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Sermon: The Voice of Love Sunday, January 13, 2019 Baptism of Jesus – Year C Luke 3:15-22

Julie Kovacs

A professor from Princeton Seminary was speaking to a group of school-aged children.  He chose as his topic the Baptism of Jesus as a moment in time when God was revealed in Jesus.  Most of the children took up their usual poses of staring at the walls or the floor. At the conclusion of his talk one student, who had been slouching on his seat all through the talk staring mainly at his feet looked up and muttered, “Don’t think that’s what its saying.”  The professor was keen to have a conversation, pleased that at least someone had been listening. “What do you suggest it is saying then?” he asked the student. “Well, the passage tells us that heaven opened up, yes?” “Yes.” Replied the professor. “And when heaven opened the Holy Spirit came down, yes?”  “Yes.” Replied the professor again. The student lifted his whole body to an upright position and stared at the professor. “It’s saying that God is on the loose in the world. And it’s dangerous.”

Out of the mouths of babes.  I think that kid is on to something!  God is loose in the world. Just look at the person sitting next to you.  The person sitting next to you has been created in the image of God and has been touched by God and has God moving through them.  This whole room, then, is filled with the presence of the Holy and it all began with the waters of baptism and baptism is filled with expectation and revelation. No wonder, Jesus’ baptism took place during the season after Epiphany. Remember, Epiphany is time of revelation and light. God on the loose is one of those revelatory moments and it causes us to pause and wonder, “God what do you expect of us?”

As the people were filled with expectation, many were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah. “The era in which John preached was marked by messianic hopes.  John’s imagery of harvest and purifying fire raised expectations that John might be the One.”  And that is why people left their homes and gathered into the wilderness to hear a fiery preacher. It wasn’t that it was John. It was because he had hope – preached hope, lived hope, and spoke with clenched teeth words of hope that could make anyone believe that there is something more and it is better than what is currently. People wanted desperately to know that the messiah was near.  Life was not so hot. The Roman Empire was stifling – taxes were high, people were enslaved, justice happened only if it supported those in power. It was a difficult and agonizing time. It is quite understandable, then, to hear how the people wanted to hope in something, in someone that was not going to beat them or torture them or bankrupt them. It is easy how the people expected John to be the One.  John’s message was based on strong ethical preaching on the nearness of God. John knew how to work the crowd.

Kate Matthews in her commentary on this passage sites the work of Richard Swanson. He writes that Jesus is right in the middle of that "multitude of Jews who are all waiting for the promises they heard about from their grandmothers" in a time when "the sense of accumulated wrong is so powerful, the backlog of unkept promises so enormous, that the hopes coalesced into a focused question directed at John: Are you the messiah?"

“No, but the one who is more powerful than I is coming.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The people’s expectations were high.  I wonder, though, what were God’s expectations in all of this? And at that time, how well did John even know Jesus, if at all?

Jesus was baptized and in the Gospel of Luke’s account, Jesus’ baptism took place after John was imprisoned.  So we really do not know if John did the actual act of baptizing. Regardless of who actually did the baptizing, the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended like a dove and a voice from heaven announced, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Or from the Common English Bible version we heard today, ““You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” Wouldn’t that be something if we heard that more than just once a year?  

Martin Luther, one of the great Protestant Reformers, passionately reminded people to “remember your baptism!”  I cannot remember my own baptism. I was told though, that I was three years old. My brother, who was ten at the time, and I were baptized together by my mother’s cousin who was a Presbyterian preacher.  We gathered with family and friends in the dining room of my childhood home. It was there that I was told I was beloved.

When Martin Luther said to “remember your baptism” it is more than just talking about dressing up in a pretty white dress or suit, having a party and, if we're a baby, everyone saying how sweet we look. In his catechism, Luther wrote, "A truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism once begun and ever to be continued." Martin Luther wanted us to remember each day who we are, and whose we are, and how beloved we are. Even in an age when we spend so much time talking about "self esteem," don't we still long to hear that we are beloved?

God’s expectations of us are to live out our baptismal promises to the best of our abilities.  And if we are not baptized, God still expects good and compassionate things out of us. Kathryn Matthews writes in her UCC column, “Today, in churches around the world, people are still being baptized, still being washed in the living waters, still thirsting for God's grace and a word of forgiveness and life, still waiting to be included, to find their place in the story of healing and salvation, still longing for the chance to start their life over. The voice from heaven says, "You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." These words may come from heaven but they do not come out of the blue: they echo God's words from Isaiah long before: "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you" (43:1b, 4a). God remembers us, Isaiah says; in fact, God reassures us, "I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands" (49:16). God's love didn't start yesterday, or even in the New Testament. It is from of old, and it is focused on each one of us, by name. We belong to God, and God loves us. It's as if God is trying to say to each one of us, "No matter what happens and no matter how low and discouraged you feel, no matter what is happening around you and in your life, don't you ever let anyone tell you that you are anything but a precious and beloved child of God."  God expects us to remember that. God expects us to keep saying that and preaching that.   

The other thing that is worth remembering is that Jesus’ baptism reveals to us that he is fully human and fully divine. Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that Jesus "took the plunge right along with the rest of us" and "never asks us to go anywhere he has not been first" ("Sacramental Mud" in Mixed Blessings).

Yes! God is on the loose in the world.  Expectations and questions swirl around us as we speak of the Promised One drawing near to God’s promises. The Holy Spirit and baptism are signs of God’s affirmation of Jesus; however, the grace of the words spoken “from heaven” is not restricted to Jesus alone.  In Christ, we are those whom God calls beloved and with whom God is so very pleased. Such love affirms us as God’s own. You are the beloved children of God and with you God is so pleased and finds so much happiness! May it be so.

