Which World Do You Live in?

B15year12gcMessage for Transfiguration on Matthew 17:1-9 on Feb 19, 2023 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

Dan and I used to go to the movies a lot on our day off. One of Dan’s funny antics walking out of the theater used to be imitating the movie trailers we saw, most of which began with the same exact phrase in the 90’s and early 2000’s. I could count on hearing his imitations as we walked to the car:

In a world…where nothing is at is seems…
In a world… where violence rules the streets…
In a world… fraught with corruption…

He can do the deep, scary voice much better than I can. But this phrase draws us in by touching our anxiety and fear that we no longer live in a world we are used to and can navigate with ease and a sense of control.

Indeed, our world is not what it once was. If you were to write the movie trailer for life today—what would you say?

• In a world—where war rages and more international conflict looms
• In a world—where the economy is uncertain, and finances are squeezed
• In a world—where loneliness is its own pandemic and disease continues to threaten

It is different of course whether we are raising children, dealing with the shifts of middle age, or praying our senior benefits last as long as we do. The future has an awful habit of being unpredictable, uncontrollable and unknowable, all of which leave us feeling anxious and afraid.

I imagine the disciples feel the very same way as they follow Jesus. They left everything familiar when they walked away from their fishing nets, their tax accounts, and even their family to live a new way of life with Jesus. They too, live in a world whose future was as unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unknowable as it is today.

• One day Jesus is preaching and being well-received, and the next, the Synagogue leaders are in a fury.
• One day people are amazed at Jesus’ healing and the next, they’re full of derision at them for eating with sinners and prostitutes.
• One day, Jesus feeds 5,000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish, and the next minute, he starts going on about how he must undergo great suffering and death, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised."

Nothing was making sense or felt at ease. “Why is Jesus talking about suffering and death right after this miraculous picnic?” They wonder. “I signed up to fish for people, not for suffering, rejection and death – what is he up to…really??? What does the future hold?”

The disciples live in a world that leaves them feeling anxious and afraid. It is right at this moment when Jesus is about to head to Jerusalem, and the future he predicts of death and resurrection is about to unfold, that he takes Peter, James and John with him up the mountain. And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.

There on the mountaintop, suddenly God’s luminescence fills Jesus. He is aglow with light and shimmering glory pours from him – radiating like the sun. Jesus’ presence becomes both transcendent and immanent all at the same time—both other-worldly and startlingly real in front of their very eyes.

In this one surpassing and sacred moment, Jesus answers the disciples’ questions, doubts and fears about the future – The veil of heaven draws back as God transforms Jesus into his resurrected form; and not only him, but, Moses and Elijah appear in their resurrected bodies as well. Peter, James and John behold them in the fullness of their heavenly being. What was an unknowable, unpredictable future is laid out before them in all its fullness and truth and predictability. The mountaintop experience of Transfiguration reveals the resurrection to the disciples. It turns a crucifixion prediction into a resurrection prediction.

When Jesus says, “and on the 3rd day he will be raised” he means it! The resurrection is real and they are seeing it with their own eyes and experiencing it with all of their senses.

This is the end of the story. This is the future toward which they are moving, toward which all of us are moving. There is no unknowable future. We know the end. It’s like reading the last paragraph of the Book of Life before you begin. It’s not death—war, disease, loneliness—it is life! Life with God, that begins, here and now through Jesus!

I would like to share a story of a time when the resurrection became real for another group of Christians. This story comes from an ELCA congregation in a rough inner-city neighborhood of the Bronx in New York:

One Easter morning, the Pastor and the worship team designed a drama that would help make the resurrection more real for worshipers. The drama started in the Sanctuary of the church and then moved out into the neighborhood. They acted out the crucifixion and resurrection story. When the congregation returned to the Sanctuary, the drama shifted to a courtroom scene in which the resurrection itself was put on trial.

When it came time for the witnesses to speak, the actor playing Mary Magdalene stood up from in the congregation and said, "I know the resurrection is real because Jesus said my name in the garden." Another actor playing Peter stood up from the pews and said, "I know the resurrection is real because Jesus cooked fish for me on the beach." At that point, the play was supposed to move to the attorneys' closing arguments. But something remarkable happened.

