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A Saturday Morning in a Wegmans Market during a National Pandemic

 

Normally I don’t shop at Wegmans on Saturday mornings, when the markets are very crowded. This Saturday morning, March 21, I ventured to our local Wegmans to pick up about a dozen items. COVID-19 (not the Chinese virus!) is changing just about every aspect of our daily lives. But food shopping is essential. Markets, small and large, continue to serve the public. I washed my hands before leaving the house, wore gloves in the market, and washed my hands when I returned home.

 

Anyone that has shopped at a Wegmans anywhere knows that Wegmans pursues excellence. I love entering a Wegmans market anywhere—there is an immediate sense of “this is what a supermarket should be.” The parking lot was nicely full, but perhaps not as full as on a normal Saturday morning.

 

My first observation was in the parking lot. I wasn’t the only person carrying re-useable shopping bags. Up until just over a month ago, I often felt like the only one doing so. And the people leaving the market weren’t using plastic bags. New York State passed a law against the use of single-use plastic bags last year that went into effect just over a month ago. What a difference! People are using re-useable bags. Laws do not change human hearts; they were never meant to and never will. But they do change human behavior at some level. Not 100% (some people will always cheat or ignore laws), but laws and regulations make a difference. We have seen it in cigarette smoking patterns and in seat belt and child-seat use. Laws change behavior patterns. Government regulations can make life better and safer.

 

The second thing I noted was in the market. People were not getting close to each other, but they were acting friendly and respectful. The Wegmans employees are known for their helpfulness and cheerfulness, but it is highlighted in such a time. My check-out person said the usual words with a friendly smile. I also noticed that a good number of employees were carefully sanitizing shelves, freezer doors, and basket handles, all of them wearing gloves.

 

This is the second weekend in which I will not be worshiping in a setting with people gathered around me. That doesn’t seem right, but it is the right action for now. While I will miss gathered worship tomorrow morning, I will worship God in other ways. In some way, I am glad that in the midst of this crisis, there are ways to do some of the normal and routine activities of life. Like shopping at Wegmans. With hands washed and gloves on.

 

 

The Electoral College and Other Voting Issues, 2020

[Note that I posted a shorter form of this article some time ago. I have slightly revised it and expanded it with two emerging issues, treated briefly toward the conclusion. I post it on a primary day for four states, but one of them is not voting today because of one of those issues.]

 

After two presidential elections in the last two decades with the candidate that lost the popular vote winning the electoral college vote, and hence the presidency, there is much discussion about whether the electoral college has outlived its usefulness. There were three much earlier elections where that happened, but there was never a gap between the popular and electoral totals like that in 2016. Candidate Clinton led in the popular total by 2,854,903 votes (65,845,063 to 62,980,160), while candidate Trump won the electoral vote by 74 (306 to 232). Clinton beat Trump in the popular vote by 2.1%; Trump beat Clinton in the electoral vote by 14%.

 

In 2000, the gap between Bush and Gore was thin. In the popular vote, Gore won by .5%; in the electoral vote, Bush won by 5 votes, just 1% more than Gore. The determination of the Bush-Gore contest finally went to the Supreme Court and was decided there by one vote; a 5-4 decision stopped any further recounting of the Florida vote. In one sense, one state decided that election. In another sense, one Supreme Court justice decided which candidate would be president. The final Florida vote, as determined by the Supreme Court in that 5-4 decision, had Bush winning by 537 votes out of almost 6,000,000 votes cast. Florida has 25 electoral votes. A fair split might have had Florida’s electoral votes cast 13 for Bush and 12 for Gore, reflecting how close the popular vote was. That would have had the candidate winning the national popular vote also winning the electoral vote. Even if Florida’s electoral votes were split 20 for Bush and five for Gore, Gore would have become president.

 

Trump gets credit for campaigning better than Clinton in targeting several “in doubt” states. As the matter of the electoral college stands now, over 40 states are not in play in most presidential elections. They are reliably blue (Democrat) or reliably red (Republican) states. There is occasionally a landslide (Nixon in 1972, Johnson in 1964, and Reagan in 1984) in which the great majority of states vote for the same candidate, but there hasn’t been a landslide in over three decades. Generally, a handful of states determine which candidate will be president. In 2000 it was one state; in 2016 it was three states.

