Thursday, February 22, 2024

Bible Trucker Guy

Mark 8:31-38

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Last Sunday I got a call from my niece Leslie.  She was upset.  A lot of you know Leslie.  She often took care of Coda for us while we traveled.  Chris, her husband, is the driver of the semi sometimes parked in our parking lot.  Anyway, Leslie and Chris had apparently stopped at a “Christian Truck Stop” (EEK! Right?).  She basically described it as a version of our Appalachian Trail ministry… but for truckers.  They provide for free what truckers need along the Way… a free and safe place to park, free showers, laundry, and a free breakfast.  She said that when they had stopped there before it really WAS like our AT ministry in that whoever came was unconditionally welcomed and it wasn’t about attacking anyone who was different or about converting anyone.  Leslie was upset because THIS time it had been different. 

In the Gospel, Peter took Jesus aside to rebuke him because what Jesus was planning… was NOT how things were done.  This talk of suffering, rejection, and death did not fit with Peter’s worldview.  This wasn’t just Peter’s view either, it was how LOTS of people saw the world!  Peter knew both from history and his own life experience that suffering was not the way to get ahead in the world!  Rejection was not how anyone, EVER, had built a movement, let alone a kingdom, and he knew with 100% certainty that dying was NOT how anyone, ever, had become a king!  Based on not just Peter’s experience but on literally ALL of human history… Jesus just wasn’t doing things the way things had always been done before!

Back at the Christian Truck Stop, Pastor Mark who ran the place and some Bible Trucker Guy sat down with Leslie while Chris was taking his turn in the showers.  They proceeded to do to Leslie, what Peter had done to Jesus.  They told her she was doing her life all wrong!  As I talked with Leslie it became clear that Pastor Mark and Bible Trucker Guy’s view of the world was not radically uncommon.  It’s actually the way LOTS of the world understands things to work.  They believed their kind of Christianity was the only true religion and that was because, see, that’s what the Bible says and forcing people to their way of thinking was all for their own good.  

Their Christianity did not however include a place for people who identified by gender, sexual-orientation, or religion in any way other than the way they believed.  Leslie, who identifies as not exactly Christian and as not exactly straight told them their version of Christianity didn’t work for her AND it didn’t work for the people at her uncle’s church either where she had been welcomed exactly as she was!  To which they asked, “Are you sure your uncle and the people at his church are really Christians?”  

You laugh, and you should… but this is, in essence, today’s Gospel lesson!  In that story Peter and pretty much the rest of the world, had “set their minds on human things”… accepting the world as it had always been, insisting that Jesus MUST ALSO live and work that way, because that was the way the world must always be.  Jesus told Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  

You see, Jesus wasn’t interested in the way the world had always worked before.  He wasn’t interested in those “human things” because they were terrible!  Human things had put the Jews over here and Greeks over there.  Men over there and women over here.  Free here.  Slaves there.  Rich got richer.  Poor got poorer.  Those same human ways are what Pastor Mark, the government of Oklahoma, Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, and Vladimir Putin use to put cis over here and trans over there.  Right over here and Wrong over there.  Straight here.  Gay there.  When minds are set on human things people get divided.  With minds set on human things people who don't fit one particular box get bullied, imprisoned, and killed!  This past week leaders with their minds set on human things created a situation where a 16 year old trans student named Nex Benedict was beaten to death in a high school bathroom.  With minds set on human things Putin had Alexi Navalny killed in an arctic prison.  People who set their minds on human things divide the world.  Jesus wasn’t then and isn’t now interested in the world working that way!  

To that way of thinking, leading, and living, Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan!”  Jesus wants Peter, and in the next paragraph wants all of his followers, to set their minds instead on DIVINE things.  Because when we set our minds on DIVINE things, the world doesn’t keep working like it’s always worked.  When we set our minds on human things, we grab and hold onto all we can, believing more stuff equals more life.  When we set our minds on divine things we realize the more we give of our stuff and of ourselves, the more alive we actually become!  When we set our minds on human things we believe and live out a life of divide and conquer, using bullying, lying, violence, blustering, threats and death to FORCE our way on others.  When we set our minds on divine things we work tirelessly to surround ALL people with God’s infinite and unconditional love and draw together EVERY part of humanity just as they are, SO THAT WE CAN BE ONE AS GOD CREATED US TO BE!  THAT vision... of the world gathered together as ONE in all of its amazing diversity... it has a name.  It is called, the Kingdom of God and may God's Kingdom COME! Amen.  

