Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sermon: "Rise and Shine!"


Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
January 13, 2013
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

“Rise and Shine!”

Have you ever stood on an ocean beach in the summertime, and let your toes sink into the wet sand at the edge of the shoreline?
As the waves roll in sending water rushing past your shins, you can often feel the sand shifting beneath the soles of your feet.
It’s a strange sensation that makes it seem as if you’re moving along with the waves, being pulled first out to sea and then back towards the shoreline.
Yet each time the water rushes in and recedes you find that you haven’t moved at all.  It can feel disconcerting, but it’s also comforting to know that while the sand and water shifts and flows all around you, you remain safely planted on solid ground.

Growing up on Long Island, I remember standing on the shoreline of Jones Beach one day at the age of 5 or 6, and experiencing that alternating feeling of fear and exhilaration as the waves pushed and pulled at me as I waded into the water.
I never let the water get higher than my waist, and my older brother Brian was with me that day, so I knew I was safe.
But then suddenly, as a wave rolled in I felt myself being lifted up and tossed out to sea. One second I was looking up at the blue sky and in the next I was looking at 4 feet of water over my head, as I tumbled and rolled and struggled in vain to keep from sinking even further below.
I didn’t know how to swim and I had no idea how to hold my breath under water.
But then just as suddenly, I felt arms wrapped around me, and I looked up and saw my brother Brian pulling me to safety.
Brian was my hero that day, until I found out years later that he was the one who picked me up and threw me in the deeper water in the first place.

In reality, I was probably submerged for less than 10 seconds and only a few feet from the shoreline, but that incident instilled in me a life-long fear of being under water.  

So when I hear about “believer baptisms” practiced by Baptists and other traditions that call for older children and adults to profess their faith and be fully immersed in water, I thank God that my parents were Catholic and had me baptized when I was 4 weeks old.

On this first Sunday after Epiphany, we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus,
and in doing so we’re called to remember our own baptisms as well.

Martin Luther, the great leader of the Protestant Reformation, passionately reminded the Christians of his time to "Remember your baptism!"
Of course, many of us were baptized as babies or as young children and can't "remember" the details of our baptisms. But Luther pushes us to focus on something bigger than our historical memory of the day we were baptized.

This is about more than recalling what if felt like to be dressed in a white gown or suit and to then be handed over to a stranger and have water dribbled or poured over our head.
Even if we were old enough to remember the day of our baptisms, or have experienced a full immersion baptism as an adult, it’s not the physical sensations of the water against our skin or the emotional exhilaration of becoming a part of the community of Christ that we’re called to remember.

In his catechism, Luther wrote, "A truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism once begun and ever to be continued."
Luther calls us to remember our baptism, each and every day -
To remember who we are, and whose we are.
To remember that we belong to God, and as Children of God and followers of Christ, we are beloved.

Even in an age when we spend so much time talking about "self-esteem" and our almost narcissistic desire to feel special, don't we all still long to hear that we are beloved?
We need to hear it, and we need to remember it, every day, as we go about doing the difficult work that God calls us to do in this world.

After Jesus was baptized, and he rose up from the river Jordan, the Holy Spirit descended upon him and a voice came from heaven proclaiming:
 "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

We might imagine that Jesus needed to hear those words, right there and right then, as he knew that this was the founding moment of his ministry.
John the Baptist had announced him to the world.
Declaring him as being more powerful than he, and able to baptize not just with water but also with fire and the Holy Spirit.
That’s quite a job description to have to live up to.
From then on Jesus would no longer be just the son of Joseph the carpenter.
He would no longer be an anonymous man living in an anonymous town who got up everyday and worked and prayed just like everybody else.

Theologians and scholars alike disagree on whether Jesus knew from birth what God had planned for him, or if he discovered it along with everyone else on the day of his baptism.
But just as many of us do, I wonder if Jesus ever doubted his ability to live up to such grandiose expectations.

In our call to worship Jesus as our Lord and Savior we sometimes forget about his human side.  
There was that moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus got down on his knees and pleaded with God to take this cup from him, the cup of suffering from which he was destined to drink.

In that pivotal moment, I wonder if Jesus doubted his ability to fulfill the promise of his baptism, as he struggled to be the beloved Son, whom God was calling him to be.
I wonder if that same doubt arose years before when he stepped into the Jordan River and he allowed John the Baptist to push him wholly beneath the water.
We might wonder what was running through Jesus’ mind in that disorientating moment when the water went over his head.
When the sights and sounds of the crowd gathered above became muffled, and the Baptist's hands beneath his back grew shaky under the weight of the Promise of God that he held in his arms.
Might Jesus have hesitated to come back up, knowing what was awaiting him when he rose out of the water?

