The text that follows comes from a sermon preached at Resurrection Lutheran Church, Roxbury, MA, January 11, 2015, The Baptism of Our Lord
This is my Bible text today, from the Gospel, Mark 1:9-11: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And this is my theme: Floods, Ferguson, and Fellowship.
When I was a teenager, growing up in Buffalo, New York, during the hottest days of summer, my friends and I would sometimes jump in someone’s car and drive over to the Niagara River to go for a swim. We’d go swimming far above the famous Niagara Falls, of course, lest we be swept along and over those falls. But even as it was lots of fun, it was also scary. Kept thinking about those Falls.
I guess that the Jordan River, in which Jesus was baptized, wasn’t nearly as scary. It was rather placid in those days. But Jesus, of course, was baptized into his death. Likewise you and me, when we go down to the river, are baptized into the death of Jesus. It’s a scary thought. But I’ll get to that in a bit.
Here I want to talk about the floods of this world. Water isn’t always your friend, is it? Ask anyone who was inside this building a several weeks ago. How many buckets of water had to be carried away, since the storms were pouring rain into this porous building, as if it were the time of Noah?
I was over at Harvard Yard last year, joining a protest to demand that the University divest itself of fossil fuel stocks, in order to address the threats of climate change. One of the speakers, an environmental scientist, pointed out that if things don’t change right away, then in the next twenty years the waters of Massachusetts Bay are going to rise so much that you’ll be able to row, row, row your boat from Boston Harbor right to the edge of Harvard Yard.
A few years ago, on a church trip to Alaska, I heard about members of a little Lutheran Church from the northerly island of Shismarif. Those Lutherans were native people. Their forebears had lived on that small island for more than a thousand years.
But that long story’s now coming to an end. Due to climate change, the ocean around Shismarif is rising to the point where it’s already beginning to flood the island. Before too long, the Lutheran Church of Shismarif will be under water. As a result, those Lutherans are going to have to move from their ancestral home in the next few years, to God-knows-where.
Now the Bible tells us something more about the floods of this world. This is suggested by our first Scripture reading today, from the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, verses 1 and 2: “…the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters….”
The word used for wind here could also be translated Spirit. Not the wind of God, in other words, but the Spirit of God swept over the waters. Christians preferred that translation right from the start.
The best meaning I can derive from all this, for us, is this: the Spirit of God’s now at work, trying to hold back at least some of the chaos on this earth, so that we humans might have some time, here and now, to do what we can do to protect the earth and all its creatures, before it’s too late.
That’s good news of a kind, if I’m right in this interpretation. The floods of this world are frightful indeed, but the Spirit of God is there working to keep the chaos in check, to give us humans some time to repent and to rededicate our lives to caring for this earth and all its creatures.
Such are the floods of this world.
Now – Ferguson. Which is still in the news, as you know.
By way of introduction, let me first tell you about the Town of Wellesley thirteen miles west of here. In another lifetime, I used to live in Wellesley. So did a member of the Boston Celtics in those days, one Dee Brown. Some of you may remember him. One night after a game at the Boston Garden, Dee Brown was driving home with his wife. Not too far from his house in Wellesley, he and his wife were pulled over by the police. After the officer, who’d pulled Dee Brown over, discovered whom he’d stopped, the officer apologized and sent Dee Brown on his way.
What was that all about? Yes, the police said they were looking for a single bank robber. But Dee Brown was driving with his wife. Did it have anything to do with the fact that Dee Brown is black?
I’ve been agonizing about Ferguson, ever since that story first broke. Not that the story is new news, but that a lot of people in the press and around the country seem to think that it’s new news. Without going into any confidential details, I can tell you that I’ve heard stories in this congregation about people who’ve been pulled over for no particular reason, except for the color of their skin.
Tell me, too, about people who’ve been shot, in inordinate numbers, here in Roxbury. Tell me about parents who’ve had to have “the talk” with their beautiful young children. Tell me about the massive incarceration of young black men even in liberal Massachusetts. Why do we keep adding names of young black men in prison to our prayer list?
Now Jesus, the one who’s been through the waters already, the one upon whom the Spirit descended, will have none of this Ferguson kind of stuff. True.
This is the Gospel picture of Jesus’ mission, after the Spirit had descended upon him, according to the Gospel of Luke, chapter four: “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee…. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read…. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’” (Luke 4:14-19)
I don’t want to sound chauvinistic here, but let me tell you this. Jesus was a good Lutheran! Or, better, Jesus was a very good Protestant, long before the times of Martin Luther. Jesus protested! Jesus protested against what was being done to the poor. Jesus protested against what was being done to those imprisoned. Jesus protested against all the oppressors of this world.
Which means, I’m perfectly sure, that Jesus, anointed by the Spirit of God, stands with the Mike Browns of this world and over against the powerful, who oppress the downtrodden and persecute those of low degree.
But I have a question. What’s an old white guy like me to do in the world of Wellesley or Ferguson or Boston? Shape up, I guess. I think about this and pray about it all the time.
So far, I’ve only been able to come up with one idea. Actually, a very small idea.
