Baptism as Testimony

Gods TestimonyMessage for the Baptism of our Lord on Matthew 3:1-12 given on Sunday, January 1220, 20 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

How would you react if I asked you to come forward today and share your testimony? Many of us—especially if we were raised Lutheran or in other the mainline Protestant traditions, find the concept of testimony and even the word itself somewhat off-putting.

We are people of the mind—of ideas and reason and sound theology. We are known for great Bible study, for understanding the historical and cultural context that shapes the Biblical text. We study the original languages and send our pastors to seminary for three years of master’s level academics to make sure they not only have a good intellectual foundation, but also, tools for on-going critical study of the scriptures, the history, and mission of the church. And there is great stuff there—I am not knocking it since I am a product of it. It’s where we are most comfortable—where we can argue about ideas and interpretations.

Testimony can seem a bit too emotional and subjective. How do you argue with someone’s experience? Is there one way to experience God or are there as many as there are people? How do you have a standard, a measuring device, a way to know what is true and real, and what is not? And who wants to get into the wishy-washy world of feelings anyway—isn’t that why we are Lutherans after all? We can argue about salvation by grace and what it means, but we don’t have to experience it and feel it, do we?

Or do we?

Jesus may have an answer for us as he comes to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. This happens so early in the story that Jesus has not even done or said anything at all, yet. He was born during an oppressive government census giving him an inauspicious birth in a donkey shed. He received extravagant, impractical gifts by foreign dignitaries which probably financed his family’s emigration out of the country driven by unprecedented violence as they fled into Egypt—a reality we see repeated over and over today as families flee Honduras and other countries.

When the threat from King Herod killing the male Jewish children ceased, Jesus and his family settled in Nazareth of Galilee where he finished growing up. Jesus has not said or done anything at all, except to survive—and maybe in his circumstances, that is remarkable enough. All Jesus does is show up. He arrives at the Jordan with others who are ready to make a fresh start and open their hearts and lives for the new thing that God is doing. Jesus survives and shows up. That’s it.

He speaks one sentence when John thinks he should be baptized by Jesus instead: "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Jesus essentially says, “Let’s do this baptism because this is what God wants us to do.” John goes along with him.

When Jesus submits to John’s baptism, the heavens open up to him and everyone hears God’s voice—"This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." Did you hear that?
God gives the testimony in this passage. Not Jesus. Not John. Not the bystanders. Not even us. God speaks and gives the testimony: "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

In the Gospels of Mark and Luke—God speaks directly to Jesus and says, “YOU are my beloved son”—it’s a private conversation. But in Matthew—God is speaking to everyone. God is giving an emotional testimony to all who can hear it, about who Jesus is and how God feels about it: "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

Jesus does do not much to deserve this glowing testimony—he survives being born in human flesh and manages to make it, even under threat of death, through adolescence, puberty, young adulthood, and all of it—a full 3 decades—and he shows up on time at the river. But that’s enough for God. God adores him as a loving parent and is pleased and joyful that he’s there and he announces it to everyone within earshot. God’s testimony, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

It’s not a doctrine or a rational argument. And it’s pretty emotional. What if that’s really the message at all of our Baptisms? That God is giving a testimony—an emotional, heartfelt witness to the world of the pleasure and joy that we survived and showed up—that our family brought us to the font and the waters of salvation and new life for a relationship with the parent of all humankind. That God wants to open up the heavens above each one of us and say to everyone around, “This is my daughter, the beloved. This is my son, the beloved. I am so pleased and joyful that you are here to have a relationship with me.”

When God created you and claimed you and washed you clean from sin in Jesus Christ, God didn’t write a theological argument about it, God gave an emotional testimony—"You are mine, I am so happy, I love you.” Maybe, just maybe that might give us a testimony in response. A testimony that starts—not with words—but with a life that embodies, and bears witness to God’s testimony that we are beloved.

• That everything that we’ve done is forgivable, that everything that has been done to us is healable.
• That the God who is overjoyed just because we showed up today to be loved and to love God back can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
• That the God who opened up the heavens over Jesus, sent his Son so that we might know that we, too, are just as beloved and wholly embraced in the arms of eternal love and the touch of the Spirit’s presence.

When we hear God’s testimony over us, “This is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased. The is my daughter, the beloved, with her I am well pleased,” then we can hear God say this over every person we meet—because isn’t that also what it is to "fulfill all righteousness" and to do what God wants?

