Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Light of Justice Breaks Forth Across the Morning Dawn

February's Posted Sermon
Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA 
February 9, 2020
Pastor Robert McCarty
  • Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12] 
  • The fast God chooses
  • Psalm 112:1-9 [10] 
  • Light shines in the darkness for the upright. (Ps. 112:4) 
  • Matthew 5:13-20 
  • The teaching of Christ: salt and light
Barrow Alaska, the northernmost town in the United States, finally has some daylight. Barrow has a new name. Actually, a new old name—Utqiagvik (pronounced UUT-kee-AH-vik), which is the town’s original Native American name. A couple of weeks ago dawn broke forth in Barrow for the first time in two months. From end of November to end of January, Barrow goes through two months of night, where the dawn never breaks. The sun lies tantalizingly just below the horizon for a couple of hours each day, but morning never breaks out over the southern landscape. The stars cast light through the evening, along with the moon and the northern lights, but night and darkness prevail for two months. People will call the police just to ask for the time. Imagine what it must be like to read the opening verses of Genesis in the prevalent darkness of Barrow’s winter: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…” Imagine reading the verse and stopping there in the darkness and letting the verse linger incomplete. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the waters.” Frozen waters lie north of Barrow, a coastal town that actually had to move because of rising sea levels. And “the wind” is the Hebrew Ruach, which could mean "wind" or "breath" or "spirit." “A breath from God swept over the waters.”

The sun returned to Barrow this year on January 23 at 1:10 PM. Just imagine having lived through two months of night, and for two months you have left the opening verse of Genesis incomplete with the breath of God hanging over the frozen waters. Then on January 23 on the edge of the Arctic Circle, at 1:09 PM, a minute before dawn, you finish the quote, and the sun rises. 

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the breath of God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light, and there was light.” God creates light. “Let there be light.” God creates light and finally (finally) after two months of darkness in Barrow Alaska that sun rises and shows itself from over the horizon. I wonder how residents respond: relief, jubilation. God creates light.

Our Isaiah passage lives in the night of injustice with the darkness of poverty and nakedness and oppression that has lasted longer than two months. In this darkness God creates light by the words of Isaiah that call for justice. The ministry that Isaiah describes takes place around God who creates light.

Isaiah Chapter 58 starting at Verse 6:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then, then your light shall break forth like the dawn.
and your healing shall spring up quickly(.) (Isaiah 58: 6-8)

God creates light, and we tend to think about His created light in terms of the stars and the sun. The greater light of the sun and the lesser light of the moon to guide the night. Isaiah expands this metaphor of creation and light to breaking the bonds of injustice. Clothing the vulnerable and the naked becomes a point of light like a star in the sky. Housing the homeless, another star in the sky, every shelter is a star breaking down the darkness. Sharing your bread with the hungry becomes a point of light like a star in the sky. Not just a single solitary dot lost in the vastness of the night sky, but a thousand, hundred thousand, million points of light, shining forth justice and hope so that the darkness does not overwhelm like an unending Barrow winter’s night. God creates light in your ministry that cuts through the darkness of poverty and hunger and homelessness. Isaiah gives us this metaphor of light, justice and hope. This is God’s metaphor not mine, entrusted to the scripture to enlighten our lives.

Jesus in our gospel lesson reminds you that the light already shines in you. 

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 14-16)

God created the light in you when God formed you in the womb. Jesus sees that light in you, and his ministry becomes a ministry of revelation. Jesus helps you to see your own light and to let it shine for others to see. 

Perhaps, you might remember President George H. W. Bush sworn into the presidency in January of 1989. His inauguration included a proclamation called “a thousand points of light.”

“I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. We will work hand in hand, encouraging, sometimes leading, sometimes being led, rewarding.”

During his four years as president, the White House acknowledged a thousand points of light in our nation—individuals and organizations that sought to use their gifts to improve the lives of the oppressed and vulnerable. Today, the foundation President Bush started continues to reveal a daily point of light in an individual volunteer who serves his or her community. Jason Farmer recently received the daily commendation for his volunteer efforts with St. Jude’s hospital. He benefitted as a toddler from a St. Jude’s childhood assistance program. For nearly fifty years, Farmer has stayed connected as a volunteer to St. Jude’s in Memphis Tennessee. Most recently, in the last couple of years, he began an event during African-American history month to celebrate the support of St. Jude’s African-American volunteers.

