Saturday, February 6, 2010

"Holy living" meets the Holy Spirit: a baptism by fire, Jan 10, 2010

Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7 ("You are mine" says the Lord), Acts 8: 14-17 (Peter and John baptize in Samaria), Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 (the baptism of Jesus)

This sermon comes with a warning. It is about sex. Sorry about that!

I don't remember many of my father's sermons from when I was a child, but I do remember only too well one that he preached about sex. I was perhaps 11 or 12 years old and it must have been summer because I was not in Sunday School. I was sitting in the pews at Knox United Church in Cornwall Ontario with my older brother and sister, and Dad started preaching about sex, promiscuity and the dangers facing teenagers. I cringed, and I couldn't wait for him to finish.

I got the impression that Dad was preaching right at my older sister, who would be 15 or 16 years old at the time. Perhaps he was trying to warn her about boys. Perhaps he was anxious about being the father of a teenage girl. Or perhaps he was motivated by bumps in his own journey towards sexual maturity. In any case, I didn't like it!

So for any cringe-worthy moments that come this morning courtesy of me, my apologies in advance . . .

This Sunday we think about Baptism as we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. So what does that have to do with sex? Well, perhaps nothing. But when I woke up on Thursday morning, I had the idea for this sermon; and my method so far this year is to follow my intuitions no matter what. Otherwise, I don't think I could get all the work done!

Since this is Year C in the Lectionary, which is the year of Luke, this morning Doreen read the account of the baptism of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke.  All four of the Gospels tell the story of Jesus' baptism, but there are differences between them.

The earliest Gospel, Mark, is the most straightforward. Mark simply states that "Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan." When Matthew rewrites this  passage 15 years later, he adds a section where John the Baptist protests that he is not worthy to baptize Jesus. John only agrees to go ahead after Jesus tells him it is OK. In Luke, which is the next Gospel written, it is not clear who baptizes Jesus because before the baptism is mentioned, we hear that John has been arrested by Herod. And in John, the last-written Gospel, Jesus comes to the Jordan and is greeted by John the Baptist. But John's Gospel never explicitly says that Jesus is baptized by John or by anyone else.

In a New Testament class, it was suggested that this progression in the four gospels from a simple story to an obscure one showed that the baptism of Jesus might have been seen as a scandal. Why would Jesus of Nazareth, the beloved Son of God, the  argument goes, to be baptized for the repentance of sin. Didn't Jesus live without sin?

However, I am not convinced by this argument. Surely the real scandal about Jesus is his execution in Jerusalem and not the fact of his baptism. Also, I wonder if the argument reads 21st Century individualism back into the 1st Century Palestine when life was a lot more communal. The repentance of sin marked by Jesus' baptism in the River Jordan might have been the sin of the Jewish community to which Jesus belonged -- its collaboration with the Roman occupiers, for instance.

When we use the word sin today, it usually refers to individual actions. But there is also social sin, for which none of us as individuals are responsible -- economic competition and exploitation, destruction of natural habitats, the drive to war, and so on. Perhaps Jesus went to the Jordan to show by his baptism that he was heading to Jerusalem to confront the social sins of the Romans and those Jewish religious leaders who collaborated with them.

In any case, Baptism is important in the gospels, in our church tradition, and in our individual lives. We celebrate the sacrament of baptism. But we also use the term baptism to refer to any major initiation. A new marriage, the birth of one's children, a new job, moving to a new country -- all can be seen as baptisms -- baptism by fire; baptism by plunging into an unknown situation; baptism that changes you the way that initiation into life in Christ changes us.

It is this wider meaning of baptism that got me to thinking about sex. The curriculum materials for church school this Sunday were all about belonging, acceptance, and being affirmed by family, church, and God. And that led me to think about gay and lesbian youth, and the difficulties they still face finding acceptance in many places in this society.

This then led me to think about the "baptism by fire" that the United Church experienced in the 1980s around the issues of homosexuality. And finally, I noticed from last year's Sunday bulletins that it was one year ago next week that Knox held the first of two discussions around the question of equal marriage, or marriage for two people of the same gender as well as traditional, opposite gender marriage.

These issues are very important to me, though I would hardly claim to have the final word on them. But I want to share both a story and some of my feelings about them this morning. The story is about my Aunt Mary, the wife of my Dad's brother Lloyd. She still lives on the family farm where my Dad grew up, and which is now farmed by her son.

