Category Archives: Sacraments

A Holy Calling – Sermon on 2 Timothy 1:1-14

September 25, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here.

I don’t think I ever really knew what fear was until I became a mother. Suddenly becoming responsible for another human being’s life made me extremely aware of all the ways a tiny life could be put in danger. Parents want to protect our children – these amazing, beautiful, vulnerable little beings who are completely dependent on us – from anything that might hurt them. The responsibility for their safety and wellbeing can be overwhelming, especially when we see threats all around us in the world. Parenting can be a scary thing.

The Apostle Paul knew this feeling all too well, even though we have no evidence that he fathered any children of his own. Paul’s concern was for the spiritual safety and wellbeing of those who had come to faith in Jesus Christ through his own ministry, and for the young churches they formed. He was worried about the possibility they might be led astray by false teaching, or become discouraged when their faith was tested. He fretted over their ability to withstand persecution. And so, to encourage these fledgling churches and their leaders, Paul wrote letters to them.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God according to the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus,
To Timothy, my beloved child:
Grace, mercy, and peace
from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. 

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher,  which is why I suffer as I do.

But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. – 2 Timothy 1:1-14

It was customary in the first century for letters to begin with a standard greeting and prayer of gratitude and blessing: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. This letter’s prayer of gratitude describes the faith history of Timothy’s own family: I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, it dwells in you.

Do you remember a grandparent sharing faith with you when you were young? These days, because extended families are scattered and children may only see grandparents a few times each year, the church often helps fill the role of grandparent, sharing stories and examples of faith from generation to generation. This is why we make a point, during the baptism of every child, to ask the congregation

“Will you, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and representatives of that Church wherever they encounter it in the world, do your part, by word and deed with love and prayer, to guide and nurture these children, encouraging them to know and follow Christ and caring for them as Christ’s own?”

And the congregation answers with gusto every time, “With God’s help, we will.”

But the church, like a grandparent, only plays a supporting role in training up children in the way they should go (Proverbs 22:6) Parents are the first and best examples of faithful living, the first and best teachers of faith in children’s lives.

It’s in the home that children first learn how to say prayers at bedtime or before meals. It’s in those daily surprise conversations – you know, the ones that start with a deep theological question like, “Mommy, where does God sleep?” or “Why does God make mosquitoes?” – that children learn what their parents believe about God, the world God created, and their place in it. This is how we pass on faith from generation to generation.

The letter to Timothy goes on to explain why this is so important, as it lays out the key truth of this passage.

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

In other words, because of the important role that Timothy’s mother and grandmother played in his growing faith, Timothy is to fan into flame the gift of faith that fuels his present ministry. “Paul’s reminder to Timothy to boldly cultivate and embrace his own current calling and ministry is because of, on account of, and rooted in the reality of Timothy’s initial exposure to the faith within the context of his family.”[1]

This is important for us, as well. Somewhere along the line, people got the idea that it would be better to expect the “religious professionals” to take on the full responsibility of raising up children in the way they should go. Parents lost confidence in their own ability to share faith with their children. Better to let the seminary-trained pastor do that job, they thought.

And this has been a great loss, not only to the children, but to their parents. It doesn’t take a seminary degree to teach children that God loves them, or to show God’s love by the way we interact with our own families. You cannot measure the joy of watching your own child come to faith through daily prayers and conversations about Jesus, and reading scripture together as a family. The home is where the priesthood of all believers begins its ministry.

So, rekindle the gift of God that is in you, and take heart! Parents, you do not need to be afraid, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (v 7)

“To ‘rekindle the gift’ means to stir up the grace and faith and love that we have received, and we stir them up by putting them in to practice. … Our call is … to forgive as we have been forgiven, and to love as we have been loved.” (J. Peter Holmes, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, 137-138)

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God,  who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher,  which is why I suffer as I do.

We live in a world where some are ashamed of the gospel. It isn’t cool or hip to stand up for Jesus. This is where the faith that surrounds our children in the community of the church is so important. This is a place where it is safe, where standing up for Jesus is affirmed. This is the place where children learn how to tell the story of Jesus and learn to live into their own calling as followers of Christ. This is where we learn how to keep the promises made on our behalf at our baptism – to renounce sin, to believe in Jesus, to live our faith each day in ways that others see the light of Christ through us.

The letter continues, “for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me.  Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.

Because we know whom we have believed and to whom we have committed everything, and we trust him to be faithful, we can continue to live by the power of the Holy Spirit, who lives in us. Following sound teaching and staying connected to the family of God, we guard the good deposit of faith that has been entrusted to us, and we teach our children how to do that, too.