 

I have lived in three states as a voting American. All three reliably vote one way, which means a smart candidate has no reason to pay much attention to the state in which I now live, New York. The so-called purple states (such as Florida and Pennsylvania) get the attention. It is said that Trump won largely by beating Clinton in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin by a cumulative total of 77,000 votes. That means that, usually, my vote doesn’t much count. After the primary season, the two major party candidates have no need to visit my state, with its 29 electoral votes.

 

It seems to me that this is counter to what a democracy ought to be and do. Some argue that the electoral college protects the citizens that don’t live in major cities. In fact, it gives their votes more weight. I think that every vote ought to receive the same voting value: one person, one vote. When the electoral college was established, only white landowning men could vote. Women couldn’t vote. Blacks couldn’t vote. Renters couldn’t vote. Fortunately, though taking much too long, we righted those wrongs and gave all citizens the right to vote, which is democracy 101.

My vote should count the same as a rural vote in Montana or an urban vote in New York City. I live in a suburb of Rochester, NY, which puts me in neither a major city nor a rural town. I simply want my vote to count as much as any other American’s vote; not more and not less. This shouldn’t be a matter of which voting system favors Republicans or Democrats. It should be a matter of voting equality.

 

It seems to me there are three ways to make electing presidents more fair. The first is to scrap the electoral college and go to a national popular vote. We have already done that for our senators with statewide popular votes. They were once elected by state legislatures; now they are elected by popular vote. It seems to be working fine this way.

 

The second is to do away with “winner takes all” voting. Maine and Nebraska already do that. Hence, there is incentive for a candidate that might not win all the electors in Nebraska to try to win some of them. The obvious way to do this would be to use congressional districts. Of course, there is controversy about extreme partisan gerrymandering, which lets the majority party in the state government divide congressional districts to favor their interests. Both parties have been guilty of extreme partisan gerrymandering. That troubles me, but doing away with winner takes all statewide voting would still be an improvement over the current system. Candidates would have motivation to visit states where they may not win a majority of the votes, but could win some of the electors.

 

The third way is to have a state’s electoral votes committed to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote. For that to happen, states with electors totaling 270 would have to agree to it. Currently, states with electors totaling 197 have endorsed this approach.

 

North Dakota has about 760,000 residents and three electors. That means each North Dakota elector represents about 253,000 people. New York has 19,540,000 residents and 29 electors. That mean each New York elector represents about 673,000 people. That is unfair.

 

I don’t believe that areas of land should have votes. Acreage should not have votes. If I live on ½ acre and my neighbor lives on 10 acres, his or her vote should not count more than mine. Only citizens should have votes: one citizen=one vote. Rural votes should not count more than urban votes. Small state votes should not have more weight than large state votes. Each citizen voting should get one vote and all votes count for the same value. I believe the founders had reasons for choosing indirect voting. But they also thought they had good reasons to prohibit women and blacks and non-land owners from voting. Time has shown us better ways. We have moved toward a “more perfect union,” guaranteeing all citizens the right to vote and have their votes count, enlarging our understanding of being a democratic republic. I believe it is time to change or eliminate the electoral system now in place. One person, one vote sounds sensible, practical, and fair to me.

 

The 2020 primary season has also introduced two concerns in our voting. The first is early voting. In several of the Democratic party primaries, early votes in considerable numbers were cast for candidates that dropped out before the day of the primary. Perhaps early voting should be limited to one week before the day of the primary. Of course, a candidate could still drop out in that week, but it seems to me far better than allowing people to vote a month early.

 

The second is highlighted in an unfortunate way by the COVID-19 pandemic. Several states are delaying their long-planned primaries because of public health concerns. Should we be moving toward more by-mail voting?

 

Fair and honest voting procedures are crucial to the health of a democracy. We should everything we can to make sure that voting is fair and honest and the will of the voters prevails in all our elections.

