Sermon at Nativity Lutheran Church – November 17, 2017
John 1:6-8, 19-28
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,'” as the prophet Isaiah said. 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
[The kiddos help us remember our baptisms]
Do you still feel a little sprinkling on your skin? I hope so.
That is yours. You get to keep it.
No one can take it away from you.
Which is the meaning of baptism for me.
You get to keep it. It’s yours forever, even after the desert air is drying it from your skin.
You get to keep it and remember it.
Though it’s barely there.
As there as the ice cubes in my cocktail.
As there as the snowflakes on my tongue.
But meant for you to keep.
So just try and ignore all of the rules we have placed on baptism, okay?
Like, in Lutheranism, you can only be baptized once, or else you’re doing it wrong.
And remember that Lutherans baptize babies but Baptists and Mennonites and lots of other folks wouldn’t dream of it. Darned if you do, darned if you don’t.
And, only in an emergency, when no ordained people are around, can one Christian baptize another.
And, oh yes, please remember that, in order to be a member with voice and vote in a Christian community, you must be baptized.
All of a sudden that sweet evaporating gift on your skin has become fraught.
“Why then are YOU baptizing if YOU are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?”
Fraught. Political. Exclusive.
We don’t understand fully what baptism meant to Jewish sects living in the first century; perhaps it was a ritual cleansing.
It seems to be more about alliances, allegiances and transaction.
John is faced by a group of powerful folks who clearly “own baptism.” They are the standard-bearers of religious experience. And “who,” they ask, “are YOU?”
When faced with interrogation, for we can faithfully translate “ask” as interrogate, John responds with his testimony: who he’s not and what he senses he’s here to do.
To the question, “Who are you?” John tells his own story.
He does not offer a new systematic theology of baptism.
He does not lash out against theirs.
He does not offer a program for how to fix this misunderstanding so that everyone will understand it the same way.
He witnesses to his own experience, his own story.
To the light that illumines all humankind.
That’s all he owns.
It is his forever.
Though the dry desert air sucks it from his skin.
And the religious standard-bearers insult it, fear it.
His story, on the tip of his tongue, just barely existing.
But it is his.
Besides the camel hair and the locusts we heard about last week,
his story is all he owns.
And he owns it.
I had to be taught how to tell my story.
It didn’t come naturally.
And I honestly didn’t think I had one to tell.
I grew up quite loved by my parents.
I had access to every opportunity.
I have a drive to be perfect and well-liked,
but it shared space with a suspicion that all was not well: with my soul or with the world.
I learned to tell my story from the knot in my throat.
And I had an opportunity to share parts of it on a recent trip to Cuernavaca with other Oregon pastors, as well as theologians and practitioners from Mexico and Peru.
I spent some time with a young man named Alberto, who does human rights work in Mexico City. He is my age–30–and in Mexico, it is great luck for a young man to reach the age of 30.
Violence from the drug war plagues his peers and his country.
This is a part of his story.
Meanwhile, my brother, too, is a part of the equation of the drug war. He has struggled with heroin addiction for most of my life.
And so Alberto’s pain and mine are different. I would never say that they are the same.
His pain is one of helplessness in the face of a violent, ruthless economy, a disregard for human life, and an apathy on the part of his government.
My pain is one of helplessness in the face of an addiction wrought by privilege, biology and deep spiritual wounds.
And so Alberto’s pain and my pain are different.
But they are connected.
We, all of us, tell our stories of addiction and incarceration;
violence and fear;
of power that silences;
of sexual abuse and harassment.
Our pain is different,
but it is connected.
And we can never un-know it.
Because we have shared our stories.
Though the desert air dries it from our skin,
we own them.
This is one of the foundational principles of community organizing:
that we live in the world as it is, but we sense there is a world as God dreams it,
and that the most powerful instruments we have in bridging that tragic gap
are our stories.
And when we learn our stories,
and practice telling them,
and listen to others’ stories,
we find have a bond of mutual investment in our shared liberation
from the forces of death and darkness
that threaten the livelihoods, the freedom and the joy of all people.
And that bond is powerful.
Stories are powerful.
And no matter how little or how much you or I may own in the world as it is—
a car, a house, a boat, a company,
our stories can build real power
if we “organize” them in a process of shared discovery and accompaniment.
Community organizing and the power of story are the ground on which we will cultivate a new spiritual circle in Bend: an ever-widening circle that builds spiritual and relational power for the sake of belonging, community and impact on the common good.
It will be a community where we celebrate God’s good gifts and where we roll up our sleeves to show one another our wounds. “Here’s mine. Where do you hurt?”
Organizing bonds us in that way.
But also propels us. Because we will then roll up those same sleeves to work and walk alongside one another as an act of healing and disruptive justice.
And this is inherently improvisational.
We know that faith life, activities of fellowship and service, programs–even the wood lot and food pantry: they are born of story and will change with story. They cannot and will not always remain the same.
Operating out of our stories is inherently improvisational.
Because I cannot anticipate your story, and you cannot anticipate mine.
And we will only know the work once we have walked alongside one another.
The first words that Jesus will utter in the Gospel According to John are: “what are you looking for?”—curiosity. Invitation.
Because there is no road map for this.
There is only a compass.
The Word alive in each of us. Our stories.
And no one else can own them.
How frightening for the religious establishment.
How frightening for the world as it is: the world that says what you own is what you are worth.
The world that says I have something, and so I will give you a little.
The world that decides who gets to bestow a baptism of worthiness on whom.
The John who baptizes testifies to his story–
shows the Pharisees the most holy thing about him–
and in so doing disrupts the system of holiness.
He prepares the way for the one who will not only disrupt but will offer a new way of knowing God:
a way that says, “These are my wounds. Where do you hurt?”
The one who will break down the narrative of who is servant and who is served.
The one who will speak in invitation rather than theology.
The one who will reveal that the most worthy thing about us, well–
You get to keep it. It’s yours forever, even after the desert air has dried it from your skin.
You get to keep it and remember it.
And tell it. And hear other people tell theirs.
And we get to walk lock step with friends and companions on a road of deep, wounded and joyful mutuality.
There are no rules, no polity, no partisanship.
No program, no script, no map.
Only a Word.
The Word was coming into the world–
was in the world–
and though the world
was made through the Word,
the world didn’t recognize it.
Though the Word came to its own realm,
the Word’s own people didn’t accept it.
Yet any who did accept the Word,
who believed in that Name,
were empowered to become children of God–
children born not of natural descent,
nor urge of flesh
nor human will–
but born of God.
And the Word became flesh
and stayed for a little while among us;
we saw the Word’s glory–
the favor and position a parent gives an only child–
filled with grace,
filled with truth.
The Word that broke all the rules.
That still is.
And it belongs to you, and you to it.