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Not Just a Me and My Jesus Affair

Mark 1:9-15

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 the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Today, we begin a Baptismal Journey.  And I’m not talking about Jeff here.  I’m talking about the Baptismal Journey that you and I have just committed to make over the next forty days when we said, “We will, and we ask God to help us.”  You see, Baptism for us Episcopalians and Lutherans, is not just a “me and my Jesus” affair.  Baptism for us is God adopting a new sibling into the family.  It is the Body of Christ (which is all of us together) incorporating a new member.  It is a new branch being grafted into Jesus, who is the vine… All of which are ways to understand that Baptism is something we all do together!  

But what is this “Baptism” thing that we are all now journeying toward together?  For Jesus, it was the beginning of his life’s work and mission to tell and show the world about God’s unconditional and unlimited love... a love stronger than death!  It was also the beginning of his life’s work demonstrating for people a WAY to live this life as a JOY rather than a slog.  To show us life isn’t meant to be put off until the sweet by and by!  It’s meant to be lived NOW!  Beginning at his Baptism he lived his life showing us that OUR lives are meant to be filled with abundance in THIS moment and every moment, and then to keep going that way beyond the limits of time itself!  The life God created us to live is meant to fill our present and our infinite future with love, peace, joy, meaning, and purpose.  

But before we get to all of that we’ve got a pitstop to make.  It’s the same stop Jesus made.  For forty days (not coincidentally the same number of days in the season of Lent) the Spirit DROVE Jesus to that wilderness pitstop to be tempted by Satan.  Thank you Holy Spirit?  Actually, yes, thank you Holy Spirit… and here’s why.   It was there in the wilderness that Jesus received EVERYTHING he needed to do what God had called him to do in his Baptism.  It was there in the wilderness, that Jesus did the spiritual equivalent of a chef sharpening his knives for the work ahead.  That’s why, if you really need Satan to be a red guy with horns, then the best way to think about Jesus’ time in the wilderness is imagining Jesus using Satan’s horns as a whetstone, sparks flying as Jesus draws the blade across the devil’s rock hard noggin day after day… the blade, over the course of those forty days, slowly coming to a perfect razor’s edge.

But it’s also really important to remember that out in the wilderness, Jesus wasn’t alone.  He was kept company by the wild beasts and waited on by angels.  For the particular baptismal journey WE are setting out on today with Jeff, THAT will be OUR role for the next forty days!  WE are to be the Wild Beasts!  WE are to be the Angels!  I’ll let you debate in coffee hour who are beasts and who are angels!  But angel or beast, we are called together as a congregation to dedicate ourselves to accompany Jeff and one another through these next forty days.  To do that we’ll need two things.  FIRST we'll need to show up.  That's 80% as we all know.  SECOND we'll need to talk to each other.  Again, Baptism is not just a me and my Jesus affair!


Then, having made it through those forty days we will come to the Easter Vigil where Jeff will be baptized and all of us, along with Jeff will affirm our baptisms.  That Saturday night however, will be NO different than the day of Jesus’ Baptism.  God, that night, will most certainly say from the heavens, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” because that is what God says at EVERY Baptism!  And regardless of whether your baptism that night happened a minute ago or a century ago, we will all leave that night with the exact same calling from God that was given to Jesus at his Baptism:  We will be called as a group… as the Body of Christ… to go and tell the world about God’s unconditional, unlimited love... a love stronger than death... and to live our lives together, demonstrating for others a WAY to live this life… through self giving love, compassion, generosity, and grace... that leads to abundant life!

Every Lent (whether we have a particular Baptismal poster Child of God or not that year) is meant to be a Baptismal Journey for each and every one of us.  Every Lent is meant to remind us that we are Baptized Children of God… part of God’s family, a part of the Body of Christ, a branch grafted into Jesus the vine.  Every Lent is meant to remind us that God has declared each of us Beloved, up front, as a free gift and Every Lent we are called to live more deeply into the gift of abundant and eternal life we were created to live and Every Lent we are called remember and do all that... TOGETHER.  