Happy Presidents’ Day

[The post below is from the History Channel’s “This Day in History” app, which I get every morning. When many of us are deeply concerned about the presidency of Donald Trump, and I am one of them for many reasons, it is good to be reminded that the good old days where not always so good. Those of us who have seen the musical “Alexander Hamilton,” which is sheer brilliance, a work of genius, will resonate with Hamilton’s role in the 1800 election.]

 

On February 17, 1801, Thomas Jefferson is elected the third president of the United States. The election constitutes the first peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another in the United States.

By 1800, when he decided to run for president, Thomas Jefferson possessed impressive political credentials and was well-suited to the presidency. In addition to drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had served in two Continental Congresses, as minister to France, as secretary of state under George Washington and as John Adams’ vice president.

Vicious partisan warfare characterized the campaign of 1800 between Democratic-Republicans Jefferson and Aaron Burr and Federalists John Adams, Charles C. Pinckney and John Jay. The election highlighted the ongoing battle between Democratic-Republican supporters of the French, who were embroiled in their own bloody revolution, and the pro-British Federalists who wanted to implement English-style policies in American government. The Federalists abhorred the French revolutionaries’ overzealous use of the guillotine and as a result were less forgiving in their foreign policy toward the French. They advocated a strong centralized government, a standing military and financial support of emerging industries. In contrast, Jefferson’s Republicans preferred limited government, unadulterated states’ rights and a primarily agrarian economy. They feared that Federalists would abandon revolutionary ideals and revert to the English monarchical tradition. As secretary of state under Washington, Jefferson opposed Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton’s proposal to increase military expenditures and resigned when Washington supported the leading Federalist’s plan for a national bank.

 

After a bloodless but ugly campaign in which candidates and influential supporters on both sides used the press, often anonymously, as a forum to fire slanderous volleys at each other, the then-laborious and confusing process of voting began in April 1800. Individual states scheduled elections at different times and although Jefferson and Burr ran on the same ticket, as president and vice president respectively, the Constitution still demanded votes for each individual to be counted separately. As a result, by the end of January 1801, Jefferson and Burr emerged tied at 73 electoral votes apiece. Adams came in third at 65 votes.

This unintended result sent the final vote to the House of Representatives. Sticklers in the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives insisted on following the Constitution’s flawed rules and refused to elect Jefferson and Burr together on the same ticket. The highly influential Federalist Alexander Hamilton, who mistrusted Jefferson but hated Burr more, persuaded the House to vote against Burr, whom he called the most unfit man for the office of president. (This accusation and others led Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel in 1804 that resulted in Hamilton’s death.) Two weeks before the scheduled inauguration, Jefferson emerged victorious and Burr was confirmed as his vice president.

A contingent of sword-bearing soldiers escorted the new president to his inauguration on March 4, 1801, illustrating the contentious nature of the election and the victors’ fear of reprisal. In his inaugural address, Jefferson sought to heal political differences by graciously declaring We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.

Journeying with Cancer

I recently read that a friend (I’ll call him Joe; not his real name) “lost his battle with cancer and died.” That troubled me. Indeed, my friend died some months after finding out that he had an aggressive and insidious cancer in his body. I had the privilege and honor of preaching at his funeral. But he did not lose his battle with cancer. He died in Christ; he died in the Lord. That is not losing.

 

For some time, I have struggled with this phraseology “battling cancer,” thinking there is a better way of describing how a person with cancer goes forth, particularly a person of faith. At this point (it may change), I am preferring to use the image of journeying. There are other good options: traveling with cancer and living with cancer come to mind. Clearly there is a kind of battle going on in the body of someone with cancer, whether in treatment or not. The body is rallying against this malevolent invader, without question. That battle is in itself weakening the body.