A woman, who was not part of the play, stood up and said, "Well I know the resurrection is real because my son was in a gang, but Jesus led him out of that life."  And then another worshiper stood up and gave his testimony: "Well I know the resurrection is real because I was a drug addict and Jesus helped me get clean." And still another stood up: "I know the resurrection is real because I am an alcoholic and now, I have given my life to Jesus, my higher power, and I am getting help in a 12-step program."

And what about you? When have you experienced renewed life, a second chance, the washing of forgiveness, help you never imagined or expected, a sign of hope in the midst of suffering, uncertainty, or adversity? (You can watch the video here and see/hear 6 church members offer their testimony!). 

In all of these stories, the resurrection is so real it overpowers and transfigures adversity. That’s why we have this story here. Peter, James and John need to experience that the resurrection is real, before they can head down the mountain toward the cross with Jesus. So even before the morning of that 3rd day after Jesus’ death, even before the morning of the empty tomb, and even before the angels and the women announcing that Jesus is risen, James could have stood up and said - I know the resurrection is real because I saw Moses and Elijah with Jesus on the mountaintop! And Peter - I know the resurrection is real, because Jesus calmed the storm, healed lepers and cast out demons! And John - And I know the resurrection is real because I saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead!

Like the disciples, we not only know the end of the story—we have already experienced the new life of the resurrection here and now! Our mission is to help others experiencing adversity, know that the resurrection is real. That new life, and forgiveness and joy and hope are available today through the power of Jesus Christ.

This happened numerous times yesterday at our free community breakfast—it was a great time with new people cooking and serving, and new people coming to eat.

We had one new family come—they arrived here 2 weeks ago from Odessa, Ukraine. They were so grateful for a free breakfast, and food from the food pantry. I showed their son our Luke’s Learners room and invited them to church. He played in the sand cross, and I prayed for them and for peace in their country, and tears were shed. For them, the resurrection was real in a warm welcome at St. Luke’s.

Another Mom came, originally from Nigeria, whom I know pretty well. She said she almost forgot about the breakfast today, but her 7-year old remembered and they got here just before 10 to get burritos for this Mom and 5 daughters! For those girls, the resurrection is real is in reliable food on the weekend!

Another new family came—it took me a minute to figure out they did not speak English. With my limited Spanish and Google translate, I told them we would be starting an ESL class soon and asked if they were interested? They said “yes!” The young man put his information in my phone so I can contact him when the classes start. The resurrection is real when help comes in adversity.

These are just 3 stories from 1 morning at St. Luke’s. Where might the resurrection become real anew for you this week? In your family? Through your friends? In your workplace or somewhere unexpected? Be a detective of divinity and look for places where the resurrection of Jesus is made real in moments of love and new life and grace and deep acceptance for YOU.

But do not stop there. Remember that God uses your resurrection experiences, your hope during adversity to help make God’s love real for the person near you who is struggling. How might God use you this week to help make the resurrection real for someone else? Ask God to guide you in this mission.

We do not know the details of everything that will happen in the future. But that does not matter. We can move into tomorrow, next week and next year with confidence, excitement, and hope, because we know all that we need to know: We live In a world where the resurrection is real and will always be our future! Amen.

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Fishing FOR People, Hooking Justice

Ayear1109gcMessage for Epiphany 3 on Matthew 4:12-23 given on January 22, 2023 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” What a great line. Of all the recruiting lines there have ever been—this has got to be one of the best.

For us, it’s a lovely picture— even poetic and pastoral—evoking images of Psalm 23 and being led by still waters, a fly-fishing-River-Runs-Through-It sort of "call" story to join Jesus in catching souls for the kingdom. We think of this as the great call to evangelism—to grow the church—to pass out invitations to worship and to our free breakfast, to start a bring-a-friend Sunday, and maybe a fish fry for Lent.

But Matthew hints that something more is going on—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.

Just what is this darkness and shadow, and why does he bring it up right after mentioning that Jesus had made his home in Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee? Perhaps we have completely misunderstood Jesus’ call to “fish for people,” and we need both a little history, and then a little Bible to bust open this passage beyond our bucolic expectations.

