Sunday, January 31, 2016

God's Purpose for the Church - January 31, 2016

So for the last year, this congregation has been working at discerning what God’s plan is for St. John. We’ve been trying to figure out, what is God’s purpose for us? And I’ve been talking with Council, and talking with the shut-ins, and hearing your stories about St. John and listening to your memories of times when the congregation was thriving––full to capacity, overflowing, even––and stories about this pastor and that pastor, and I’ve even been hearing stories from people in other congregations in Calgary, who started at St. John and then moved to those congregations to help them get going. And it’s become clear to me that God’s purpose for St John in the past was to be a nurturing community that sent individuals out to strengthen Calgary’s other Lutheran churches. At St. John, this was done through Sunday school programs, and church services, and Luther League events, and a lot of social community-building. And this is the story for many big-city congregations that are as old as St. John.

But when it comes to figuring out what God’s purpose for a church is, sometimes we end up confusing the means for fulfilling God’s purpose for us with the end, or the actual purpose. And by ‘we’ I mean Christians in general. Congregations get confused into thinking that our programs and our filled pews and our overflowing bank accounts are the purpose of the church. Congregations spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on church programs, and church consultants, and growth initiatives that are meant to bring people in the door. The purpose of the church becomes one of self-growth and of sustaining the congregation. And then, over time, we start thinking that God’s purpose for our life as a congregation is to continue to exist for a hundred years or even more. And then, as resources dwindle, we start thinking that God’s purpose for congregations––for Christian communities––is that we simply exist. That merely surviving is fulfilling God’s purpose for us. That managing to meet the budget every year is fulfilling. That simply gathering to worship on Sundays is fulfilling God’s purpose for us.

But programs and budgets and Sunday School and youth groups and even buildings are all meant to be tools to help the church to fulfill its actual purpose. And that purpose is clearly laid out for us in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that we heard this morning. The purpose of the Christian community is to love. As Paul says, “If I do not have love, I am nothing.” If we do not have love, we are nothing. We may have flashy programs and filled pews, and balanced budgets, and we maybe be able to carry on for the next fifty years, but if we do not have love, we have nothing.

Now “love” is a pretty loaded word. It’s a shame that in English we only have one word for love, because there are lots of different kinds of love. The love you have for your spouse is different than the love you have for your children, which is different than the love you have for your country, or the love you have for chocolate, and definitely different than the love you have for God. So which kind of love is Paul talking about in this passage? Which kind of love is it that fulfills us and gives purpose to our lives?

Well, we’re lucky that Greek has different words for love. There’s philos, which means a brotherly or sisterly kind of love––the love you have between equals––your siblings or cousins or very close friends. There’s eros, which is a love where you want the person you love, you want them so much that you want to consume them. We often use that word to describe erotic love, but we can also use it to describe the kind of love that borders on covetousness. When you love someone or something so much it consumes your life and you, in turn, try to consume it. Like, if you’ve ever seen a tiny baby and said, “Oh, I just want to eat you up!”, that’s an example of eros love. Eros is more than what we describe as erotic love––it’s any love that is possessive––where we want to grab the object of our love and just hold it tight. If you love chocolate so much that you can’t stop eating it if it’s in front of you, that’s eros. When you fall in love, that starts as eros. It’s not a bad kind of love––the Song of Solomon is full of this love, toddlers and small children have this kind of love for their parents when they demand, “Hug me, kiss me, play with me!”––It’s not bad, but it can certainly become very unhealthy, destructive even, because, in the end, it is love for the sake of the one who is loving, and not for the sake of the one who is loved.

Then, of course, there’s agape love. Agape is a love that is entirely centered on the one that we love. It is, in a way, the opposite of eros. While eros is a love where the lover wants to consume the object of love, agape is a love where the lover gives her- or himself up completely for the sake of the loved. In agape, we give up everything––our selves, our time, and our possessions, we might say––for the betterment of the one we love. Agape is the love parents have for their children, when they encourage them to leave so they can grow and mature and have their own lives, even if it breaks our own hearts. Agape is the love that says, “I’m going to walk to the store instead of driving because it’s better for the environment.” Agape is the love that says, “I will let the other person take credit for that job because they need it more.” Agape, as Paul says in our reading, “does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. Agape is patient; agape is kind; Agape is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” That is actually what it says. The “love” in 1 Corinthians is agape love, not eros love. It is a love that puts aside all thought of what I or we want, in order to make room for the other, as hard as that is. It is a completely selfless love, and it is the most difficult and painful love of all, because it runs completely contrary to our evolutionary self-preservation instincts.

