Sunday, January 29, 2012

Proof-texts vs Contexts: Reading Current Issues through a Biblical Lens

The following essay, adapted from last Sunday's sermon, has been submitted to the Mobile Press-Register.

            Isn’t it amazing that people of faith can read the same scriptures but reach different stances on today’s issues? In a period when civic discourse is becoming more polarized, perhaps we, citizens of the Bible Belt, need to be more mindful of the wide-ranging strategies for interpreting the Bible, the primary authority our neighbors reference to support ethical/political positions. 
            I suggest there are three basic ways people read the Bible today:
1)     Some find many of its stories preposterous and conclude the Bible is only for the superstitious and gullible. Therefore, they disregard the Bible.
2)     Some assume every word in the Bible is literally factual and conclude God can unpredictably intervene in a fundamentally irrational world.  Therefore, they weight scripture more heavily than reason in ethical determinations.
3)     Some believe the Bible’s varied forms of literature were written, edited, and collected over many centuries by fallible human beings exploring diverse and evolving theologies.  Therefore, they do not read the Bible as a scientific or historical document but as a collection of treasured theological wisdom through which God continues to speak today.

            People in Group 1 obviously do not use the Bible to construct their ethical framework—but that does not mean they lack personal ethics.

            The other two groups do use the Bible to inform their ethical principles, but they make different assumptions about scripture:
·       Group 2 assumes the Bible presents one consistent portrait of God. Group 3 believes the Bible contains varied and evolving understandings of God. 
·       Group 2 assumes the Bible is to be read literally. Group 3 is attuned to its metaphorical language and ambiguities.
·       Group 2 assumes the Bible most often prescribes human behavior.  Group 3 believes many passages describe human behavior. 
·       Group 2 brings their own values to the reading of the ancient text.  Group 3 is surely also influenced by their own values but more self-consciously factors into their interpretations the original writers’ circumstances, literary conventions, and purposes.
·       Group 2 tends to support moral or political arguments with isolated verses.  Group 3 favors a more global approach for discerning Bible-based ethics.

            Some may wonder if scripture can remain revelatory for those who choose the third method of reading the Bible.  Can non-literalists use the Bible to get their ethical bearings and hear the Spirit’s guidance?

            I certainly believe so.  I believe attending to the full sweep of the biblical witness, its overarching themes, and the context of each verse offers a more reliable moral compass than isolating “proof-texts.”  Far too often the Bible has been used to justify violence and oppression, to vilify those who disagree with us. The verses we choose to support our positions can reveal more about ourselves than about God. The Bible critiques itself in places. However, we won’t appreciate these internal corrections if we cherry-pick verses to support a conclusion we’ve already reached.

            The Bible’s primary theme of God’s compassion and its roots in the ancient Near Eastern value of hospitality—as well as verses like Leviticus 19:33-34–lead me to decry Alabama’s harsh immigration law, for instance.  The Bible does not provide a blue print for modern immigration reform, but I believe HB 56 runs counter to Jesus’s radical example of crossing borders of culture, region, and religion in order to bless, heal, and help “the least of these.”  I want to guard against my human tendency to fear those who are different. I believe it’s important we not simply read the Bible, but that we allow the Bible to read us. 

            The Bible itself is a liminal place of depth and mystery existing beyond our neat categories or cultural expectations.  I enter the Bible as a stranger in foreign territory, but I meet myself along the way.  The Bible is not, for me, a roadmap dictating THE way, but “a light for my path.”  In the unbounded biblical realm I lose my bearings, my surety, my firm footing, but I leave its pages feeling fully at home in the world and fully aware of my kinship with all people.  

Monday, January 23, 2012

Jonah and Jesus Crossing Borders

Jonah 3: 1-10; Mark 1: 14-20

The story of Jonah is a joke.  But biblical scholars have only recently gotten the joke.  At last we have permission to laugh at the outlandish manner in which God dispatches a giant fish to save Jonah from drowning. When the fish swallows Jonah and three days later regurgitates him onto dry land, we can smile at the comedic plot.  When the word plays in the original Hebrew are explained, we can appreciate the humor all the more.[i]

This fable begins when God calls an understandably reluctant Jonah to travel to the city of Nineveh and urge the people to forsake their violent ways.  Afraid of or apathetic toward the citizens of a foreign land, Jonah instead books passage on a ship heading in the opposite direction.  A storm at sea threatens to capsize the vessel, so Jonah assumes God is punishing him for his disobedience.  But the storm stirs up some concern for others at last in Jonah’s heart, so he tells the sailors to toss him overboard if they want to save themselves.  They do and watch as a fish seems to devour Jonah.  It turns out, however, that God had sent the fish to harbor Jonah in its belly until the runaway prophet can be deposited on land, slimy and smelly but safe.

