Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Beloved servanthood

New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
January 12, 2014 – Baptism of Christ


            On this Baptism of Christ Sunday, Protestant preachers around the world who follow the lectionary might likely be invoking Martin Luther’s famous passionate words, “Remember your baptism!”  It conjures in my mind that scene from the movie “Moonstruck” when Cher slaps lovesick Nicholas Cage across the face and yells, “Snap out of it!”, as though Luther was shaking up a bunch of lost-in-the-forest Christians, unable to see the trees in front of them.  “Remember your baptism!  Remember who and whose you are!  Whatever funk or frenzy you’re in, snap out of it!”


            But it’s not so easy as that when as people of God we find ourselves and our faith in a funk or a frenzy.  We can’t just snap out of it by remembering our baptism.  First of all, it’s not a sentimental remembering.  Most of us were babies when we were baptized.  Some of us will remember that amazing experience if we were teenagers or adults.  Remembering our baptism is not only going through old pictures, stories, or memories of a specific time in our lives, as comforting or uplifting as that might be.


            Even so, earlier this week I found myself trying to remember my baptism, so I did go through some old photos in my memory, of my smiling parents crouched on the floor as my mother held me sitting up on a blanket; my great-grandparents who traveled all the way from Massachusetts to Texas just so they could be a part of that day.  I called my daughters and asked them to scan a letter that was written to me by the Air Force chaplain who baptized me, who wrote it so that one day I could, in some fashion, remember my baptism.


            Rev. Thomas Williams addressed me not as a child but as the adult I would become.  He included the promises made on my behalf, stressing that the most two important words said at my baptism were “We do”—voiced by my parents.  But it was his closing words that caught my attention:


            “Welcome to the Christian community of the Church.  Remember that the church is made up of people and it looks forward to the day when as a mature adult you, like your parents now, will serve in the Church.”


            It was the word ‘serve’, reminding me of the word ‘servant’.  This chaplain had no inkling that I would one day be a pastor.  He was talking about the servanthood to which we all are ordained at our baptism. 


            Being a servant isn’t something that most folks take to naturally.  It implies that there is a hierarchy of some sort, that someone else is in charge, and it’s not us.  Even the one that was hoped for, spoken by the prophet Isaiah, the One that would save God’s people Israel, was to be a servant, but a servant of God.


            Listen to Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the first few verses of the Isaiah passage:

“Take a good look at my servant.
I’m backing him to the hilt.
He’s the one I chose,
and I couldn’t be more pleased with him.
I’ve bathed him with my Spirit, my life.
He’ll set everything right among the nations.
He won’t call attention to what he does
with loud speeches or gaudy parades.
He won’t brush aside the bruised and the hurt
and he won’t disregard the small and insignificant,
but he’ll steadily and firmly set things right.
He won’t tire out and quit. He won’t be stopped
until he’s finished his work—to set things right on earth.
Far-flung ocean islands
wait expectantly for his teaching.”


            The author of Matthew was probably recalling this passage when describing the voice from heaven and the presence of the Spirit alighting as if a dove as John the Baptist pulled Jesus out of the waters of the Jordan River.  This servanthood isn’t between a master and a slave, but between the creator of the universe and a beloved child.


            There are times when we are serving the Church that we feel as though there is a taskmaster, but it is not God.  The servanthood that we received at our baptism is one of burdens not carried alone but shared, of work that is not solely our own but the work of God’s servant, Jesus, who does not brush us aside when we are bruised or hurt, who does not disregard what we think of as small and insignificant.  We share this servanthood with One who does not tire or quit, who will not stop until things are set right on this earth. 


And this one is beloved of God, as are we.  When Luther passionately calls us to remember our baptism, we are also to remember that we are beloved of God.  The full quote by Luther is “Remember your baptism and be glad.”  Be glad.  Be joyful.  Or as the Beatitudes would have it, be blessed.  We are to live and serve in the knowledge that we are beloved.  We are intended to serve God and to serve others but with a light heart, not a heavy one.


Argentinean poet Jorge Luis Borges wrote these words about being just, but with the sense that one must love being just, in our flesh.


The Just

by Jorge Luis Borges

[One] who, as Voltaire wished, cultivates [their] garden.
[One] who is grateful that music exists on earth.

[One] who discovers an etymology with pleasure.

A pair in a Southern café, enjoying a silent game of chess.

The potter meditating on color and form.

The typographer who set this, though perhaps not pleased.

A man and a woman reading the last triplets of a certain canto.

[One] who is stroking a sleeping creature.

[One] who justifies, or seeks to, a wrong done [to them].

[One] who is grateful for Stevenson’s existence.

[One] who prefers the other to be right.

These people, without knowing, are saving the world.


These are saving the world by allowing life to give them life.  From The Message, more of Isaiah’s passage:


God’s Message,
the God who created the cosmos, stretched out the skies,
laid out the earth and all that grows from it,
Who breathes life into earth’s people,
makes them alive with his own life:
“I am God. I have called you to live right and well.
I have taken responsibility for you, kept you safe.
I have set you among my people to bind them to me,
and provided you as a lighthouse to the nations,
To make a start at bringing people into the open, into light:
opening blind eyes,
releasing prisoners from dungeons,
emptying the dark prisons.

(italics are mine)


God not only makes alive God’s servant, that One who will save us, but also makes us alive with God’s own life.  Living right and well, bringing others into the light, out of their dungeons and self-imposed prisons as well as the prisons we create for others:  this is our beloved servanthood.  We realize our belovedness in our baptism that we might help others know that they are a beloved child of God.


            Dear Leona, we have baptized you into the servanthood of the Church, made up of people: human, flawed, beloved children of God, who work alongside Jesus, tied to one another by the Holy Spirit.  One day we hope that you will decide that you too will allow God’s life to make you alive; that you will know you are beloved of God, your family, and your church. 


          Servanthood is not an easy road but it can be and is a joyful one, when you allow joy and love to fill you rather than fear and worry.  And the only way that I have found to make that easier is by trusting Jesus and where he leads, by talking to God every day, listening to the Holy Spirit, and never serving alone but in community with others.  Being in community isn’t always easy either, but in the words of T.S. Eliot, what life have you if you have not life together?  There is no life that is not in community, and no community not lived in praise of GOD.
            Be glad, Leona, and always remember your baptism.  Amen

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