We have each been called to a holy purpose, just as Paul and Timothy were. We have each been given a family of faith to help us remember key truths and avoid being drawn away into false doctrines. It is this family of faith that helps us guard the good deposit of faith we have been given.

And faith is a gift – we cannot manufacture it on our own, we cannot create faith by ourselves. We can only exercise the faith we’ve been given, to strengthen it and deepen it as it grows within us.

We each have been called with a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus. We each have been given the faith to answer that call. It is good to remember that, to reaffirm our call from time to time.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, developed a prayer for use in services for the Renewal of the believer’s Covenant with God. Wesley didn’t claim to have written the prayer. He adapted it from other sources, and no one knows who actually wrote the first version of it.

Even though the words of the original covenant prayer are lost, they are thought to be reflected in the Directions for Renewing our Covenant with God which Wesley issued as a pamphlet in 1780. These directions were intended for services to be held regularly in the church, usually around the time of the New Year.

But what better time to renew our covenant with God than on a day when we have witnessed two families enter into that covenant on behalf of their children? So hear the words John Wesley used to introduce this Covenant Prayer back in 1755.

“…Christ has many services to be done. Some are easy, others are difficult. Some bring honor, others bring reproach. Some are suitable to our natural inclinations and temporal interests, others are contrary to both… Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.” And so I invite you to join me, as we renew our covenant with God together.

WESLEYAN COVENANT PRAYER

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3036

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wesley_Covenant_Prayer

A Messy Business

The confirmands looked serious as they read scripture, imposed ashes, and offered bread and cup to the congregation,

And there were babies crying and toddlers talking loudly,

And the ashes got all over everywhere, and the bowls were slippery with the glycerine we smeared on our fingertips to keep the ashes from sticking to our hands;

And the gluten-free bread crumbled into the chalice as we dipped big chunks of it, then handed them to congregants who seemed surprised to receive so much;

And the children came with their parents, eager eyes shining, and hands outstretched to receive the bread, dipped in grape juice just for them;

And the people had to hold hymnbooks and follow the printed order of worship, because there was no slide show projecting the words of each song on the wall;

And they didn’t seem to mind.

And we confessed our sin,

And we were pardoned.

With ashes everywhere, and bread crumbs on the floor,
And grape juice dripping down our fingers,
We accepted Christ’s body and blood, broken and shed for us.

And we remembered that following Jesus is messy business.

Water and Spirit – Sermon on Matthew 3:13-17 (Baptism of Our Lord 2014)

Can you remember your baptism?  If you were baptized as an infant, chances are good that you have no memory of the actual event. I was baptized by my pastor – who also happened to be my father – when I was a young girl. I am grateful that my baptism could happen in a clean, heated baptistery, instead of the cold muddy river our church used for baptisms in its earliest years. I remember stepping down into the water, wearing one of my dad’s white shirts with the sleeves rolled up. I remember losing my footing as my dad laid me down into the water, baptizing me in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. But Dad didn’t let me drown. He held onto me until I could get my feet back under me, and then helped me back up the steps, where my mom waited with a clean towel. It’s a good memory. I couldn’t really put my finger on it, but I knew something was different about me after that. I knew I’d been changed for good.

The third chapter of Matthew’s gospel describes a slightly different process, as John the Baptist preaches a message of judgment and baptizes repentant sinners in the Jordan River. The water is cold and murky. Since John’s call to repentance inspires a spontaneous desire to be baptized among his listeners, their Moms probably aren’t waiting on the riverbank with warm towels. But the people coming up out of the water know they’ve been changed for good. They might not be able to put their finger on it, but something is different.

Then, an amazing thing happens. The long line of baptismal candidates has dwindled down to the last three, then two, then only one person standing in front of John in the river, waiting to be baptized. And John recognizes this one. It’s his cousin, Jesus. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the third chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, beginning at the thirteenth verse:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  But Jesus answered him “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Matthew 3:13-17

Whether you were sprinkled, poured over, or dunked, your baptism required water. Water is essential to life, and we can’t live very many days without it. The average human body is about 65% water. Water plays a major role in the biblical story, all the way from Genesis, with Creation and Noah’s Flood, through the Exodus, as God provides water in the desert, into the New Testament, where Jesus lives and teaches by the Sea of Galilee, right through to Revelation, where the River of Life flows through the City of God. Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well that he, himself, was the source of Living Water. Water also washes us, and the origins of baptism in Jewish worship included the symbolic act of washing and being purified through water. New converts to Judaism were baptized, you may remember, as part of the initiation ritual that demonstrated they were now clean, ready to enter the Temple. As John baptized repentant sinners in the Jordan River, I wonder if anyone remarked on the irony of being cleansed from sin in one of the dirtiest looking rivers around.