First, a little history—when Jesus was a teenager in the year 14 CE, Caesar August died and Tiberius became the Emperor of Rome. Herod Antipas, the local ruler of Galilee, hoping to curry favor with the new Emperor, built a royal palace and military center in the city, called of course, Tiberias, south of Capernaum. From there he began controlling the fishing industry in the Sea of Galilee. Locals could not fish without a lease, which cost money; leases were only given to family groups, like Peter and Andrew or James and John with their father; fish was processed for export to feed the elite class, and everything was now taxed, including tolls for transport. This economic hierarchy pushed local people to the margins, impoverished them and made it difficult, if not impossible to remain self-sufficient eating a dietary staple that was now being regulated and exported right out from under them. As a carpenter, Jesus may have left Nazareth, come down for the building work, moving up the coast, harbor to harbor, an eyewitness to the economic exploitation and effect of Roman oppression on the people.

Now for a little Bible background on images related to fishing—all of which Peter and Andrew, James and John would be familiar:

1. Jeremiah 16:16 the prophet proclaims judgment upon the people of Israel who are not faithful to God:
• They worshipped idols and other gods
• Jeremiah says God will send fishermen to catch these evil people –to hook them and cast them out

2. Ezekiel 29:4 is another passage of God’s judgment
• This time against the Pharaoh of Egypt for his oppression of the people of Israel.
• Through Ezekiel, God says to Pharaoh, I will put hooks in your jaws and I will fling you into the wilderness

3. Amos 4:2 Third time the image of the fisherman is used for catching, hooking and dispensing with evil:
• This time it is against the wealthy who oppress the poor and crush the needy.
The time is surely coming, says Amos, When they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks… and you shall be flung out.

Far from saving souls and bringing people INTO the kingdom, the biblical image of fishing is one of getting evil and oppression OUT of the kingdom.

A final passage from Habakkuk 1:14, 17 voices the lament of those oppressed by those who exploit them:
You have made people like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler...The enemy* brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net…17Is the enemy then to keep on emptying his net, and destroying nations without mercy?”

NOW stand with Peter and Andrew, James and John in their fishing boats, and understand that their families are barely making it, that some of their friends are probably not, that their whole way of life has been changed, exploited and shifted away from what was at least a sustainable if already difficult life by the sea. And they remember in the back of their minds, when God calls for justice to root out evil, God uses fish hooks to do it, and sometimes they feel like the fish squirming in the bottom of the net, as if their way of life is ruined: How will it change, and when will it change, and what can they do against Herod Antipas and the Roman soldiers?

And then that preacher comes by the shore—the one they had heard about—the one who was at the Jordan River with everyone being baptized, the one with a fire in his belly and hope in his eyes, who talks about the kingdom of heaven coming near. And this Jesus says to them, Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.

This is a call for the transformation of society—it was time, in the words of theologian, Ched Myers “to catch some big fish and restore God’s justice for the poor.”

This is the work of uplifting those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death and bringing them the light—the light of hope, healing, and unmerited love.

Simon and Andrew, James and John heard Jesus’ call to change the world. They drop their nets and follow Jesus—not because their families do not matter, but because they do—it is the only way they have any hope of doing anything for them! The kingdom of God is at hand—if their situation is going to change or to have any hope—it was through this Messiah.

So the word for “left”—as in they “left” their nets is “to be released from debt, to be set free from bondage.” It’s a Jubilee word, when the debts of the poor are forgiven!
These first disciples want to participate in a movement that will bring their community back to mutual aid and cooperation. It is no surprise then, that in Acts 2, we read that the Christian community held everything in common. Social and economic redistribution was a form of healing in the early Christian community after the abuse of poverty, and economic exploitation.

“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” It’s a call to justice that does save souls for the kingdom of God—it saves them by naming sin, and what is contrary to God’s love, with the courage to work for people. I will make you fish FOR people—not for systems that oppress, not for governments that invade and exploit, not for the powers that pillage. Perhaps FOR is the most important word in this phrase!

“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Jesus invited the disciples to join him in changing the world—and they did!

