Monday, January 12, 2015

Three Words when the Heavens Open

I want to begin this morning’s sermon by giving you a few seconds to ponder a question: 

Think about the roles you play in life.  Who are you?  Or maybe better, who are you trying to be?  What are three different words you would use to describe who you are?  I am not asking you to identify qualities like “loyal”, “happy,” or “caring.”  I am asking you to think about roles you play in life; roles you embrace.  Something like “caregiver” or “patriot” or “professional bowler.”  Take a moment to formulate an answer.  You may want to scribble down some words on a blank part of the bulletin.

I put out this question on Facebook earlier in the week and here are some of the responses people posted:

A clergy colleague wrote: collaborator, proclaimer, bridge builder.

Another colleague wrote: companion, advocate, teacher.

A parent wrote: nurturer, peacemaker, calm.

Holly McNeal wrote: survivor, maternal, leader. 

Brian McNeal wrote: awesome, adaptable, amazing.

Melissa Dudney wrote: wife, daughter, sister.

Beverly Judkins wrote: mother, aging, traveler.

Candy LeDoyen wrote: mother, teacher, singer.

And finally, another colleague wrote: partner, traveler, friend.

I have you pondering this question because today, the day we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, is a day that is all about identity.  For Jesus, it is a day to take on a new identity, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  It is a day when he receives a new power – the power of the Holy Spirit – to live into role of “Son” and “Beloved.” 

It is also a day for us to ponder our own identity because through our baptism we too have taken on a new life.  In Jesus’ day, when a convert to the Jewish faith was baptized, the priest traced on his/her forehead the letter Taw (the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet), which is shaped very much like a capital ‘T’).  Accompanying this act was the proclamation that the newly baptized person was branded as God’s “sheep, slave, and soldier.”  Think about those three roles for a moment.

Sheep: a creature that is cared for and guided through life by a shepherd.

Slave: a person who is owned by another and instructed to do certain things and to behave in a certain way.

Soldier: a person who has taken up a cause and whose life is dedicated to protecting and advancing that cause.

I am curious if in describing yourself any of you came up with sheep, slave, or soldier.  Probably not. 

I have mentioned before that in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung comments that the world will always ask you who you are, and if you do not have an answer the world will give you one.  I think it is fair to say that Western culture is a battleground where individual identity is a prize for which many different entities vie.  Who are you?  The world encourages you to answer this question by asking you the following:

Where are you from?

What do you do?

Who are you with?

What do you own?

For us Christians, the foundation of our identity is this: “I am sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”  It is the one thing we here this morning have in common and it is the most important thing we can say about ourselves.  It informs and directs all the other roles we play in life: parent, partner, traveler, singer, etc.

I’ve had a week to reflect on how I would answer the question I put to you this morning, so my response better be good, or at least thoughtful.  Here are my three words:

Child of God – for me this picks up something of the notion of sheep in Jewish baptism.  It suggests that am a part of a family and that someone is watching over me and caring for me.

Disciple – a better word than slave I think.  It suggests that I have signed on to follow, to learn from, and to emulate another.

Priest – Here I am thinking of something much more elemental than my vocation.  At my ordination I took a vow to be both a priest and a pastor.  I have come to see the priestly function as taking the things people bring to me and offering them to God: bread and wine, water for baptism, vows and promises made at weddings, prayers at a time of need, our spirit and earthly remains at the time of death.  I understand my role as a pastor to be the reverse: taking what God gives (love, forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, guidance, instruction) and offering it to God’s people. 

Everything I have in life and everything I do is (or should be) informed by these three words: child of God, disciple, and priest.

So take another moment and revisit my initial question.  What are three words that describe who you are in life?

In his book Mark for Everyone, N.T. Wright reflects on what it means that after Jesus was baptized he saw the Heavens open.  He writes:

It does not mean that Jesus saw a little door ajar miles up in the sky.  Heaven in the Bible often means God’s dimension behind ordinary reality.  It’s more as though an invisible curtain, right in front of us, was suddenly pulled back, so that instead of the trees and flowers and buildings, or in Jesus’ case the river, the sandy desert and the crowds, we are standing in the presence of a different reality altogether.  A good deal of Christian faith is a matter of learning to live by this different reality even when we can’t see it.

I am inviting you to ponder who you are when the Heavens open, to declare your identity that comes from God, and to live each and every day from this point of self-understanding so that when the world asks you who you are, you will have an answer.