That’s the most familiar part of the Jonah story.  Today’s reading picks up the plot as God gives Jonah and the citizens of Nineveh a second chance to do the right thing. Having learned his lesson, Jonah travels to Nineveh, where he convinces the King to order ALL creatures, human and animal, to fast and wear sack cloth, signs of contrition.  Picture that: every dog and donkey, every mouse and sheep refusing food and costumed in sack cloth, so sorry are they for their sins.  Nineveh is spared God’s wrath—thanks, in part, to repentant rodents and shamed sheep. This is delightful material for an animated cartoon. 

But is it Holy Writ?  Once we appreciate the story’s humor, are we stuck with fanciful silliness—or can we go on to appreciate themes of God’s persistent mercy (even though it competes with the idea of a wrathful deity)?  Can we still recognize God’s call to cross geographical and cultural boundaries to care about those we’ve labeled the enemy?  Maybe laughter itself is a way to break down our own defenses, let down our guard at the walls of prejudices, and see in Jonah a pre-Jesus figure carrying God’s love across borders of human construction.

I assure you, though my plot summary may seem irreverent, my intention is not to ridicule the Bible but to rescue it.  I’ll begin by naming three ways the book of Jonah and the totality of the Bible are generally read. 
1)   You can read a story about Jonah and the whale and conclude the Bible chronicles preposterous events that only the superstitious and gullible can believe.  Therefore, you discard the Bible.
2)   You can read a story about Jonah and the whale and conclude that God dictated the Bible verbatim to humans so that every word is literally and factually and quite seriously true. Which means the world is often irrational, and impossible events do happen through God’s magic, er, miracles.  Therefore, you discard the use of rational thought in important areas of your life.
3)   You can read a story about Jonah and the whale and conclude that the Bible contains many forms of literature written by fallible human beings with diverse perspectives reflecting evolving theologies from various times and places.  Therefore, you discard naive expectations that the Bible dropped from Heaven in its present form, and you no longer read it as if it’s a road map or science textbook or history of the world or a newspaper.

But if you choose option 3 and refuse to use the Bible as a simplistic roadmap, can scripture remain revelatory for you?  Can you use the Bible to get your ethical bearings and open you to the Spirit’s guidance?  Can archaic words and world views mean anything for your life?  

Of course, Literalists (option 2) learn whom to vote for in the presidential election by reading the Bible.  Literalists lift out a Bible verse here and there and conclude that Alabama House Bill 56 is “Christian.”  I’m not so confident of their exegetical methods.

I hope the Rev. Rusty Johnson won’t mind if I use his recent editorial in the Press-Register to illustrate the difference between taking the Bible literally and taking the Bible seriously. You may recall that 2 weeks ago the pastor of Lighthouse of Hope Holiness Church criticized many clergy in our state for trying to make the legal issue of immigration into a moral one[ii] (“Morality vs. Immigration,” 8 January 2012, Mobile Press-Register).  I respectfully insist immigration IS a moral issue.

He and I differ partly because we have different understandings about the plight of immigrants and our moral responsibilities to people in need, to specific laws, and to the predominant culture. For instance, I assume that desperate parents who illegally cross a border to feed their children are more like refugees than criminals. Many who need jobs available in the U.S. cannot spend many years and much money on the remote chance of eventually cutting through the inscrutable red tape and randomness that is the current process for legal entry for some into our country.  In all times and places, people have illegally crossed borders to save their lives, have nonviolently transgressed unjust laws.  

Further, it is a myth that these undocumented workers are “taking” jobs and treasure from our state’s economy. Nor is our way of life threatened by these neighbors who contribute not only to the economy but also to a richer culture.

I also question the logic of Rev. Johnson’s editorial.  For instance, he creates a slippery slope fallacy by suggesting that failure to deport illegal immigrants would require us to likewise “grant amnesty and pardon to all criminals in our prison system.”