We are here today, 2000 years later, because they had the courage to live in a way that was different from the dominant culture and in a community that lived FOR people.
• They shared Jesus love and healing and power—eventually Rome fell, but there are 2.2 billion Christians in the world today! It’s not always a popular to be Christian in our culture—I had somebody get mad at me recently because I said I would pray for them—me a minister! It's my job and I have dedicated my whole life to this--not to mention it's one of the most powerful things to do for someone. But don’t let anyone take away your faith in Jesus because it’s the most powerful thing you have. Look at the history books. Governments and nations rise and fall, but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever! Jesus saved us for this work of love and justice. His light is in us for this ministry. Jesus power never fails us for the kingdom!
• And the first disciples knew it—because they dropped everything immediately to follow him to change the world.
• In the face of oppression and opposition, they preached and healed and offered forgiveness and built community and reached out to the poor and oppressed, offering wholeness and dignity and a new way of life to those who were in need.

Today, Jesus calls us fish for people—to follow him in changing the world. To be FOR people—for life, for hope, for opportunity, for freedom from systems that oppress.

We may not be Desmond Tutu, Dorothy Day, or Cezar Chavez, but all of us can advocate for justice in our circles of influence, and we can be FOR people, paying attention to those at the margins. Does our workplace have just parental leave for all genders, the most equitable reproductive health care legally possible, and sexual harassment policies in place?

Is there an active diversity and inclusion office that promotes anti-racism and gender inclusivity training? Is there a vulnerable person who needs someone with more power than they do to help advocate for them?

Faith in Texas is working on reducing mass incarceration of black, brown and impoverished people in Dallas. Our member, Emily Hoffman is involved in these efforts. If you are interested in getting involved with this justice issue, you can talk with Emily.

Our Global Mission Team is advocating for refugees—you can talk with Caitlin Curry about joining our team. If you like hands-on service, you can join our Free Community Breakfast Team—talk to me to get on the volunteer email list. Find one justice issue to advocate FOR People.

Our denomination has an Advocacy office in Washington DC and a very active website—you can google ELCA Advocacy to find all the links to our Action Center to find policies and ways to use your influence to communicate with representatives to help enact just legislation here and abroad. The research is done for you, you can if fill out a form letter—advocacy made easy! If we cannot physically do advocacy we can write letters and make phone calls.

Finally, we can all be FOR people in our daily life. The happiness study by Harvard University that came out at the beginning of the year talked about the importance of talking with strangers with an openness to learning something new. How often do we strike up a conversation with someone who is really different from us—a different race, class or religion—or even all 3? How can we pay attention to those who are living closer to the margin than we are and learn from their experience? If we have the means, can we tip 22 or 25% to our barista or waiter? How can we be as generous as possible to those working for minimum wage, just spread light and joy and let them know that as a follower of Jesus, we are FOR people, whoever they are.

To follow Jesus in fishing for people in daily life is to do as John Wesley said:
“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

For when people encounter the Jesus in us; when people experience the Jesus at St. Luke’s, they too, can know that good does overcome evil, and that in Jesus Christ, the light has dawned.



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Abiding & Radiating: Discipleship Like Dr. King

mic 25757acMessage for Epiphany 2 on John 1:29-42 on January 15, 2023 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas. You can see this preached on video here beginning at minute 24:55 with the Gospel reading. 

“What are you looking for?” Jesus begins his ministry with a question in John’s Gospel—not an exorcism as in Mark, not a sermon like in Matthew, not in the Temple reading from Isaiah, as in Luke. “What are you looking for?” Jesus asks 2 of his first followers who hear John the Baptist announce him to be the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

It’s a good question—if we cannot articulate what we need—then maybe, we will miss the power of Jesus altogether. So, “What are you looking for?

Our culture and advertisers will certainly try to answer this question for us: we need more stuff, a bigger house, more status or income, we absolutely need more likes and followers on our social media pages, and also more separation from those who are different from us-by class, skin color, political party, or even ideas.

But Jesus’ question really pushes us beyond the superficialities of a consumer culture, an image of God as a cosmic Santa Claus, and the politics of anger and division, and asks us, “what hunger is driving you—not on the surface, but deep down in the core of your being?”

• A sense of meaning and to know your purpose
• To know your loved and you matter
• To really experience forgiveness
• To let go some of the old negative tapes or stories from the past and stop letting them limit your present and future
• Strength and guidance for a difficult situation,
• Healing from pain or illness,--all the losses that come with aging
• Comfort and ability to deal with loss and grief,
• Parents- a month without illness—to know my kids are going to be okay;

There are a lot of significant ways we can answer this question in a conversation with Jesus, and the answer will be different at different times and stages of our lives. Which is why it is interesting to note how the two disciples answer it. It looks like they almost blow it!