To hear God say over everyone, “this is my beloved child….Betty, this is my beloved daughter, Tom, this is my beloved son, Shirley, this is my beloved daughter, Ralph, this is my beloved son," and so on and so on, across every culture and class and creed and even faith. Many of you bore witness to this kind of life and embodied testimony at the Interfaith Service for Peace and Fellowship at Congregation Beth Torah last Sunday.

Today Pr. Sileshi Borana is joining St. Luke’s as an official member, and we hear God say, “this is my son, the beloved, with him I am well-pleased.” What we affirm today is not that he is ordained, although we are grateful to receive his pastoral gifts and ministry. What we celebrate is that he is baptized—that he is God’s beloved son, as we are all God’s beloved children. As he joins the church, we affirm our baptismal vows together, and we remember that God’s makes a testimony about Sileshi, as God does about all of us—that God is pleased and overjoyed that Sileshi has survived and continues to show up to love God, and serve God in a life that is a testimony to what God has done for him.

Who knows? Maybe after hearing God’s testimony, some of us Lutherans might also one day share in words and even feelings, a testimony about what God has done for us!

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Letting Go and Creating Space for the New!

Leeting Go and Making Space for the NewNew Year’s NOT Resolutions: What I am Letting Go, so I can Create Space for Something New!

I wrote this for St. Luke's January, 2020 newsletter about lessons I have learned largely from 12-step teachings, and which I continually need to apply anew each year!

As we continue to assess and re-assess our New Year's goals, perhaps we might look at them from a different angle. Rather than a list of new behaviors, what if we stopped negative behaviors, so our new choices had space to take root and grow? Here are some behaviors I am working on stopping, along with positive ones to replace them!

1. I Am Letting Go of Resentments: A wise friend once said to me that, “expectations are pre-meditated resentments.” Our hopes and expectations of other people—how they are to think, act and behave—are often only lodged in the space between our ears. We often forget to communicate what we need, want or expect and then become angry when our family member, co-worker, or friend fails to meet our often-unspoken expectations. If you find yourself feeling resentful or angry, ask yourself first, “What were my expectations? Did I communicate them? Are they realistic and respectful of others’ boundaries, well-being, and self-determination?” Instead of building resentments, strive for the positive behavior of being honest with yourself first about what you want and need, and then communicate these openly with those with whom you are in important relationships.

2. I Am Letting Go of Trying to Control Others: This is difficult when we are invested in the choices and successes of people we love. What do we do when we fear others’ choices are hurting themselves or others? We can certainly share our concern for their well-being with love. But if they are an adult then it’s time to “Let go and Let God.” They have a God, and it is not us. When we repeat the same advice over and over, we seek to exert control over someone else. Instead, strive for the positive behavior of allowing others the integrity of their own choices, even when you disagree. Everyone must live with the consequences of their own choices, both positive and negative. People remain the same until the pain of remaining the same is the greater than the pain of change. It’s not our job to decide when someone is ready to change; we can still love them and detach from their choices, and stop taking responsibility for their consequences.

3. I Am Letting Go of Denial: Denial of reality can be a safety mechanism to protect us from information for which we are not psychologically ready. But we also engage in daily denial—“I can eat as many cookies as I want and stay healthy; I can spend money freely and not budget; I can still do everything at age 85 that I could do at age 55,” and so on. Much of our daily stress comes from behavior that denies the reality right in front of us, compounding those issues in a vicious cycle. A positive behavior to strive for is acceptance. The first time I heard the phrase, Acceptance is the answer to all of my problems today, I did not accept it! There are many things I do not want to accept: my own limitations, a friend’s illness, human brokenness—the list goes on. But “acceptance” does not mean agreement with, nor affirmation of the issue. It simply means that I accept reality as true. Extra cookies cause me to gain weight. I cannot do what I could 30 years ago. I need to spend within a budget if I do not want to go into debt. When we accept the existence or fact of what is real, then we become empowered to choose how to respond and what action to take. These wise, informed choices based in reality, move us toward health and lower stress.

I hope you will join me in trying to let go of these three unhealthy behaviors—resentments, control, and denial—so that there is space for more honesty, clear communication, integrity, detachment, acceptance and healthy choices in 2020!