It is TOGETHER that we are called to walk through these next forty days.  It is as the Body of Christ that we come together each week, to lean on one another, to laugh with one another, to support one another, and to encourage one another as we walk together on Jesus Way.  Baptism is not just a me and my Jesus affair.  Lent is not just a me and my Jesus affair.  Christianity is not just a me and my Jesus affair.  Baptism, Lent, and Christianity are Body of Christ affairs and so may we live ever more deeply into that truth in these next forty days… TOGETHER.  Amen.   

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

The Tale of Joe Bob Jackson

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Once there was a man named Joe Bob Jackson.  Most people though, just called him Bubba.  He set out to be the greatest BBQ man in all of Berkshire county.  Determined to achieve this lofty goal he set out gathering all that he needed.  He looked though hundreds of cookbooks, tasted dozens of other people’s Q, he researched the best wood, temperatures, rubs, and sauces.  He visited people with every sort of smoker that had ever been created watching them for hours and hours.  Eventually, deciding on the best way to proceed he had a custom smoker built on the back of a trailer.  It was a work of art!  Black and beautiful with a smokestack stretching up into the sky!  He cooked and tweaked and cooked and tweaked the recipes and formulas until it was perfection.  He paid for marketing gurus and artists to make him a logo and signs and get the word out.  He bought a brand new pickup truck to haul the smoker to every corner of the county.  His name became known from North Adams to Ashley Falls.  He even got the people on the Great Barrington Facebook page (perhaps the most negative and toxic place in all of the Berkshires) to praise his operation!  He had it all!  Well, he nearly had it all.  You see, it turns out he lacked just on thing.  Have you made out the one thing he was missing?  Right.  He didn’t ever actually feed anybody.  He had all the tools, the very best tools!  But having all the tools is not the point of barbecue. 

There are three practices that Christians have traditionally taken up for the season of Lent.  They are… giving alms, prayer, and fasting.  We Christians often mess up these three practices in the same way that our good friend, Bubba Joe Bob Jackson, messed up with his barbecue business.  We focus intensively, obsessively, and exclusively on those TOOLS and forget that the tools themselves are not the point.  They are a only a means to the real and actual purpose of the season of Lent.    

Giving alms, prayer, and fasting are the TOOLS of Lent in the same way that a smoker, recipes, and a logo are the tools of a barbecue business.  For Bubba Joe Bob Jackson, he had spent countless hours, an unbelievable amount of money, and done a ton of real work to perfect his tools.  But in the end, all that time, money and work didn’t matter at all, because all that work, time and money never put even one sandwich into the hands of a real human being hungry for barbecue.  

As we begin this journey today called Lent, keep in mind the lesson of Bubba Joe Bob Jackson who spent countless time, money and effort creating the very best tools anyone has ever put together for a barbecue business and yet never put even one sandwich in another person’s hands.  As you think about picking up the the traditional tools of Lent… giving alms, prayer, and fasting… or as you begin to think about any other Lenten Discipline you might practice in the weeks ahead, continually ask yourself the question, “Am I being just like Bubba?  Am I just playing with the TOOLS of Lent?”  Then, when you’ve asked yourself that question and given yourself a REAL and HONEST answer, remember the lesson of Bubba Joe Bob Jackson… when it comes to both Barbecue and Lent, the point of both is NOT the tools we use.  The point of both Lent and Barbecue is to use the tools we have to connect more deeply with God through our neighbors.  Amen.       

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Listen to Him

Mark 9:2-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.


As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 

There are all sorts of people around who will tell you they KNOW EXACTLY what God wants.  Most of them coincidentally claim that God wants EXACTLY what they want!  Yeah, I don’t think so either.  But here, on top of the mountain with Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all super glowy, we hear directly from God what God wants.  “This is my son.  Listen to him!”  LISTEN TO HIM!  Direct, clear, simple.  God wants us to listen to Jesus.  Simple, right?  Just listen.  But what DID Jesus actually say?  