And yet it is the love that God calls us to, and the love God has made us for. As Paul says so clearly, if we do not have agape, we are nothing. It’s so strange––agape is a love that calls us to give up everything we are, and yet if we do not love that way, if we hold on to everything we are, then we are nothing. God, in this funny, paradoxical twist, has made us so that we are most fulfilled, we most have life, when we live contrary to our biological imperative for self-preservation. God has made humans so that our supreme purpose in life, our moment of ultimate fulfillment comes not from securing our own life, or ensuring our own survival, but from denying it. God has made us so that our purpose in life is fulfilled when we give that life away for the sake of others. Our greatest purpose in life, our greatest meaning, comes from love––from  agape.

So what does this mean for St. John? Well, it means the same thing that it means for every congregation, actually. Paul’s words, you see, are to the church in Corinth––to the Corinthian congregation. They weren’t written to an individual. While it might certainly be read that way, the original audience of Paul’s words about agape were to a church community. And so his words are meant first for church communities––for congregations. And so Paul is saying that if the community does not have agape, it is nothing. If the community or congregation designs programs meant to bring others into itself, and focuses on budgets that support only itself, and uses resources like buildings and pastors only for itself, then the love the congregation has for the world is an eros love. A love that wants to bring others in and consume them for its own sake. The congregation does not have agape. The congregation is nothing. No matter how great the programs, how full the pews, how beautiful the building, how packed the Sunday School rooms are, if it is all for itself, it is nothing. It may be a great place to be, and lively, and a wonderful social support, but it is not fulfilling its purpose as the body of Christ––it is not church. It’s not bad, it’s just not church.

Church is different because church is agape. If we were to describe an agape congregation from with a Lutheran framework, where the community is constantly living and dying for the sake of the other, we might say that the Lutheran congregation lives in agape love for the wider conference, or city, the conference lives in agape love for the Synod, the Synod lives in agape for the National Church––in our case, the ELCIC, the ELCIC lives in agape for the global Lutheran church, or the Lutheran World Federation, the Lutheran World Federation lives in agape for the worldwide body of Christians of all denominations, and the worldwide body of all Christians lives in agape for the world. And so I have to ask––do we do this? Does this congregation or the conference or the Synod or the ELCIC or the LWF or the global church of Christians do this? Do we live in agape love? What would it look like if we did? What would it look like if every congregation and every denomination and the entire Christian body actually lived in this agape existence? What would it be like? What would it feel like to live in agape instead of in eros?

Well, if we believe the words of Paul, it would feel like we are finally and unquestioningly living out God’s purpose for us. It would feel fulfilling, and life-giving, and it would feel Christ-like. We would not wonder what God’s purpose is for us, because we would be living it, and we would feel it. We would not feel anxiety, or fear, or worry––these feelings are signs that we are living an eros existence––how will we survive? How will we make it? How will we continue to live? But if we’re living an agape existence, we don’t ask these questions or feel these feelings. Instead, we feel joy and fulfillment and freedom and peace, asking instead, how can we die for others? What do we have that we can give to the larger church? How can we give away all our possessions and hand over our body, as Paul says, for the sake of the other? How can we be Christ for the other?

Because agape is embodied most fully in Christ. We find our purpose and our fulfillment in agape, God made us to be this way, because this is how God loves us. God does not love us with an eros love, hoping to consume us. God loves us with an agape love, giving up God’s honour and power and glory in order to take on a human body and then, giving that body up for death. God brought creation into being, made humans in the image of God, capable of loving and yearning to be loved and to love in return, because God wants us to be fulfilled. God didn’t create us for God’s own enjoyment––look how much pain and sadness we have caused God throughout the centuries, killing one another, being greedy, being selfish. If God wanted to be happy, God wouldn’t have made us at all. But God did. God emptied God’s self for us, God gave us everything, God gave us God’s own self in Jesus Christ for our sake. That is agape. Living for the sake of the loved. Dying for the sake of the loved. Not so that we can now live lives of eros, but so that we in turn might know the blessing and fulfillment of living in agape. So that we, too, might have the joy and satisfaction of giving ourselves, in turn, for others.

