prayer and on the cross.  When we consider the whole of Jesus’ ministry, most of it was a baptism by fire:  the never-ending crowds of those who needed him; priests, scribes and Pharisees who frequently provoked and questioned him; always on the road, never a soft place to lay his head, only the clothes on his back and a small group of loyal but hard-headed friends for company; all the time in the back of his mind where his path was going to take him.



Secure yourself to heaven.
Hold on tight, the night has come
Fasten up your earthly burdens,
You have just begun.



Perhaps there were moments when Jesus would have called to mind the passage in Isaiah:  God promising that when we pass through the waters, we won’t be overwhelmed; when we walk through the fire, we won’t be burned nor consumed, for God will be with us.



There are times, though, when that is small comfort.  I don’t know about you, but I’d rather skip the waters and the fire altogether some days.  My own acquaintance with baptism by fire began when I was twelve, when my father moved out of the house and my parents decided to divorce.  For the most part, we’d rather not recall our first encounter with the fires of life.  It’s the first time we know real pain, the kind that feels like it just might destroy us.



In the movie G.l. Jane, the command master chief instructs his trainees with these words about pain:  “Pain is your friend, your ally, it will tell you when you are seriously injured, it will keep you awake and angry, and remind you to finish the job and get the hell home. But you know the best thing about pain?  It lets you know you're not dead yet!”


Author Barbara Brown Taylor writes that “[pain] makes theologians of us all.”  She goes on to say, “Pain is one of the fastest routes to a no-frills encounter with the Holy, and yet the majority of us do everything in our power to avoid it.”[1]



When we entered into this relationship with God, we did not think that it might entail some serious encounters with pain, especially the pain of letting go and loss.  Surely Job, in his righteous life before God, could not have predicted the pain and anguish of losing his livelihood, his children, and his health.



When I answered ‘yes’ to God in the call of ministry, I had no idea of giving it up for something else, that I would want to be a mother as much as I wanted to be in ministry.  The minister who prayed over me at my ordination spoke of this calling being a ‘fire in my heart’, that it would give me ‘the cauterizing heat of pain and suffering borne and conquered’.   When I gave birth to my first child and then also my second child, I had no idea I would want to be in ministry as much as I wanted to be a mother.  And I had no idea how much pain I would endure as a result of these choices.



Some years ago, when I felt myself to be at my lowest in this fiery baptismal life to which God had called me, I had a dream that assured me that God was with me through all of this.



In the dream I am in a room full of women, of all ages.  On the floor in the middle of the room is a crying baby girl with a headful of brown hair and big brown eyes.  No one seems to hear her or acknowledge her presence.  Being one who sometimes acts first and thinks later, I pick up the child and nurse her.  Instantly she is soothed and falls asleep.




The next morning as I am eating breakfast and thumbing through a Buddhist meditation catalog, I come upon a picture of a small statue of Kwan Yin holding Maitreya, the Buddha yet to be.  Kwan Yin is the Buddhist goddess of compassion, what is known as a bodhisattva: one who sets aside one’s own enlightenment to assist in alleviating the suffering of others.  She is like Mary, who gave of her life so that the least of God’s people might be saved from their suffering by the birth of Jesus.  When I saw this statue of mother and child, of loving embrace and compassion, tears came to my eyes, not yet knowing why.



The ‘why’ came later, at Bible study at the church where I was a member, when we opened to the book of Isaiah and in chapter 49 read these words:  “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”



Though at times it may seem as though God is silent, God does not forget us.  God is with us in the high waters and in the searing fires.  This is what is meant by ‘Emmanuel’:  God with us.  God is in solidarity with us.  God is with us as the fires of life burn away what is useless and unnecessary and wake us up to what is real and authentic.




Each of us is on our own journey; each of us has our own unique pain that brings us face to face with God and what it means to be fully human.  And yet pain is pain.  Our pain does not make us special or more pitiable than anyone else.  Rather, it has the power to draw us closer to one another as well as to God. 



Asking why things happen is a question reserved for the privileged:  most folks know the question is really when.  Pain is a part of being human and it is also a part of a life of faith.  But as to God and suffering, I think that is where choice comes in.  We can choose to suffer in our pain through isolation, despair, self-pity or in the midst of our pain we can choose relationship, hope, and the courage to change.  We can choose to numb our pain, to ignore it, resist it, wallow in it—or we can choose to be baptized in it and with it and through it:  to choose God in the midst of the fire.



Love is not Love until it asks us to do something we really don’t want to do…like volunteer at church, teach Sunday school, pledge, forgive someone, love an enemy.  Love asks us to be bodhisattvas:  to put aside our own enlightenment that we would help alleviate the suffering of others.  Love puts us with people we’d rather not be with and helps us hold on to the ones we wish we were with.  Love puts us in situations we’d rather avoid, calls us to do things we’re not sure we’re equipped to do.  But how else is the world to be made whole?  How else is the kingdom to come?



God is always in the waters and in the fire, because God will do anything to have us close, even unto a manger and a cross.



Secure yourself to heaven.
Hold on tight, the night has come
Fasten up your earthly burdens,
You have just begun.



Amen.



[1] Barbara Brown Taylor.  An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009), 157-158.

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