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?