So. What is God’s purpose for St. John? It is the same purpose given to every congregation, from the beginning of the Christian church under Paul until the very last day. To love. Not to survive, not even to thrive, but to love. Surviving is nothing. Thriving is nothing. All that there is is love. “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” For the agape God has given to us, and in which we find our true purpose, we say, Thanks be to God. Amen.

A Strong Unity Comes from Diversity - January 17, 2016

So, I had a sermon all ready to go on Thursday, about how God blesses us with joy, and that enjoyment and laughter are part of the Christian life, and we should never think that being sacred and holy means being serious and somber all the time. And I was going to talk about Jesus at the wedding, and how about how he made wine, which is specifically a sign of God’s kingdom and also very specifically something that you drink at a party when you want to be joyful, and so we can see the connection between God’s kingdom and God blessing us with joyfulness. It was a good sermon.

But then on Friday, some news came out of the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Communion is the worldwide body of Anglican and Episcopalian churches, similar to the Lutheran World Federation for us Lutherans. This week, the Primates of the Anglican Communion, the 38 bishops or archbishops of each of the national churches all got together, as they regularly do, to talk about various issues concerning the relationships of one Anglican church, or province, to another. This gathering does not determine policies or doctrine in the world-wide Anglican church, but it does help the various Anglican bishops come to a consensus on a wide range of issues.

At this year’s meeting, the Primates made news because during the meeting, the bishops voted that the Episcopal Church, which is the Anglican body in the United States, will no longer be permitted to represent the Anglican Communion on any ecumenical or interfaith bodies, or be allowed to vote on any issues related to doctrine or polity for a period of three years. In other words, the Episcopal Church - the American Anglicans -  are no longer considered Anglican enough to fully take part in worldwide Anglican events for the next three years.
 Now it’s hard for us at the Lutheran congregational level to understand the pain that this resolution is causing right now. But imagine you are at some family occasion, a big family reunion, for instance, and all of the oldest generation in the family gets together and decides that one particular member of the family - you, for example - and all of your children and grandchildren, no longer get to use the family’s last name in public for the next three years or help decide any of the important family matters. How would you feel about that? Most of us are pretty proud of our last name and of our family, it defines who we are, and what we value, and what the world thinks of us. Suspending us from using our last name takes away our identity, and it tells us that we’re no longer worthy to be a real part of that family. No longer allowing us to take part in family decisions relegates us to the position of children. I think you can imagine the pain that our Anglican brothers and sisters in the United States are going through right now. Imagine if someone said to us, “You don’t get to represent the Lutherans at church events anymore. You can go to the National Convention but you don’t actually get to vote.”

Now this is upsetting for two reasons. The first is that this coming week is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Starting tomorrow, the day of the feast of St Peter, and until next Sunday when we celebrate St Paul, all Christians around the world have agreed to pray for the unity of the Christian church. We have agreed to recognize that we all belong to the same family - Christ’s family. So there’s some irony that the Anglican Communion, which has the most number of Christians in the world after the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, wants to suspend someone from their part of the family right at the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

But it’s also upsetting in light of our New Testament reading for this week. In our reading from 1 Corinthians, we have Paul very directly telling the first Christians that God gives different gifts and assigns different activities to everyone in the church, for the common good. And he immediately follows that up with the passage for next week: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  ... Indeed the body does not consist of one member but of many. ... The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” ... Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” Paul argues that God very deliberately gives us different gifts, and make us different parts of the body, in order for the body as a whole to be strengthened. God gives difference for the common good, and we cannot say that we have no need of any other part.

We are constantly setting up these barriers in Christ’s body, though, and we have for centuries. The fact that there are exclusions between and within denominations is evidence that somewhere along the way we have come to believe that the unity and oneness of the body of Christ is synonymous with sameness. We somehow got this idea that if we want to live as one body, we all have to be exactly the same. We have to act the same, think the same, be the same. Somehow we ended up believing that we all need to be feet - for instance - and those who don’t want to be feet, or don’t think feet are good, or just like hands better, should not be part of the body.

But this is very clearly the opposite of what Scripture actually tells us. Paul says that God makes us different members. In the letter to the Colossians and in this same letter to the Corinthians, Paul talks about the unity of the Church as being “a perfect harmony.” Now those of you who are musicians will know that you can’t have harmony unless you have different parts. Five people singing exactly the same notes are not singing in harmony. You need different notes at the same time in order to have beautiful, perfect, harmonious music. And that’s what Paul says about unity in Christ. That it is a *harmony.* So in order for us to be a harmonious body, we have to have difference. God does not tell us to be the same, God actually blesses us with difference. It’s just that somehow, we end up thinking that *our* difference is the most important, and that everybody should be different the way we are, which means everybody really should be the same.
And this is what’s going on in the Anglican Communion right now. And it is incredibly sad to see, not the least because we are in full communion with the Anglican Church of Canada, who is a member of the Anglican Communion. They are our brothers and sisters, and it is sad when another branch of the family is acting dysfunctionally.

