Baptism of Jesus January 13, 2013
Isaiah 43: 1-7 ; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3 :15-22
The Benedictine tradition of a silent pause after each of our Scripture readings, allows the words to resonate in our minds and hearts.
Hopefully there will be a word or phrase that echoes for you throughout today, and maybe it will shape your week ahead.
That experience – of the Word of God as a living thing – the Hebrews called dabar.
This pairing of Isaiah 43 and Luke’s Gospel highlights one such phrase
that powerfully proclaims God’s presence with us: Fear not!
Fear not! Echoesfrom Isaiah, encouraging the Israelites in their struggle to
be faithful through conquest and liberation.
Fear not, your God accompanies you each step of the way.
It echoes in Luke’s first chapter, in the voice of the messenger greeting Mary with the astonishing news of her pregnancy, and later when angels announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. Fear not! Our God has come to dwell with you.
Later as Jesus calls 4 fishermen to be his first disciples – nearly swamping their boat with fish- he tells them Fear not! From now you will help me catch me followers from among the people.
This phrase, both reassurance and command, in the Bible announces
the presence of God. It makes the place where we hear it holy: Here, and now, God is
with us, dispelling fear.
Fear not! Is God’s greeting to her beloved, and the words we must embody in any authentic proclamation of the Good News of Jesus the Christ.
These words also describe what is fundamental to live a fully human life.
For fear is the antithesis of life, of love, of freedom, and of joy.
Fear not! For you are my beloved and I will abide with you.
January First someone with whom I had lived in community years ago
died just days after a diagnosis of cancer. She was a bright, skilled
professional, who when last I had seen her was unemployed, seemed
withdrawn, and perhaps depressed. The few times we met in recent years we
mostly talked of those early days of La Samaritaine Community, and shared
a few laughs about some of our unexpected guests, and meager meals there.
I was saddened to hear Liz had died hours before I’d planned to visit. I knew I’d attend
her funeral, in friendship and out of respect for her parents and siblings. In truth, I also
feared she might have withdrawn from people who knew what an interesting, kind, and
truth-seekng person she had been.
I was happy to be wrong about that, since I had to squeezed into the back of a full church
of people who knew, and valued Liz. As a founding member of a co-housing entity she
had found in it just the environment in which to thrive, and to contribute to a vibrant
community while retaining the privacy she needed. People spoke honestly and gratefully
of her gifts – and quirks- and I saw that she was clearly loved for Just who she was.
I thought of this experience as I read Isaiah, “I have called you by name, and
You are mine. When you pass through the waters, or fire, I will be with you
… you are precious in my site.
Isn’t that what we all want, and want for those we love?
A careful reading of both Isaiah and Luke reveal that we are to extend this
boundless embrace. Isaiah does go on:
“I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather
you up” indicating that the beloved are to carry Yahweh’s blessing to the
ends of the earth.
In fact, the revered Biblical scholar Carroll Stuhmueller commented on this
passage that the talk of Israel’s preferential relationship and of “the nations
exchanged for you, Egypt, Ethiopia and Seba” was based not on an
exclusive love but rather on the expectation that Israel would be the
mediator for sharing God’s love with those far off lands.
And our baptism into Jesus makes us that mediator of love for those who struggle
at the outer reaches of mercy today.
I am so grateful for Madison to be a place where so many of us, married, single, monastic, straight, gay, trans, artistic, athletic, differently-abled, can live and flourish. Artists and techies, engineers and biologists, doctors, authors,… But what about the rest of us?
I so yearn to for our community- to be a place where not only the highly educated can live and thrive, but a place of safety, justice, and hope for those who can’t yet compete.
I think that the God of the Isaiah and of Luke plants in us a yearning for communities that also welcome people who struggled without supportive families and schools. Communities in which people with less resource could shed fear and discover aspirations, and a path to hope and stability. Places where those who left violence could begin to trust that their children will be safe; places in which black males could learn to walk outside without dread.
“Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth.” Sons and daughters are words of preciousness and life, of relationship continually flowing from the One who loves us as a parent.
So we are called to make all vulnerable children precious to US, if we follow the One in whose image we are all made.
Practically speaking, we also know that little separates us from the dangers faced by others.
In the wake of recent massacres we are forced to see that the scale of violence within our own land is akin to that in other countries at war. The statistics on gun violence roll like weather reports: Each day in the United States 87 people die of gunshot, most of them young men. Two children or teens each hour, of every day. That’s more than 31,600 deaths annually. Gun violence is the leading cause of death for young black men.
This war at home must end, and we must do our part. The National Council of Churches
has called for faith communities to devote a Sunday in January against Gun Violence.
Where to begin addressing a problem of such complexity? Aren’t there others who could
do a better job than me?
Isaiah uses in this beautiful text a Hebrew literary device that is particularly emphatic
when he brackets the address with “Now….you!” It is us who are the beloved, and we
who are charged to share the love. So let’s see how we can affect some change.
Fear not! But be prepared for the long work of creating communities
willing to embrace the vulnerable. The Good News is that this is God’s own
good work, and restoring hope is our ancient call.
And we will all be richer for living in communities that are safer, inclusive
and truly diverse.
According to the latest CDC study, life expectancy for black males is 69 years, 6 less than white males. Multiple studies show that stress caused by years of enduring racial insults can be deadly for black men. Starting in their mid-20s, some black men develop signs of hypertension, heart disease, or other potentially fatal health problems.
Small wonder, here in Wisconsin, the #1 state for black incarceration, where black men are incarcerated at 8 times the rate of white men, and 32% of black Wisconsinites are in jail or on probation or parole. In the past 15 years most black new prison sentences were for drug offenses, while sentences for serious crimes declined.
The impact of our incarceration rates is inestimable. I see glimpses of it weekly in the homeless shelter, where sometimes 2/3 of the children’s fathers are in jail. The stress and fear of all family members affects every aspect of their lives, from infant mortality to children’s learning and maternal health. And it should affect us as well. We are called to be better than this, and we can be.
Last week 6 members of Sunday Assembly met with MOSES, the local
chapter of a statewide faith initiative called WISDOM, dedicated to
reducing incarceration rates in our state by half over the next 3 years. This effort appears
to have strong bi-partisan support, already 145 congregations have joined the 10 local
community organizations make up WISDOM. We hope you will engage with us in
contacting public officials and helping raise awareness. If you are willing to
contribute to our $600 dues today, please see one of us after worship. That
will be the easiest part! More information will be available in weeks to
This ecumenical group promises to be effective, and what a wonderful way to honor Ed Steichen’s longtime efforts on race and prison issues. Plus, since there will be a mid March rally at the capitol, we can renew our solidarity with people from around the state committed to justice.
We celebrate the Feast of Jesus’ baptism today, and it is a day brimming with the presence of the Holy Spirit. We are so beloved! What blessing, prompting us to reflect on the inexhaustible and unmerited love in which we are sustained.
Surely we cannot ponder that mystery around this table, and deny life and hope to any of those deemed precious by God.
Come, be nourished here for the calling you have received!
For those who lead and belong to churches and other faith groups, that they may work to lesson violence, confront racism, and invest in a liveable future for all, let us pray.
That our nation find healing through listening to the most vulnerable members of society, and seeking creative and sustainable changes in how we live, let us pray.
For what else shall we pray?
Let us now quietly raise the names of those we want to pray for …
For these and all whose names are in the Book of Intentions, let us pray.
Loving and merciful God we are but a few of your sons and daughters. Thank you for keeping us precious to you. Hear our prayers, and open our hearts to listen with you to the prayers of those in greater need.
We ask this in the name of Jesus, your Word, our saviour. Amen.