There’s a story in the Old Testament about another man, Naaman, who also walked down into the Jordan River. I have sometimes wondered why it isn’t one of the assigned readings for this Sunday, when we celebrate the baptism of our Lord. Naaman was a powerful general in the army of the King of Aram, during the time of the prophet Elisha. Naaman had a skin disease. His wife’s servant, a young girl who had been captured from Israel by an Aramean raiding party, told her mistress about Elisha the prophet, and said, “I wish my master would go to him and be healed.”  One thing led to another, and soon Naaman was on his way to Samaria with a load of gifts for the King of Israel. You can read the whole story in 2 Kings 5, but the short version is that the king sends Naaman to Elisha, and Elisha doesn’t even come out of his house to meet the great warrior. He sends his servant to tell Naaman to dip himself in the River Jordan seven times. Naaman is insulted. Aren’t there cleaner, nicer rivers back home?  And why doesn’t this prophet come out and wave a magic wand, say some mumbo jumbo and make the disease disappear?  Naaman leaves in disgust. But his servants, who are traveling with him, urge him to reconsider. They remind him that he would have done a great thing if he’d been asked, so why not do this little thing he’s been told to do?  Naaman changes his mind, does what he’s told, and is healed of his skin disease.

Naaman repented. He turned around and went back to the river, and did what he was told to do. He obeyed the Word of the Lord, given through the prophet Elisha, and he was changed for good. His disgust and unwillingness to submit to Elisha’s command was replaced with obedience.

Like Naaman, John also protested, but relented and became obedient. John knew Jesus. We don’t know if these two relatives spent any time together as children, but keep in mind that John was only about six months older than Jesus, and their mothers had been close. So we can speculate that they knew each other as “cousins” before Jesus waded into the river to meet John. But John knew Jesus as something more than a cousin. He recognized that the man standing in front of him was The One for whom he had been preparing the way. John knew that this was the Messiah. John knew that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. John knew that his own ministry was about to come to a close, because here stood the whole reason for John’s preaching, teaching, and baptizing. John knew that the Kingdom of God was looking him in the eye.

John’s question has troubled Christians from the beginning. Why did Jesus think he needed to be baptized?  He had never sinned; he didn’t need to repent. Yet, here he was, asking John to baptize him along with all those repentant sinners. It’s quite possible that Matthew’s first-century church had argued over this question, and that is why Matthew makes a point of explaining a motive for this peculiar behavior by the Son of God. Jesus tells John, “Allow this to happen for the time being, to fulfill all righteousness.”  “Trust me on this one,” Jesus says to his cousin John. “Even if it seems weird to you, just trust me. God has a plan in mind, and this is part of it.”  So John is obedient, and baptizes Jesus, and righteousness is fulfilled.

That word, “righteousness,” is loaded with meaning. Matthew uses it seven times[1] in his Gospel, and each use signals a slightly different understanding of the word. For Matthew, righteousness is more than “being good.”  Righteousness is closely connected to an awareness of the coming Kingdom. Righteousness means following Jesus as a faithful disciple, and participating in that kingdom. Righteousness is becoming aligned with God’s deep desire to save us. When Jesus tells John, “permit it to be so now, to fulfill all righteousness,” he’s saying, “Let’s do this!  It’s part of God’s plan to redeem the world from sin!”

It’s important to see that Jesus includes John in the plan. They have to do this together. This moment when John lowers Jesus under the water connects the ministry that went before, preparing the way, with the ministry that is just beginning – that is the Way. As Jesus submits to baptism, he puts himself in the same position as the people he came to save, and he does it in a very literal, tangible way that they can see. Three years from this moment, he will take on the sins of the entire world as he hangs on a cross at Golgotha. But in a very real way, his baptism serves as the initiation for that saving work.

So, just as Naaman obeyed Elisha, and John obeyed Jesus, Jesus becomes obedient. In their obedience, Naaman and John are changed for good. In his obedience, Jesus changes us for good.

And then something else amazing happens. The heavens are opened, and Jesus sees the Spirit descend on him like a dove, and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The Spirit moved over the waters at Creation, and over Mary at Jesus’ conception. Now the Spirit moves over the waters of Christ’s baptism, labeling him as God’s own beloved Son, and anointing him as both King and servant of all. When we baptize an infant or a new believer, we lay on hands and breathe over the one being baptized, to signify that a New Creation has begun in us. We anoint the newly baptized with oil, as a symbol that the Holy Spirit has marked this one as God’s own beloved child.

