Baptism by Fire - 12th Pentecost


When you were a kid, how did you know you were really in trouble? For many of us, the answer is – when Mom used our middle name. “Kristin Marie Schultz!” It’s that tone of voice – you know the one, the one that says, “pay attention, and pay attention now, because I’m not saying this again This morning we hear Jesus using his “middle name voice” with his disciples. He’s been telling them many things challenging them to keep alert, and be ready (in last week’s lesson); warning them about greed (the lesson two weeks ago); and challenging them not to worry about things that don’t matter or over which they have no control “Do not worry about your life,” he said – a difficult lesson for all of us.  Maybe Jesus felt the disciples weren’t really listening. After all, it’s happened before – when he’s told them about what will happen to him in Jerusalem, for example, and they’ve refused to believe him. He doesn’t think his warnings are getting through, and so he brings out his “middle name voice”: Listen   Peter,    John,    James – this is important. “Fire I come to cast upon the earth!” Did you think this was going to be easy? Did you think following me was going to protect you? This path that we’re on is leading to a cross, I tell you – are you listening to me? “Fire I come to cast on the earth!” Fire is usually a sign of God’s judgment. God’s judgment is like a refiner’s fire, which burns away impurities in the metal, and leaves behind what is pure and beautiful Jesus goes on to say, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized,” and he’s not talking about a baptism with water – he did that months before. He’s talking about a baptism by fire, as it were. He’s talking about his own death on a cross. -- We sometimes forget, I think, that when we baptize, we baptize into the sign of the cross. It’s more comfortable to focus on the forgiveness and forget the judgment. It’s easier to focus on re-birth and forget that death comes first. Churches that baptize by immersion do a better job, I think,  of retaining this death and rebirth imagery in baptism. When we sprinkle water on a baby’s head – or a child’s, or adult’s – we are recalling the ancient tradition of dunking a person under water. This use of water symbolizes not only cleansing, but also drowning. The self-centered human is drowned, and the one who rises from the water – baptized in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is a new creation. “I have been baptized into Jesus’ death,” the apostle Paul wrote, “so that it is now not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” -- Jesus came to tell us that we are loved, valued, forgiven, saved – but this is not simply “I’m okay, you’re okay.” In baptism God claims us, once and for all. God’s commitment and promise to us is eternal, and does not waver. But because we are cracked pots, living our faith imperfectly, we must constantly renew our commitment to God, as well as to one another. We must be willing not only to bask in the glow and comfort of God’s love and forgiveness, but also to take seriously God’s judgment on those things in our life which separate us from God, and bring death to ourselves and others. “Because our commitment to Christ shapes our values, priorities, goals and behavior,” writes biblical scholar Alan Culpepper, “it also forces us to change old patterns of life. A commitment of faith also means that our attitude toward material possessions must change, and that moral responsibilities must be taken with even greater seriousness. We cannot make a commitment to Christ without its affecting the way we relate to friends and family members,” as well as to strangers. Being claimed by God comes with a responsibility as well as a promise. Being forgiven by God comes with the challenge: “now go, and sin no more.” The challenge can be daunting, and sometimes we defeat ourselves before we even begin. It’s easy to look at those people whose commitment seems extraordinary – St. Francis and Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and think, “I could never do that.” Dorothy Day was a Roman Catholic lay woman who lived out her Christian faith in a radical commitment to the poor. She founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933, publishing a newsletter and opening her home to the hungry and homeless during the depression years, calling for social change in her actions as well as her words. During WWII she developed a position of radical pacifism, founded in her Christian faith, which she continued to teach and preach during the many military conflicts she witnessed throughout her life. As a result of her radical social teaching and political demonstrations, she was accused of being a communist. She was shot at and jailed because of the way she lived her convictions. But Day was not as concerned by her critics as she was by those who called her a saint. “When they call you a saint,” she often said, “it means basically that you’re not to be taken seriously.” Calling her a saint was a way of dismissing her challenge: “Dorothy can do that; she’s a saint.” As if the hard decisions she made in her life had come easily for her. We all face hard decisions in our daily lives because of our Christian faith. Faith challenges us to make our commitment to God top priority in our lives. It doesn’t matter if our efforts are never going to make the newspapers or go down in history. The challenge is still there – how are you going to let your faith shape your life, day by day? If you have more than you need,, what are you going to do with it  - knowing that the government is increasingly turning it’s back on the poor? If you pass someone whose car has broken down on the road – what will you do? When someone whose lifestyle is clearly different than yours comes into church and sits down by you – what will you do? When your spouse or your child or your parent drives you to distraction – what will you do? All of these decisions will demonstrate the quality of your commitment to God. -- When is the last time you heard God addressing you with that “middle name voice.”? When that happens, be sure to pause and listen. God’s Word speaks to us not only of comfort and peace, but also of challenge and change. Grace is not cheap, and sometimes blessings come only out of struggle. “Fire I have come to cast upon the earth!” Jesus said And when you begin feel the heat  – remember that the fire is God at work in our lives, bringing out what is beautiful and pure and true. Thanks be to God. Amen. Alan Culpepper quoted from The New Interpreter’s Bible: Vol. IX, pg. 267.

Lutheran Church of the Servant, Santa Fe

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