Meghan Chen, another recent Point of Light recipient, started an urban garden initiative in her home city. She explored the challenge of cities becoming food deserts, where people lack access to fresh food. After studying the problem, she started a container gardening program where she goes to schools and teaches students how to grow vegetables in containers that can sit out on porches or in sparse backyards that lack fresh soil. 

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.
[[then your light shall break forth like the dawn in Barrow Alaska]]
and your healing shall spring up quickly. (Isaiah 58: 8, with added metaphor)

The Virginia Synod has a “Do Justice” newsletter and blog that lifts up similar points of light in our commonwealth.  They recently lifted up a day of advocacy, January 22, where faith leaders across denominations and faith traditions all gathered in Richmond to hear about social justice concerns and meet with lawmakers to advocate justice “For All People.” 

The newsletter also provided information about FeedVA, a statewide information database about hunger and health issues. They have a map of all food pantries available in the commonwealth as well as the regional service maps for the six food banks that support hunger initiatives in Virginia. 

The season after Epiphany celebrates God who creates light and reveals light in this time of year where the days grow longer and night diminishes. Days finally feel like they are stretching out longer—more sunlight and less darkness. At the same time, in the spirit of Isaiah, we strive for more justice and less darkness. This morning’s scripture uses the visual of light breaking forth from the darkness as a visual description for justice breaking into the world and that light shines in each of you. Jesus sees you and blesses you as a light of hope and a light of ministry. Praise God. 

Amen

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Baptism of Jesus

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
The Festival of the Baptism of Our Lord
January 12, 2020
Pastor Robert McCarty

John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you,
and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now;
for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." 
Matthew 3: 14-15

As pastor, I get to give out generously the gifts of God. The church understands baptism as giving the recipient everything they need for salvation. Baptism conveys these gifts where God: 

  • administers the blessings of grace and mercy, 
  • pours out the activity of the Holy Spirit, 
  • brings the recipient into a community of faith, 
  • instills into them the Holy Word of God, the scripture, 
  • opens up the table of the bread and cup of the holy meal. 
A person’s baptism, whether a child or an adult, provides this generous moment of God’s love with gifts to unwrap and rediscover over ones lifetime. 

Baptism gives another gift, besides what I mentioned above, and this gift stands out in Matthew’s gospel. I will get to that in a few minutes. But first, Matthew’s gospel has this strange little twist that we need to talk about, because it sort of goes against a spirit of generosity. Perhaps John the Baptist’s generosity stays intact, but some congregations sometimes (sometimes) twist out this awkwardness in their ministry.

Baptism Makes All Better

John the Baptist stands at the River Jordan living out his ministry. Here comes Jesus, and John struggles with what to do when someone better comes to the waters. John gets use to baptizing soldiers and tax collectors and ordinary people. Here comes Jesus, and that causes John to stutter. As if John thinks baptism does not work when someone better comes to these waters. Not many people greater, better, than John the Baptist at the time, but Jesus definitely matches that criteria. John says, “I should get baptized by you.”

John the Baptist falls into a trap and thinks that status matters. The status between the one baptizing and the one receiving baptism does not matter, but John all of the sudden thinks it does. Sometimes the church falls into a similar trap, where we apply language of status to baptism. Some churches and some people start believing that they have better standing than the one who does not have baptism. It is a failing in the humility of the church if we think ourselves better than the unbaptized.

I have a story about Sean Connery that might give us some perspective. For those who do not follow movies, Sean Connery, as an actor, played the classic Bond—James Bond, 007—for several movies. He also won an Oscar for the movie The Untouchables along with several other awards over the course of his career: tall, handsome, dashing, actor. He continued to be tall handsome and dashing even as an older actor. An interviewer once asked him, “why, at age sixty-two, he continued to act?” He gave this reply: “Because I get the opportunity to be somebody better and more interesting than I am.” [Larsen, “750 Engaging Illustrations,” Baker Books: 2007, p 9.]

The church can learn something from this—from Sean Connery’s answer. Why does the church baptize? We baptize because God commands us to baptize the faithful. (Baptism is a part of us like acting is a part of Sean Connery.) Also—and this is the learning—the church is better because of the people we baptize along with those who we welcome through the affirmation of baptism. The people we welcome through baptism strengthen our faith. Just as important, we truly believe that baptism also makes the recipients better through the gifts of God: administration of grace and mercy, the activity of the Holy Spirit, the gathering of a community of faith, as well as the Holy Word of God and the Holy Meal.