Theologian Greg Garrett writes that baptism symbolizes birth and rebirth throughout the Bible, and whenever this happens, “people enter the water as one thing,” [slaves out of Egypt, or wanderers entering the Promised Land, for example] … and emerge as something entirely different”[2]. Jesus entered the water as ‘just another guy’, as far as the crowds around John were concerned. But when he emerged from those baptismal waters, he’d been changed for good. Christ’s baptism marked the beginning of his public ministry on earth, but it also marked him as God’s own Son, the Beloved, in whom God took great pleasure. If Jesus was going to baptize with the Spirit, as John had announced, he had to first experience that anointing himself.

Baptism marks us as belonging to God. The old catechism calls it a visible, outward sign of an invisible, inward grace. It’s important to remember that the Holy Spirit does this work in us; it is not some transaction we perform. It is also important to remember that, once we are sealed with the mark of baptism, that seal is a permanent one. We belong to God, now and forever. He has claimed us as his own.

In a moment, we will renew our baptismal vows using a distinctive Wesleyan liturgy. As we each reflect on our own baptism, we must also consider how we ended up here, in this Methodist Church, living and working together for Christ’s kingdom through this particular congregation. How are we being called to obedience by God’s Spirit working among us?  What is the outward sign of our inward grace, and how are we to show that grace to the community of New Ulm?

You may have noticed that several elements of our worship this morning have drawn on the Wesleyan heritage that marks the United Methodist Church in a unique way. For over three hundred years, the Methodist movement has been “seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world.”[3]  John Wesley held three simple rules that have become known as “The Wesleyan Way.”  Those rules are to do no harm, to do good, and to stay in love with God. They are reflected in the Minnesota Annual Conference Gospel Imperatives to reach new people, cultivate spiritual vitality, and heal a broken world.

As we renew our baptismal promises, we need to make them count for something, to honor them in spirit and in truth as we live out our faith together in this time and place. If this is something you haven’t considered before, or if it’s been a while since you consciously thought about your own discipleship, I encourage you to focus first on Wesley’s third rule: stay in love with God. Cultivating a deep and rich friendship with God gives us a reason to do good, to reach new people, to heal a broken world.

Baptism won’t save you. Baptism isn’t some secret initiation rite with magical properties. Baptism is a sign of obedience. As you touch the water in a moment, maybe making the sign of the cross on your forehead with a wet finger, remember your baptism and be thankful. Remember the promises you made, or the promises that were made on your behalf by your parents and the congregation that witnessed your baptism. Renew those promises to be faithful, to love God and neighbor, to seek righteousness, to be a true follower of Jesus. Then go out, marked by grace, to be obedient to God.


[1] Matthew 3:15; 5:6, 10, 20; 6:1, 33; 21:32

[2] Greg Garrett, Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 1, 239.

[3] 2012 Book of Discipline, ¶121.

Remember your baptism

A picture hangs in my office, taken sometime in the mid-1950s. A young boy is standing waist-deep in a river, holding a list of names, candidates for baptism.  Next to him is his father, a pastor, preparing to baptize a young girl. The busy river flows around these three figures, and makes me grateful that, by the time that same pastor, who also happened to be my father, baptized me, it was in a heated baptistery filled with clean water.

This Sunday is the celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord, the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany. Matthew’s gospel tells of Jesus going down into the Jordan River, where John was baptizing repentant sinners. Matthew makes it clear that Jesus wasn’t asking to be baptized because of sin, but in order to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:13-17).

There’s a story in the Old Testament (2 Kings 5:1-14) about another man, Naaman, who also walked down into the Jordan River. But Naaman didn’t do it voluntarily. In fact, he was angry that the prophet Elisha had told him to do such a degrading thing, and turned away in disgust. But his servants reminded him that he would have done a great thing if he’d been asked, so why not do this little thing he’d been told to do? Naaman changed his mind, and was healed of his skin disease.

I see a connection between John’s baptism “with water for repentance” and Naaman’s repentant plunge into the Jordan River. But I see an even stronger connection between Naaman’s “baptism” and the baptism of Jesus, who had no need to repent, who knew no sin. Naaman may have balked at first, but in the end, he did what he was told to do.  John may have balked when Jesus came to him to be baptized, but in the end, Jesus did what he was told to do, too. Naaman was cleansed of his disease, while Jesus took on the sins of the world. Both  were obedient to God.

Baptism won’t save you. Baptism isn’t some secret initiation rite with magical properties. Baptism is a sign of obedience. As you touch the water this Sunday, maybe making the sign of the cross on your forehead with a wet finger, remember your baptism and be thankful. Remember the promises you made, or the promises that were made on your behalf by your parents and the congregation that witnessed your baptism. Renew those promises to be faithful, to love God and neighbor, to seek righteousness, to be a true follower of Jesus. Then go out, marked by grace, to be obedient to God.