Archive for January, 2018

“Have you come to destroy us?”

Sunday, January 28th, 2018

Click here to listen to the full service

Mark 1:21-28

Click here to listen to the meditations only

Good morning! What a pleasure and honor it is to share the good news of Jesus Christ with you this morning. I’d like to thank Dean Hill for asking me to preach today and my colleagues here at the chapel for their support and encouragement.

Today is the fourth Sunday after Epiphany. We are in the liminal time between the celebration of the birth of Christ, and Ash Wednesday. It’s not a memorable season like Advent, when we’re so excited to get to the birth of Christ that we sometimes jump ahead into its celebration a bit early. Or one of Lent, during which we fast, meditate, and prepare for the death and resurrection of Christ. No, the season after Epiphany, in some churches, particularly the Catholic Church, referred to as “Ordinary Time”, is when we hear the stories the growth and development of Jesus’ ministry. It’s when we learn of Jesus’ teachings, healings, and interactions with the people he encounters along the way. We use green paraments to highlight not only the growth and development of Jesus’ ministry, but our own spiritual growth and development through hearing and engaging the retelling of Jesus’ ministry on earth. We are then called to go out into the world and share that spiritual growth through the love of Christ that we share with all people.

This liturgical year, we grapple with Mark’s gospel to help us understand this period of Jesus life. Mark is the shortest gospel and believed by scholars to be the earliest retellings of the life of Jesus. The episodes within Mark’s scripture are much abbreviated, or “raw”, as one commentary I read put it. We get the facts and figures of Jesus’ work in the world, but not much flowery description. But in a way, Mark’s gospel is perfect for this Epiphanytide, this “Ordinary Time.” The gospel jumps right into the action of Jesus’ baptism and ministry. There is no description of the birth of Christ or the events leading up to it, like in Luke’s Gospel. Instead, we encounter the fully grown adult Jesus, baptized by John and announced as the Son and Beloved of God who then begins the work of God in the world. Mark is primarily concerned with conveying who Jesus is as the Holy One, the messiah, and that his authority comes from God. This is fully expressed through Jesus’ words and deeds.

In Mark’s gospel, we and the people Jesus encounters come to know who he is through his acts of teaching and healing. The focus is on Jesus’ authority in these situations. In today’s gospel reading, he is unknown to the people in the temple, but commands their attention through his words and actions. It is only the unclean spirit, or demon, or evil force which possesses the man in the synagogue who recognizes Jesus for who he is and the power that he can potentially wield. “Have you come to destroy us?” is one of the questions posed to Jesus by this evil force. The unclean spirit recognizes that Jesus possesses the authority of God, and questions how that power and authority will be used. Whether this is a sarcastic comment questioning the power of the Holy One, “Have you come to destroy us?” or a genuine inquiry of fear from the unclean spirit, “Have you come to destroy us?” we are not sure. But it gives us an interesting starting point for understanding the type of authority Jesus brings into the world and how our understanding of this authority can shape the ways we understand our Christian identity.

“Have YOU come to destroy us?”

First, let’s focus on the you in this question: “Have YOU come to destroy us?” The “you” obviously refers to Jesus. But Jesus is relatively unknown to the community he is within. The reaction of the people tells us so – he teaches them as one having authority, but not like the way that they had heard from the scribes. Jesus teaches in a NEW way. Not focusing on traditional interpretation of the Torah, as the scribes do, but by relying on the authority of God. The scripture does not share the words that Jesus spoke, but we know from other passages in Mark that his teachings challenge the systems that have led the participants and the leaders of the service into complacency.

We might be able to relate to this reliance on tradition in our own contexts – we become complacent not only to our styles of worship, but how we find ourselves interacting with the social structures that surround us in our everyday lives. “That’s just the way things are.” “This is the way it’s always been done.” But that blind trust can lead to problems like systemic injustices and oppression. What Mark demonstrates through this teaching is that Jesus points out the inadequacy of the teaching going on in the synagogue to reveal the true meaning of God’s relationship with people on Earth. We are called to seek out justice and righteousness, as the Psalmist today reminds us: God’s righteousness endures forever. God is gracious and merciful.

