Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
In this first Sunday after Epiphany we leave behind the stable and star, the shepherds and the wise men, and turn our attention to the life and ministry of Jesus, beginning by remembering Jesus’ own baptism.
Today is one of the occasions in the church year that the Prayer Book commends as being particularly appropriate for the sacrament of Baptism, and today we are particularly delighted to welcome Clara Rose Patrick into the Body of Christ.
We commemorate Baptism of our Lord every year for two reasons:
While Jesus’ baptism by John is referred to in all four gospels, it has also been a problematic story for Christians. Theologian David Lose refers to it as a “scandalous” story.
Christians have asked, apparently since time of the early church, why Jesus needed to be baptized, if he was in fact, the Messiah, the Savior
Judaism originated practice of ritual cleansing – the symbolic of washing away past life in preparation for new life to come. This might give us a clue as to why baptism was important – even necessary - for Jesus.
All four gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism are unique. Luke’s version is interesting that it doesn’t include the baptism itself – reading closely we see that
Luke is interested in what happens afterward.
Luke tells us the important thing happened while J was praying. Prayer is what Jesus did, what Jesus taught us to do, as means of creating space away from the demands and occupations of life, to be quiet and open himself – ourselves – to the presence and the voice of God.
We can imagine Jesus stepping aside, after the baptism itself, as the water dried, to create a quiet space to ponder and cherish the moment, to open himself to God’s presence
It was at this moment, Luke tells us, that
the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
That image of “the heavens opening” is such a powerful & compelling detail.
It suggests that what has separated us from God is no longer, that God is no longer behind the firmament, up in the clouds, at a distance, but rather, here among us.
In that moment, I believe that something was made complete in Jesus:
I believe the experience of knowing God’s loving voice, after his baptism, not only confirmed, but completed something in Jesus that made him ready to venture forth to what lay ahead.
Let’s not miss, in the voice of God to Jesus after the baptism, the clear and close echo of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
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;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
When he heard God’s voice, Jesus knew in the depths of his being that he was loved, that he was chosen and claimed. He knew and felt God’s Spirit, God’s grace, inhabiting and directing him.
And here is the real point:
In our own baptism, God offers the same to all of us.
In Clara Rose’s baptism this morning, we recognize God claiming her as God’s beloved child.
Twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich said "Salvation is simply accepting the fact that we have (already) been accepted."
God claims us.
God seeks to tear open all of the barriers and boundaries we construct to separate us from God.
G calls out that we are beloved, and moves to fill us with the grace that enables us to -
Pass through the rivers, that they will not overwhelm us,
Through the fire, that we shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume us.
As we know, Jesus’ path ahead was 40 difficult days in the wilderness. His path was then a ministry of love and forgiveness in a world of hate that wearied him, wounded him, and eventually killed him.
We believe, though, that his knowledge and experience of God’s love, received in his baptism, was the gift he carried with him, that enabled him to endure, and finally, rise again on the third day.
This first Sunday after Epiphany, this memory of Jesus’ baptism, and our own, is a reminder of God’s promise, and God’s call –
Do not fear, says the Holy One. I have called you by name and you are mine.
And, the Holy One promises, I will give you what you need
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
The world is full of suffering. So much of it feels incomprehensible and entirely demoralizing. Most of us, at one point or another in our lives, find ourselves asking how a just God can allow the suffering we see.
Sometimes the suffering is personal and individual. This summer I visited with a hospice patient who was dying, in her 40’s, and leaving behind children. She asked why God was letting this happen to her.
Sometimes the world’s suffering happens on a larger scale, either as a result of human frailty, or human evil. Yesterday we again heard the devastating news of a mass shooting in a congregation of people simply gathered for prayer, and in recent months we have watched the unfolding drama of persons fleeing persecution and violence in their homelands, looking for asylum in our own country, only to be turned away (at best) or put into detention.
And this is apart from the tragedy of millions losing their homes, businesses, and sometimes their lives to extreme weather events occurring (at least in part) because our species has been unwilling to make the changes that might alter the course of global warming.
How can God allow it? This is the question asked by an ancient poet who took an even more ancient legend and produced the Book of Job, in the Hebrew Scriptures, from which we have been hearing excerpts for the last three weeks, and then again this morning.
The legend that opens and closes Job is a pretty disturbing tale. The narrator tells us that a man named Job was a person of integrity, and without sin. He was fully blessed by wealth, family, and the respect of all who knew him.
One day it seems that things got boring in the heavenly court where God hung out with the angels, and was bragging about Job and Job’s faithfulness. An accusing angel suggested that Job was only faithful because he had it so easy. And so God and the Accuser decided to enter into a bet. God allowed the Accuser, Satan, to punish Job with terrible suffering, to determine whether Job would retain his faith or not.