They answer Jesus’ question with another question! “Where are you staying?” What? You’re talking to the Son of God, the Messiah, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, and you’re asking for his Airbnb?

But, actually, as you might guess, it’s not as much about directions and lodging as it is about a relationship. The disciples are not just asking where Jesus is staying for the night, they are asking, “Where are you abiding? Where will you remain, where will you endure, where will you continue to be?” The Greek word for “staying” (meno) can be translated all of these ways and is used no less than 44 times in the Gospel in the John. Abiding with Jesus, remaining with him, having an enduring relationship with Jesus is essential as one of his followers.

Andrew and the other disciple are really saying—"we want to dwell with you, Jesus; we want to be where we can receive what you have to teach us; we want to know where you are staying so we can be close to God by abiding with you, Jesus.” And that is what they do.

And isn’t that deep down, what we all want? To dwell in God, to live in God through Jesus’ presence, in every breath, in every day, to experience his power moving through our words, our actions, our relationships, our work, or school and parenting and grandparenting? So, Jesus says to them, “Come and See. Come and be with me. Come and abide with me. Participate in the life of God through a relationship with me.”

• For to abide with Jesus is to belong God.
• To abide with Jesus is to be brought into the circle of love with the Creator of the universe and to be made whole and healed.
• To abide with Jesus is to be forgiven by the Lamb of God, to receive hope for our future.
• To abide with Jesus is to experience the deepest peace there is, and to know that we and those we love are ok for eternity.

When we abide in Jesus, we receive the meaning and purpose we desire: We can hear the guidance we need, we receive the strength we seek, the comfort that we crave, and the love that nourishes our soul. For Jesus abides with God and God abides with him. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth--to bring us into that same intimate relationship Jesus shares with God.

And like any relationship the more time we spend in that relationship, the deeper it becomes, the more intimate the conversation, the more revealing the love, the deeper the bond. Because Jesus dwells within us, we can just close our eyes and picture him sitting next to and carry on a conversation. This is what I do—it’s not complicated for fancy.

I saved a devotional reading from a few years ago which reads:

When you go to your place of prayer, don’t try to think too much or manufacture feelings or sensations. Don’t worry about what words you should say or what posture you should take. It’s not about you or what you do. Simply allow Love to look at you—and trust what God sees! God just keeps looking at you and loving you center to center.

This is “abiding in Jesus.” I practiced this kind of abiding this week during my morning prayer. One morning I had this very strong physical sensation of the indwelling presence of God—Jesus, the Spirit, the Creator—I was praying with all of them together—and I experienced this strong feeling of love, center to center. And then I heard this instruction, loud and clear: “Do not try to seek out in the world the love you already have right here. Your job is to radiate this love out.”

This is why Jesus’ ministry starts with a question—because without it, we have life backwards—we try to fill ourselves out in the world with the success and money, and stuff, and food and alcohol, and unhealthy habits or relationships, and all the things the culture says will make us happy, and then we try to yoga, exercise, pray, and serve and earn our way to God, and we wonder why it seems like we’re following the formula but always come up empty.

The question invites us to Jesus first. Jesus says, come and see, come and stay, come and dwell, come find what you need, what you are looking for. Come abide first, fill up with God first, experience Jesus’ complete, all-encompassing love and forgiveness first, satisfy the spiritual hunger, the emptiness, the meaning, the sense of purpose, the identity the forgiveness and love, and when we’re full, when we are center to center, then God says—"go radiate disciple! because our relationship gets lived out in the world that needs My light refracted through you. I need My love and forgiveness and justice reflected and lived out through you—your experiences, your skills, your insights, your talents."

Abiding with Jesus is a relationship that gets lived out in the world. For to abide in Jesus is to abide with all beings that God has created. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being.”

This means everyone belongs, every person, every nation, every ethnic group, every gender, and sexuality, and religion, and culture. We all belong to God, even our enemies, which is why Jesus told us to love and pray for our enemies. In First John, it says, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.”