Aunt Mary has always been very active in the church. She served a term as the President of the Bay of Quinte Conference, and she has been prominent in her home church in the hamlet of Welcome Ontario all her adult life.

In 1988, Aunt Mary was an elected Commissioner to the General Council meeting of the United Church in Victoria. This was the notorious meeting that discussed whether the church should let lesbians and gays be ordained as ministers in our church.

And here is what happened. Like many others, Aunt Mary went to that crucial Council meeting with instructions from her church and Presbytery to vote against the resolution; and this was also her own conviction. But like many people in Victoria that week, she had a change of heart during the long and emotional discussions. Much to her surprise, in the end she found herself voting in favour of the resolution; and because of people like my aunt who changed their vote at the urging of the Spirit of that gathering, it passed, and our church was changed forever. As many of you will remember, this was a painful time. Many people and even a few congregations left the United Church because they could not abide the thought of openly gay ministers.

But I am very proud of my aunt for her decision, and very proud of the whole church for taking this stance. I was not active in the church during those years, but I followed the controversies, and I cheered when the Council in 1988 accepted gays and lesbians as equal members of our church. And even though I am straight, I would have been reluctant to return to the church as I did in 2001 if the United Church was still  discriminating against gays and lesbians.

My Aunt was a difficult presence in my life when I was a child. She seemed stricter than my parents, and also more religious, which puzzled me since my Dad was a minister. When I visited the farm, my aunt would argue with me sometimes, usually about the length of my hair; and I didn't enjoy those arguments.

But in school in 2007, I got a new insight into the connections between my strict aunt on the farm and my liberal father, the minister in the city. We were studying the formation of the United Church 85 years ago. One thing that helped bring together the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregationalist denominations was "holy living." For partisans of holy living, how one lived was more important than what one believed. And this emphasis on pure behaviour helped the three denominations unite without too many  arguments about doctrine.

I had thought that holy living only referred to the annoying moralism of my Aunt -- "no cards, no drinking, no dancing" -- and certainly no sex outside of marriage or, heaven forbid, gay sex! But there was more to it than that. Holy living wasn't just moralism. It was connected to the Social Gospel's attempt to reform society and to build the Kingdom of God on earth. Gambling with cards leads to poverty. Alcohol leads to violence in the home. So the "holy living" wing of our church started out with the same motives as the social justice wing of our church. It was an attempt to change behaviour and laws in order to have a more equal, peaceful and just society.

In 1988, when my Aunt Mary -- with her horror of drinking, card-playing, long hair, and sex outside of marriage -- met gay and lesbian people in our church in Victoria, she was moved to vote with her heart and not with the decision she had made beforehand. I see her vote as a moving example of faith, repentance, and rising to a new life by dying to an old one. She and the big majority of the voting commissioners took a leap of faith, which has transformed our church and helped us be more inclusive and loving.

The church's emotional confrontation with homosexuality in the 1980s was a painful baptism by fire. But it was also a moment of the Spirit. The Spirit of Christ was there in Victoria, I believe. My aunt felt it, and, thanks be to God, she responded to it.

Today more than 20 years later, when other denominations continue to struggle with gays and lesbians in the pews and among their clergy, the United Church has largely moved on. Because of this, we are perhaps better placed to speak to new generations than our Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Pentecostal brothers and sisters.

Yes it is true that there are several passages in Scripture that denounce homosexuality. But there are many passages in Scripture that support racism, slavery, war and the oppression of women. And we as a church have long ago moved away from those passages. Instead, we interpret all of Scripture from the standpoint of the love, radical inclusion, and path of self-sacrifice of Jesus as the Christ.

When I return to Ontario in May to finish my studies, I will look forward to hearing news from Knox United and the many wonderful friends I have made in this gracious community. And nothing will please me more than when I hear the news that this congregation has joined with hundreds and soon thousands of other United Church congregations in performing marriage ceremonies for any two loving people regardless of their gender.

The Spirit moves where it will, and its power knows no end. I experience this Spirit every Sunday here in the pulpit and in the wider work of this community and congregation. As with my aunt in 1988, the Spirit will surely surprise this congregation  again and again, and take you down paths of love, acceptance and belonging that you had never dreamt possible. For with God, all things are possible.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

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