The people in the synagogue are astounded by Jesus’ teaching. From the immediate recognition of Jesus’ authority the story quickly transitions into the man with the unclean spirit getting up and shouting at Jesus. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Why has Jesus come to this synagogue to teach? How will Jesus’ teachings change the relationship between good and evil forces in the world?

Jesus’ teaching is founded in God, from whom his authority derives. His speech is powerful and authoritative because it speaks the truth. Jesus is a prophet, because he speaks the truth that is found in God and God’s will for the world. This authority is visible to those who hear him speak, as is obvious from last week’s gospel, in which Jesus promises Simon, Andrew, James, and John that he will make them “fishers of people” and they drop their nets and follow him. Jesus’ authority is unmistakable. But it isn’t what we might expect from the Messiah.

“Have you come to DESTROY us?”

It is established that Jesus is authoritative in his teaching, but do his actions match his words? Let us refer back to our guiding quote for this sermon, “Have you come to DESTROY us?” The word used by the unclean spirit is destroy in reference to how Jesus will use his power. Destruction is a violent word. It conjures images of razed lands, where no building is left standing. Or the complete obliteration of a person, a system. It might be what you would expect that the Holy One of God may bring to the Earth in order to control or subdue it. It might be what you would expect if it was your way with engaging with the world – to seek pain, violence and destruction instead of life-giving, healing, community. That is what the unclean spirits do, even to the point of causing self-destruction to their hosts, as described in Mark chapter 5.

We know from our own experiences that those with authority and power can slip into using that power for their own ends, to the point of injuring others. Without concern for the greater well-being, without that direct connection with the divine will for justice and righteousness, a person can create a great deal of damage by favoring certain groups of people with their power in ways that divide and amplify systems of oppression. Jesus has the power of God on his side, and it is precisely because of this connection with the divine that he utilizes that power to restore rather than destroy.

Jesus does not destroy. Yes, Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit telling it to “Be silent” and come out of the man, but there is no destruction. The spirit obeys, albeit putting up a fight on its way out, but it leaves. Jesus doesn’t destroy the spirit – where it goes to, we don’t know. But additionally, he doesn’t destroy the unclean spirit’s host, the man. Instead he restores the man to health. He “heals” the man. Jesus does not seek to obtain power for himself in this situation, as the evil forces might do. He serves humanity instead, restoring the man to his full humanity.

Jesus is a teacher and healer during his ministry; not someone who destroys. Can you imagine describing Jesus as a teacher and destroyer? It just doesn’t seem to fit the conception we have of him. He commands power over those things which are damaging to both the individual body and the communal body. He demonstrates that his authority can overcome the unclean spirits, the powers of evil, through the restoration of the person. We may extend this metaphor to say that this person, who is possessed by the unclean spirit, could also be ostracized from his community if his behavior were to continue. We know as much from the story of the man possessed by the legion of unclean spirits in Mark chapter 5 who is physically removed from the community. Jesus restores both the man in the temple and the man exiled to their communities. And in both instances the communities are amazed.

Jesus has power and authority, but he uses in a way that nonviolently transforms. As the Spider Man movies have taught us “With great power comes great responsibility.” Or as saint Luke states in Chapter 12, verse 48, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” Jesus is tasked with the greatest power and responsibility. In order to do the work of God on Earth, he must use his power and authority in a way that restores the earthly community to one of support, love, and inclusion.

“Have you come to destroy US?”

The final factor in this question posed by the unclean spirit is, who is “us”? Up to now, I have been talking about an unclean spirit. Suddenly it is multiplied by the spirit itself – “us.” We may understand this “us” as all evil forces, as those things which prevent flourishing in the world. If we read this passage with a historical critical lens, we may side with commentators who situate the Jewish community in Capernaum as a community under the Roman Empire – perhaps then the “us” are the imperialists who continue to oppress those in their community. Or it may be that this unclean spirit is an actual pre-scientific understanding of what a health concern looked like. But one thing is clear – the forces that recognize Jesus know who he is and recognize his potential power when no one else can.

Today we may see the “us” as the powerful forces we encounter in our lives that keep us from having a full relationship with the divine and from completely expressing God’s love to ourselves and others. These forces may be spiritual, biological, societal, or political. They may make us feel powerless and out of control, just as the man who is possessed appears to be. We may feel like there is no way of overcoming them or destroying them, as it were.

