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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sermon: The Baptism of Our Lord

by The Rev. Dr. Samuel Torvend

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

This coming Spring Term, I will teach a course on Luther as I do every Spring at PLU. To say the least, I really enjoy teaching this course simply because Luther is such a controversial and monumental figure in the history of Christianity and the West. Certainly we study the significant writings of Luther which led to the establishment of the "evangelical" or what others called the "Lutheran" movement, but we also study Luther's insights concerning human nature, the human condition. I hope that my students come to recognize Luther as a thoughtful and introspective person. For in Luther, we find someone who took human experience seriously, especially in terms of of wrestling with doubt, questions, and the motives, both hidden and and not so hidden, which shape human thinking and behavior, our thinking and behavior.

Toward the end of the course, a dear friend of mine, Stephen Crippen, a marriage and family therapist (and, I might add, a brother of John, a member of this parish) will come to class and give a presentation on Luther and what we call Luther's psychological insights. I'd put that word "psychological" in quotation marks because it was a term unknown to Luther yet, from our perspective, Luther gazed inward and asked the simple yet profound question: Who or what shapes a person's ultimate loyalties and consequently one's behavior in daily life?

The question could be asked this way as well: Who do I trust on a daily basis: myself? the world? the One who created me and all living things? Or a sometimes messy combination of all of the above?

One of the significant points my friend makes in his presentation is this: without the unconditional love of parents (something Luther rarely seemed to experience), a child can find it difficult to trust others and, the child in each of us, the child in each of us, can find it difficult to trust God and, consequently, have confidence in ourselves as God's own children. As a therapist will tell you, such unconditional regard for the other person is absolutely necessary in any therapeudic relationship and I would add, absolutely necessary in any healthy relationship. For when we experience unconditional love, love with no strings attached, from a parent, a spouse, a partner, or a friend, it also becomes possible to receive a difficult or a challenging truth about ourselves spoken by a therapist, a spouse, a friend. For without love, without unconditional regard from the other, a difficult or challenging truth only sounds like so much condemnation, like some new law we are expected to fulfill if we are to hold on to that love, that regard.

"A voice came from heaven," writes Luke, "You are the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" (3:22). The world in which these words are announced today is marked so frequently, shaped so pervasively, by reality television programs in which the primary goal is to eliminate all competitors but one. Indeed, such programs are a cultural testimony to the evolutionary principle in which the strong survive while the weak or the the non-competitive are overlooked or simply perish. In such a context, the announcement in today's gospel - "You are my Beloved" - might sound, might sound, remarkably weak. How does love, unconditional regard for the other, make any sense in a world shaped by market forces which expect some to survive and some to perish? Is not such love, such unconditional regard, to quote dear Tina Turner, simply a "second hand emotion?"

Yet it would seem that in the wisdom of the gospel - which challenges much of the cultural "wisdom" in which you and I have been formed - unconditional love, being named and known as the beloved has everything, everything, to do with how human beings - how you and I - experience and understand ourselves as human beings, as Christians, and, consequently, how we interact with each other. It has everything to do with our capacity to trust the One who is creating us and redeeming our world from the perilous folly of placing countless requirements and laws on the bestowal of its regard for us. It has everything to do with how we regard and thus interact with each other. Indeed, who among us, young or old, does not want to hear, does not need to hear these words: "You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased"?

And who among us does not need to hear these words first announced at our baptism, when we least expect it or think it possible: in the midst of divorce or separation, when the job is falling apart, as the terrifying diagnosis is uttered, when our capacity to trust the other has been diminished, when we wonder if our life's work has actually made any difference in the world? Perhaps, then, this is Luther's revolutionary insight, drawn from his study of our holy book, that the unconditional regard of God for us in Christ the Beloved is -- like a flowing stream -- intended to water, to saturate, to inundate our lives and our life together in the community of faith. Perhaps this is one, just one, of the deep meanings of our being washed in the watery grace of God and the life of Christ: that in the holy therapy of the gospel, in the holy therapy of the gospel, we begin to see each other - the stranger, the spouse, that child held in your arms, the partner, or the colleague - that we begin to see ourselves and the other within the unconditional regard, the unconditional love which God holds for us.

For without such love, our rightful need to speak the truth to each other will sound like only so much condemnation. And of such expectations and judgment and laws placed over human life, my life and your life, our world is already filled to over-flowing.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ: we are a minority community among the religions and value systems of the society in which we live. In a world where the strong truly do survive while far too many simply diminish or perish, in a world where one frequently "loses" if one is deemed "different" or "unproductive" or "challenged," the holy gospel of our baptism into Christ and our communion in his holy body and blood nurture a different way of being, a reordering of our affections, a startling and unconventional way of recognizing value and worth.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ: let us welcome, let us embrace, again and again, and with joy and confidence, this different way so that its presence and power seep into our every pore, into our consciousness, our affections, into the way we view each other.

In 1521, in a period of terrible anxiety and doubt, when he thought that he had been abandoned by his colleagues, friends, and family, Luther wrote these words as he reflected on the mystery of his own baptism:

This life is, therefore,
not righteousness but growth in righteousness,
not health but healing,
not being but becoming
not rest but exercise.
We are not yet what we shall be,
but we are growing toward it.
The process is not yet finished but it is going on.
This is not the end but it is the road.
All does not yet gleam with glory, but all is being purified.

Yes, I say: All is being washed in the unfathomable and astonishing love of God for this world and for our lives in it.

Fr. Samuel Torvend
St. Paul's Episcopal Church (Seattle)
Pacific Lutheran University (Tacoma)

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