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the sermon for

the First Sunday in Lent

05 March 2017

topical: the Sacrament of Holy Baptism
God changes us by changing how others see us!

03052017I love baptisms! They've gotta be among the highlights of my ministry. Especially when children. They're just so gosh darn cute! It's like watching a video of puppies! It makes you smile! You feel warm inside. And don't think I don't see you stretching your necks and trying to look around the heads in your way! The youngest, just, sleep through it all! The ones awake either coo or scream bloody murder! And when it's older kids –like Liam, this morning – I try to see what's going on behind their eyes as they try to figure it all out! I do love baptisms! But there's more to it than that. Than the smiles or screams. Than the new clothes and combed hair. So, what does this mean? What does this all mean? That's the question Luther taught us to ask at times like this...

Back in the day, most baptisms happened because that's just what you did! You baptized babies because your parents were baptized as babies as were there parents and grandparents before them! It's called ritual! Tradition!

But if we did have to give a reason – a theological one – we would say, "We baptize because god told us to!" Truth be told, it was more a commandment from grandma than god. But either way, we baptized out of obedience, out of responsibility, out of duty!

Or maybe sometime, during feedings, after changes, we might, even, think about eternity! Getting past St Peter, through the pearly gates, onto those streets of gold. Making sure they'd make it into heaven! We had this amazing universe all worked out! Heaven on one side; hell on the other. Harps, halos, and wings over here; fire and brimstone, agony and torment, over there! And baptism would be the bridge to pass from curse to blessing.

Of course, growing up here in America, we learned, pretty early, that faith, also, had something to do with it. Being baptized and believing. Or is it believing and being baptized? We never did get it straight. No matter, that's why we gave our coins in Sunday School. So all those little children in Africa would have a chance, just like did! To believe! To be baptized! To go to heaven! But what, what does it mean? What does it really mean?

When I got older, my family moved to Arizona. I graduated from high school and enrolled in Arizona State. And I soon found out that my baptism didn't count. One, I was only six weeks old, when it happened! That meant I couldn't, possibly, believe! And besides, even if I could, there wasn't nearly enough water! So, for years, baptism, simply, became my great "whatever..." Even after I headed off to seminary, the verse that meant the most was 1st Corinthians 1. 17: "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel!"

Fortunately, over the years, I learned a thing or two. The first thing: There's, usually, a good reason for ritual and tradition! Roots and continuity go a long way in serving the church. The second thing: Neither believing or water saves us! Let me repeat that. Neither water or believing saves! From sin or death or the devil. Saves us, even, from ourselves! Only god can do that! Only god does that! And the third and greatest discover: God loves! Period! Exclamation mark! That's all god has ever done! That's all god will ever do! God loves us! Loves us just as much before we're baptized as god does after we're baptized! Baptism – those three shells full of water – does nothing to change god's mind about us! There's nothing to change!

Let me repeat that. Those shells full of water do nothing to change god's mind! But they go a long way to changing ours! My friends at ASU were right on one score. Liam will, probably, not remember what happened here, this morning. But his parents will! His aunts and uncles will! His grandparents! We who are with them! We'll all remember what god has done! And every time we see Liam... Every time we say, "Hello!" and every time we say, "Good bye!," we'll remember! We'll remember we were there when god told everyone who Liam is! A child of god! A brother of Christ! We'll remember and we'll, forever, treat him differently because of it! What god did, this morning, god did not do for Liam. What god did, god did for us! And because of that, Liam's life will never be the same, again!

What does this mean? It means that god – before our very eyes – claimed Liam as god's very own! Not that Liam was ever anything less! A sheep of god's own fold! A lamb of god's own flock! A sinner of god's own redeeming! Today, god saves Liam! Liam is born, again! Not that the Liam that left this font is, in any way, different from the Liam who was brought to it! But god makes him new by changing the way we look at him! God transforms him by giving us new eyes! Eyes that see him as god sees him! Like I said, he'll, probably, never remember. He'll never say, from firsthand experience, "Today, I was baptized!" But what he can say is, I was baptized because they told me! They were there! They saw it! They heard it! They remember! And they treat me as if I were baptized!

You see, that's how god works! How god has, always, worked! People are changed not deep in the wilderness or high on a mountaintop. When they're isolated, alone. We're made new, recreated, in midst of the crowd! It takes a village not, just, to raise a child. It takes a village to save one, as well! We're the ones for whom baptism is intended! It's about church! Always and forever, about church! Baptism isn't Liam's faith; it's OURS! And it isn't Liam's decision; it's GOD'S!

Baptism isn't in the whirlwind, splitting mountains and breaking rocks! It's not in the earthquake! Or the fire! It's the people gathered around the font! It's always been the people among whom! Hearing the word! Seeing the water! Watching god, listening to god, make that amazing promise to one more person! "This is my child!" "This is the one I love!" "This day! This moment, I have begotten you!" If it is nothing else, Baptism is love! An act of pure love! Free! Unbounded! It's like Jesus standing outside Lazarus' tomb weeping. When the people see the tears, they say, "Look at the love!" That's what he does, this morning! We see and say the same! "Look how much he cares!"

