So…our time together is drawing to a close. We’re about to enter a strange new world–the world where I am no longer your pastor. February 1, I will start learning a new congregation; you’ll begin the adventure of discerning who God is calling to be your next pastor. Several of you have told me—I’ve appreciated your candor—“I don’t like change.” I hear you. Change is challenging. Things we thought we always could count on suddenly disappear. Or, according to some of you, abandon you. 🙂 So much of life goes so fast and changes so quickly, it’s nice– and important–to have at least a few things that are steady, dependable, certain.
In the midst of these UN-certain times, what can we do? How can we navigate this new terrain when we can’t feel the ground beneath our feet?
One thing that helps transitions go more smoothly is good administration. If processes are outlined clearly and followed, it reduces a lot of anxiety. In our process of preparing to move, I find that when I get a little overwhelmed by it all, it helps to measure things–furniture, room size…cats. Or to make charts. Or to nail down one more detail. In times of transition, tending to the nuts and bolts is key. We are blessed by amazing leadership on Council right now. You can rest easy that they will handle all the administrative pieces of the transition with competence and grace. And we are glad to have Marie Bacchiocchi, our Interim Conference Minister, with us today. She will provide administrative oversight from the denomination.
But good administration isn’t only the responsibility of Council and the Conference. In order for the community to remain strong and do the important work of discernment, it’s vital that every member of the community continue offering your gifts—your gifts of presence, your gifts of service, your gifts of money. If you pull back, if you withhold your gifts, if instead of being an active participant in the transition, you decide to wait and see how things turn out, the community will suffer. And–if you sit out the transition–I can guarantee you aren’t going to find the end result of the discernment process satisfying…. because you’ll have had no say in it, right? If there’s one thing I hope you’ll remember from my tenure here, it’s the understanding that church isn’t something “they” do; it’s something “we” do together. Even when it’s hard, a church whose full membership is fully engaged is a strong church. You are a strong church; you’re growing stronger all the time. Even now. Especially now.
So, how do we navigate new terrain when we can’t feel the ground beneath our feet? We tend to administration. But that’s true for any group facing change. Today’s Gospel lesson reminds us of a resource unique to communities of Jesus’ followers facing change: our baptisms.
The story is familiar. Jesus has been born, grown up, and probably worked for his dad. Then he hears the preaching of his cousin John and something within him stirs. One day as John is baptizing people in the Jordan River, Jesus comes and asks to be baptized. John says, “Um, Cuz, I think you’ve got this backward. I should be baptized by YOU.” Jesus assures John that he—Jesus—is right. He is Jesus, after all. John relents and baptizes Jesus.
It’s as Jesus emerges from the baptismal waters that he hears the words, “You are my child, the beloved. With you I am well-pleased.” In a moment, as we do every year, we’ll renew our baptismal vows. If you choose to come up and receive a blessing, you will hear these words spoken to you. “You are God’s child. You are loved. With you, God is well-pleased.”
Do you ever have trouble taking those words in? Do you ever have trouble believing you are loved by God, that God is well-pleased with you? Yeah. That’s why we renew our baptismal vows every year.
In a little over a month, Lent will begin. The Gospel lesson for the first Sunday in Lent will be the story of Jesus’ time of temptation in the wilderness. I understand why the stories are separated liturgically, but when read together, they tell a deeper—and fuller–story. Mark tells us that immediately after his baptism, God’s Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. So, God says, “I love you! Now, go out in the wilderness and fast for 40 days.”
Which isn’t as harsh or counter-intuitive as it sounds. Sometimes, the best way to see what we’re made of is to be tested. Many of you have shared with me how much you have learned from your own times of testing. Through the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the end of a relationship… You’ve reported that living into your new context gave you tremendous clarity about who you are and where you’re headed. It was painful, yes. Excruciating. But when you emerged on the other side, you knew better than ever before who you were.
That’s what happened with Jesus. Through his testing in the wilderness, displaced from all that was familiar, Jesus got clearer about who he was as God’s child and Messiah. Think about it. When nothing changes, faith atrophies. If we can trust our context to provide what we need, why trust God? When the familiarity of our context is snatched away, though—which is about to happen to all of us—when our context changes, we have to find something else to cling to. When Jesus’ context changed, he clung to God.
Now that our contexts are changing, we too will need to cling to God. As Sr. Joan Chittister has said, “God is the only lifeline that life guarantees us.” (8) There’s no doubt that during this time of transition, we will be tempted… We’ll be tempted to try to control things ourselves, we’ll be tempted to follow after anything but God, we’ll tempted to let ourselves be overwhelmed by anxiety… Oh, yes. Times of transition are tempting, testing times.
But if we trust in the one thing that is certain in life—the God of love who wants only to act us into wellbeing—if we cling to our lifeline, if we stay open to learning all we can during our sojourn in the wilderness, if we use this time to reconnect with what is most important, to practice living without things we think we can’t live without but in truth don’t need at all…if we cling to God and stay open to learning, our wilderness experiences will help us gain new clarity about who we are as God’s children and as God’s feet and hands in the world.
So, I understand why the liturgical powers that be separated Jesus’ baptism from his experience in the wilderness. For this moment of our respective journeys, though, seeing the two events as parts of a single story will be more helpful. Because what sustained Jesus during his time in the wilderness? What reminded him of his lifeline to God? What grounded Jesus when everything changed?
The thing that grounded Jesus, the thing that reminded him of God’s deep and abiding love for him, the thing that kept him connected to his source of strength and life, was his baptism. Jesus’ baptism was enough to sustain him during his time in the wilderness. It sustained him through his loneliness. It sustained him through every temptation. It sustained him through his despair.
Jesus’ baptism also strengthened him for the work that was before him—the work of revealing God’s hopes for the world, the work of being God’s hands, feet, eyes and ears in the world, the vital work of acting the world into wellbeing in God’s name.
Our baptisms also will sustain us through our times of transition. Our baptisms will remind us of God’s love for us. Our baptisms will strengthen us for the vital work—for you here in Marietta and for Allen and me in Asheville—our baptisms will strengthen us for the important work of acting the world into wellbeing.
And so, as we seek to reconnect to our loving God, our source of solace and strength, our lifeline… after a moment of silence, I invite you to join me in renewing our baptismal vows.