Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist

One test that biblical scholars use to determine the historicity of gospel passages is whether the passage would have embarrassed early Christians. If so, scholars tend to accept the incident as historical. They presume early Christians, like most people, preferred to remember what flatters rather than embarrasses.

Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist might have embarrassed early Christians for two reasons. First, John’s baptism, in part, symbolized a person being cleansed or forgiven of her/his sins. Yet many early Christians, advocating what would become the orthodox Christian view, believed that Jesus was without sin. This view, contested in some of the gnostic gospels, is explicit in both the epistle to the Hebrews[1] and parts of our liturgy. If without sin, why would Jesus choose to be baptized by John? Second, John was a political rabble rouser subsequently beheaded by Herod. Yet as Christianity progressed toward becoming the Roman Empire’s established religion, Christian leaders increasingly sought to portray Christianity as supporting the political order.

Nevertheless, early Christians regarded John’s baptism Jesus as sufficiently important to include it in the gospels.[2] So, why is Jesus’ Baptism important?

First, Holy Baptism is not only about forgiveness but also, and perhaps more significantly, about initiating or incorporating new members into the Church, the Body of Christ. The 1950s discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and archaeological evidence about the Qumran community that owned those scrolls provide vital but previously missing historical context for understanding Christian baptism and its theology. First century Jews “revered water for its liminal qualities, believing it had the power to transport a person or object from one state to another: from unclean to clean, from profane to holy.”[3] They baptized individuals to symbolize not only forgiveness from sin but also to incorporate the baptized into their community. Contemporary Jews still use ritual baths for those same purposes.

The Book of Common Prayer’s liturgy for Holy Baptism describes baptism as a symbolic cleansing from sin – the water is an outward and visible sign of an inner and spiritual grace – and as God adopting the baptized person into God’s household.[4] Adult candidates for baptism may find the symbolism of forgiveness and cleansing most powerful. In the early centuries, individuals occasionally postponed their baptism until death approached, wrongly fearful that God’s forgiveness was most liberal or assured in Holy Baptism. One little known reason that Episcopalians, like most Christian traditions, rarely immerse people in Holy Baptism is that battlefields were often arid places. Dying soldiers sometimes wished to receive the sacrament; Christian theologians responded by deciding that water’s symbolism rather than the quantity of water conveys God’s grace. For other adults and the parents of children, diminishing belief in both hell and original sin condemning the unbaptized to hell mean that the theme of adoption into God’s family is frequently Holy Baptism’s most important aspect.

Multiple centrifugal forces, including the internet and political polarization, today erode community, isolating individuals and increasing loneliness. Christian community is perhaps more important than ever before. One current debate in the Episcopal Church is whether an unbaptized person may receive Holy Communion. On the one hand, we want to be an open and inclusive church. On the other hand, we gather at the altar as the people, the family, of God in Christ's name. Holy Baptism is the source and declaration of our Christian identity, a child of God who intentionally tries to walk the Jesus path. Parenthetically, if you wish to be baptized, your clergy will happily assist you.

Second, we practice baptism in obedience to Jesus’ teachings and example. In this, we emulate his example of obeying John the Baptist’s prophetic call. Be warned: following Jesus is dangerous. John the Baptist was beheaded. Jesus was crucified. Following Jesus challenges us to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, to return good for evil, to prioritize God over worldly idols.

German Lutheran pastor H. P. Ehrenberg was instrumental in establishing the "Confessing Church," the group that refused to capitulate to Hitler’s takeover of Germany’s established Lutheran Church.[5] Every Thursday evening, people from Ehrenberg’s church met to immerse themselves in the tradition and in the classic creeds and Reformation confessions of faith. He called those meetings a "rehearsal" for whatever might be coming: "We came to realize that instruction itself already contains the seeds of fellowship, of true community. In our case it was as important as the final rehearsal of the orchestra: a sort of 'performance before the performance.'"

Ehrenberg in his autobiography describes something that took place at a summer camp for teenage girls. A "united service" for Catholics and Protestants was held in a room dominated by a large picture of Hitler hung on a wall. A young Lutheran girl, recently confirmed, could take it no more. She tore down the picture and smashed it against the wall, shouting, "Thou shalt have no other gods but me."