The world, my friends, doesn't change. It doesn't become better. It doesn't get any worse. It, just, is! Is what it's always been. The same it true of the people in it! We will be what we, too, have always been. What changes is the way we are perceived! What is different is the way we look at each other! There was a time we looked at Liam and saw nothing more than "a child of a fallen humanity." But this morning, all that is different because we have had the chance to look at him through the eyes of god! To see him as god sees him! A child of god! An heir of the kingdom! A member – just like us – of god's family! No, from this day forward, it is no longer Liam's job to prove himself to us. But it is ours job to remind him of who he's become! Our job to remind him of who he is!

William Paul, child of god,
you have been sealed by the Spirit, marked with the cross...

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the sermon for

the Funeral of Evelyn Bertha [Herrera]

04 March 2017

Romans 8:31-39
Believing is knowing god has the last word
and that last word will be life!

03042017Ninety-six years! Actually, ninety-six years, seven months, and twenty-five days, give or take! I was tempted to say ninety-six years young. But after the past few, I'm sure even Evelyn would agree. It's definitely years old! But either way, it's a lot of living!

The first thing I did, in beginning this sermon, was write down two dates at the top of the page. On the left side, I wrote, "June 28, 1920." On the right, "February 22, 2017." The first was the day Evelyn was born, the latter the day she died. And in between, I put a dash! A long dash! I looked at the numbers and that dash in between and tried to imagine what it must have been like, living so much life! What she'd seen and heard in that time. What she lived that I consider history.

Naturally, in the course of my wonderings, that poem by Linda Ellis – "The Dash" – came to mind...

I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on the tombstone from the beginning...to the end.
He noted that first came the date of birth and spoke the following date with tears,
but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.

That dash stood for life, for living! And it's that dash – or, at least, part of it – that is the reason for us being here, this morning. That's what we remember! What we celebrate! Her life as daughter and sister... as wife and mother... as grandma... and great grandma... and great great grandma? It's a long, long dash! A lot of living between those two dates! It's, probably, been that dash that's been in your thoughts ever since you, first, heard the news. That you've been sharing these past ten days.

He noted that first came the date of birth and spoke the following date with tears,
but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.

But it's funny. As I was thinking about those two dates... June 28, 1920... February 22, 2017... and that dash between... I realized that's only part of the reason we're here. Yes, the biggest reason is Evelyn. But that could happen anywhere, any time. But to be here, in this place... Well, we're gathered as the church! We're here because of Jesus! But it's funny. He's the one person whose life doesn't fit the poem! Sure, there are two dates. Christmas. Good Friday. Birth – death! Beginning – end! And there's a dash between the two. But for Jesus, there is, also, an Easter! There's a dash in between and there's a dash at the end, as well! Life... and death... and life, again! And that's different from us! Jesus doesn't have a tombstone! We do! We will!

Now, don't misunderstand me. I'm not talking just about heaven. Halos and harps. Pearly gates, streets of gold, and all that stuff. I'm talking about something else, entirely. A different kind of dash! One of fresh starts and second births and new creations! That other dash - the one Jesus has and we don't – stands for the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting! It's as real as the first, but doesn't lie in-between, isn't sandwiched by dates. It stands alone! Apart! Separate! Distinct!

Conceived by the Spirit and born of Mary. That's the first date! Dying, buried, descending. That's the second! Suffering under Pilate, crucified. That's the dash in between, the first dash. But the next part, about the third day, rising, ascending. That's the dash we've never seen! The dash we've never experienced! The dash that says there's more to the story! The dash that says death doesn't have the last word! The dash that says none of this will ever be forgotten! And it's that second dash that brings us here!

That second date... the date of our dying... That's what the scriptures call "hell". It isn't fire and brimstone. It's not wrath and retribution. It's, simply, dying. Simply, descending to the dead. Hell, in the bible, is going into the darkness, fading away, being forgotten. We know Evelyn! But how many remember Evelyn's grandparents? Their faces. Their names. The sound of their voices. And how many remember their grandparents? Or their grandparents before them? That's what hell is! That's the power, the sting, of death! The culmination, the finale, beyond which that first dash never extends. But that second dash! The promise! The hope! That second dash that finds us and claims us as its own! It isn't, simply, a happily-ever-after. Death is real. The grave. The descent. But we believe in the resurrection of the body! In the life everlasting!

Like Christ, we have a first date, the time of our birth! Like Christ, there will be that second date, as well! And we will have that dash between the two. But for now, we watch... we wait... for that second dash... The one that isn't between... the one that stands alone... But until then, we rest... and we hope... in the certain and sure... For Evelyn, that second date has been etched on her grave. February 22, 2017. Her first dash has come to an end. And now, we await the second dash! The one that comes after! The one with no end! And like the first, that second dash will be nothing less than a gift from god! Unearned! Undeserved! Without measure! Without limit! For now, we wait. For now, we watch. We remember. We mourn. And we do the only thing we can. We commend our sister into god's never-ending care! The very place she's always been. Remember her, Lord! Remember her, even as we forget. Remember her and watch over her! Remember her and keep her safe! Until the time she, too, receives that second dash... that second dash just like Jesus!

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