Sunday, January 20, 2019 Second Sunday after Epiphany Sermon: Beloved Community I Corinthians 12:1-11

Julie Kovacs

Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.” These words were spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement and I certainly have reaped the benefits of that movement bearing in mind the work of King and other trailblazers who spoke of the injustices of race and sexism and sought to squelch those injustices for the future generations. I am not oblivious to the fact that it took a brave, articulate, and deeply holy man to stand before 250,000 people to say that, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” It is difficult to say; however, if that dream has come true when 800,000 people are on furlough over a wall to keep a certain kind of people out of our country. It is hard to say if this dream has come true when faced once again with a deeply divided nation spirally out of control as it confronts the issues of race, immigration, guns, incarceration rates, inflated prescription drug prices, affordable housing, and the ethical demands of what it means to be human in this society and how humanity should be treated.

As I write this sermon, I am reminded of the vivid images 2 ½ years ago of a woman in a car on Larpenteur Avenue, 1.38 miles from my home, wondering if her boyfriend is dead, after being pulled over for a supposed back taillight issue, and a four-year old girl in the backseat witnessing a police officer shoot a man. I am reminded of the countless images of students at “pick a school across the nation” who have endured gun violence in their hallways and then being told by my seven-year old that they practice being quiet in case a bad person comes into their school with a gun.   

The media coverage and video clips are haunting and heartbreaking. The variety of gifts that God has given us are washed away when we see and hear such persecution and this is NOT what God intended.

If we are one body with many members, how does the body survive when the members do not look out for its other parts?  

Folks our country has a serious problem. Our cities and rural towns have a serious problem. Our neighborhoods have a serious problem. What’s the problem? Racism, Bigotry, Gun Control, Criminal Justice System, Intolerance, Fear, and just plain Ignorance. Have any of us feared for our life as we were pulled over by the police for speeding or for a back tail light issue? No. In the white culture we have been raised, when police pull us over or when we come in contact with a person in uniform – respect is immediate. We follow the orders given, we grumble if we have been fined, and we drive off trying to figure out how to pay for the fine, or if we are going to contest the fine, or it becomes a story of “getting off the hook.” What about the then four-year old girl in the backseat of Philando Castile’s car who is now seven? She was told to respect police too. The four-year old’s and seven-year-old’s are all told to respect the police and now this little girl has a vivid image of police and what they are capable of doing, especially if you are a person of color.  

Race can be uncomfortable to talk about especially here at church. And yet, Sunday mornings remain one of the most segregated times across America. I know, I know…some of us wanted to come to church to get away from all that we have been hearing all week long. Church should be a place of respite. I agree with that; however, church is also a place to seek justice and peace. As Christians we are called to care for the neighbor, we are called to use our gifts to their fullest potential and that sometimes means we need to wade through the uncomfortable conversations that confront us in our everyday lives. Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  So we need to start talking about our beloved community and what it means to each of us even in the midst of church living out our call as faithful disciples.

Jesus and his actions were one, big, giant uncomfortable force. WE are being called to proclaim the Gospel in a way that celebrates diversity. What we are seeing in our country is not normal and it is not good. Black Lives Matter – and yet it is hard to see that!  Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, but there is a legitimate issues taking place in the African American community that is not happening in other communities. Look at the incarceration rates, look at the number of African American families living below the poverty line – at least just look – and ask, why? The numbers are staggering. For example, according to Pew Research: when we look at the imprisonment rate, which tallies the number of prisoners per 100,000 people we are able to identify racial and ethnic differences in the nation’s prison population. In 2016, there were 1,608 black prisoners for every 100,000 black adults – more than five times the imprisonment rate for whites (274 per 100,000) and nearly double the rate for Hispanics (856 per 100,000).    

The church is the place to ask these questions, to hold beloved community, and to long for healing. Jesus talked to people he was not supposed to talk to, healed people he was not supposed to heal, and challenged the status quo. The Gospel message that Jesus preached raised questions within his faith community, within the community in which he lived, and the emphasis was always on loving your neighbor as yourself. Because we are the United Church of Christ, we are called to carry on Christ’s work. This is where the church needs to be the church – care for its community and all who reside in it; to care for neighbors and to hold each other accountable or as the UCC has said - to be the church means to: protect the environment, care for the poor, forgive often, reject racism, fight for the powerless, share earthly and spiritual resources, embrace diversity, love God, and enjoy this life.

I sat in my office for the longest time watching videos, reading news clips, and just sitting listening to the Learning Center children burp, laugh, cry, and talk about their toys and what they do for fun. I just sat there trying to hold on to this stark dichotomy of living in uncomfortable times. We want our kids to be safe when they walk to and from school. We want our police officers to have the training and equipment needed to do their job to the best of their abilities. And we need to make the space to have the uncomfortable conversation for if we cannot have the hard talk about race, guns, and violence in God’s house, where can we have it?  

Elie Wiesel, a Noble Peace Prize winner and a survivor of the Holocaust, died at the age of 87 in 2016. In his acceptance speech on December 10, 1986 he said, “Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.” Folks, I’m concerned. The many lives that are lost – black, white, brown, uniformed, un-uniformed, old, young, – the many gifts lost. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though, many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we are all baptized into one body – and we are all made to drink of the one Spirit.” (I Cor. 12: 12).

Doing nothing is not an option any longer. Pretending that THIS is going to go away is not an option any longer. What shall we do to make King’s dream a reality? In the end, King writes, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

We cannot afford to be silent any longer if we aspire to live in beloved community.