The remarkable thing was not that she smashed Hitler's picture, nor even that she had the courage to confess the First Commandment, but her preparation beforehand to do both.

Jesus’ baptism reminds us to prepare ourselves – to rehearse our identity as a Christian member of God’s family and to practice walking in Jesus’ footsteps. We prepare, we rehearse, by attending worship, receiving Holy Communion, participating in an education or formation program, actively supporting an outreach ministry, loving an unlovable co-worker or neighbor, or otherwise re-enacting some aspect of the gospel story. Then when the time of testing comes, we like the girl who smashed Hitler’s picture, will discover the love, grace, and strength to say no to temptation, to put the well-being of another ahead of selfish aims, to walk with humility and honesty instead of arrogant dishonesty, and to follow God’s leading.

May we become such a people, a living community of Christ's saints. Amen.

Sermon preached on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord

Parish of St Clement, Honolulu, HI, January 13, 2019

[1] Hebrews 4:16.
[2] Luke 3:21 and parallels.
[3] Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013), Kindle Loc. 1485-90.
[4] Book of Common Prayer, pp. 299ff.
[5] H. P. Ehrenberg, Autobiography of a German Pastor (London, 1943), pp. 48, 50, 64.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The opportunity of numerical decline

Management guru and bestselling author Jim Collins has spent years studying “How Great Companies Turn Crisis into Opportunity” (Fortune, February 2, 2009, pp. 48-52). In doing so, he unwittingly identified three critically important factors for helping the Episcopal Church to reverse its current decline.

First, Collins notes that great companies remain firmly attached to their moorings. For example, great manufacturers do not pinch pennies by substituting inferior raw materials. The ecclesial version of this comment is that the basics – great worship, powerful music, reliable childcare, inclusive pastoral care, safe and clean facilities – are non-negotiable essentials. Looking to reverse numerical declines with “quick fixes” borrowed from other liturgical traditions will confuse communicants and ultimately fail. Instead, the Episcopal Church should concentrate on being who it is and doing what it does as well as possible. Skeptics should recall Robert Webber’s book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, which recounts the journey of many who want to share our tradition.

Second, Collins emphasizes that in times of crisis great companies focus on their employees. The Episcopal Church must focus equally on its clergy and laity. Concern about a clergy shortage should never prompt the Church to lower its education or ordination standards. Studies repeatedly show that inferior or ill-prepared clergy leadership bodes ill for a parish and that thriving congregations invariably have superb clergy leadership.

The Church, however, should avoid confusing ends and means. The end is superb clergy. The means – how the Church identifies and educates those clergy – can benefit from continual improvements. Debates, for example, about whether seminaries over-emphasize academic preparation to the detriment of spiritual formation or acquiring practical skills are especially necessary with diminished financial resources. New models of ministry to maximize the value of each clergyperson’s service (team ministry, yoked parishes, etc.) similarly need exploration, refinement, and implementation.

The Episcopal Church tends to overemphasize clergy at the expense of its laity. Clergy too often reserve for themselves what they regard as highly rewarding tasks, relegating the rest to the laity. A few tasks (e.g., celebrating Holy Communion) require ordination. However, laity and clergy alike can perform most ministerial tasks: visiting the sick, offering pastoral counsel, teaching the faith, organizing programs, etc. With scarce resources, volunteers are more important than ever. They, like clergy, need effective recruiting and screening as well as excellent training and education. Expanding the ministry of a well-equipped, well-supported laity minimizes costs while maximizing the Church’s impact. Focusing on enlarging and enhancing lay ministry multiplies clergy efforts – and the results of shared ministries – far more than any other alternative.

Third, Collins opines that the way to differentiate great talent from the rest is that great talent does not need managing. Applying this concept to the Church requires two behaviors that most clergy find seriously uncomfortable: delegating and functioning as part of a team. Our ordination pipeline for priests tends to produce “lone rangers,” clergy prepared for and focused on serving organizations with only one clergyperson on staff. Initial experiences as a curate in a multi-staff setting more often than not reinforce the pre-existing bias toward being a “lone ranger.”

