Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Friday, February 3, 2012

Pre-Ordination Sermon

January 15th 2012
Grace to you and peace from our God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

I was able to catch up on a lot of reading last fall – that was one of the unforeseen blessings of waiting during the call process that brought me here. One of the books on my list was Watchman Nee’s book The Normal Christian Life. Nee was an author and church leader in the early part of the twentieth century. He planted churches and suffered under the Communist government in China at the time; he was imprisoned for twenty years until his death in the 70s.

In this book, which is his best known work, he wrote about an experience that haunted him, and haunted me too after I read it. Nee was once staying with some other Christians in a place with no bathing facilities, so he and the other men (or “brothers” as he called them) took a daily dip in the river nearby. One day, one of the brothers got a bad cramp and began to sink. As it happened, only one of the brothers knew how to swim. And to Nee’s astonishment, the man sat and watched the drowning man from the bank. They ALL watched as the drowning man flailed and splashed and cried for help, until his splashing and his cries began to grow weaker and weaker.

“Don’t you see that this man is drowning?” cried Nee out of desperation, amazed that this man who CLAIMED to be a Christian was just going to watch the man drown. But the swimmer stayed where he was, until the drowning man began to go under. In a moment the swimmer dove in, grabbed the man, and brought him to safety in under a minute.
Nee was still very upset. When he got the chance, he gave the swimmer a piece of his mind – “I have never seen a Christian more selfish than you. Just think of the mental trauma you could have saved our poor brother if you would have decided to save him earlier.”
Nee - and I - never forgot what the swimmer said next. “Had I gone in earlier, this poor man would have clutched me so hard that we both would have drowned. Someone who is drowning can’t be rescued until they are exhausted and stop trying to save themselves.”
Let me say that one more time. Someone who is drowning can’t be rescued until they are exhausted and stop trying to save themselves.

My friends, WE are the drowning man here.  WE are drowning in our very own personal ocean of pain and confusion. Sometimes we are able to convince ourselves that we’re doing just fine, we’re treading water, keeping our head above sea level. But it only takes one small cramp, one small hospital stay or car problem or family crisis to cause us lose our illusion of control and send under.

WE are the drowning person, and we exhaust ourselves by grabbing on to what we think will save us - money, status, shopping, food - you can fill in the blank. But in the end, our energy is depleted, and we’re still flailing around in the darkness, in the waters of chaos.
But a wind from God is sweeping over the waters. A wind from God is blowing, and sent to God’s people a man named John. This man refused to live by the world’s rules. He brought people to the river to baptize them – to immerse them in the water to die to their own sinful selves and to arise out of the water a new living person. “Now don’t you focus on me,” John told the people he baptized. “There is someone else coming on the scene, more powerful than me. I am just the warm up act – he is the headliner, the main event. HE is coming to change EVERYTHING.”

And sure enough, here comes Jesus, son of Mary, who was a baby to us just a few weeks ago. We don’t really know what he was doing for the first part of his life, but we do know that he is here, now, at the water’s edge with John about to be baptized. No angels, no shepherds, no wise men. Mark’s birth narrative is just Jesus, John, and the Jordan River.
Jesus went down into the waters. Jesus went down into the swirling waters of chaos. He was immersed fully into the chaotic waters of humanity. He was enveloped in it, all of it – the laughter and tears of pain, the suffering and the joy, taking on skin and emotions and doubts.

And all doubts were swept away when Jesus came up, dripping from the waters. To Jesus, his life, his identity, and his mission became clear, as clear as the jagged edges of the torn sky. As clear as the voice he heard from his Father: “You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

And with still soaked with river water and with that voice still ringing in his ears, Jesus was off like someone lit a FIRE under his behind –driven into the desert, being tempted, calling his disciples, healing a crowd of people, and going on a preaching tour - all before we even get to the SECOND chapter of Mark! But the truth is a fire WAS lit inside of him - the fire of the Holy Spirit, which alighted on him as a dove would. I like to think that the dove gave Jesus a little wink that said, “Go get ‘em, tiger. Your work has just begun.”

Sometimes we forget that, when it comes to our own baptisms. Sometimes we forget that our baptism was a beginning, not an ending. An invitation, not a graduation. The church is not in the business of handing out “heaven insurance” by “getting the kid done” to please grandma. Splashing some water in a baby’s face doesn’t guarantee them a ticket on the Heaven Train. Your baptism doesn’t tell you WHERE you’re going. Well, what DOES it do?
Well, just look at what it did for Jesus. Baptism tells you WHO YOU ARE. Whether you were baptized as a baby, or as a child, or as an adult, the result was the same: like Jesus, OUR identity is spelled out for US, if we take the time to listen for it.

You may not remember hearing it, but on the day of your baptism, God whispered this in your ear, “YOU are my child and I love you!” We may not have SEEN the heavens rip apart above us, but on you baptism day God burst into your life and you would never be the same again. You may not remember FEELING the Holy Spirit descend on you like a dove, but on that day the Holy Spirit lit a fire inside of YOU.

At our most vulnerable, when our heads are dangling above the waters and we are about to be overwhelmed, God acts. Like the expert swimmer, Jesus dove into the water after us and rescued us. And, while we are still dripping, he kicks us back into the world to be his followers. In other words, your baptism is a license to live, because WE as people of faith take OUR cues from Jesus – the one who clutched to his baptism with both hands and wouldn’t let go for one minute, even when it lead him into the very maw of death.

Some of us are just at the beginning of this journey. Others are somewhere in the middle. And still others have gone before us, finished the race, and have heard God’s words face to face: “you are my beloved child, and with you I am well pleased.” And there may even be some of us here for whom baptism is a celebration still in the future. No matter where you are on this adventure, know this: You belong to God. God has staked a claim on you and is not about to let go.

We can remember this claim on us, not just when a baby is baptized or we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord once a year. Remembering our baptisms is so much better than a New Year’s resolution: instead of starting anew at the beginning of every year, we can begin anew at the start of every MORNING. We can thank God for the gift of baptism when we wake up, brush our teeth, or drive to work. We have a new opportunity EVERY MOMENT to re-grasp our baptisms when our grip momentarily falters. Because our grip WILL inevitably falter. But God has promised that, in even those moments, you are still God’s beloved daughter or son, and God is DELIGHTED to know you. Amen.

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