However, Rev. Johnson and I should probably leave legal and political arguments to others.  He and I differ mainly and most interestingly because we as Christian ministers make different assumptions about the Bible and use very different strategies to interpret it.  

I think much of the Bible describes human behavior; Rev Johnson seems to assume the Bible always prescribes human behavior. I think the Bible records evolving understandings of God; Rev. Johnson implies there is one consistent biblical portrait of God.  I love the layers of metaphorical language; Rev. Johnson reads scripture literally—or at least with selective literalism.  I try to remember that my culture differs significantly from that of the biblical writers and try to discover what the biblical writers’ circumstances, literary conventions, and purposes might have been; Rev. Johnson seems to begin with assumptions he brings from his own culture that he then imposes upon his reading of the ancient biblical text. 

The average church-going Alabamian probably reads the Bible as Rev. Johnson does.  But there are other Christians who take the Bible too seriously to read it literally.  It is because people of faith can read the Bible in different ways that we sometimes reach very different conclusions about social issues—like immigration (or homosexuality or economic policy, etc.)

I’m going to use Rev. Johnson’s editorial to document just one major difference between our approaches to scripture. While Rev. Johnson searches for isolated “prooftexts,” I read for overarching themes.  He introduces his prooftexting by saying “God issued . . . strict immigration laws. . . . Permit me to cite specific passages from the Bible that support this assertion.”  Let’s see if he does that.

First, Rev. Johnson had to skip over verses like Leviticus 19: 33-34, which seems the biblical passage most applicable to the topic of immigration. It reads:

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” 

He skips over that command in order to cherry pick Deuteronomy 7: 1-4, which seems unrelated to the issue of immigrations.  Never quoting the words of the passage in his article, he assures his readers it teaches us to have tough immigration laws. Tough indeed. These verses endorse genocide. And Rev. Johnson completely misunderstands the context.  The children of Israel were the “immigrants” who moved into a foreign land.  No, even that interpretation is not accurate.  The children of Israel were—according to the biblical story, though not according to recent archaeological findings—invaders who slaughtered the previous inhabitants of Canaan.  Rev. Johnson has the roles reversed.  Listen to the passage he references to support strict immigration law.  Who is immigrating/invading in this scenario? 

When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— 2 and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. 3 Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.” 

I am horrified to think this isolated text would ever be invoked to direct any action.

I find it telling that another scripture Rev. Johnson uses to support his “tough on crime” stance in support of Alabama’s new immigration law—also, in my opinion, wrenched from context—is another violent verse.  It’s the only time Rev. Johnson mentions Jesus.  And that happens to be the only time the Bible describes Jesus using anything approaching physical force—to run the money changers from the Temple.  Had we time, I would interpret that passage to show that Jesus is protecting the peasants--who were NOT Roman citizens--from an exploitative economic system.  I would interrogate the connection between this passage and the immigration issue. But for now I simply acknowledge that it’s possible to isolate and twist biblical examples of human violence and divine wrath to justify meanness.  Our choices of verses can reveal more about ourselves than about God.

Rather than isolating verses, I would hope we can notice the contexts of verses and look for overarching themes when we read the Bible and connect it to today's issues.  One troubling but recurring biblical theme is, unfortunately, tribalism. But stronger still are biblical themes of God’s mercy and compassion, God’s extravagant welcome, Jesus’s radical hospitality, and St. Paul’s inclusion of the Gentiles. The Bible critiques itself in places.  But we won’t appreciate these internal corrections if we cherry pick the verses to support a conclusion we’ve already reached.

The Bible’s primary theme of God’s compassion and its roots in ancient Near East values of hospitality lead me to condemn Alabama’s current immigration law.  The Bible does not provide a blue print for immigration law, but I believe—though you are capable of drawing your own conclusions—that HB56 runs counter to Jesus’s radical example of crossing borders of culture, region and religion in order to bless, to heal, and to help “the least of these.”  I believe it’s important we not simply read the Bible, but that we allow the Bible to read us. 

“Heed my words,” God told Jonah, and you’ll be used to save people from their violent ways. “Follow me," Jesus told the first disciples, “and you’ll be used to catch people in a saving Gospel net that brings them back to the land of human beings.”  “Hear these saving words,” the Bible calls to us, “because they offer truth and not simply facts.