How encouraging it must have been for him, when he finally emerged from the Jordan wiping the water from his eyes, to hear the voice of God saying,
"You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

If only we could hear that voice, as we rise to meet the challenges of our day.
Because we have many challenges.
As Christians we’re called to do grandiose things such as love our enemies, to forgive those who persecute us, to release our fear of those who are different from us in any way, and to not worry about the future and trust that God will provide for us all in abundance.
We struggle with this calling not just on communal scale, when it comes to issues of inclusivity and social justice, but we also struggle with it on a personal scale, and in many ways this is the harder challenge that we face.

What are you struggling with right now?

Are you struggling to forgive someone?
Are you struggling to forgive yourself?

Are you anxious because someone you love is going through a difficult time?
Are you fearful that the bad thing that you’re worried might happen, will happen?
Are you fearful that the good thing that you want to happen, won’t happen?

Are you frustrated because you can’t seem to move someone, or help them to understand what you know in your heart of hearts to be true, because they in their heart of hearts believe the opposite to be true?

Are you angry because something was taken from you, or withheld from you?
Are you sorrowful because you lost something or someone who was precious to you?
Are you longing for that one thing, that one person, that one job, that one financial windfall that will change your life for the better and make getting out of bed in the morning that much easier, and much more joyful?
We carry all of these longings, fears, anxieties, frustrations, and sorrows before God.
And we declare our inadequacy in the face of God’s unconditional love.
Who are we to be called beloved?
Who are we to claim that in us God is well pleased?

Some of us are barely holding it together.
And others of us are staying on track but still feel like we could be doing more, and should be doing more - to help our neighbor, to improve our communities, to hone ourselves into kinder, more compassionate and more productive people of God.

We’re carrying a lot of weight on our shoulders.

But perhaps we might feel that weight lighten when we listen again to the words of Isaiah that Greg read for us earlier:

The Lord said, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
the rivers shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

How many of us long to hear these words?
How many of us long to hear that we are loved just as we are?

We make a lot of promises at our baptism, or we have promises made for us that we confirm once we come of age.
We acknowledge that we have entered into communion with all Christians through Christ, and have been accepted into the care of the church.
We acknowledge our acceptance of God’s forgiving grace.
And we promise to continue to grow in our faith and in our ability to live a full Christian life.

Many of us don’t recall our own baptisms or even our confirmations, so we may not have a conscious memory of having accepted these terms of our baptism.
Which is why Luther calls us to remember our baptism again and again.
To remember what it is we signed on to do and be as members of the body of Christ.
But also to remember those words that God spoke to Jesus at his Baptism.
Because those words ring true for us as well.

"You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

We need this shoring up, this encouragement, this reinforcement of our belovedness….because the task we have set before us as baptized Christians is not an easy one.
Changing ourselves and thus changing the world to better reflect God’s compassion, love, and grace, is a very difficult thing to do.

But we must also remember that we are not Jesus.
We are not rising up out of the baptismal waters with the weight of the world’s redemption upon our shoulders.
We’re not agreeing to serve as the head of a movement that has as its goal to raise up the powerless, and to pull down the powerful.
We’re not choosing to stand before the authorities with our palms up and our arms wide open in ready acceptance, in response to extreme persecution, unyielding physical abuse, and our impending execution.

Jesus is God’s beloved son, and the message he received from God on the day of his baptism was meant for him. Because he needed to hear that he was loved immensely, and that regardless of the doubts and worries and fears that he might have carried within his human heart, God was well pleased with him.

That message of unconditional love and acceptance is also something that we need to hear as we follow in Jesus’ footsteps.

As we remember our baptism, on this day, and every day, let us also remember that despite the daunting task that lies before us as beloved Children of God, our baptism into the body of Christ anchors us on solid ground.
It anchors us in tradition, in community, in faith.

As we stand on the shoreline with the changing waters of the world rushing past our feet, we may feel like we’re being pulled in and out with the waves, and that the shifting sand beneath our feet may topple us over at any moment, but once we recognize and accept that God loves us, just as we are, and that we are called to do the same with each other, we no longer have a reason to fear being pulled out to sea.

For even as we pass through the waters, God is with us.
And we will rise up from the depths, just as Jesus did,
And shine as beloved children of God, just as we are called, and were created, to be.