Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Baptism, Temptation, and Ministry

Liturgical Churches Union Lenten Worship Service
New Redeemer Reformed Episcopal Church, Jersey City NJ
March 15, 2017

Mark 1:9-15
Baptism, Temptation, and Ministry
            May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
            I am so glad to be back here with all of you during this holy season of Lent as together we break open the Word of God, as together we look into our hearts and reflect on the times and the ways that we have fallen short, the times and the ways when we have failed to be the Body of Christ in the world and sinned.
            I am so glad to be back with you as together we repent and ask forgiveness from God, God who is always so quick to forgive and pour grace into our hearts, into our souls.
            I want to thank our president and my friend, the Rev. Nathaniel Legay, for that kind introduction.
            And, I want to thank my brother and sister clergy for their friendship and support, not only at this service or during this season, but throughout the year as we work together to be the Body of Christ here in Jersey City and Bayonne.
            Thank you also to the choirs of New Redeemer and St. Paul’s and Incarnation for enriching our prayer and praise this evening.
            And, thank you to all of you for coming out this evening in less than ideal conditions, to worship God who loves us all so very much.
            I am especially glad to be back in this place, in this house of God, which has a special meaning for me.
            Not long after I arrived back in Jersey City, I had the honor of preaching here at the IMA Thanksgiving service – and, I’ll admit, I was nervous. It’s not easy – or at least not easy for me – to preach in an unfamiliar place with people I don’t know.
            I was concerned about how I would be received.
            But, I shouldn’t have worried, because the IMA and this beautiful congregation welcomed me with warmth and love – especially your pastor – a good and faithful minister who I know you and all of us are missing very much – our dear friend, the Rev. John Milligan.
            And, we pray that he is enjoying the start of his well-deserved retirement.
            One quick Rev. Milligan story that always makes me laugh when I remember it:
            Folks from St. Paul’s and Incarnation know that I don’t usually preach too long on Sundays (or, at least I don’t think I preach too long!) but I know that at these Lenten services the sermon is the centerpiece so, you know, I need to beef it up a little bit.
            Anyway, a couple of years ago at one of these services I preached for about twice as long as I normally do. After I was done, feeling good but also a little tired and kind of sweaty, I sat back down and Rev. Milligan, who was sitting next to me, he leaned over and said:
            “Very good. Short and sweet!”
            But, there’s another reason why I’m especially glad and honored to be in this house of God this evening.
            I am so glad that this service has once again brought together Episcopalians and Reformed Episcopalians – in a way, it is a family reunion, since we both share deep Anglican roots.
            Tonight is a reminder that despite whatever theological and cultural differences we may have, whatever divisions and disagreements we may still have, our truest and deepest identity is in Christ.
            Together, we Episcopalians, Reformed and otherwise, along with our friends from the Methodist tradition and Christians of all different stripes across our city and beyond, we are the Body of Christ in the world.
            Amen? Amen.
            The challenge, of course, is to live like we really are the Body of Christ.
            Especially in times like ours, especially in a time stained by fear and hatred and so much ugliness and, yes, sin, we need to resist the temptation of living just like everybody else.
            A few minutes ago we heard just a few verses from the first chapter Gospel of Mark.
            You know, I’m glad we have all the richness and detail of the other three gospels, but I love the barebones quality – the fast-paced speed – the economical storytelling - of the Gospel of Mark.
            Whenever I read it, I feel like Mark is in a hurry, that he just can’t wait to tell his story – can’t wait to tell THE story – can’t wait to tell the Good News of Jesus Christ.
            So, in just the few verses appointed for this evening, Mark tells us about Jesus’ baptism, when he heard a voice from heaven reveal his true identity:
            “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
            In just the few verses we heard tonight, Mark then tells us about the forty days of Jesus in the wilderness, tempted by Satan.
            And, in just the few verses we heard tonight, Mark tells us about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when the Lord calls people to repent because the kingdom of God has come near.
            In his fast-paced, barebones way, in just a few verses, Mark links together three elements of the Christian life: baptism, temptation, and ministry.
            Baptism, Temptation, and Ministry.
            My St. Paul’s people know that there’s little I love more than baptizing people. It’s one of the greatest joys and privileges of ordination and I’m sure my clergy brothers and sister would agree with me.
            And, I’m also sure that we could have some interesting and lively discussions about the meaning – or the many meanings - of Baptism, about what happens when we are washed in that holy water.
            For me, there are two meanings of Baptism that are most important.
            First, in the water of Baptism, God makes an unbreakable bond with us, that no matter what we do or don’t do in our lives, God’s bond with us can never be dissolved.