The Bible itself is, I believe, a liminal place of depth and mystery that just won’t fit our neat categories or conform to the boundaries in which we want to enclose it.  The Bible is an inbetween land where I find myself moving from fact into deeper truth, where I catch glimpses of the Sacred I can’t quite hold and name.  I enter the Bible as a stranger in foreign territory—but I meet myself along the way.  In this unbounded world I lose my bearings, my surety, my firm footing, but I leave its pages saying, in the words of our first hymn “Awe. . . Woe. . .  Save. . .  Grace. . . Thanks. . . Love. . .  Joy. . . Home.”  And yes, even in this inbetween realm I can say “Home.”  Oh, I sometimes read the Bible in ways that keep me on the surface of its waters.  But just when I think I am merely digesting information—the Bible swallows me whole, and down I go, submerged in deeper and messier realities that are truths of a different dimension. 

Thanks be to God.  

[i]  For a discussion of the puns in the original Hebrew and additional analysis of Jonah as comedy, see Whedbee, J. William.  “Jonah and the Joke” in The Bible and the Comic Vision.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

[ii] Johnson, Rusty.  “Morality vs. Immigration:  It is Not Un-Christian to Deport Illegal Trespassers” Mobile Press-Register (8 January 2012) 14A.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

"I Had This Feeling Maybe I Had Been Called"

Text: I Samuel 3: 1-11
for Open Table on Sunday, January 15, 2012 
(On 3rd Sundays of each month, I preach, if at all, a brief sermon in a prayer service of sung prayers, silence, and guided reflection.)

When I was in seminary, most of my cohorts were quick to share their “call stories":  a story they could pull out when asked why they were preparing for ministry. 

They told these stories to other seminarians, to the congregations they were serving during seminary years, to the ordination committees with whom they began to meet: one story about praying for a sign from God and then seeing a bumper sticker with a quote by Helen Keller that seemed to confirm his call to ministry . . .  another about “running from God” until a grandfather put his hand on his grandson’s head and whispered he should give his life to God and become the next preacher in the family's long line of preachers. . . another about promising God to pursue ministry if her child recovered from a serious illness.
I often wanted to answer this way:  “Well, after considering my aptitudes and abilities, and after weighing the worthiness and the demands of such a vocation, I’ve tentatively concluded both that Christian ministry is a worthy vocation and that I might make a half-way decent pastor.”   

Not a very heart-felt or pious response.  I knew not to answer quite so clinically.  But I didn’t have a moving story about one pivotal event in my life.  I had many undramatic situations and hunches and realizations and questions and conversations and readings that added up to a growing resolve to TRY seminary.  I explained I was attending seminary not to heed a call but to try to hear a call upon my life.  Some other time I will share more with you about what led up to my audacious decision to test that calling.  But it’s not a great story.  It’s really not.  It’s a little of this and that, like the little things in your life that impel you to act upon an idea that is frightening and wonderful.  I tell you this because the Samuel story can inspire us to listen for God’s voice in the darkness of our nighttime—or it can mislead us to think God’s voice is not only audible but dramatic and decisive.  However, listening to God may be harder than Samuel’s story—and the story of some seminarians—suggest.  

Which is why I love the story of Jayber Crow.  Like you, perhaps, I have sometimes paused long enough in the midst of everyday thoughts and activities and strained to hear God’s call upon my life --and then wondered if I’ve heard anything at all.  Jayber Crow is the narrator and title character in an exquisite novel by Wendell Berry.  Growing up in the hills of Kentucky, Jayber thinks as a young boy that maybe God is calling him into ministry.  The possibility of a religious calling even begins to keep him awake at nights.  One night he actually says aloud, like Samuel, “Speak, Lord; for thy servant heareth”—even though, unlike Samuel, he had heard nothing.  But Jayber explains, “I could not dismiss the possibility that God had spoken and I had failed to hear him because of some deficiency in me or something wrong that I had done.  My fearful uncertainty lasted for months.  Finally I reasoned that in dealing with God you had better give Him the benefit of the doubt.  I decided that I had better accept the call that had not come, just in case it had come and I had missed it!”  So Jayber eventually enters seminary because, as he puts it, he’s “pretty sure he’s received the call” to preach. 
But like some who go off to seminary, Jayber becomes less sure about this “call.”  So Jayber visits his formidable New Testament professor and confesses that he has all these messy questions, which soon tumble forth: 

“For instance,” Jayber rattles off, “If Jesus said for us to love our enemies—and He did say that, didn’t He? How can it ever be right to kill our enemies?  And if he said not to pray in public, how come we’re all the time praying in public?  And if Jesus’ own prayer in the garden wasn’t granted, what is there for us to pray, except ‘thy will be done’ which there’s no use in praying because it will be done anyhow?”  Jayber jabbers on until he startles himself with the conclusion that he can’t preach with all these doubts and questions tumbling in his head and then sighs, “But I had this feeling maybe I had been called.”