Well, the first thing he said was don’t tell anybody about this transfiguration thing until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead.  Now, Jesus HAS risen from the dead so we’ve listened to him on that one… maybe by accident… but let’s take a win where we can get one!  From there though, Jesus says a lot more.  JUST here in chapter nine you’ve got:  Faith is more powerful than we could ever imagine and can get anything done.  Prayer is also powerful and can work when everything else doesn’t.  We are to be servants of all, not bosses.  Don’t make life hard for people who are not yet Christians.  But, more than that, be helpful and welcoming to all people.  Making faith hard for them or exclusive for you is worse than loosing body parts or being thrown in the ocean with a giant stone tied around your neck.  Both of which, to be honest, sound pretty bad, and then finally Jesus says we should be salty.  Which I thought at first was a big vindication for me, Pastor Potty mouth, but it turns out that when you actually LISTEN to Jesus, he meant we should bring out the best in the people and the world around us, like salt brings out the best of the flavors in the food we eat.    

That’s just chapter nine but it’s plenty to get started with, I think.  So how are you doing?  How are you at LISTENING to Jesus?  Not just hearing his words… but LISTENING to him… hearing what he says, then processing it, letting it sink in, letting it shape and mold and change you?  So-so maybe?  Well, my job description actually REQUIRES me to LISTEN to Jesus and I’M not great at it either and that’s because IT’S HARD!  It’s hard and the world out there is not that helpful.  More than HALF of Americans now call themselves “Nones” which means when asked about their connection to a faith community they say they have “NONE”.  No connection.  None.

I’m not mad at the Nones.  I think probably the Church NOT listening to Jesus has created more Nones than anything else but for those of us TRYING to listen to Jesus, the world out there just isn’t going to be that helpful.  So, for those of us who WANT to listen to Jesus… what do we do?  Well, Peter’s idea was to build a little retreat center on top of the mountain.  Another idea is to wallow in guilt for not listening to Jesus.  We could even combine the two and build little guilt wallowing shacks on top of a mountain and stay in there for the duration.  Another classic is blaming someone else individually for our trouble listening to Jesus.  If blaming one person for our problems doesn’t work, we could try blaming another entire group of people!  HEY!  I KNOW!  We could make it Taylor Swift’s fault!  Or, just maybe, we could listen to Jesus and do what he told the disciples to do on top on that mountain and start walking down the mountain and step after step begin walking into a very different season of life.

This Wednesday at noon we will begin the season of Lent right here with Ash Wednesday worship.  If you are interested in walking into a very different season of life… beginning a journey of deeper LISTENING to God’s Son, THAT would be a good (and traditional) place and time to start that journey.  Ash Wednesday worship will also have, concentrated into this one convenient space, a group of other people looking to make a very similar journey.  With a little courage, you could even ask a couple of them to keep you company along the way.  

What would happen if we did that?  It’s interesting to think about… What WOULD happen if we all gathered together on Ash Wednesday with that shared purpose of getting better at LISTENING to Jesus… not just to get together to HEAR his words… but to LISTEN to Jesus… to let what he says marinade in our noggins, to roll those words, ideas and stories around in our minds and share our thoughts and wonderings with one another?  What would happen?

I’m really not sure what would happen, but that’s what Jesus asked his disciples to do when he led them down that mountain toward Jerusalem.  So, if this is the Lent you are up for that sort of journey I’ll leave you with just a couple of travel tips for the road.  First, it would be good to remember that you’re unlikely to get much help with this journey out there in the world.  They might ask you what you’re giving up for Lent, but that’s about it.  So if you’re going to take this trip I’d recommend coming here.  In fact I’d recommend coming here RELIGIOUSLY as the place you are most likely to find the companionship you’ll want on this journey.  Second, stay a while after worship and talk to someone.  Ask them “what did you hear Jesus say today in the Gospel lesson?”  I know that’s about 100X harder than giving up chocolate for Lent… which is why people give up chocolate for Lent because the other is SO HARD!  But what would happen if you did that?  What would happen if we all began deeply listening to Jesus? Amen. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

A Gospel Sandwich

Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. 

This Gospel lesson is called an “inclusio” in Biblical studies.  I just call it a Gospel sandwich.  It’s got two slices of “teaching with authority” bread, on either side of an “unclean spirit exorcism” filling.  Mark’s trying to get us to understand that we need to eat it all together… that you can’t take out the filling and just eat the bread and you can’t tear off the bread and just have the filling. 

When I first read this lesson I tore off the bread and just had the filling.  I zeroed in on the unclean spirit stuff and started making my list and checking it twice writing down everyone I knew who was naughty and not at all nice!  I wanted my unclean spirits to cry out “are you here to destroy us” and I wanted to say them “damn straight I am!”  But this lesson is not just about the filling.  Jesus tells us we must eat this sandwich as a whole. 