Bishops and priests desirous of using the current crisis to move their organization toward greatness must develop the leadership skills to delegate effectively and to build teams of talented players where no teams now function. Building trust among staff and volunteers gives everyone the comfort and security needed for effective delegation. In the process of trust building, people mutually discover skills, competencies, and passions, and naturally form teams. Building trust takes time and effort, but the techniques are readily learned and the investment will repeatedly pay outsize dividends.

Jim Collins has observed, “One of the lessons we’ve learned is that turbulence is your friend” – but only if one is ready to face tough times. The Episcopal Church can no longer afford to cherish the illusion that its life and ministry are still and peaceful turmoil. If so, the Episcopal Church will slowly wither and die on the vine. Alternatively, drawing life from the vine, the Church can take these lessons about how to thrive amidst crises to heart and embrace its present turbulence, confident that its best days lie ahead.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Predictions for 2019

In 2018, I did not make any predictions. I’m resuming making predictions for 2019 for two reasons. First, people who do not learn from the past are widely thought to be condemned to repeating the past, not only those things they got right but also those things they got wrong. Reviewing predictions made a year earlier offers at least a limited opportunity to learn from the past.

Second, making predictions for the upcoming year orients my thinking to the future. The past is fixed. The present is happening. The future, however, is at least partially undetermined allowing individuals to exert some measure of influence over what happens. This possibility of effecting the future probably explains the popularity of New Year’s resolutions.

So, here in no particular order are my predictions for 2019:

·       US stock markets will fall more than 20% from their 2018 highs. The drop will result from a weakening global economy, trade wars caused by the US and other nations raising tariffs, oversupply of oil, geo-political uncertainty, rising interest rates, and other factors. Market returns, as measured by broad indices, will be near zero or negative.

·       President Trump’s enjoyment of chaos, erratic behavior, dishonesty, and narcissism will continue to destabilize US and world politics. He will persevere in regarding previously reliable allies as adversaries and former US adversaries as allies.

·       The loyalty of President Trump’s base will erode and his base diminish in size. Increased economic difficulties for Trump’s base stemming from his chaotic and ill-advised policies will produce this disaffection. Illustratively, contrary to his campaign promises, manufacturing jobs are not increasing, the effects of the tax cut were short-lived and small, healthcare will become less accessible (e.g., for older children and people with pre-existing conditions) and costlier, welfare will be less available for the unemployed and under-employed, etc.

·       President Trump’s legal problems will escalate. The US House of Representatives, controlled by Democrats, will initiate more investigations and the Mueller’s investigation may issue its final report. The possibility of impeachment will grow but probably not occur during 2019.

·       Brexit will happen. Predictions of chaos will exceed the confusion that actually occurs. The UK will nevertheless hold general elections following the fall of the current Conservative government.

·       The US will tighten border security, especially with Mexico, but will not build a border wall along the southern border.

·       Trump, a man of few bedrock convictions, will find shifting toward the political center tempting as a means to achieve legislative results. A shift to the center will better align Trump with both houses of Congress.

·       Global warming will increase. Pertinent measures include a higher average temperature for the year, more extreme weather events, and sea level rise.

·       No major war will erupt. Military tensions between China and its Pacific neighbors will increase. Minor wars will continue on all continents except Antarctica and Australia.

·       The US opioid epidemic will continue uninterrupted. Opioid related deaths will increase.

·       US unemployment will gradually begin to increase as the decade long economic expansion slows and then begins to contract.

·       There will not be any major news stories regarding religion. The Roman Catholic Church, however, will continue to deal with its clergy sex abuse scandal. The world of religion tends to change very slowly, so this prediction is unsurprising.

What are your predictions for 2019?

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Making room for Jesus

Steve Brown, a minister, remembers seeing a car one day while driving home that was the ugliest car he had ever seen. This car wasn't just ugly – it was ugly on top of ugly. The car’s side had a large gash; one of the doors was held together with wire; and several other body parts were almost completely rusted out. The car's muffler was so loose that with every bump, it hit the street, sending sparks flying. He couldn't tell the car’s original color. Rust had eaten away much of the paint, and so lots of the car had been painted over with so many different colors that any one of them (or none of them) could have been the original. Dirt and duct tape seemed to be holding the vehicle together. The most interesting thing about the car was a bumper sticker that read, in capital letters, "THIS IS NOT AN ABANDONED CAR."[1]

The meaning of Christmas, this year and every year, is that in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth God sent a message of hope to an ugly, broken, hurting world: This is not an abandoned world.