 

My friend Joe journeyed with cancer. He didn’t ask for cancer. He didn’t engage in habits that invite or promote cancer. He lived as a healthy person, alert mentally, spiritually, and physically. His life was vitally engaged in serving God and others. And cancer came to him. A deadly cancer. I visited him about two months into his journey. He was not wallowing in self-pity. He was not asking, “Why me?” He was seated in his favorite chair, obviously weakened in body, but not in spirit. He was cheerful. Filled with hope. Ultimate hope. At the end of our visit, I prayed with him. And I continued praying for him until he died. Many others were doing the same. There were home visits with Holy Communion. He listened to the music he loved. He stayed engaged in life; he didn’t check out before his time. Then he died and his journey with cancer was over. He could say with Paul, For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)

 

My friend journeyed with cancer. Faithfully, he journeyed. About four months after our visit, he died. Faithfully. Triumphantly. He left directions for which hymns would be sung at his funeral service and which passages of scripture would be read and which would be the basis for my sermon. His death leaves a void in the hearts of his family members and numerous friends. There is no question that we miss him.

 

But he didn’t lose his battle. He went from life abundant to life eternal. Cancer did not have the last word. Jesus always has the last word. We who believe in and follow Jesus must be clear on this. Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) And Jesus always has the last word. And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’” (Revelation 21:5)

 

 

 

Does Jesus Have the Right People on the Bus?

[This message was delivered at Gates Presbyterian Church on 1/26/20. The lead text is Matthew 4:12-23.

Note: after preaching for 15 consecutive Sundays (the longest such stretch in my retirement), in six churches in the greater Rochester region, I am taking a sort of sabbatical. Rachel and I will head south soon and return home sometime in March. Hence, I will not be posting sermons for a couple months. I may post some other writings, but not with the same frequency. I appreciate that you take the time to read my posts and often respond with affirmation. Preachers don’t preach for praise, but they appreciate words of affirmation, and all to the glory of God alone.]

 

Jim Collins calls it getting the right people on the bus. I don’t read many business books, but I like to read Jim Collins’s books, because I find so many of his insights readily translate to pastoring and church life. This concept he identifies is that in building a leadership team, whether in business, sports, or church, it is crucial to get the right people on the bus. Once on the bus, people may change seats any number of times in trying to find the right seat. When I first read this concept, I was the lead pastor and head of staff with oversight of eight other people. Did I have the right people on the bus? And if so, were they in the right seats, the right places for maximum impact and effect? These were not always easy questions to answer. They were flawed people—and so am I. They had bad days—and so did I. They were ordinary people—and so am I.

 

Does Jesus have the right people on this bus? Today we meet the first four, the core four: Peter, Andrew, James, and John. And they are a pretty ordinary group.

 

There is a pattern in the way Jesus calls disciples. We see it here in three steps. First, Jesus isn’t all that original. He uses John the Baptist’s script: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It is good news for preachers that we don’t have to be original. The call to repent is timeless. The word simply means to change one’s course; to make a turn from one direction to another. Repentance is not a one-time event, but a life-long discipline of turning from that which takes us away from God toward that which brings us closer to God. The kingdom of heaven is bursting on the scene, calling for response. Turning from old ways to new ways is the right response.

 

Second, Jesus finds ordinary people in ordinary places doing ordinary things. One cannot read the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, without seeing that God loves the ordinary. The extraordinary God of all creation loves the ordinariness of all creation. Humans once thought that planet earth was about the only body in the universe that was worth knowing about. We thought that the universe was rather tidy and this planet was at the center of it. Now astro-scientists believe that there are likely over 10 billion earthlike planets orbiting stars like our sun in our galaxy. It seems that this wondrous planet we call home is rather ordinary in the vastness of the universe. Yet those photos of our planet from space are still awe-inspiring. This blue marble of a planet is beautiful. And it has a special place in God’s design. God peopled this planet and sent the Savior to this planet for us. God delights in the ordinary.

 

In the case of Peter and Andrew, Jesus finds them fishing. In the case of James and John, Jesus finds in their father’s boat mending nets. For people of that time living around the Sea of Galilee, this was ordinary activity. It’s like lobstering for people on the coast of Maine. It’s like ice skating for people in Canada. It’s like surfing for people in Hawaii. Jesus finds these ordinary brothers in an ordinary place doing ordinary activity.