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Our Prayers Implicate Our Action

Our Prayers Implicate Our ActionInterfaith Candlelight Service of Peace and Fellowship - A response to the recent anti-Semitic and other faith-related violence in our country

Sunday, January 5, 2020—5 pm

Congregation Beth Torah
720 W Lookout Dr, Richardson, Texas 75080

I helped to plan this service of the Richardson Interfaith Alliance, but could not attend since I am still recovering from hip surgery. I am grateful to St. Luke's member, past President and active RIA member, Shirley Sigler who read this statement on my behalf!

Thank you all so much for coming. I was so disturbed, as we all were, at the violent, anti-Semitic attacks in New York during Hanukkah. I messaged my dear friend, Rabbi Elana expressing my grief and anger at these actions, along with my friendship and support. At the same time, I felt like my words were inadequate, having done this several times since we had met.

While the prayers and positive thoughts of others are comforting at times of distress, crisis, and violence, and they are an important part of my Christian tradition, we are called to more. The motto of the Lutheran denomination is “God’s work, Our hands.” Our prayers are not an end in themselves, but they implicate us in taking action, so that we participate with God in helping make those prayers a reality. “God’s work. Our hands.”

Today is a first step in taking peaceful action in 2020—to put our bodies where our thoughts and prayers are. When one suffers, we all suffer, and the gift of the Richardson Interfaith Alliance is to keep us ever mindful that we are one humanity. I envision Richardson as not just a place of tolerance—but a city where we learn from each other, celebrate our gifts, and build a stronger community through sharing our religious traditions, and cultural practices.

I encourage each of us to take a second step tonight in being a peacemaker and commit to building at least one new relationship in 2020 with someone of a different faith or culture. Become a bridge-builder and bring others with you—doing holy work with our hands, putting our bodies where our prayers lead us, and ensuring that no one suffers alone. Thank you!

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The God Who Waits

The God Who WaitsChristmas Eve Reflection, December 24, 2019

I love going to the website of the Hubble Space Telescope to look at the magnificence of the universe beyond what our eyes can see. The immensity of the whole of creation is truly mind-blowing as I gaze at pictures of spiral galaxies, clouds on Uranus, Bubble, Eagle and Monkey Head Nebulas, quasars, black holes, and the electric lightshows of supernovas. The God of the universe has immense power to create and recreate.

When God chose to build a closer, more intimate connection with humanity, God could have come to earth with spectacular might, riding on the tail of comet with celestial fireworks, exploding stars and a bombastic, all-encompassing dominance that would have brought the bravest among us to our knees. We could have been wowed, awed and overpowered into submission.

But that is not the way our God chooses to arrive; God comes

• not in radical power, but instead, in relationship;
• not in hubris, but, in humility,
• not in might, but in meekness,
• not in authority, but in partnership.

Poet Denise Levertov writing of the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, describes this surprising encounter:

Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions

The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

This is an image of the greatest contrast we can imagine. The God whose unimaginable power spans galaxies yet unseen by our advanced science, asking an unwed teenage girl—a piece of property in her culture—for consent, for participation, for a relationship with the living God of the universe.

God not only wants a relationship with her, but also asks for her to bring to birth God’s love for the world—embodied in a human person. Everything we need to know about the character of God is revealed in this small sliver of the nativity story.

God could come into your life with power and might, but instead, God hovers, like an angel waiting in the wings of your life, lingering patiently, hopefully, lovingly, asking for consent, seeking your participation, desiring a relationship you. Through you, God brings forth God’s love, embodied in you, a Christ-like person in the world. The profound joy of celebrating Christmas every year, is to say “yes” to God to again and again.

Perhaps this year, our “yes” is to give our consent to God in an area of our heart that has been previously closed off, an area of our life where we have said, “there is no place in the inn,” for God certainly cannot love, forgive or help this mess.

There is nothing ideal about being born in a forlorn stable and using a manger for a crib. But Jesus was born among the beasts so that we might know God can redeem that which is most beastly in ourselves, and that there is nothing to hide from God. Surely the dung of our lives can be turned into something new by the God who can make the Milky Way out of stardust and hydrogen gas!

Our God invites you and waits lovingly for you to say, “yes,” to give your consent with your whole being—with your whole heart and soul and mind and strength.

With Mary, tonight, we join God’s work of redemption, saying, "yes" to embodying Christ-like love and hope for the world!

Image: Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898

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