When I hear people speak of the magic of Christmas, I am both bemused and saddened because Christmas has no magic. There are no incantations or rituals by which a person, not even a priest or bishop, can summon angels or the Holy Spirit to set life right, heal the hurting and broken, or bring peace to the world.

Instead, Christmas points to a deep mystery. No matter how bad life gets, and some of you like me, know that our individual lives can become pretty awful, and many of us are deeply distraught because of social ills we face daily, including wars on five continents, Ebola, house-lessness, racism, misogyny – no matter how bad or ugly life gets, God never abandons us. In some mysterious way, God’s love causes life to triumph over death, never abandoning us or our world.

Peace Community Church in Rosaria, Argentina, is an intimate faith community. Their worship center, in a repurposed neighborhood house, accommodates only 60 people.

One year, Peace Community obtained permission to close off the street on which the church is located to produce an outdoor Christmas pageant. The congregation arranged the worship center chairs in the street, facing the church building. They placed a loud speaker on the roof, so people could hear recorded music and the children’s dialogue.

Late December is summer in the southern hemisphere, and the evening of the pageant was very pleasant and warm. Neighbors filled the seats and the street.

Youth and children from the church – dressed as shepherds or wise men or the innkeeper and, of course, as Mary and Joseph – were to reenact the events of Jesus’ birth. The babe was a doll dressed in swaddling clothes. A real donkey was to carry “Mary” to the church. The church’s front door served as the inn. Facundo, a 12-year-old boy, played the innkeeper. He was the sexton’s son and lived in the rear of the property. While tall for his age, he had a gentle spirit.

Joseph, following the script, led the donkey carrying Mary, stopped in front of the “inn,” and knocked. Facundo opened the door and stood in the doorway. Seeing the donkey and Mary sitting on it, his eyes grew big.

Joseph asked for a room. Facundo kept staring at Mary on the donkey said nothing. One could hear the audience’s soft, nervous laughter. A prompter behind the church door softly repeated Facundo’s line. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Facundo spoke his line, “There is no room in the inn.”

Joseph insisted. “But we have come from a long journey, and my wife is due to have a baby.”

Facundo looked at the donkey and he looked at Mary. The prompter whispered his line once again from the other side of the door. “There is no room in the inn,” repeated Facundo, this time with hesitancy. He stood in the doorway watching. Joseph insisted again. “We are so tired; do you know anywhere we can stay?”

This was Facundo’s cue to tell them they could stay in the stable. He looked at the donkey and at Mary and Joseph. The prompter softly said Facundo’s line. Again, the audience murmured nervously. Again, the prompter repeated the line.

Facundo stood still, staring at the couple. Then he blurted out, “You can have my room!” pointing to the rear of the church property. Shocked, cast and audience were silent. Joseph just looked at Facundo in bewilderment. It wasn’t supposed to have gone this way. He should have sent Mary and Joseph to the end of the sidewalk in front of the church, where a “stable” was prepared for them.

Finally, Mary broke the ice. “Okay,” she said. “That’s really nice of you.” She dismounted from the donkey. The caretaker led the donkey away, and Joseph and Mary entered the door of the inn to stay in Facundo’s room.

The audience burst into applause. The children took their bows. The pageant couldn’t have been scripted any better. Facundo stole the show and the hearts of the neighborhood. He had captured the meaning of Christmas, because he made room for the Christ Child in his life.[2]

What if the innkeeper had told the holy family that they could have his room?

What if we tell the Christ to fill our hearts?

Confident that God has not abandoned the world, may we, like Facundo, enter into the mystery of God’s loving, life-giving presence by welcoming the Christ Child into our hearts and homes. Amen.

Sermon preached Christmas Eve 2018, Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] Adapted from Overcoming Setbacks (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1992), p. 62.