 

God’s calling of ancient Israel to bring God’s Good News to all nations was not because of anything extraordinary about Israel. Deuteronomy 7:7 says this about that: “It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples.” God delights in the ordinary.

 

In Acts 4:13, we find two of the original four active sharing the Good News. People are taking note. “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus.” (NRSV) Hear that again in “The Message”: “They couldn’t take their eyes off them—Peter and John standing there so confident, so sure of themselves! Their fascination deepened when they realized these two were laypeople with no training in Scripture or formal education. They recognized them as companions of Jesus.” God delights in the ordinary.

 

In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul reminds a young church of God’s way of gathering a congregation.

“Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of ‘the brightest and the best’ among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks … chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the ‘somebodies’?” (The Message) God delights in the ordinary.

 

And we have Jesus. Though Isaiah sees him as “wonderful counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” he comes to us in such humble ways. The King of Glory comes to us in the ordinary. God delights in the ordinary.

 

Third, Jesus calls them to follow him. He doesn’t say to stop fishing; he changes the lake. He calls them to fish for people, people that will become followers of Jesus. I have come to prefer calling myself a follower of Jesus. The word Christian can be static, not moving. The word Christian carries baggage for many people today. They see Christians as arrogant and judgmental and, in many cases, aligned with a partisan political agenda. To be honest, churches are often guilty of projecting such images. To follow means to move in a direction, following someone one presumes to know the way somewhere. In John 14:6, Jesus said, “I am the way…”

Disciples follow the leader.

 

Fuller Seminary printed the results of a study of how followers of Jesus came to faith. In the tradition in which I was born and raised, all the emphasis was put on having a dramatic conversion experience. Anything less than a decisive experience about which you could name the place, the date, and the time was suspect. Here is what that study found. About 15% of followers of Jesus have had that kind of dramatic experience. About 15% have had less dramatic experience, fuzzy but still memorable. The great majority of followers of Jesus, 70% or so, have had no such dramatic point in time experience, but have had an unfolding process, a long journey of following the light of God’s love. It doesn’t matter how we come to faith in Jesus; what matters is that we are following him.

 

Does Jesus have the right people on this bus? Think for a moment. If you’re a Buffalo Bills fan, can you name your favorite 12 Bills? If you’re a Yankees fan, can you name your 12 favorite Yankees? (I’m a Red Sox fan; I can easily name more than a dozen of my favorites.) Can you name Jesus’ first 12 disciples? I didn’t think so. Get past the core four, Peter, Andrew, James, John, and we may be hard pressed to name any others. There Thomas, that doubter. What do we know about Bartholomew? Thaddeus? Philip? Virtually nothing, except that Jesus called them to follow him. And then there was Judas—that didn’t work out too well. These are such ordinary people—and Jesus calls them. God delights in the ordinary.

 

My wife read me this poem she read last week. It spoke to her; it speaks to me; perhaps it will speak to you. It was written by Matt Chandler and published in in Relevant magazine.

 

“What made me love Christ wasn’t that all of a sudden I started figuring out how to do life.

What made me love Christ is that when I was at my worst,

when I was at my lowest point,

when I absolutely could not clean myself up and there was nothing anybody could do with me, right at that moment, Christ said, ‘I’ll take that one. That’s the one I want.’”

 

Here we are this morning on this bus. Are we the right people to be on this bus? You bet. God loves to call ordinary people like us to repent and follow Jesus. God delights in the ordinary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Good News for Sharing

[This message was proclaimed at Gates Presbyterian Church on 1/19/20, from the text of John 1:29-42.]

 

This is the social media gospel.  Gospel according to John is made for today. More than the other three, John’s gospel specializes in conversations. It is intensely personal. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke seem to follow a timeline, a chronological flow from the happy days of parables, teachings, and crowds in Galilee, then one fateful trip to Jerusalem, John goes a different direction. We can’t make a timeline of Jesus’ ministry in John. One chapter he is in Galilee, the next one in Jerusalem. And back again. And again.