But there is hope. Because Jesus displays that there is the possibility of healing and hope in the face of such challenges. By bringing us a new way that is full of love and care for others, the healing and restoration of our communities is a possibility. As Paul reminds the church in Corinth, it is love that “builds up.” Love builds up our relationships with each other, and it also builds up our relationship with God. We may not be able to destroy the evil that exists in the world, but we are capable of taking away its authority and power over our lives.

Moving toward the future

The gospel for this week reminds us of the great acts of Jesus but also should spark us into action. Jesus, after all, was a radical. And by radical, I mean the definition which comes out of the Latin root, radix, which literally means root. Jesus comes to fundamentally change the way we understand our relationship with God and with each other. His new way of teaching is simplified and relies less on tradition and more on the authentic word of God found within the scriptures. He astounds and amazes the people by using his authority both to teach and to heal and restore. But we must remember that not everyone accepted Jesus’ teachings or his acts of healing as coming from God. He encounters these challenges again and again throughout the gospel of Mark, eventually leading to his own death. He challenges the status quo in a new, nonviolent, but revolutionary way that scares those accustomed to the old ways.

I imagine people’s reactions to Jesus’ teaching to be like the first time I read James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation. As a first year Master’s level student, it destabilized me. It made me question everything I thought I knew about Christianity and emphasized the inherent privilege I possess as someone who is white. It highlighted the systems of oppression found within American society and particularly within the field of theology, which had been primarily developed by Western, white perspectives up until the writing of this book. It felt foreign to me, a challenge to my what I then thought were my brilliant theological ideas, and I just didn’t get it. And, like the unclean spirit in this passage, my reaction, at first, was to reject it. Because it didn’t speak to me. Because it scared me. Because I felt threatened by it. But that kind of teaching is exactly what I needed to grow, to at least try to better understand the lives of those who are oppressed by society. It made me look at the scriptures in a new way. It opened up avenues of many different and varied theological perspectives arising out of theologies of liberation that help shape my personal theological and ethical ideas today. The challenge was a good thing because it opened my eyes to new ways of being in the world. New ways that I am by no means an expert at, but new ways that I can continue to grow into.

There are many times in our lives when I’m sure we wish that Jesus would show up and get rid of the evil and oppressive forces in our lives. That it would be as easy as a command uttered for negative forces to leave us. But it’s not. At least it isn’t for us (it may still be for Jesus himself). We can’t make our personal demons or our societal demons leave us by willing them to go away. But what we can do is recognize them and engage ourselves to reform them. In order to do this properly, however, we must first be able to recognize those forces which have taken priority for us that are in conflict with God’s will. If we can acknowledge the demons then we can take their power away. If we ignore them and pretend they aren’t there, then we allow them to still have power over us. White supremacy, sexism, homophobia, addiction, and hate as well as many other insidious social ills surround us. Our job is to name them for what they are and systematically dismantle the influence they have in our collective lives. This is by no means any easy or pleasant job, but one that speaks to the justice and righteousness found in God.

We are called to be purveyors of Christ’s love in the world. If we recognize Jesus’ authority and how he uses it to bring about change, we can learn from it. Authority and the power that comes with it can easily be mismanaged and improperly used for self-aggrandizement. Jesus is our example – he possesses God’s authority, but uses that authority to serve others. Our power also comes in serving others, as Martin Luther said, being “little Christs” for our neighbors. Through service of others, learning from others, and being in community we can imagine a better future for ourselves. In this Season after Epiphany, this “Ordinary Time,” let us continue to grow in spirit and love.

“Have you come to destroy us?” No, Jesus has come to restore us.

Amen.

-Jessica Ann Hittinger Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

 

 

Not So Long Ago and Not So Far Away

Sunday, January 21st, 2018

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Jonah 1:1-5, 10

I Corinthians 7:29-31

Mark 1:14-20

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         Last weekend I went to the movies.  I saw the eighth and latest episode of the “Star Wars” saga, entitled “The Last Jedi”.  I am a fan of the story, so I was predisposed to like it, and I did.  There were some familiar faces, and some new ones.  Of course there will be a sequel.  I’m pretty sure that I don’t give away any spoilers when I say that the plot continues.  The scrappy ragtag remnants of the republic are up against the relentless and seemingly overwhelming forces of what is now known as the First Order and its Supreme Leader. After incredible challenges and great losses, at least some members of the republic escape to continue the story.  While the plot does thicken, it essentially remains the same.