            No matter how hard we may try – and some of us try really hard – that holy water never really dries off.
            And, second, in Baptism, we sign up for the Christian life with all of its costly demands to love God, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to love even our enemies, to see Jesus Christ in one another and especially in the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, and the naked.
            Since the baptized Jesus, and the baptized us, are called to this costly life of love and sacrifice, it’s no surprise at all that, man, the temptations come fast and furious – fast and furious for Jesus – and for us.
            You know, in his fast-paced and barebones way, Mark doesn’t stop and tell us exactly what temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness.
            Matthew and Luke, they give us more detail, telling us how Jesus is tempted to make bread and break his fast; tempted to throw himself from the Temple and put God to the test; tempted to crown himself as king of the all the earth, if only he bows down to Satan.
            But, Mark, he doesn’t give us those details, which, actually, I kind of like, because it allows us to fill in the blanks and imagine Jesus in the wilderness facing down all of the temptations that you and I face all the time.
            And, I think the greatest temptation that Jesus faced, not only during those wilderness days but throughout his ministry, is the greatest temptation that you and I face as baptized people here in Jersey City, here in our world today.
            The greatest temptation is to just live like everybody else.
            For Jesus, maybe the temptation was to try to forget the words from heaven he heard when he was baptized – to try to erase from his memory that God had revealed his special identity, that he was the Beloved.
            For Jesus, maybe the temptation was to just go back to the carpentry shop in Nazareth and live out his days with his family and friends – to let someone else proclaim the kingdom of God, to let someone else suffer the consequences.
            And, that’s the same temptation that you and I face every day.
            We’re tempted to forget our baptism, to try to erase from our memories that we are called to respond to God’s love by loving one another, by loving our neighbor, by, yes, even loving our enemies and those who do us wrong, to love them all as we love ourselves.
            We’re tempted to forget our baptism, to forget that we are not to judge one another based on how much or how little they have, that we are not to judge one another on the worst thing we ever did in our lives, that we are not to judge one another, period.
            We’re tempted to forget our baptism, tempted to forget that we are called to forgive and to forgive again, to give and not to count the cost, to share our spiritual bread and our baked bread, to share it with all of the many spiritually and physically hungry people who are all around us.
            We are tempted to forget our baptism and fool ourselves into thinking that this broken and suffering world is all that there is, and that there’s not enough for everybody, so we need to grab as much as we can for ourselves, to build ever higher walls and keep out strangers, that, no matter what, in the eyes of the world, we need to be winners and not losers.
            We are tempted to forget our baptism, to forget that there is one Body and one Spirit, one hope in God’s call to us, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all – we’re tempted to forget that while we Episcopalians and Methodists all have our beautiful and rich traditions, our truest and deepest identity is Christ.
            Yes, Jesus was tempted to be like everybody else – and so are we.
            But, we know that Christ was able to resist his temptations – he remembered the water of Baptism – he remembered the words from heaven – he remembered who he is and to whom he belonged – and he lived out his mission, giving away his life for us all.
            And, with God’s help we can resist our temptations – we can remember the water of Baptism – we can remember who we are and to whom we belong.
            And, as we resist and as we remember, then we, the Body of Christ, can take up our ministry – we can proclaim to all of Jersey City and Bayonne and beyond that the kingdom of God has indeed come near.
            We can call on our brothers and sisters to turn around, to change their ways, to repent – to join us in the great work of building God’s kingdom right here and right now.
            And, you know, that’s exactly what I see happening all around us – what I see happening here tonight.
            Especially over these past few years, in the face of violence and poverty and racism and hatred and deep divisions, in the face of so much sin, Christians in our community from many different traditions have come out from behind our church doors and walls.
            We have come together, not giving up our different ways of being church, but recognizing that we are much-loved brothers and sisters, that our truest and deepest identity is Christ.
            Joining with other people of goodwill, people of other faiths or no particular faith at all, we’ve formed Jersey City Together, working together in a way that we never have before to treat all of our fellow residents with the dignity they deserve.
            And, there are more and more opportunities for us to pray together out in the street, and during Lent and Holy Week, and right here this evening when this Episcopalian has the great honor of preaching in a Reformed Episcopal church, a reminder of the one baptism we all share and the one Lord we all try our best to follow.
            In just a few barebones and fast-paced words, the Evangelist Mark links together baptism, temptation, and ministry.
            Baptism, temptation, and ministry.
            God has made an unbreakable bond with us in Baptism, strengthening us to resist the many temptations we face, and giving us all the grace we need to be the Body of Christ, right here and right now.
            Thanks be to God.