 

We noted two weeks ago that John condenses the whole Christmas story into one glorious statement: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” And then, there are conversations. With all kinds of people. People of low standing and high standing. Insiders and outsiders. There is a “pull up a rocking chair and let’s sit and chat awhile over a mug of coffee” style to John’s artful telling of the Good News.

 

Today’s passage gives us the first conversation in John in which Jesus takes part. And what is the first thing Jesus says? “What are you looking for?” Before long we will find out that Jesus loves to ask questions. He uses questions skillfully to get at deeper matters. Some will remember from studying the ancient Greek philosophers that Socrates used a method of questioning to get at deeper matters; it has come to be called the Socratic method. Jesus is the master of the method. His questions are never just fishing for random information, but moving people toward spiritual formation.

 

This conversation begins with John the Baptizer, a distinctive person if ever there was one. John has dealt with the “who am I?” question. He knows that his role is to point people to Jesus. Here he does it in an unusual way: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Nowhere else in the Bible is that phrase found, though the words are used freely in different forms. Only John calls Jesus “the Lamb of God.” The imagery is rich. In the Old Testament, lambs were often used in ritual sacrifices. The aim was to identify a pure, spotless lamb and offer it to God in worship. Worship is meant to be costly. John is seeing beyond the moment to what awaits Jesus later; sacrificial suffering.

 

Then John does what he has been sent to do: he points people to Jesus. “The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’” Two of John’s followers begin following Jesus. John is pleased. “When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’” There is that Socratic question, that curveball the batter wasn’t expecting. Last Sunday I spent a good bit of time working with that essential question: Who am I? Now we look at a second question: ‘What are you looking for?’ Preachers love to play with this question. And we should, as Jesus does. Everyone should deal with this question: ‘What are you looking for?’ What are we looking for in life? In our schooling? In a relationship? In a job? What do we want etched on our tombstones? What are we looking for in life?

 

That leads to the two followers asking their own question: “Where are you staying? That doesn’t quite follow. I think they are really asking, “Can we talk with you more? Let’s go to a safe place.” Jesus accepts: “Come and see.” Jesus loves to enter conversations with us. We don’t get a verbatim of the whole conversation, but we know it leads to this. Andrew is so excited about what he is finding in Jesus, that he goes to his brother Simon and says, “We have found the Messiah.” He brings Simon to Jesus, who gives him a new name and a whole new life. Jesus renames him Peter, and he becomes a disciple and evangelist. We have a string of evangelists in this passage: John the Baptist, then Andrew, and eventually Peter. All three will faithfully point people to Jesus. This is healthy evangelism.

 

Evangelism is in a rough spot today. Just my saying the word probably caused some discomfort. It is a messy, politically distorted time. In this time, we must be clear. The Good News of Jesus does not belong to any partisan political agenda. The Gospel is not beholden to the Republican or Democratic parties. No political party can ever be identified with the Kingdom of God. The Good News of Jesus does not need any political party or government to favor it or protect it. To reclaim our evangelical calling, I make some observations and invite you to join the conversation.

 

I was born and reared in evangelical Christianity, so I have a vested interest in getting a right understanding that will lead to faithful living. Here are five of my theses on what evangelism is and isn’t. I invite conversation about them.

  1. It is not disrespecting and dishonoring others because they are different, but learning to respect and honor the other person, no matter how different the other person is.
  2. It is nor pretending to listen to others until it is our turn to speak, but really listening to the stories and experiences of the other.
  3. It is not manipulating others to make a decision, but sharing the Good News we have found in Jesus.
  4. It is not saving souls while ignoring physical and emotional needs, but caring about persons—body, soul, and spirit.
  5. It is not using the Bible like a hammer to beat people down, but as an invitation to hear Good News and enter into conversation with Jesus.

In my youth, I was taught techniques for evangelism that were disrespectful of others, didn’t care about listening to others, sought to manipulate others into making decisions, cared only about getting souls saved, and used the Bible for those ends, rather than opening the Bible s God’s letter of love for us. I have had some serious re-learning to do.