This time, though, I was struck by two things.  They may not be new to the story, but at least they stood out for me in a new way.  One was that the remnants of the republic were mostly referred to as “the resistance”, by themselves and even by the First Order.  Now those who resist are those who refuse to accept or comply with something, or who attempt to prevent something by action or argument.  Resistance can be violent, but it does not have to be.  In “The Last Jedi”, this time, even in the midst of all the whiz-bang, characters were told that blowing things up was not always the best way to accomplish the goal.  Indeed, retreat could be the best and most viable option in order to resist another day.  The second thing I noticed was that while of course the First Order was out to “crush the resistance”, this time the reason they gave to do that was so that any hope, any hope, for continued resistance against the First Order would be crushed as well.

I’ve been thinking a lot about hope in the last year or so.  For many of us, if our hope is not crushed, it is a little tattered around the edges.  Many of us have faced or are facing personal challenges in terms of health or finances, loss of a loved one or personal calamity.  Added to that is the fact that the world is a much more uncertain place than it was a year ago.  There are many decisions being made in government that seem to make no sense to many of us, no matter what our personal politics:  decisions that will poison the air, earth, and water for generations to come; the escalation of the rhetoric of racism, misogyny, and division; the increased pandering to the very wealthy and to corporate interests;  the dismantling of social safety nets and government agencies that promote the public wellbeing; and the flirtation with increasing militarization in national and international policy and with a cavalier attitude toward nuclear war.  It is hard to know even where to begin to resist these decisions, when it seems that every week there is some statement, action, or scandal that derails any forward movement.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus begins his ministry in a challenging time.  There is resistance to the Roman occupation of the country and to the puppet king.  Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist has been arrested for his preaching of repentance, and his preaching of the coming of the one who is powerful and will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  Jesus calls his first disciples to his ministry with the good news that the time is now, the realm of God has come near. They can believe in the hope of a new life and turn to God.  In this case he calls fishermen in the midst of their daily life to follow him, to use their fishing skills to bring others the good news of the realm of God.  And immediately they believe the hope of the good news and follow him.

Now we, as followers of Jesus in our time, are in a little different situation.  Jesus preached the realm of God as near, so near that people could believe in its reality in their own lives, and invite others to join them to live that reality.  The early church, especially after the resurrection, believed as Paul did in his letter to the church at Corinth.   The realm of God was so near that people should live as though the dominant social, economic, and cultural forms no longer operated in this new life. With us, we are more than two thousand years down the road.  While we realize that the realm of God is both present and coming in our lives, we live in the midst of a changing, wonderful, and sometimes scary culture. It often promotes a reality that is in direct opposition to the ministry of Jesus and to the reality of life with God in Christ.  So how do we as contemporary followers of Jesus keep our hope, keep our belief alive in this challenging time?  And just as important, how do we share our hope and our belief with others who may still feel like the least, the last, and the lost, and could use a little hope?

The Psalmist suggests we remember that the basis for our hope is our trust in God.  God alone is our rock, our salvation, and our stronghold, so that we will not be shaken from our hope.  We can pour out our hearts to God about our concerns and fears, and God will be our refuge.  Other forms of seeming power are delusion, vain hopes.  They will let us down.  God alone has the power we need and God alone is worthy of our love and devotion.

With this as a starting point, with God’s presence and realm not just coming but present in our lives, we might expect that God might do some things we do not see coming, especially where there is opposition to the reality of our life with God.  Our reading from Jonah describes one of these unexpected actions.

This is the second time that Jonah is sent to Ninevah.  The first time he refused to go, and ended up in the belly of a whale.  Apparently this experience at sea changed his thinking, because this second time he does go to Ninevah and he does preach the message that God gives him:  Ninevah will be overthrown in forty days.  Now the interesting thing is that the word translated here as “overthrown” can also be translated to indicate a turnover or a change of heart.  Sure enough, Ninevah, notorious for its wickedness, repents.  They really repent, with fasting and sackcloth, and they turn from their evil ways.  And in the face of their sincerity, God changes God’s mind, and does not bring calamity to them.