There’s a popular little quote going around by Rev. Benjamin Cremer that says, “The moment we Christians start looking for an authoritarian “strongman” to lead us is the moment we stop looking for the One who leads by washing feet, who rides a donkey instead of a warhorse, and who tells his followers to put away their swords and take up their crosses instead.”  Right on... but I think he's beating around the bush so he comes across as being as obsessed with the bread as I was with the filling.  Again Jesus insists, we must eat this sandwich as a whole. 

When Mark made this Gospel Sandwich to explain what Jesus was all about, he was letting us know FIRST that from the very top of the sandwich, from the beginning of everything we do… down to the very bottom of the sandwich, to the very end of all we do… Jesus’ teachings hold it all together.  Jesus' teachings are that God’s love is for all of humanity and all of creation… that everyone, from every race, creed, and country has been, and is, being wrapped in a Divine loving embrace that can’t be undone.  That’s the bread, and to be a whole sandwich, we obviously MUST have the bread.  

But this sandwich also teaches that there will inevitably be times when the unclean spirit jumps up and yells, “What have you to do with us?”  This lessons teaches us that those are NOT the times for subtlety or gentleness.  So, “when Christians start looking for an authoritarian strongman to lead us”… that’s not the time to beat around the bush... it's the time to say clearly and strongly that those people have STOPPED BEING CHRISTIAN!  That’s the middle of this Gospel sandwich and to be a whole sandwich… we must have that middle as well. 

By making this lesson into a Gospel Sandwich Jesus is showing us that real, solid, clear boundaries… standing up to, and calling out evil… saying out loud and with clarity that “This behavior is Christian and This behavior is simply NOT”… Those things are NOT outside the realm of love; they are actually an essential part of the realm of love… you guessed it… like a sandwich made of both bread and filling!  This Gospel Sandwich teaches us that dealing clearly and firmly with unclean spirits… calling out a thing for what it actually is with clarity and without hesitation, IS just as critical a part of our calling as followers of Jesus as surrounding everyone we meet (including those with unclean spirits) with God’s Divine love.  Jesus is again calling us to eat the whole Sandwich!  

In my lifetime, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a time where hearing, digesting, and putting into daily practice the lessons of this Gospel sandwich were more crucial.  We are surrounded by men and women whose words and actions end up frankly being best described as those of unclean spirits!  I’m a science guy, as you know, but things are so far gone that the best way I’ve found to describe what they are doing, even in this modern age, is to call it the work of unclean spirits and that makes this Gospel Sandwich a sandwich for 2024!  It calls us to confront the words, actions, and policies of those with evil spirits directly and clearly.  It calls us to remember that Jesus himself calls us in this lesson to use clear and firm boundaries IN ORDER TO love our neighbors.  AND this Gospel Sandwich also calls us to remember, that even those with evil spirits, are also surrounded by God’s unconditional love.

This Gospel Sandwich calls us to practice a kind of love that is not at all watered down.  It is both a love that surrounds all things in this world unconditionally.  And it is also a love that cares so much about our neighbors that, in that love, we will find ourselves compelled to call out their evil spirits for what they are.  To not rely on subtlety to get the message across to them because in love, we want them to be free!


Mark built this Gospel Sandwich to help all of us understand those two drastically different looking facets of love, see how they are used by Jesus, AND how they are inseparably intertwined with one another.  Mark built this Gospel Sandwich to then teach us that as we eat, digest, and practice this Sandwich as a whole, we are walking Jesus’ Way.  He built this Gospel Sandwich so that as we eat it as a whole, each day we will find that it becomes easier to reflect God’s love, both in the way that tells the evil spirits to just “shut it” AND in the way that draws those same evil spirits into a love wide enough, even for the likes of them… and therefore, even for the likes of us!  Amen.  

Friday, January 12, 2024

Good News Begins in Baptism NOT in Fear

Mark 1:4-11

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

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.”