 

Last summer I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book, “Holy Envy.” It was as refreshing as a warm fire on a bitter winter day. Most of my life, studying other religions was about finding out what was wrong with them and proving that mine was right and superior. This book sought to find the best, not the worst, in other religions and see what Christians could learn from others. t invited me to move from a stance of judging the other to a posture of humble openness to the other. It didn’t weaken my Christian convictions, but enhanced my faith. I believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord, and the Savior, but that doesn’t mean that I have all truth and nothing to learn from others.

 

The Presbytery of Genesee Valley, in which I hold membership, has a simple mission statement: “Know Christ, Live Christ, Share Christ.” I want to know Christ, live Christ, and graciously share Christ. Like billions of people over the centuries, I have found in Jesus God’s salvation, Good News worth sharing. Jesus made clear that this Good News is to be shared with all nations. It is written in the fabric of the scriptures that Good News is for sharing. This quote has been attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” I like that. I want communicate the Good News I have found in Jesus in deed—and in word; and in that order more often than the other order.

 

All followers of Jesus have people who served as Andrews in our lives, people who pointed us to Jesus. Let’s Take a full minute and reflect on those people and give thanks for how they shaped our faith. I am here because others lovingly pointed me to Jesus. I expect you are too. Let’s keep the story alive. Let’s “Know Christ, Live Christ, Share Christ.”

 

 

 

 

That Essential Question Answered

[This message was given on the Baptism of the Lord Sunday, January 12, 2020, at Gates Presbyterian Church, Rochester NY, based on Matthew 3:13-17.]

 

No question is as essential to human life as this one.  No question is more frequently asked, though often silently, as this one.  It is the basic question of self-identity and we wrestle with it for the span of our lives. The question: Who am I? We are born into families and given names. Some of us have been blessed to have loving parents and families that surrounded us with loving affirmation; others have never had that. Some are born in wealth, some in poverty, and most of us in between. We—everyone of us—are always working at identifying who we are.

 

My wife and I saw “The Lion King” in Rochester over the holidays. We have seen “The Lion King” many times in various forms. On stage, the animal portrayals and choreography are dazzling. But at its core is that essential question. There is a young Lion, Simba, born to royalty, his father Mufasa being the king. Yet he is looking for the answer to that question: Who am I? He hears different voices and gets confused. For a season his identity is lost. Finally he hears that voice that tells him who he is: “He lives in you.” Simba realizes who he is and returns to his homeland and acts on his true identity.

 

“And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” Did Jesus wrestle with the question, Who am I? I expect that he wrestled with his identity more than any of us do. Was he the Son of God or another carpenter? If he was royalty, why did he live in such humility. Psychologists call it individuation, the process of discovering who we are. For some of us it is an easier process; for others a tortured process. We are not human doings, but human beings. And we wrestle with the question of who we are.

 

This scene is filled with irony. The setting is the Jordan River, in the north of Israel. It is a wilderness area. It is interesting that Jesus is born in a little town called Bethlehem and raised in a back-water town named Nazareth. Why not Rome, or Athens, or even Jerusalem? And now, after most of his 30 years lived out in obscurity, he gets in line to be baptized by John the Baptist. John sees the irony better than most would: John objected, ‘I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you.’” Do we see it? It is incongruous. It is disorienting. Jesus, the heaven-sent Messiah, the one promised for centuries, has finally arrived. His mission: to save sinners; to save us. John has been preaching about the need for sinners, which would be everyone except Jesus, to repent, to turn from their sinful ways. John has been pointing everyone to Jesus, the Lord and Savior. And Jesus gets in line with all the sinners.

 

First, we might say, he should go to the head of the line. After all, he is Jesus, the son of the Most High. During Lincoln’s presidency, people would line up on the front lawn of the White House for the opportunity to go in and meet the president. That was common then. One day, Frederick Douglass, who spent some years of his life in Rochester, got in line. He wanted to know if Lincoln was really concerned about ending slavery. Douglass was an imposing figure with his black skin and his main of graying hair. Some White House employees noticed him and went in to tell Lincoln. When Lincoln heard this, he said, “Get him out of the line and bring him right in. I want to talk with this man.” Douglass was ushered in. At the end of that conversation, Douglass knew that Lincoln was the real deal. At least they could let Jesus go to the front of the line.