Jonah went to Ninevah, finally, because he was a prophet and that is what prophets do when they accept the call.  It was Jonah’s everyday life that God worked with to change a whole city for the better.  Sometimes it is just doing what we do normally that can foster hope.

I saw another movie last weekend, “The Post”.  This is the story of the discovery and publication of the Pentagon Papers.  This publication was instrumental in ending the Viet Nam police action.  I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that this publication was brought about by a small group of people.  And they did not wake up and intend to start a process of change on a national level.  They were living their everyday lives and doing their everyday jobs.  Then something showed up that they just could not ignore in terms of the damage that was being done to individuals and the nation by the  government process around Viet Nam revealed by the Papers.  So at great risk to themselves and their everyday lives they decided to make known what they had discovered, even though that knowledge was forbidden to the general public.  When that knowledge was made public, the things that had seemed so hopeless for so long around what was going on in Viet Nam began to change.  The police action ended, and there was some measure of hope that now the truth was out, things would be different.

For us, we may not be in everyday positions to bring an evil city to repentance, or to reveal a nation-changing truth.  But there may be for us some things we may think need changing, or may even need resistance.  How do we find our hope, sustain our hope, in the midst of our personal and communal challenges?  How do we respond to Jesus’ ongoing call to believe the good news of the reality of God’s realm, and to share that good news with others?  We already know that it will not be easy, after this last year.  It was not easy for Jesus and the first disciples, either.  Mark is called the “Gospel of Conflict” for a reason, and Jesus and the disciples did not just have conflicts with the religious and political authorities – they had conflicts with each other.  Jonah was a reluctant prophet at best, and after he had served to help bring about God’s work of conversion and mercy, he was angry.  He thought Ninevah deserved to be overthrown in that sense of true overthrow.  He berated God for being too merciful to this foreign city that deserved to be punished.  Those who brought to light and those who published the Pentagon Papers risked the loss of long friendships and the threat of jail.  And while the Viet Nam police action was ended, the revelations and the process of ending the action almost tore the country apart. and still have repercussions today.  The facing of our personal challenges is often fraught with difficulty and pain, as well as resolution and reconciliation.

But we cannot let conflict, or the possibility of conflict, stop us from finding and sustaining hope.  In conflict also we can trust that God is at work to do a new thing, as God did at Ninevah, and with Jesus and the disciples and the early church, and as God is still doing, every day, in this world now.  We cannot stop because without hope, we die.  The First Order and the Supreme Leader are right.  Crush the resistance, crush hope, and then we do nothing.  We do not look for hope.  We do not take the steps we need to take to sustain our hope.  Without hope, we do not resist those things that oppress us in our minds, bodies, and relationships, and so our hope is crushed once again, in a vicious cycle.  The good news is that we can get better at finding our hope. We can get better in what we hope for. We can get better in what we put our trust to sustain our hope.  One of the new characters in “The Last Jedi” puts it this way:  It’s not about destroying what we hate; it’s about saving what we love.”

So what do we love enough to save?  And when we decide that, who else loves the same thing and wants to save it, and where do we find these folks?  And when we’ve found them, what can we do together to save what we love?  Because not being alone, because shared purpose and action, give us hope, and help us sustain our hope.

And the great thing is, we often don’t have to look very far, or in unusual places, to find our companions in hope.  They, like us, live their everyday lives and try to use their skills to save the things they love.  They may be right here at Marsh Chapel.  Look around, at a worship service or a book discussion or a dinner or a service event.  Or they could be in our neighborhoods.  They grow or buy organic vegetables to preserve earth, air, and water that is not poisoned.  They may serve those who could use a little hope and help through their work that is the same as ours, or they volunteer in places in which we too can volunteer.  They may advocate or organize publicly, to expand the voices and presence of those too often ignored or unjustly maligned.  They may produce a movie, documentary, website, or blog, that inspires us to hope and action.  They go where the life is, and we can go there too, or even lead the way.