This is the essence of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whom we celebrate tomorrow. He spent his life and ministry as a preacher and civil rights leader, holding us accountable to the truth, that everyone belongs equally. In a country founded on Christian principles, we have treated some of our citizens as if they don’t belong—as if they don’t belong to God and don’t belong to us.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail and The Struggle that Changed a Nation, King wrote: “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All [humanity is] caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be...This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

Or we could say this is the inter-related structure of being created by the same God, abiding in relationship with God through the same Jesus Christ. When we abide there, finding ways for a just life for all is not threatening, but naturally flows from the love we have already received.

Today, Jesus also asks those who are oppressed, disenfranchised, caught in generational cycles of poverty, or systemic racism, the same question he asks us, “What are you looking for?” Like us, people are seeking meaning and purpose, love and comfort, strength and guidance; and they hope for what we assume: to be treated with justice and fairness by our institutions, to have equal opportunity, to belong as a full citizen. In an environment where differences between us are exploited and used as the basis for hateful rhetoric and actions, how much more are we called by God to embody in our daily life, the unity we share with all people who have been created by the same God and abide in the same love.

When we ground our identity, our well-being, our very life, in abiding with God in Christ Jesus, we do not need to merge who we are with our own cultural group, political views, or economic class to feel safe and valued. On the contrary, we live from the security of our relationship with God, this deep abiding love and peace, and we follow Jesus in embracing all people, in advocating for policies that bring freedom and inclusion for all of God’s children. Dr. King taught us that the work of justice and love in the world radiates from the inside, out—from abiding with a loving God who made all of us—to living it out in the world. This is the only way nonviolent action and change are possible—through radiating love that comes from God!

As ones who abide with Christ, we attend to our individual relationship with God (our right arm points straight up) and we live out this unity in just, open and equal relationships with all people whom God created (our other arm moves horizontally to form a cross) +.

+ This is the life Jesus radiates out into the world through us.

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Washed Clean, Guided Forward

Star WordsMessage for the Baptism of Our Lord Sunday on Matthew 3:13-17 given on Jan. 8, 2023 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said to me—"oh if I came to church the roof would fall in,” or “the place would burn down”—as if they are so bad or so far from God that their very presence would cause a physical calamity. Perhaps we have the legacy of Jonathan Edwards and his 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to thank for the notion that our sins can so shock and anger God.

It’s an ego trip really – albeit a negative one, but an ego trip none-the-less--that we can be so far from God, that our sin is so bad –that God cannot love or forgive us—and that makes us extra special in the sin department.

But of course, we are here, so we are not worried about the roof falling because of our sin, or the place burning down due to our past because we showed up. But I wonder how much of ourselves we hold back from God. We come seeking, but still feel unworthy, we come hoping, but still hide part of ourselves, we come praying, but still fear rejection, we come wondering, but still holding onto to secrets, we come craving more, but are still closed off to a deeper relationship with God.

About 25 years ago a friend invited me to go with her to an Al-Anon 12-step meeting for family and friends of those with addiction problems. She thought working the 12-steps would help me deal with my own co-dependent behaviors since there was some addiction in my extended family tree (these behaviors get passed down without us realizing it!)
But I had heard about steps 4 and 5 and I was not too interested in taking a “searching and fearless moral inventory of myself.” And even if I did, there was absolutely no way, I was going to do step 5, which was to read this moral inventory to someone and "admit to God, myself and another human being, the exact nature of my wrongs.” Because I thought my sins were special and unforgiveable, and needed to remain secret, and something I would always have to hide from God and everybody else.

I hear this fear and hesitancy in John the Baptist. He has been preparing his whole life for this moment—preparing the way for the Messiah! John’s birth was foretold by an angel to his father, Zechariah in the temple! His mother gave birth in her old age, his father was mute until he was born—he has known the stories of angels appearing to Mary and Joseph about Jesus, and his job has been to get people ready. And now it begins—the culmination of his life’s work as Jesus joins him at the river of repentance. Jesus is ready to begin his ministry by entering into solidarity with the people and their journey with him through Baptism.

But John resists Jesus’ request to Baptize him: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John feels unworthy, he is too sinful, it’s all backwards: there’s too much distance in their status—John holds back, he would rather play his role with the people, to keep his place, separate from Jesus, the Messiah. John comes craving more, but even he is still closed off to this opportunity for a deeper relationship with Jesus. But, Jesus insists— “Let it be so now; it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

What feels backwards to John and to us, is indeed proper to Jesus; what feels wrong and unworthy, is in fact, fulfilling all righteousness for Jesus.