Now you might be wondering what it is that the Episcopal Church in the States did that was so bad that they were sidelined by the Anglican Communion. And I’ve hesitated to bring it up so far because it’s about an issue that has caused a lot of pain and division in our own Lutheran denomination in Canada, and in this congregation in particular. In 2003, the Episcopal Church - both lay people and clergy - voted to approve the ordination of Gene Robinson to the position of bishop. And Bishop Robinson happens to be gay, and was indeed married to his husband Mark at the time of his ordination. So the issue of difference around the opinion on gay marriage is at the heart of the fracture in the Anglican Communion. And I am very sensitive to the painful discussion that occurred around this same issue here in Canada not so long ago. I know that this congregation voted not to call any pastors in homosexual relationships, and not to allow same-sex marriages to take place in this sanctuary. And I think at this point that you all have guessed that I have the very opposite view. My point in bringing this up is not to open the issue back up for debate or to convince you to change your mind, but to point to how the unity of Christ continues to be possible even in the midst of this difference. Last week I mentioned that Pastor Ted Becker baptized me, and that you never know how the baptized person is going to turn out. I said that because Pastor Becker and I are on completely opposite sides of the issue of same-sex marriage, and we both know that. And yet I continue to visit him and offer him Holy Communion, and he continues to welcome it from me. The fact that we are completely different when it comes this issue does not prevent either one of us from coming together in the unity of Christ to take Holy Communion together. He has a different interpretation of the Bible than I do, as do many other Christians I know, including my grandparents whom I continue to love dearly and who love me. And, contrary to what we fear, these differences have not weakened the body of Christ. We all come to Holy Communion together, and the altar has yet to shatter into a million pieces. It is a sin of pride, actually, to think that the holy and God-given body of Christ can be weakened by something like human difference. *We,* mere humans created and redeemed and sanctified by *God,* do not have the capacity to weaken the body of Christ simply because we don’t agree.

When our Scriptures call us to unity, they are not calling us to homogeneity - to sameness. They are not calling us to be identical in thought, word, or deed. The call to unity is, instead, the call to be with one another in our differences, honouring that God has made us each individuals, and being together in the love of Christ. The call to unity is to be one body with different parts, held together because the Spirit of Christ moves us to love one another. As Paul say, “clothes yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” It’s no big feat to love people who are the same as you. The challenge comes in loving those who are different, and that’s why it is such a witness to the power of Christ and to God’s love for us that we, too, embrace difference within our midst. *That’s* why we are called to be united in the body of Christ and in the Spirit. Because we *are* different, and we are *created* different, and this love-in-difference is how Christians show the world how wonderful and glorious our God is. I do not love the Catholic members of my extended family any less because they believe differently about the ordination of women. I do not love the community of Calvary Grace any less because they do not allow women to be pastors in their church. It’s not easy for me to love them, but God calls us to live in the unity of Christ, and gives us the Holy Spirit so that we might love those who disagree with us, and claim them as part of the same family, and so I do.

The news coming from the Primates’ meeting in the Anglican Communion is important for us, in part because they are our brothers and sisters, but also because it cautions us against our own tendencies to think that differences harm the body of Christ, and because it causes us to go back to Scripture to see what God really says about difference and unity. And what we find is that God blesses us with difference and yet calls us together - to unity - in love. As we heard from Paul today, and as we celebrate in this coming week of Christian Unity, “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” For God’s incomparable graciousness and love of us in this regard, we say thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Baptism of Our Lord - January 10, 2016

I imagine that once upon a time, celebrating the Baptism of Our Lord and talking about baptism was easy. In Luther’s day, for instance, baptism was a wonderful thing to talk about that Luther could, and did, go on for hours about. He *loved* to talk about baptism - about how it’s God’s gift to us, how it’s the promise of God’s everlasting covenant with us, how it is forgiveness and salvation tied in with something as everyday as water, how it strengthens us in our doubts, and how it is the greatest weapon against the devil that God has ever given us. In a time when everybody was baptized - and I mean everybody - and when everybody went to church, baptism was a simple topic to preach on.