The professor answers, “And you may have been called.  But not to what you thought:  Not to what you think.  You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers.  You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.”
“And how long is that going to take?”

“I don’t know.   As long as you live, perhaps.”

“That could be a long time.”  Jayber muses.

“I will tell you a further mystery,” the professor says.  “It may take longer.”
Jayber leaves seminary.  Was he faithless to the call of God upon his life when he eventually became the town barber? Did he forsake God’s claim upon his life when he failed to reach the right answers about the Christian faith and so failed to see how he could pass them along to others?  If God calls ALL of us to “hold God’s people in our hearts,” then Jayber spent his whole life in quiet response to that call—as friend and stranger poured out their stories to him in his barber chair, as he quietly guarded each secret anguish confided, as he aided the down-and-outers with the little he had.  He never took ordination vows.  But in the words of our earlier song, I believe he said in effect, “I will go, Lord, where you lead me.  I will hold your people in my heart.”  Maybe that is what God calls each of us to do.  It is a vocation for all of us.  It is the start and foundation of any worthy vocation.  

May we listen to and live into the undramatic but ultimate call upon our lives.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Don't Throw the Baby Out with the [Baptismal] Water

Texts:  Genesis 1: 1-4; Mark 1: 1-11
Celebrating the Baptism of Jesus

Did you hear the one about the little girl who started crying after she was baptized? The minister asked her why she was upset.  “Because,” said the little girl, “you made my parents promise I would be raised in a Christian home.  But I want to live with them!”

Some of us aren’t so sure about what it means to be Christian in general, and about what baptism means in particular.  That’s partly because there have been from the beginning various practices of baptism and various meanings assigned to baptism.

Some of us were baptized as infants at the request of and with vows made by our parents. Some of us were baptized as older children or adults at our own request and volition.   Some of us have never been baptized. Some might even be wondering if this ancient rite has relevance in the year 2012.

Here are just a few reasons some might give for continuing this 2000-year-old sacrament.  Which explanation for baptism rings truest for you?

Baptism makes one a member of a church/the Church.
Baptism is the means whereby our sins are forgiven.
Baptism saves us.
Baptism is required by the Church.
Baptism is expected by the family.
Baptism is presumed by the culture.
Baptism was undergone by Jesus and we want to emulate Jesus.
Baptism pictures dying to an old identity and rising again to a new life.
Baptism elicits a family’s commitment to raise a child in the church.
Baptism is a communal rite of initiation.
Baptism is an individual act of conscience.
Baptism is a defiantly counter-cultural act.
Baptism marks our humble commitment to the ways of Jesus.
Baptism conveys God’s grace.
Baptism pictures God’s grace already extended to us.
Baptism pictures our acceptance of God’s grace.

During Sermon Talk Back you may wish to discuss which of these definitions you prefer and why.  But one of the reasons the sacraments remain important for progressive Christians is they are—I’m going to use a literary term here—multivalent.  That is, they have more than one meaning.  We don’t have to choose one interpretation of baptism.  In fact, we might use that sacramental moment in our lives as a touchstone for our faith that we return to again and again, but we can understand baptism one way today and another tomorrow. The power of a poem or painting or religious rite lies in the generosity of meanings, in its flexibility of uses and interpretations and applications.  That doesn’t mean a particular poem can be interpreted to mean absolutely ANYTHING.  But a work of art or a sacrament that stands the test of time has layers and angles that keep it alive and useful. 

Baptism, in fact, has even more facets than the ones I just summarized.  Baptism in living water remains a generative ritual overflowing with meanings.  Though the Church has often been divided over this symbol-- has put dissenters to death over this symbol--baptism remains the outward starting point of Christians’ faith journeys because it is so theologically instructive, rich, and enlivening.

And that is one reason progressive Christians value the sacraments.  Dogma gets frozen into rules and truth claims.  Dogma is used to define who’s in our tribe and who’s not. Dogma is determined by those who hold power.  Dogma can divide.