I’ve discovered that I’ve been doing at least one thing right in my almost 50 years in the ministry. It dawned on me the other day, right here in church. My God, I’ve been saying the benediction every Sunday, for almost fifty years with these two hands. Like this. Holding up these two hands to bless you. Look familiar?
So I’ve decided that every time I say the Benediction, every time I hold up these two hands, for as often as I have breath left to say it, I’m going to think these thoughts and take these thoughts to heart: black lives matter in Ferguson; black lives matter in Wellesley; black lives matter in Boston. The lives of those kidnapped Nigerian girls matter. The lives of the thousands of people in West Africa who’ve been stricken with ebola matter.
This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who was anointed by the Spirit, who came to liberate all the oppressed of this world.
Okay. Floods. Ferguson. Now, in conclusion, fellowship. This may sound like an anticlimax. I mean, the floods of this world are dramatic. The Fergusons of this world are dramatic. But fellowship?
On the contrary, I say to those of you who’re thinking that fellowship’s about as dramatic as chewing gum.
Here in this fellowship is where you and I tune into the power of the Spirit of God who hovers over the floods of this world. Here in this fellowship is where you and I tune into the Spirit of God who descended upon the Lord Jesus, in the midst of the waters. Here in this fellowship is where you and I tune into the Spirit of God, who descended upon you and me in our Baptisms. Here in this fellowship is where you and I receive the power of the Spirit anew to go out into the world: to love and to serve and to protest, as Jesus did.
When I was a college chaplain many years ago, inquiring students sometimes would ask me: do you have to believe in Jesus Christ to be saved? I’d answer: as far as I know, that’s all in God’s loving hands. So, not to worry.
But I’ll tell you this. You do have to believe in Jesus Christ to be called by the Spirit to love and to serve and to protest in his Name. You do have to believe in Jesus Christ to take up his Cross in this particular place or in any place.
What am I saying? You’ve got to be empowered. I’ve got to be empowered. Who in their right mind would choose the way of the Cross? I mean, let me curl up on my couch with some chips and watch the Celtics any day. Please Lord, not another protest! It could get me in trouble! Look what happened to Jesus! Look what happened to Dr. King!
Here’s the point. The Holy Spirit has got to empower me before any of that loving and serving and protesting stuff can happen. Likewise for you. Because here, in this fellowship, baptized friend, is where you tune into the power of the Holy Spirit, week after week.
Let me put it this way. To follow Jesus, who protested against all the powers of this world in the power of the Spirit, you’ve got to have a support group. I’ve got to have a support group.
And a support group doesn’t have to be huge. You don’t have to be part of a megachurch to be claimed every Sunday by the Spirit. In our lesson from Acts, we hear that Paul was in Ephesus. There, when he baptized some people who wanted to follow Jesus, “the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied – altogether there were about twelve of them.” (Acts 19:6-7). Twelve! Not a megachurch!
So you come here to this modest fellowship, week after week, year after year, so that you can reclaim your call to be a follower of Jesus – so you can let the Spirit go to work in your life all over again
That way, the Holy Spirit, who descended on you in your Baptism, as the Spirit descended on Jesus in his, will keep empowering you to love and to serve and to protest, so that you won’t be blown off course by all the floods of this world – so that you won’t get so discouraged that you give up.
You need the power. I need the power. And here’s where we get it.
I watched a public TV nature-program not too long ago. It was about a certain kind of tropical bird, of all things, a bird which typically nests inside a hole, high in a tree.
So I know what you’re thinking now. You think that fellowship’s not all that dramatic, compared to floods and Ferguson. Now I’m telling you a bird story? Please.
But didn’t the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus – like a dove? Gotcha. Be that as it may, this is my bird story.
As I watched that TV program, we saw how, at a certain point, one of the parents pushes the baby birds out of the nest, to fly out on their own. It was quite comical, as a matter of fact, to see those little birds flapping their tiny wings, trying to fly. A couple of them went crashing to the ground. But then they flapped their wings and flew away.
That’s my point. You and I both need this support group, every Sunday. You and I both need this fellowship, this nest, where we can grow into maturity as disciples of Jesus. And then, as time goes by, the Spirit’s going to push you out of this nest, to test your own wings.
As a matter of fact, the Spirit – the dove – is going to keep doing that all the days of your church-going life. I don’t know whether doves do that in the wild, but that’s what those birds I saw on TV did. Push you out of the nest.
That’s why you got sprinkled this morning, when we re-enacted our Baptisms. I mean, it wasn’t the Niagara River or even the Jordan. But I got you as wet as I could, as we all remembered our Baptisms.
I sprinkled you to remind you that the Lord Jesus Christ has called you in your Baptism, when you received the Spirit, so that you can love and serve and protest, all the days of your life. I sprinkled you to remind you that God’s given you his Spirit, not only to feed you with the bread of life here, but also to push you out of this fellowship, to use your own wings out there.
So fly away, you disciples of Jesus. Never mind the floods. Never mind the Fergusons. Fly away. Love. Serve. Protest. You can do it, because you’re strong in the Spirit. Amen? Amen.