And all of what Luther said is still true, but it’s no longer quite so easy to talk about baptism. We live in a time when not everyone is baptized, even if their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were. We live in a time when those who *are* baptized as children don’t necessarily go to church anymore. We live in a time when baptism is no longer a given - we can no longer assume that everyone is baptized, that everyone wants to be, or that everyone who is is a life-long church-goer. And the particular thing that makes talking about baptism hard - emotionally hard, I mean - is that these people who aren’t baptized or who are baptized but don’t go to church - are people that we love. They’re not strangers out there. They are our children, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren. Our family. Our dear friends. And so when it comes time to talk about baptism, we feel anxiety and sorrow and maybe even a sense of failure that those whom we love dearly aren’t baptized or aren’t part of the church anymore. We worry that we have failed them somehow, and we particularly worry that since they have turned away from God, God will turn away from them. And so, even though we want to hear all the wonderful things about baptism, we nevertheless feel uncomfortable and even sad thinking of those who aren’t here.

When it comes to those we love who have been baptized but don’t go to church anymore, we can find comfort in the proclamation that baptism is always and entirely God’s act, and not our own. Sure, our hands pour the water and our voice says the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” but it is God who makes the water holy, and God who uses the words and the water to bring us into God’s covenant. And because it is God who is doing all of this, we can be confident that baptism is always proper and always effective, as it were. For instance, the reason that I say “our hands” and “our voice” is because baptism is not something reserved only for pastors to perform. No doubt you’ve heard this before, but I will remind you: you, too, can perform baptisms in an emergency. You, too, can take some water from a tap, wash someone’s head with it, make the sign of the cross on their forehead, and say, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” There are many stories within our tradition of mothers or grandmothers or aunts secretly baptizing little babies in their families when they suspected the babies wouldn’t be baptized, either because it was forbidden in their country or they were worried the family wouldn’t do it. I don’t advise secrecy, of course, but in an emergency, anyone can baptize. And that is because baptism is God’s work. It is not our work. It has nothing to do with the worthiness or holiness or “Christian-ness” of the person doing the baptism. That’s why baptism in one denomination is now accepted in another. That didn’t used to be the case in the Catholic church, and it may not be the case in other denominations, but in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, we accept baptism no matter who did it or where it was done. I once had to look up whether baptism in the Mormon church was considered acceptable in the Lutheran church, and, since they use water and those words, yes - it is. Baptism, no matter who does it, is God’s work, and therefore brings us into God’s covenant and establishes God’s relationship with us, forever.

Forever. This is another comfort for us. Baptism is forever. There’s no taking it back. There’s no rejecting it. There’s no revoking it. Baptism is God’s act, and in baptism, God makes us brothers and sisters with Christ, and children of God forever. God makes us God’s beloved forever, and that means God will never take that back. You know, I was baptized at Shepherd of the Hills by Pastor Ted Becker, and I always joke with him that you should be careful who you baptize, because you never know how they’ll turn out - look at me, after all! And we laugh, but it is true. When we baptize babies, as we do in the oldest Christian denominations, we do it because it’s a sign of trust in God’s promise that God will love us forever, no matter what. We believe that God encourages us to baptize babies, and that is truly remarkable. Because God knows how we’re going to turn out, and God baptizes us anyway. God knows whether we will grow up to be people who go to church, or people who play golf Sunday morning. God knows whether we will be faithful church members, or whether we will jump from congregation to congregation. God knows whether we will say our prayers every night or turn away from prayer altogether. God knows whether we will stay with the church or reject it outright, and God baptizes us anyway. 

I don’t know if you remember the horrible shooting in Charleston last year, where a man walked into a church Bible study and sat with everybody for an hour, and then pulled out a gun and shot everyone there, including three pastors (two of whom graduated from a Lutheran seminary) and a number of church members. Nine people died that day. Dylann Storm Roof, age 21, was later arrested for those murders, and people were outraged that he could sit with these church people and then shoot them in cold blood. What is little-known about Dylann, though, is that he was a member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in South Carolina. He was a baptized Lutheran. He is, actually, a baptized Lutheran. That can never be taken away from him. God baptized him, and he is God’s child forever. The depth of God’s love for us is that God baptized Dylann, knowing what he would do as an adult, and God nevertheless made a commitment to Dylann forever. No matter what. Dylann will always be God’s child, a brother of Jesus Christ. It seems shocking to us––unacceptable––but this is the depth of God’s grace and forgiveness through Christ. That no matter what we do as Christians, God will continue to call us and continue to bring us back to God, whether that happens while we’re still alive or after we die. God will continue to call those you love and continue to bring them back. They may leave God, but God will never leave them. Their baptism cannot be taken away from them, no matter what.