What do we love and want to save?  What gives us hope, that hope we want to sustain?  It’s not just about what we do.  It’s also about who we are and who we want to become.  There are people we can join for that too.

Mark Miller is a worship leader, a composer and performer of sacred music, and a musical theologian.  He is on the faculty of two universities, is married, and is a father.  And in the wider culture, it is also clear that at least some of his ancestors were not from Norway.  As an aside, for any Norwegians with us, don’t worry, we know it’s not your fault.

Anyway, Mark Miller in his everyday life and in his music recognizes the challenges to hope that we face both personally and communally.  And he presents the perspective that who we are is just as important to the finding and sustaining of hope as what we do – in fact, they are so intertwined as to be inseparable.  His latest composition has become something of a touchstone for many of us:  we sing it to ourselves, we sing it to and with each other, we sing it with and for those who can relate and who also want to find and sustain their hope.  It reminds us that in our faith and trust in God, we can be who we want to be and do what we want to do as our own best selves.  We can save what we love. We can find our hope and sustain it.  The song  is called, “Prayer Chant (We Resist)”, and it goes like this.  (sings):

“We resist.  We refuse to let hatred in.  We rise up.  We won’t back down.

We’re in this ‘til the end.

Pray for your enemies.  Welcome the stranger.  Show love to your neighbor.

We’re in this ‘til the end.”[1]

         Where do we find our hope?  Not so long ago and not so far away.  But right here.  Right now.  “ … ‘til the end.”  Amen.

– The Reverend Victoria Hart Gaskell


[1] © Mark A. Miller 2017. http://www.markamillermusic.com/product/prayer-chant-we-resist/    Accessed January 29, 2018

Plenty Good Room

Sunday, January 14th, 2018

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John 14:1-7

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A text copy of this sermon is not available.

-The Reverend Dr. Walter Earl Fluker, Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Ethical Leadership, Boston University School of Theology

By Water and the Spirit

Sunday, January 7th, 2018

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Mark 1:4-11

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Good morning friends,

It is indeed a good morning, even if a particularly cold, sub-zero one here on the banks of the Charles River today. Streets are mostly cleared, the T is running on a normal schedule, and even if the sidewalks are more like tunnels and valleys through snowy mountain peaks, we are slowly returning to going about our normal business. The bombcyclone has passed, the Snow Days are over, and the city has returned to winter normalcy. For many of us in greater Boston, we observed a snow day (or two) this week, a brief moment of pause, an interruption in our normal rhythms, a time to observe, to take stock of where we are, to wonder, and to think. In the liturgical calendar, today is also something of a snow day. Yes, the wise ones have returned to their homes in the east. (Yesterday was Epiphany, that day in our calendar when we remember the adoration of the Christ-child by learned ones from afar, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.) But as we move into a season of ordinary time, there is also a pause in the calendar (today) to remember Jesus’ baptism that provides us with the opportunity to remember our own baptism and reflect on our relationship with the divine.

Baptisms are often amusing events for a family and a whole church community.  A wily aunt takes guesses from a host of cousins about whether their new baby cousin will squeal when the pastor pours water on her head.  A congregation quietly wonders if the new pastor has the touch to hold a squirmy child and pour water at the same time.  When the pastor’s off-balance attempt to take the baby turns the squirming to a wail, congregants smile and whisper to one another that the young pastor will improve when he has children himself someday.  And for that young pastor, the terror of attempting to hold a squirming infant, recite a prayer, and sprinkle water all at the same time soon gives way to shared smiles with the child’s family when the fantastic juggling act is over.  The sight of a child’s baptism is sure to bring a smile or two, if only for the odd spectacle of the occasion.

Do you remember your baptism?  Do you remember being thrust underwater in an inflatable pool behind Marsh Chapel on a frosty Easter’s Eve?  Maybe you had water sprinkled on your head in the warmth of the church you grew up in?  Perhaps all you remember is water.  But that occasion was about a whole lot more than water.  The place may or may not have been familiar, but certainly the people surrounding you on that special occasion were: a parent, god-parents, an aunt, a grandparent, close friends.

However, for many of us, our memories of baptism are not our own.  We were baptized as infants.  Our parents or other special people in our lives made a commitment to God and to the church to nurture us.  They promised that through their teaching and example in our lives we might be guided to accept God’s grace for ourselves and profess our own faith openly.