Here we are at the beginning of the year and here we are at what Mark calls, “The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”.  The beginning for Mark happens as Jesus comes up out of the water, and God says “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  For Mark it didn’t start with the manger, shepherds or any angels heard on high.  It starts, with Baptism.  It starts with God saying to Jesus, “With you I am well pleased.”  But well pleased about what?  I mean, up to this point Jesus hadn’t done… well anything!   No healings, no miracles, no walking on water, no water into wine, nothing!  He’s maybe been helping out his step dad with the Goldstein kitchen remodel but that’s not really heaven-opening stuff.  So what has Jesus DONE to make God so pleased with him?  The answer is… NOTHING!  Jesus has done absolutely NOTHING to make God well pleased with him!  And THAT, my non-fundamentalist, Lutherpalian friends, is the WHOLE point!  THAT is what makes this GOOD news!

God is not just pleased, but WELL pleased, simply and only because Jesus is God’s Child… simply and only because they are forever bound together in love.  And here’s why Jesus’ Baptism is not just the Beginning of the Good News for Jesus, but is the Beginning of the Good News for you and me as well… YOUR BAPTISM IS NO DIFFERENT THAN JESUS’ BAPTISM!

When any of us come up out of the water, whether sprinkled, poured, dunked, or hosed down from head to toe… each and every one of us pleases God… not for anything that we’ve done or anything we will or won’t do in the future, but simply because we are, like Jesus, God’s child!  God declares here on earth what has already and always been true in heaven… That God is not just “regular” pleased with you, but “Well Pleased” with you… WELL PLEASED that you and God are bound up together in an infinite and unbreakable love beyond all human understanding. 

Now I know that the “unlimited and unbreakable Divine love” sort of Christianity (a.k.a. genuine Christianity) isn’t the sort that the LOUD and ANGRY people like.  They would rather you live in constant fear that God will be disappointed in you, smite you, or abandon you to hell for all eternity if you poke even one pinky toe outside the lines they’ve drawn.  They want you live paralyzed by worry that “If I fail, if I go the wrong way, if I’m misled somewhere, if anything leads me off the path, then God won’t like me anymore.”  

BUT Mark’s Gospel makes it clear, GOOD NEWS does not begin in FEAR!  GOOD NEWS begins in Baptism and that Good News is that you JUST CAN’T MESS UP BAD ENOUGH FOR GOD TO EVER STOP LOVING YOU!  That GOOD NEWS is that you have been set FREE!  FREE from the worry and fear that God could ever be disappointed in you, smite you, or abandon you to hell for all eternity for poking a pinky toe outside the lines.

Remembering that GOOD NEWS is an excellent place to begin 2024.  A year where fundamentalists, Christian Nationalists, and all the other merchants of fear (who are Legion) will be raising their already loud, angry, and relentless sales pitch to never before imagined levels in this country.  They will be hard-selling their product of “paralyzing fear” to us and our neighbors with whatever it takes:  confusion, hatred, bait and switch, bombast, threats of violence and actual violence as well.  They will be selling this paralyzing fear falsely labeled as “christianity” and trying to get you and your neighbors to believe that the best thing… the faithful thing… for us all to do this year is to stay home, lock the door, keep our heads down, keep quiet, and toe whatever line they draw.  

They are selling it but I’m telling you, “DON’T BUY IT!”  It’s a load of manure!  It’s actually not anywhere near as good as a load of manure.  Manure you can at least compost and put on your garden.  What they’re selling is a toxic sludge no one needs!  They will be selling it loudly and relentlessly this year BUT YOU DON’T NEED IT!  Why?  Because you are Baptized!  Because your Baptism has set you free from all they're selling!  Instead, let us all begin this year with a relentless determination to live into the GOOD NEWS that begins in Baptism and not in Fear!  

What’s that look like?  Well in that department, I think the loud and angry people can actually be quite helpful.  They have become almost perfectly anti-Christ in their positions.  So, if you listen to what they say (and they’re so dang loud you can’t help but here them) and then live into your Baptism by trying different ways to do the opposite, you'll be off to a good start.  When they loudly proclaim hatred, we’ll dream up new ways to be about love.  When they call people vermin, we’ll know exactly the people we need to reach out to in welcome.  When they promote violence, we’ll embrace non-violence.  When they want us to be exhausted, stay home alone, and out of the way, we’ll know we need to get up, gather here, recharge one another for the week ahead and live in the world like the fearless, bold, forever loved, baptized children of God we are!  Let us not make this a year where we are held captive by fear!  Let us make 2024 a year where we live powerfully into the GOOD NEWS of God’s infinite and unbreakable love for all of creation!  After all... WE ARE BAPTIZED!  Amen.