But what about those we love who aren’t baptized? One of the worst developments in the Christian religion, and the most unbiblical, is this idea that Christians have a monopoly on God, and that God cares only about Christians. For many reasons, and I won’t go into them here but you can ask me later if you’re interested, Christians have to come to believe that because we are God’s chosen people, that means we are God’s only people. We have come to believe that God separates us from the rest of the world and that God’s saving relationship is with us and only us. Now, there *is* Scripture to back some of this up. The Gospel of John has a lot of it, and some of the letters of the New Testament. *But* there is also Scripture that tells a different story. Our Bible is incredibly complex, and incredibly deep, and so there are contradictions when we take everything at face value. But God is deeper than our interpretations of Scripture, deeper even than the Bible itself, and God is deeper than our idea that God’s commitment is only to Christians. And we know this, it’s just that sometimes we forget. Or prefer to forget. But, remember Noah? God made a covenant with Noah - the rainbow became a sign of “the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” (Gen 8:16) God is committed to creation as a whole - God is no longer going to separate out some people from others, and destine some for saving and others for death. Remember Abraham? God made a covenant with Abraham that all of his descendants - those who descended from Isaac *and* those who descended from Ishmael - would be blessed by God. God said to him, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” God made an everlasting promise with all the families of the earth before there was ever such a thing as Christians. 

God brings Christians into a particular relationship with God through baptism, and that is what we celebrate today. But God is not trapped by that. Just because Christians can only come to God through water and the Word doesn’t mean that God cannot love and call others. The relationship God has with those who are not baptized, and the covenant that God makes with them is not the same relationship or the same covenant God makes with us. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. It just means that we must trust God a little more, and have faith that God truly is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

This doesn’t make our own baptism meaningless. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t encourage others to be baptized or to baptize their children. Baptism is and will always be the way God brings Christians into God’s family. As followers of Christ, we do as Christ did, and we turn to baptism to hear that we are God’s beloved children. We cling to our baptism as proof that we really do belong to God, and to help us to follow Jesus, and receive to the strength of his Spirit. We look to our baptism as that which marks us as Christians and makes us brothers and sisters with one another in this particular community of faith. We rely on our baptism to make us worthy to receive the Lord’s Supper. And we turn to our baptism in the face of death––of ourselves and of others––because we know that, through baptism, God promises us new life. Baptism is, for Christians, the way to God, or rather, the way that God establishes and keeps an everlasting relationship with us. We trust that God relates to others in their own ways, but we know that God offers us the wonderful, life-giving, everlasting gift of baptism, through which the Holy Spirit comes on us, like it did with Jesus, and we hear the words that cannot be unspoken, that we, too, are God’s beloved, with whom God is well pleased. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Word that Brings Light - Christmas 2 - January 3, 2016

From Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.” Or, as it is translated in the Torah, “In the beginning, when God was about to create heaven and earth, the earth was a chaos, unformed, and on the chaotic waters’ face there was darkness. Then God’s spirit glided over the face of the waters, and God said, “Let there be light!” ––and there was light.”
In the beginning, God spoke, and there was light. In the beginning was the Word ... and what has come into being in the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. What a wonderful way to begin the New Year, with this proclamation that the Word of God, God’s speech, brings light and life to all of creation! God’s Word *does* something - it makes happen what it speaks! God’s Word says, “Light!” and there is light! Imagine if our speech worked that way - I might say, “chocolate!” And there would appear chocolate! It would be awesome! God’s speech has the power to actually do things. God’s Words have the power to change our world.
And the world doesn’t change in just any old way. When God speaks the Word, both in Genesis and in John, the Word brings light and life. You see, the beginning of the Gospel of John is really a commentary, what we call a Jewish midrash, like Bible Study notes, on the opening of Genesis. Remember that in Genesis, first God speaks, “Light,” and there is light. There are the sun and the moon and the stars. And then, using a variety of words, God speaks, “Life,” and there is life. Plants, animals, sea creatures, birds, humans. So, in the Gospel of John we have this commentary on Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word,” and, “All things came into being,” through the Word, and, “what has come into being,” through the Word, “was life.”
But how can this be? What is the connection between God’s Word - the one from Genesis, which gave life, and the same Word from John, and us? Well, John didn’t invent this image of the Word, or Logos, as it says in the original Greek. John most likely got it from the Jewish idea of Memra. Memra is that which connects heaven and earth. That which brings together God’s realm with the human realm. We see it very clearly in Genesis - the wind from God (the NRSV translation really lets us down here - the King James, which I usually think is pretty inaccurate, says the Spirit of God, which is better), or in the Hebrew, the breath of God - comes from God to the earth and does things. The Word of God, the Memra, the Logos, forges a connection between heaven and earth. The Word of God issues from God’s mouth, as it were, and creates something here on earth. That’s why we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Whatever God speaks in heaven is done here on earth. There is a connection between our world and God’s kingdom, and so we pray aloud, we say words, and we call to mind Genesis and John and God’s Word creating light on earth, just as it brings light in heaven.
This connection isn’t just a thing of the past. God’s Word continues to act in the world today because God has given us the immense power of God’s Word. Martin Luther was very emphatic about this point, actually. Luther believed that when we proclaim the Word, by which he meant proclaiming the Good News, the Gospel, that it would happen. It would manifest. It would take place. In other words, when I say, “As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins,” in that moment, in the speaking of those words, your sins are forgiven. I say, “God forgives your sins,” and they are forgiven. What I say isn’t just a reminder that your sins are forgiven, it’s a declaration. Any sins that you’ve committed between the last time you heard the words and this, they are forgiven. And it’s not just me - if you proclaim those words to someone else, “God forgives you,” that person is forgiven! It’s a weird thing, isn’t it? That God has given us the power of God’s Word? That we can tell someone they’re forgiven, no matter what they’ve done, and God forgives them? But that’s what it is to be made in God’s image. We go back to Genesis again, to see that God’s light and life have come into the world - into us, and that as we are made in the image of God, God gives us the power of God’s speech. And we return again to the miracle of the Incarnation of Christmas, to the Word taking on human flesh, and see that God once again God’s power is with humankind - with us. And we see that God gives our words the power to change the world.
So imagine that every word you speak comes true. Every word makes things happen. Imagine that you say to someone, “You’re so generous,” and they become generous. Or you say to someone, “You can do it!” and they do. Or, imagine that you say to someone, “You’re lazy,” and they become lazy. Or you say to someone, “You’ll never make it,” and they can’t. Our words, like God’s Word, make things happen. Not quite literally, but we have seen the way someone’s face lights up when we say something life-giving to them, and how someone’s face falls when we say something critical or disparaging. As the New Year is upon us, and as this is typically a time to reflect on the past year and on ourselves, we might ask ourselves, how do we speak to the people in our life? To our spouse? To our children? To our friends? To our parents? Do we speak God’s Word to them that brings them life and light? Or do our words come out as darkness? If you’re like me, I’m guessing that you’re wishing that there were many more words of life and light this past year than there actually were.
So what words shall we speak, then? “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light.” To testify means to see something and then to speak to it. To use words to talk about it. John the Baptist was specifically sent to speak about the light of God, about the Word of God that gives us light and life. God sends us, like John, to testify to the light. God sends us to speak God’s Word, to proclaim that Christ came to bring us new light and new life, to proclaim that God created the world, and every single person, to have life, and that God declared it all to be “very good.” God sends us to speak God’s Word that God is a god of forgiveness and mercy and steadfast love. God sends us to speak God’s Word that lifts people up and tells them they are children of God. God sends us to speak God’s Word so that people love God in return, and so that they can recognize the light and life they have already been given. 

And so if you were to make any New Year’s Resolutions this year, I might suggest that you make one about your words. That you allow yourself to be the image of God you have been created as, and that you allow yourself to speak more Words that bring life and light to those around you. Of course, this is hard. We get in the habit of speaking words of darkness and death about people, words that are mean or judgmental or cutting or dismissive. But we are made in the image of God, and God has sent us to testify to the light. And so, since the Word of God does what it says, I will end by speaking Words to you. God has chosen and sent you to testify to the light that brings life to the world. Your words, as God’s words, change the world, so that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. You are made in the image of God; you are a child of God. You are forgiven and made holy. You will speak great things. Thanks be to God. Amen.