Perhaps the words of commitment in baptism are familiar to you as you shared in the joy of the baptism of a loved one.  Your memories of baptism may come from hearing a crying infant alarmed by the surprising sprinkling of water on the forehead or through seeing a partner renew her baptismal vows on the nearly always balmy banks of the Jordan just a few miles north of the Dead Sea.  Perhaps you, yourself, have committed to nurture a child in the church so that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves and to profess their faith openly.

Or perhaps you are able to recall your own baptism:  You freely elected to accept a special relationship with God and the church universal.  You entered into a covenant.  Your baptism marked not only your commitment to God and to a community but also that community’s commitment of thoughtful support and nurturing care to you. You were submerged fully, in a swimming pool or a lake, and you confidently recited your own baptismal promises for yourself.

Churches come in all shapes and sizes, and they have different ways of doing baptism. Chances are (if you are listening to this sermon) that you will encounter or be joined to a handful or more of Christian communities in your life.  No matter what your experience or expectations about baptism, I know Marsh Chapel to be one of those places of thoughtful support and nurturing care.  While the chapel is a community of support for a university community, we understand ourselves to be in relationship with the wider community and to anyone who is seeking authentic Christian community.  I say this by way of invitation, especially to those listening on the radio or via the internet; we, at Marsh Chapel, are delighted to be in relationship with you. Whether you entered into the sacrament as an infant, a young person, or an adult, baptism binds you to God in love through mutual commitment. We here at Marsh Chapel affirm that relationship and seek to support your spiritual journey. And for those who wish to learn more about the sacrament and further cultivate their relationship with God, we are a community of support and love. If baptism is something you are interested in exploring, please speak with one of our staff after the service today or contact the chapel office by email at chapel@bu.edu or give us a call at 617-353-3560. The next regular opportunity for adult baptism will be at the Easter Vigil service.

In the liturgical calendar, much like the gospel of Mark, we fast forward through Jesus’ childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and find him standing at the edge of the river Jordan about to begin a season of ministry teaching and healing.

Jesus’ childhood is largely absent from the Gospel accounts.  We know very little about Jesus’ first thirty years of life, and we know even less about the community which supported Jesus during those thirty years.  But we know there were people who surrounded him, shared happy occasions with him, and who grieved with him.  He was formed by a community, Mary, Joseph, and many, many others.  And it was that community of support which helped prepare him to head to the Jordan.  We too need a community of support to prepare us and form us for the journey of life.

In Mark’s account, John the Baptist serves as herald for Jesus, his ministry, and the great gift he offers humanity.  John the Baptist, the wild man living in the desert, wearing animal skin and eating locusts, was proclaiming Good News to all of Israel, inviting them to repentance of sins and foretelling of the gift of God’s real presence with us in the Holy Spirit.  Mark writes of John the Baptist’s description of Jesus: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”  But soon the one about whom John was proclaiming appeared on the river’s edge to greet John and to be baptized.

This powerful prophet, divine healer, the one about whom John had been preaching was coming to John to be baptized.  Jesus did not have any need to repent of anything and be baptized.  Rather, he asked for baptism for the sake of others.  Jesus took part in John’s baptism by water to be united with all people who earnestly seek to be in relationship with God.

In Jesus’ baptism, God acted in a very powerful, very visible way.  Mark tells us that the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on Jesus.  This visible sign of the Spirit’s presence with Jesus in his baptism is part of God’s promise of the Spirit’s presence with us in baptism.  In the sacrament of baptism, we remember Jesus’ own baptism.  We are baptized by water for repentance of sins and baptized by the spirit in covenant relationship with God.  In trust of God’s continued covenant with all baptized persons we baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, acknowledging in the sacrament that the individual being baptized accepts a special relationship with the divine and desires God’s already present grace.  This joins us with Christians all over the world and welcomes us into God’s family; we are not only children of God but we are adopted into a global family of sisters and brothers in Christ. While we may not see the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending in baptism, we know and trust that God is fully present in the sacrament and in the lives of all people. Baptism, like communion, is “an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same.” God pursues us for relationship relentlessly, and God loves us unceasingly.