Dogma and doctrines can resemble arguments, but sacraments are more like art. Doctrines are more left brain.  Sacraments, more right brain.
Doctrines pinpoint meanings. Sacraments enlarge meanings. 

To articulate a doctrine of baptism or holy communion is to choose one meaning over others. To receive baptism or communion is to participate in an action that retains many possible resonances.

Doctrines are hemmed in and closely guarded. Sacraments are let loose into the world of experience to grow and expand. 

Dogma is what is created after sacraments are literalized.  Dogma has its place.  But postmoderns wonder if spiritual truths and personal experiences are so easily captured in objective language.  There are human moments in time that need to be marked as holy.  There are human experiences that deserve to be interpreted through the lens our religious traditions.

I elevate the implicit meanings within sacraments and symbols above explicit meanings of doctrine. Of course, I’m oversimplifying this point. After all, people who think words must mean just one thing will also require images to mean just one thing. And I admit that sacraments can also be made divisive and dangerous.  Just consider how the 16th and 17th century Anabaptists were persecuted for practicing adult baptism.  The name Anabaptist meant “one who is re-baptized.” They were so named because these Christians didn’t find their 1st baptism as infants valid and insisted on a 2nd intentional baptism as adults.  Within a few decades, thousands of Anabaptists were executed in Europe, often, ironically, by drowning, which was sadistically called their “third baptism.” Thus, a sacrament intended to celebrate newness of life was twisted into an instrument of death. 

Obviously, murder is no true sacrament.  Sacraments must be life-giving and freeing.  They will remain so if we do not lock them into literalism and law.

One way we at Open Table will keep the sacraments OPEN and free is through less mediated, more spacious ritual.  Communion and baptism are framed with some words but also some silence for your own prayer and reflection.  Much of the experience is up to YOU.  Or between you and God.  The minister should have a  fairly light touch in the rite. Clergy should not “control” who receives and who does not receive God’s gifts.  Further, the Christian faith is not primarily about assenting intellectually to a list of belief statements.  It is primarily about relationships with God and with neighbors, about ethical living and serving others. 

The primary way I enunciate a theology I invite you to consider is through my sermons.  But even if you don’t agree with a particular sermon, you can, I hope, enter freely into the spiritual spaciousness of communion each week.  The sacraments should be unfettered by tight clergy control or a theological litmus test. Our celebrations of baptism and communion over the years will you give space for unmediated meditation and meaning-making as we honor both sameness and difference, continuity and change, groundedness in the past and a fresh course to the future of Christianity. 

Another way we can keep the sacraments free and vital is to keep them relevant, inclusive, and just.  Some of you will recall that the United Church of Christ this past summer entered into an unprecedented agreement with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as with denominations in the Reformed tradition[i]. The agreement allows these denominations to recognize one another’s baptisms. One challenge for this ecumenical agreement focused on the traditional baptismal formula that concludes “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” A significant number of UCC congregations, while affirming Trinitarian theology, resist patriarchy and have therefore modified that traditional formula to be gender-inclusive.  Fortunately, the final agreement permits UCC congregations who choose to participate in this agreement to do so even when their members are baptized with more inclusive words.  Like many UCC ministers, I will baptize “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God, Mother of us all.”  In this recent ecumenical agreement, tradition was retained—and expanded.  Growing understandings of injustices require us to reconsider words so as not to perpetuate prejudices and hierarchy.  Symbols will continue to live and will deserve to live if they are themselves life-giving and just. 

Our scripture today actually documents an early evolutionary shift in the history of baptism.  Here’s evidence that from the beginning of the tradition, there was innovation. I’ve divided the Gospel reading printed in your worship bulletin into three sections to make clearer this shift. 

Mark 1:4-6 introduces John as the baptizer.  Apparently Jesus’ cousin John had literally made a name for himself as “the baptizer”—had created his signature ritual from existing Jewish water purification rituals.  Hebrew scriptures document water purification rites, and as early as 100 BCE there is already the mention of bathing as a means of ritual purification, but around the time of Jesus’s and John’s births “there arose a strong interest in water purification rites among a number of Jewish groups”[ii] . John was just one of many who called for religious renewal through water rituals. But it was John who became so strongly identified with the water ritual he performed that he earned the name “The Baptizer.” Probably Jesus was one of John’s early disciples.