And so Job’s sons and daughters were all killed in a terrible building collapse, and his servants and flocks likewise all died in a series of attacks by enemies, and finally, Job himself contracted a horrible disease. Despite his wife’s loss of faith – she urged him to “Curse God and die” – Job remained faithful.
“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken;” he told her, “may the name of the Lord be blessed”*. This is the Job of whom James wrote in his Epistle, when he spoke of “the patience of Job”.
As Job sat, living with the losses that had befallen him, three of his friends came to visit, to mourn with and comfort him.
And then the great poem that constitutes the Book of Job begins, and it tells a different story than the one to which we had been listening.
The poet’s Job finds, in himself, a different voice, and he begins to cry out in outrage against the troubles that have befallen him.
God damn the day I was born, and the night that forced me from the womb…
Why couldn’t I have died as they pulled me out of the dark?
Now I would be at rest.
Job’s friends, who have sat silently with him up until this point, can’t live with this angry Job’s new attitude.
They are very certain of the way reality is structured – God rewards the just and punishes evildoers. The tragedies that have happened to their friend must be the result of SOME sin he has committed: he needs to acknowledge it, and perhaps God will show mercy.
For about 35 chapters, Job and his friends debate the question of whether his suffering is the result of his (or even his children’s) sin, with both sides becoming increasing more strident and insistent.
God doesn’t make mistakes, the friends argue – there must be something Job has forgotten, which has caused his punishment, and the sooner he acknowledges it, the better. He will only be getting himself into worse cahoots with God if he persists in his denials.
For his part, Job grows more and more adamant that God is not behaving with the justice that Job expects of God:
God does not care: so I say
he murders both the pure and the wicked.
How can I prove my innocence?
Do I have to beg him for mercy?
Job eventually addresses himself directly to God – demanding a reckoning, his day in court, as it were:
Grant me one thing only, and I will not hide from your face:
Accuse me…I will respond
Or let me speak, and answer me.
What crime have I committed,
and how have I sinned against you?
Why do you hide your face
As if I were your enemy?
And so eventually God does show up, and responds to Job in a voice out of the whirlwind.
But God does not give Job the answers he demands: instead, he gives Job more questions. In a stunning series of images, God asks Job, in effect, “what do you really know?”
Where were you when I planned the earth?
Have you ever commanded morning,
Or guided dawn to its place?
Do you hunt game for the lioness
And feed her ravenous cubs?
Do you tell the antelope to calve,
Or ease her when she is in labor?
Do you show the hawk how to fly,
Stretching his wings on the wind?
And, astonishingly, God acknowledges the validity of Job’s challenges:
Do you dare to deny my judgement?
Am I wrong because you are right?
And after hearing God’s words, Job is both silenced and satisfied:
I know you can do all things,
And nothing you wish is impossible.
I have spoken of the unspeakable
And tried to grasp the infinite.
I had heard of you with my ears
But now my eyes have seen you.
The translation we heard this morning, the New Revised Standard translation, has Job conclude with these words:
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.
I much prefer the translation of poet Stephen Mitchell:
Therefore I will be quiet,
Comforted that I am dust.
The Book of Job concludes with a return to the original legend. God chastises Job’s friends:
You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.
God rewards Job with a return to health and prosperity, and Job lives for a hundred and forty years and “dies at a very great age”.**
So does this help us to understand the world’s sufferings that we began with?
Of course it doesn’t.
What this magnificent text teaches us is that we’re not God, and we are not going to understand. It holds a mirror up to the foolishness of our desire to write the rules and define the terms. Like Job, we don’t command the morning, or feed the lioness’ cubs, or show the hawk how to fly.
Our job is to live the best lives we can and do as much good as we can, accepting as graciously as we can the troubles that come our way, without claiming the right to determine whether or not they are “fair”.
And the text teaches us something else as well.
It reminds us of the grace of God’s presence with us, even in our most painful times.
It reminds us that even in the reality of our pain, it’s not all about us. As Job discovered, there is some comfort in understanding that we are dust, and that we only need to be ourselves, that we don’t need to be God.
When terrible things happen, we need to grieve, and then, little by little, we need to move forward, back into the blessings that we lose sight of when we suffer loss.
Ours is a faith that the cross is followed by the resurrection. Our call is to embody God’s presence in the world, through our love and service.
IN the name of God. Amen
**All quotations from Job in this sermon (except where otherwise noted) are from the Stephen Mitchell translation, published by Harper Perennial, 1987
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
Christian communities throughout the world are observing “Creation Season” in the month of September, running through October 4, the feast day commemorating the life of Francis of Assisi.
So what is Creation Season, and what’s the big deal?