John Wesley taught that in baptism a person was cleansed of the guilt of original sin, initiated in to the covenant with God, admitted into the church, made an heir of the divine kingdom, and spiritually born anew.  A lot is going on in the few moments of baptism.  Sometimes we don’t realize the full wonder and mystery of the moment.  Perhaps that has been our own experience of baptism.  Have we felt the full wonder of the miracle of the sacrament?  Have we felt cleansed? Initiated into covenant with God?  Received into the church?  Made an heir of the divine kingdom?  Born anew?

Sometimes as we go through life, we don’t always recognize the gravity and magnitude of the events unfolding around us until after they have happened.  For many, a college graduation may be one of those moments that we didn’t fully comprehend as it unfolded. The Commencement ceremony might rush by in a blur – red robe, black hat, forgettable speeches, and then a 20 foot walk across a stage and a small piece of paper in hand. A small 20 foot walk doesn’t take very long, but it means something, even if we don’t recognize it in the moment.  Receiving a diploma in May but not starting the new job until August 1st might mean we don’t fully appreciate days of sleeping until 10:30 for class until we are up at 5:30 each day to beat the morning commuter rush to arrive on-time to the job we had longed for.

Now baptism is certainly a more deeply transformational experience than a college graduation, but perhaps you are still contemplating its meaning in your life, whether you were baptized last Easter or decades ago as an infant.  Baptism is more than our pledge and dedication to God and to the church; it is our acceptance of God’s grace – the opportunity to be in communion with the divine, to experience forgiveness and reconciliation, to fellowship in and with the Holy Spirit.

Through baptism we come to know the assurance of pardon offered in the gift of Christ’s life.  Here at Marsh we include in the liturgy an assurance of pardon as a reminder of the gift God freely gives and which we accepted in baptism.  Most weeks, you hear a member of the ministry staff share this good news saying: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” On Sundays when communion is celebrated we are reminded: “Hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, that proves God’s love for us.  In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!”  This is meant to be an ongoing reminder of the gift we receive through Jesus Christ.  Indeed if we earnestly repent and accept God, we are forgiven.

Accepting God’s gift of love is at the heart of our passage from Acts today.  The disciples that Paul encounters in Ephesus had repented of their sins but had not accepted the gift of the Spirit.  Their baptism was incomplete because it was the baptism of repentance of John.  They had not heard the totality of the Good News of Christ’s baptism.  Through it they could join in fellowship with the divine, be born anew, given a fresh start.  And in the sacrament of baptism, we are joined in this fellowship, born anew, and given a fresh start.

During the Christmas season, the hustle and bustle, the traveling, the visiting relatives, the special gift of God to us – that is forgiveness and fellowship – may not have been at the forefront of our minds.  Perhaps we did not think of it at all.   Perhaps in quiet and lonesome moments, we longed for fellowship and did not experience what we had hoped for.  I think that very often when we are journeying through advent in expectation of the celebration of the birth of the infant, we lose sight of the gift that the infant brings.  In Christ’s birth, life, and ministry, God does come to dwell among us to be with us.

So often during the Christmas season we hear about Emanuel – “God with us” – God born into the world as a babe in a stable and laid in a manger.  Indeed, God was made flesh in Jesus and dwelt among us.  And God continues to be with us through the Holy Spirit.  In baptism, we invite God to be with us in a very special way.  We commit ourselves to God and know that God will be with us during all of life’s trials and toils.  We trust that in the Spirit, whose presence we accept in baptism, God will be our constant companion and supporter.  God does not abandon God’s covenant with us, even if we wander from it.  The Spirit remains steadfast, chasing after us as a tireless friend even when we turn away. Today is a moment in the life of the church in which we are invited to be reminded of God’s real presence with us.

In a moment this morning, we will observe an order of reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant. For those who have received baptism and who wish to renew their relationship with God, you will be invited to renew the promises made at your baptism, touch the water, and remember that you are a beloved child of God in covenant relationship with God and the church. As you renew your baptismal vows today, I invite you to recommit yourself to God and to accept the presence of the Spirit in your life anew. Amen.

-The Reverend Soren Hessler, Chapel Associate for Leadership Development