Tuesday, January 11, 2011
It's the first thing he does in the gospel. Up to now everything has been done to him or has been written about him, but today we heard about the first things Jesus does himself. Right from the start he's not doing what is expected. John is completely confused, "You come to me?" Moments before he was telling the crowds that he is not worthy to even carry the sandals of the one about whom he speaks, and now the One is standing before him, submitting himself to John's baptism. From the start he is doing things completely different.
From Matthew himself forward a lot of ink has been spilled trying to figure out why it is that Jesus had to be baptized. John's baptism was a baptism of repentance, of cleansing from sin, but our understanding of Jesus is that he was sinless. John called people to the water to confess their sins and turn their lives toward God, but Jesus had none and was God made flesh. His baptism by John confuses not only the faithful today, but the baptizer himself.
I'm not going to solve the biblical mystery right here, right now, either, but I will say that what I see going on is Jesus joining us in solidarity with what we need. From the start he is identifying himself as with us, as one of us. He may not NEED a baptism of repentance, for he is, as the letter of Hebrews says, like us in every way yet without sin, but even still he voluntarily submitted himself to a baptism like ours to experience it and to join together with us as we rise out of the water together. In receiving the baptismal waters, Jesus shows us what our baptismal life is supposed to be like.
For Jesus, his baptism is the start of everything. It's the start of his public ministry. Save for one adolescent incident in the temple recorded by Luke, Jesus doesn't do anything as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God until he is baptized, until the skies are opened and the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove, until he hears God's reassuring and blessed words, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." He does nothing, at least that gets recorded, until after he is baptized. It is his entrance into ministry.
That is our belief, too. Baptism is our entrance into ministry. Last week we baptized a beautiful seven month old little girl; she is now a minister in God's name. She is a minister with each and every single one of God's baptized children, God's children of all ages. Like each one of us she was marked as Christ's own, sealed to him and to his purposes and to his ministry forever. Like each one of us her baptism was not an end in itself; it was just a beginning.
So, how did Jesus' ministry start? Well, from the very beginning it was about going out. From the very beginning, Jesus' ministry was about leaving home. "Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan." His first action in the whole gospel, the first thing he does himself, not that is done to him or told about him, the first thing he does is leave his home.
Baptismal ministry calls us away. Baptismal ministry does not keep us grounded. Baptismal ministry sends us off in flight, up, away, out of the font in which we were drenched in God's love. Baptismal ministry does not separate us from the world and mark us solely for service inside the walls of the church.
Jesus was not baptized in a synagogue or a temple or another place of ritual, and those baptismal options were available. There were baths set aside for religious and ritual cleansings, but he didn't go there. He went to John at the Jordan, the wild and running water. He went outside of the place of ritual to begin his ministry where it would mostly take place, in the world, not in the synagogue. Likewise, baptism marks us as children of God and sends us out in Jesus' name to share God's love and act with God's righteousness in the world.
That righteousness word can really trip us up, though. We've been well warned against acting self-righteous. Righteousness sounds arrogant; it sounds like we believe we can achieve perfection. Righteousness sounds holier-than-thou to our modern ears, but really what Jesus is talking about here, what Isaiah was talking about in his prophecy, is more of a "holy-for-thou." Righteousness is not about some status that is higher than another. It's not about being better, more holy, more blessed, more perfect than others.
Righteousness in Scripture is about obeying God so fully that the actions of our lives match the confessions of our lips and hearts. Righteousness is about living what we believe, particularly so that others may see God in what we are doing. Righteousness is about doing justice, opening blind eyes, bring those who are forgotten out of their dungeons, shining God's light into deep, dark places. Righteousness is about following God so closely that not only our words, but our actions are pleasing to God so that new things spring forth from our lives.
And most of all righteousness comes when we work for it together. When John protests about baptizing Jesus, Jesus responds with a message of inclusion, of cooperative ministry. "It is proper for US in this way to fulfill all righteousness." "It is proper for US." In being baptized at the start of his ministry, Jesus did not fulfill all righteousness alone. For that matter, neither did John the Baptist. They worked TOGETHER to fulfill God's call. They worked together to take a step on the path of righteousness. They worked together to demonstrate God's love and God's Spirit that is present in the person of Jesus.