 

Second, did anyone in the line to be baptized that day recognize Jesus? No. He hadn’t done anything in public yet; he was an ordinary carpenter in Nazareth, for goodness sake. Only John that recognized him. And John connected the proverbial dots: “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” Rather than send him to the front of the line, John sees the second incongruity: John should be baptized by Jesus, rather than the other way around. By all common sense, John is precisely right. This whole scene looks precisely wrong. Peter will do the same thing three years later when Jesus is washing the feet of his disciples. Peter correctly deduces that he should be washing Jesus’ feet, and not the other way around. Just as Jesus insisted that he wash Peter’s feet, Jesus insists that John baptize him, along with all those sinners wanting to repent. Jesus takes the path of humility. He identifies with those he comes to save.

 

“But Jesus insisted. ‘Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.’ So John did it.” We cannot overstate how stunning this is. But it fits right in with everything about this gospel, this story of good news. Jesus is born to poverty and lives in humility. He is ultimate royalty, yet he lets go of all the perks of his royalty to identify with us. With the needy. With those living on the margins. With those scraping to get by.

 

It was in the news last Wednesday that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are choosing to let go of their senior royal status. While fully honoring the Queen, Harry’s grandmother, they want to live more like commoners. They want their son, Archie, to spend time both in the United Kingdom, where he was born to royalty, and in North America, closer to his commoner mother’s roots. I don’t know if they can pull it off, but I commend them for this. Jesus pulled it off. He left the courts of highest royalty to live among us as a commoner. He did it. He experienced hunger, poverty, physical and spiritual weakness, and public humiliation, including suffering and a ghastly death. He refused to go the front of the line. He refused to be treated as anything but one of us.

 

He steps into the water of the Jordan with all those sinners. In those common waters, he gets his answer, his answer to that essential human question, who am I? And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”

 

What happens in baptism? I know all the theological answers, but I don’t really know. But I think that at the heart of it, in baptism we are getting an identity. God is saying, “you, too, are my beloved child and I am pleased about you.” Have you been baptized? It doesn’t matter to me whether you remember it or not. When babies are baptized, responsible adults answer questions for them. When people are baptized as believers, they answer their own questions. I affirm both. The key is that God is present in the sacrament. God is blessing the baby, the child, the young adult, the older adult. God is responding to our question with a resounding answer: “you are my child and I love you.”

 

Now we have the opportunity to identify with Jesus, just as identified and identifies with us. Some studies have shown that when an actor plays a part and really gets into it, her brain experiences some changes. One of my favorite actors is Daniel Day-Lewis. During his career, he would only play a role in a movie every two years at most, because he put himself in his parts so fully that he needed ample time to prepare for and then recover from the parts he played. In “Lincoln,” one of my favorite movies, Day-Lewis. He got into the character of Lincoln so fully that he was never seen on the set in his own clothes. Even off camera, everyone there referred to him only as Mr. Lincoln. Day-Lewis is from Ireland and holds Irish and British citizenship and has lived most of his life in those countries. Yet, he played the role of the greatest American president with utter conviction and authenticity. I am a Lincoln buff and have over 30 Lincoln biographies. When I first saw that movie, there was one scene in which I said to the person next to me: He just became Lincoln. Though he was acting, he nearly became the role given him.

 

Jesus isn’t acting when he identifies with us. He is identifying with us when he gets in line and steps into the Jordan River. He is identifying with us when he submits to John’s baptism. He is identifying with us when he hears these words: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, the delight of my life.” When we identify with Jesus in baptism and faith, those words God speaks to Jesus include us. Our “who am I?” question is answered resoundingly. “This is my child–my son, my daughter– chosen and marked by my love, the delight of my life.”