I have several friends—family members as well—who do good every day without really believing in Christ. Some who are skeptical about Jesus as the Christ, Messiah, Son of God, and Savior. You probably have friends and family members like this as well. I wish they were present today to hear this passage from Matthew about Jesus coming for baptism. I am glad though, you have come to hear it.

Baptism gives us the chance to welcome ordinary people, and be better because of them. But also, we know and believe by giving them the gifts of God and everything necessary for salvation we make their lives better as well. Stephen Covey, who wrote 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, would call this a “win-win” situation. Baptism is a “win-win” for the church and for the baptized. We are all better because of baptism. 

Baptism Gives Us Orientation

Now, I want to return to another gift that baptism conveys. It gets back to that awkwardness of John the Baptist when Jesus comes. The awkwardness when John seems to ask “Why does Jesus need baptism?” Jesus responds, “To fulfill all righteousness.”

You may have noticed this morning that worship began with “Thanksgiving for Baptism” rather than”A Word of Absolution.” I did that because Matthew steps away from the emphasis of baptism on forgiveness and instead emphasizes the orientation of righteousness. Both relate to John’s ministry of repentance. In Jesus’ ministry, his baptism gives us the moment where he turns towards the ministry that God the Father always intended for his life. 

Jesus journey of righteousness truly begins with his baptism. When baptized, we estimate that Jesus was about thirty years old. We only have two stories about Jesus' life before this moment: the long detailed story of his birth and one short story about a Passover when Jesus was a boy. Everything of meaning in Jesus’ holy journey of righteousness begins now. Jesus from this point orients his life towards the will of the Father.

I mention having some friends and family who I wish could hear this message, because one of the gifts of faith is that good people get lost too, and the gifts of grace help us to get our lives on track even when we get lost. 

Another story offers another example.  A news station in California wanted to do a segment on what to do when you get lost. So they found two volunteers from the community—a young man and a young woman who did not know each other. They covered their eyes and took them into the middle of a national forest. With just a few basic supplies, they set the couple off on their own, except for  a cameraman to record what they would do. They said the cameraman was just there to videotape these two as they tried to figure out what to do when lost in the wilderness. Then they would work clips from the video into the news segment.

The cameraman recorded this man and woman start to get to know each other. He recorded how they walked a bit around to get some bearings as to their surroundings. A clip showed them gathering some firewood. They used some matches they had to make a fire and settled down for the night close to one another, huddled together.

Now the cameraman was actually a wilderness survival expert and medic. The lost volunteers did not know this. Overnight, when the temperature dipped and the situation became a bit more risky, the cameraman called off the experiment. He called in the news van and the newscaster who was producing the segment. The cameraman who witnessed the couple now stood in front of the camera lens and explained to the couple, as well as the audience, the things that he saw that had happened. 

The wilderness expert/cameraman had a long list of things the couple did right: they stayed together rather than separating, they got their bearings, they stayed in one place. Staying in one place was hugely important. So many people go wandering. By staying close to where they were dropped off, it made them easy to find. Two things they did well for warmth: they made a fire for in the evening and they huddled together even though they did not really know each other. The cameraman mentioned two things they could have done. They could have made some sort of lean-too shelter above their heads with sticks and branches to capture some of their body heat and heat from the fire. Also, they could have gone searching for water. I remember how many things they did right, and yet they still got in trouble. 

Even when we do good and our lives are working out you can still get lost, and yet God can reorient you; He can redirect our lives towards the good He would have us do and the good He would have us be. Also, of course, God often calls in help, and that help often surrounds us in prayers and worship.

Wrapping up, I want to go back to this story from Sean Connery. I received this story from a preaching journal written by Craig Larson. I like how he sums up his story which relates to both of our points. He writes:

“Many people feel like Connery. Their lives aren’t all that they could be. They aren’t as good as they should be. Something is missing that even glamorous acting roles cannot fulfill. Only Christ makes a person’s life what it can be, should be and [will] be.” [Larsen, “750 Engaging Illustrations,” Baker Books: 2007, p 9.]

Baptism benefits everyone. Everyone can do good and still get lost. Baptism directs our way towards the generous grace of God. We celebrate that life today. And I get to celebrate with you the generous gifts God gives you to bring about that life. God be praised. 

Amen.