As it says later in Matthew: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt. 20:28)

To “fulfill all righteousness” for Jesus is to be in right relationship—right relationship with John and right relationship with God. Jesus surrendered himself to the full human experience—to being by baptized by the Baptizer alongside the people he came to serve and to save. In so doing, he affirmed John’s worthiness as his servant and friend.

Imagine the actions John took in baptizing Jesus—standing in the river together, scooping up water, lifting his arms up onto Jesus’ head—Just this physical action alone invites John to open up his heart and soul to Jesus—How can he harbor secrets, and hold back his fear when he has opened up his arms and bathed Jesus in water? Then John submerges Jesus in the river, and goes further down himself with him—a foreshadowing of their future journey into death, and then rising up out of the water into resurrection. John is as soaked as Jesus is, the feelings of unworthiness, fear, and worry washed away by the water, loosened by the movement. The love that flows from Jesus to John carries no superiority or distance or judgment—just the bond of love and forgiveness that frees the tightness in John’s chest. Jesus surrenders to John’s washing, and in so doing, John becomes clean.

Right relationship with nothing held back. Open heart to open heart. Both surrendered to God’s will. Fulfilling all righteousness. That’s when the roof of heaven cracks open, and the physical world changes! From the heavens, the Holy Spirit lands on Jesus as the voice of God affirms, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Right relationship with God—a fully open, honest, transparent, surrendered relationship with God changes the physical world—people filled with the Holy Spirit, following Jesus, doing what our Lord asks—that’s what changes the world—not hanging on to sin, and not pride in how bad ours is and how unworthy we are.

So, if John can move through his resistance and distance and unworthiness to baptize Jesus himself, our Lord and Messiah, and enter into a deeper, right relationship with nothing held back, then we can, too. It took me a few years, but eventually I did go to Al Anon, and I actually wrote my 4th step, 30 pages of my life story—a searching and fearless and ugly moral inventory, and with fear and trembling, I read it aloud to the 1 person who was helping me through the steps. I waited for her to pronounce judgment on me, and she chuckled and said, “you were just a normal kid.” I felt as though an enormous weight had been lifted off me.

There’s a slip of paper you were given with your bulletin. On it, I want you to write something you have held back from God. I promise no one will ever see it—not me, not anybody. Write on it something you continue to feel guilt or shame about from the past—even your childhood. Something you can’t forgive yourself for, or a resentment you have not let go; something you would like to release that you haven’t been able to, a secret you have never shared. Write something that if you were released from this worry, this guilt, this thing, you would feel freed, or released, or relieved.

Remember that your sins are not special or unique, and that we all have them, and Jesus knows it already, that you’re just a normal human being with regular sins and issues that we all have. This is for you to join John the Baptist in the river as Jesus comes to you, to let you know that no part of your life, your story, your thoughts, or your past-- is hidden, excluded or a hindrance to a deeper, love relationship with Jesus who saves you, with the God who made you, and the Spirit who fills you.

After you write it, you can fold it so no one sees it. Then bring it forward during Communion and put it in the Baptismal water, give it stir, and let it go. I promise no one else will see what you wrote (it's dissolving paper!). We will have one line for Communion so you can have a few seconds alone at the baptism bowl, and then come to me for the bread.

Having released something to God, you will pick up a Guiding Word as a spiritual focus to fill you with something new for the coming year—they are in the side aisle after you dispose of your Communion cup. The words are face-down. Trust the Spirit to give you the right word for this time—tape it to your frig or mirror and discover why this word is a spiritual focus for you in 2023.

Churches that do this call these “star words” because they guide us during the year like the Wise Sages followed the star to find Jesus. For those watching from home—if you have given us a shoutout in the comments, we will pull a word just for you, and mail it along with a slip of this special paper for your forgiveness ritual this week.

No one’s sin is going to cause the roof to fall in, but the forgiveness in Baptism cracks open the heavens for the Holy Spirit to descend upon us! Right relationship with God changes the physical world because it changes us and frees us to be God’s messengers of Jesus’ love, forgiveness, and hope! That’s why we’re a church where "spirits come alive!" So allow Jesus to free your spirit in a new way today and join John in the cleansing waters of Baptism!

 Thank you to the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, NJ for the free download of beautiful Star Words!

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