In working together, in flying up out of the baptismal waters that have clothed us in the garment of God's grace together, we have a chance of doing the same, of working as the body of Christ in the world. In uniting our spirits and our efforts toward common goals and and the common call of the Spirit we are obedient to God, reflective of the unity of Christ's body and purpose, and one step closer to fulfilling righteousness as we do the new thing that God declares.
Last year our congregation participated in a period of discernment about God's call to this collective body of Christ. I don't believe that discernment is a "one and done" kind of activity, but is on-going. Yet through our listening sessions, our prayer, session retreats, and our worship together we identified several ministries toward which we hear God calling.
We heard God calling us to work in God's name in our community. We heard God calling us to serve others as a whole body, all ages and all abilities working for a common purpose. We heard God calling us to reach out to parts of our community that are missing from local churches, particularly individuals and families living with disabilities. And all of this we captured in a garden parable, a word picture of what this part of God's kingdom will look like when we're being just what God is calling us to be in the world.
We wrote and proclaimed: “In the kingdom of God, our community of faith is called to be a welcoming garden planted and sustained by the Spirit of God. Many hands work as one to plan, sow, nurture, and harvest. Inviting diversity, we bloom in all season of life. With compassion for those who are weary, we provide continuous shelter, healing, support, and growth. From the abundance of blessings we receive, we celebrate and share with those close and far the nourishing and life-giving love of our Lord.”
After discerning and identifying God's call for us to be garden of welcome, it seemed like things came to a bit of a stand still. The session was still thinking about what our discernment meant and how we were going to put it into action, but other seemingly more pressing issues started to take over our attention, and our focus went elsewhere. Our focus turned inward to the immediate needs of this church, our home, specifically our budget.
But now, God's baptismal call is pulling us outside of ourselves. God's baptismal call is drawing us away from our home and out into the world, so that we can fly with the Spirit, fly together to serve God as we serve others. God has shown us a way to be a garden of welcome in the world, and even to take our garden out into the world.
At its December meeting the session accepted a baptismal challenge on behalf of this congregation. A local organization that used to be housed here in our building wants to build a garden at their new property. They want to develop a green space that will support small-scale, community supported agriculture food production that teaches valuable life skills, provide a large grassed play area for their clients and a calming garden setting, beautify their property, and enclose their property for safety. They have some funding set aside for the project, but more work can be done with more money and so community-wide fundraising and some grant-writing is planned.
This church knows gardens. In the spring and summer just about everyone who comes into our building for the first time comments on the beautiful native prairie grass garden that members maintain in our parking lot. Members of our church and community delight in the garden setting of our outdoor labyrinth. More of you than I could begin to count enjoy working with the earth at your homes, and others like me are willing to learn. Our church heard God calling, and we are going to help build a garden.
This will be a project for our whole congregation. Involvement is not just about a few able-bodied individuals who can help on what I've started to call "Dig Day," even if it will be more like "Dig Days." Involvement will comes from all areas of our congregation and the organization as we partner with them and especially with God's Spirit to serve this important and unique part of our community.
Our children might work with clay alongside the organization's clients to make garden markers for the raised beds. Members who sew might help make aprons for holding tools while the youth are working in their garden or for gathering money when they eventually sell what they grow at the Farmer's Market. Those who are less mobile may help by writing thank you notes for the monetary and in-kind donations we hope to receive from the community. Crafters may create handmade items that can be sold in a silent auction. Musicians may put together a concert or "play-a-thon" or provide entertainment for the dedication celebration and outdoor worship when the project is complete. Others may participate by purchasing the materials for one of the raised beds. There are countless opportunities for the whole congregation's involvement, and that is the goal - - the involvement of the whole congregation.
The session has heard that this is one way God is calling us into baptismal ministry right here and right now, a ministry that takes us outside of our home in this church building and requires us to work together for God's purposes, not our own. It is a relatively short term project that will hopefully lead to long term relationships. The session has heard that this one way God is calling us to serve our community. It is our prayer and our vision that we are joining God's Spirit at work in the world. It is our prayer and our vision that we will fly together in this ministry.
With God's grace, may it be so.