Following Jesus, being Christian, is about relationship. It’s about our call to direct our lives more and more into right relationship with God and right relationship with our neighbor, with the help of the Holy Spirit. Following Jesus is about realigning and tuning the ways in which we live to be more like the example that Jesus gave us, in his own life: J lived in right relationship to God and to all that was around him.
In Creation Season, we extend our awareness and concern beyond our relationshis with our fellow humans, which is ordinarily our focus, to encompass, also, our relationship with the natural world that God has given us. It is our blessing to come to know God through the beauty and power of the world we live in. It is also our work to live our lives in ever greater stewardship of “this fragile earth, our island home”. Creation Season is a time when deepen our awareness of this.
I grew up in suburbia, in the greater NY area. We didn’t think about where our trash went or about how we heated our homes. Of course there would always be plenty of water! I took a lot for granted. I didn’t feel connected to folks in other parts of the world where people living in different geography and climate struggled to feed themselves. I certainly didn’t think about ways in which the choices my family and nation made affected those people’s lives, or affected the natural world itself.
Today we know differently. We face an unprecedented crisis of climate change. It’s caused by fossil fuel use affecting the atmosphere, raising temperatures, and changing the ecosystem in which we live. It is caused by destruction of huge areas of ecosystem for the purpose of economic gain. Hurricane Florence, currently devastating the coast of the Carolinas, is testimony to the reality of climate change.
This summer, record-breaking heat waves swept the globe. The global heat wave caused deadly fires not only in our own western states, but above the Arctic Circle as well. We’re on track to join 2015, 2016, and 2017 as the four hottest years on record.
Here in beautiful Western Mass we are largely protected from the most devastating effects of climate change. It is the poorest people of the world who are most impacted by the damage that the choices of the developed world has caused.
I read this week that what has been the strongest and thickest ice in the Arctic is breaking up for the first time. Scientists are worried that when the polar bears who hibernate in Greenland emerge next spring they will find that their hunting grounds may have literally floated away.
Back to what I learned growing up – while I heard a lot in church about God caring about humans, no one ever said anything about God caring for the rivers or the trees or the other living creatures that inhabit our world. We were very complacent, and we were arrogant.
The indigenous peoples of the world have always recognized that the world itself is sacred, that the whole of nature reflects the presence and power of God. Francis had an inkling of it in his tribute to Brother Sun and Sister Moon.
Scientists are discovering amazing things about the other beings with whom we share the planet. I understand that octopi have a range of personalities, solve problems, play jokes and share affection with marine scientists.
The book The Hidden Life of Trees makes the argument that that trees are social beings that can count, learn, remember, and warn each other of impending danger.
Surely, God cares deeply about this beautiful and complex system that God created and, according to scripture, declared to be “good”.
Surely nature and its creatures are beloved of God, just as we and God’s other human children are beloved.
Surely, God calls for us to care responsibly for this world that God has entrusted to us.
In today’s gospel from Mark, J begins to teach the disciples that following him means losing one’s life. It’s a critical point in the gospel:
Peter has the right answer – “You are the Messiah” – but Peter doesn’t understand what that means. And so J begins to teach them a truth that goes completely against the grain and is so incomprehensible that even up to the very end, they can’t absorb it:
Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
This teaching is, again, about relationship. Being in right relationship means being willing to sacrifice. Loving means willingly losing those things that make us comfortable, that let us feel safe, for the sake of the loved one.
I think that taking seriously our responsibility for creation is one of the ways that we need to “lose our lives”.
I do not like thinking about the ways in which we are destroying the environment, and I frequently avoid it.
But we all need to work on this if we love God and want to follow Jesus. We’re not going to reverse the environmental damage that we human beings have done so far, but that is no excuse for not trying.
I invite all of us to pause and see, hear, smell, taste and feel the presence of God in the world around us.
I encourage all of us to take this Creation Season as an opportunity to think about the things that none of us like to think about in relation to the ways in which the environment is suffering, and to learn more about what we can change to make things better.
I hope that in this Creation Season every one of us will commit to doing some of the things that will make it better – to making some of the small changes that together will make a difference.
I ask you to pray about these things – to pray for greater wisdom and resolution for all of us, and particularly for those who hold the authority to make the big decisions that impact our world.
For the next four weeks we will be using the creation care liturgy we are using this morning. May its words help us to remember that we are part a beautiful, complex web that is loved by God, and may we learn to love it in ways that preserve it.
And let us also believe and trust that God is at work through us and beyond us and that our sincere efforts to love and care for God’s world will help God heal the planet. Amen.
We believe God is calling us to cultivate a community of love, joy, hope, and healing. Jesus is our model for a life of faith, compassion, hospitality, and service. We strive to be affirming and accessible, welcoming and inclusive; we seek to promote reconciliation, exercise responsible stewardship, and embrace ancient traditions for modern lives.