In the next two verses (Mark 1: 7-8) the story teller says John believed another prophet would succeed him and would introduce yet another variation of baptism to surpass John’s baptism.  The new baptizer would be “more powerful” because his baptism would be done “with the Holy Spirit.” Do you see the pattern of change embedded in this tradition? John takes an older ritual and varies it for his use, and soon thereafter announces that his version of baptism will be modified and improved upon by another who will come after him.

In the final 3 verses (Mark 1: 9-11), the new baptizer arrives.  But first he is baptized in John’s version.  The Gospel writer wants us to see that Jesus is in line with John, who is in line with earlier traditions, but Jesus also will take the tradition and put his own stamp on it.  Jesus’s baptism will be Baptism 3.0 with the Holy Spirit promised like extra gigabytes of power. There is continuity with the tradition—as well as innovation. If Jesus models for us the life of faith, his baptism surely authorizes us to honor even that tradition through innovation. Jesus appropriated the ancient practice of baptism, the writers of the New Testament interpreted this symbol, and the church institutionalized this symbol; thus baptism is an evolving human expression of an ineffable encounter with the divine.  The unfathomable divinity, after all, extends beyond what we mark as sacred with our limited symbol set.  We prioritize certain symbols to convey beliefs within a community where these symbols are the common language.  But if we say the sacraments cannot be altered in any way, we place them on the altar of idolatry, making the symbols our god.  We can stay true to the spirit of a sacrament even if we, for instance, use more inclusive words.

Besides, there are always new ways of being sacramental, of seeing in the tangible world glimpses of God’s grace that is unmediated by language, the sacredness within us and beyond us and all around us.  From time to time you and I may develop new traditions or rituals for our use.  Our new member litany, for instance, is an Open Table tradition or ritual for us.  We don’t pretend to be elevating these new traditions to the level of universal sacraments.  And yet let us not be too quick to distance our own local homemade rites from the category of what is sacred. 

In a moment we’re going to participate in a new symbolic act, a freshly constructed religious rite.  It is not baptism, though it involves water.  You might come to the font to touch the water, to dip your finger in the water and then make the sign of the cross on your forehead, to wash your hands in the water, to gaze into the water or blow your breath upon the face of the waters. I’m not going to prescribe in detail what to do or what it might mean to you. I want to give you the chance to create prayerfully a symbol that might open up God's grace to you.

But before concluding this sermon, I don’t want to miss the chance to extend an invitation that you may not have heard from me explicitly before.  So cue the choir for the first verse of “Just As I Am.” Just kidding about that.  But I’m serious about this.  If you have never been baptized—as a child or adult--and if you would like to at least consider baptism, I would love to have a conversation about that with you later.  Baptism doesn’t mean you’ve figured out everything about the Christian faith or that you assent to every doctrine. Baptism for you might be a way for you to share a new level of commitment to follow Jesus and to do so among this supportive community of faith.  Baptism—by whatever mode you choose--might be your way of getting started on an intentional journey of faith.

Here at Open Table we do not use Christian Baptism as the gateway sacrament to our other sacrament, Holy Communion.  We do not use baptism as a tribal totem to mark the clean from the unclean.  But let us not minimize what a powerful ritual can mean in one’s faith journey.  Let us not underestimate our need for tradition.  Let us not miss an opportunity to become for others a signpost of God’s transforming work in our lives.  Let us not, Progressive Christians renewing the church, let us not, my friends, throw the baby out with the baptismal waters.  As one theologian says, we “come to God, worship God, and experience God through [a] complex of ideas [built upon symbols].  Without the symbols, images, and ideas, faith is but an empty shell”[iii].  The waters of creation in the Genesis myth and the waters of baptism in the Gospel accounts flow together into a living sacrament that can continue to renew us for the journey ahead.  Thanks be to God.

Your waters, O God, are ever bracing and refreshing.  May we continue to find ways to plunge into the currents of change, to trustingly yield to the buoyancy of your care, to surface again with vigor for a new day. We pray in the name of Jesus, who entered a beloved tradition and altered it with integrity.   Amen

[ii] Levine, Amy-Jill and Mark Brettler, eds. Jewish Annotated New Testament. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011  (58).   
[iii] Grant, C. David.  Thinking Through Our Faith: Theology for Twenty-First Century Christians. Nashville: Abingdon, 1998 (115).