Saturday, January 12, 2013

Will You Come and Follow Me?

[For my "Episcopal Liturgics" course this term, we had to write a sermon on the Feast of Christ's Baptism from our own perspective as a future priest or deacon, or as a layperson. This is what I came up with, and I thought I would share it with you all. The sermon leads out of the sequence hymn, which you can listen to below.]

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don't know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
Will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?

That hymn that we just sang: it sounds like a call story, doesn’t it? You might more often expect to hear it when we talk about Jesus showing up at the lake and hollering to Peter and James and John to come and follow him, to be his disciples. We don’t get that story this year—Lent comes too quickly for that—but we want to sing this hymn anyway.

We hear this hymn and we think of ourselves in the position of Peter and James and John by the lake, meeting Jesus for the first time, becoming disciples.

But if you think about it, the story we heard today is, in some ways, a call story. It is the call story of Jesus. Not that he’s been a wallflower up to this point—in the story as Luke tells it, we’ve seen his miraculous birth, we’ve seen him show up in the temple as a child and confound his parents, learn from the elders. But until now we have not seen him working as a prophet, as a teacher. This is the part where Jesus shows up and is called by name.
But—you’ll notice—he did not hear “Hey Jesus!” He did not hear that sort of name. Instead, we hear “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” And that’s what makes Jesus’ call story different from the other prophetic calls we have heard: Jesus is named as God’s Son.

That name happens in relationship. We’re not reading it this week, but right after today’s readings stops, Luke lists off Jesus’ entire family tree, through his stepfather Joseph: “He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi…” dot dot dot, all the way back to “son of Adam, son of God.” This whole series places Jesus in context, in relationship.

Because isn’t that how it’s done, when you’re meeting someone for the first time? When you introduce someone, or when you are introduced to someone you’re just meeting, that’s perhaps the most helpful thing aside from your name: who are you in relationship to? This is Susie: she’s Margaret’s mother. This is Tom: he’s Cati’s husband. Using those words places people in context: in the context of relationship. And that’s part of what is the most important thing God has to say about Jesus, so important that it must be shouted from the heavens so all can hear:
This is my Son,
the Beloved,
with whom I am well pleased.

And this is Jesus’ call, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry—he is named as the Son of God, in relationship.

We see this also in the passage from Isaiah, as God reaffirms God’s relationship with the people of Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” God loves this people with a fierce and passionate love. And you’ll notice this is also a naming of relationship: “bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—everyone who is called by my name.” Because that’s what it meant to be people of Israel: people who lived by God’s name.

The Israelites of Isaiah’s day needed to hear that message—because they were in exile, cast out of their homeland, far from everything they held dear. God acknowledges that the road will not be easy. The fire and the overflowing waters in this text, it’s not an if but a when. God’s people will experience danger and suffering. But God promises to be with them during that time, to protect them.

So what does this have to do with us here today? As Christians,  we bear the name of Christ: we too are people who live by God’s name. We are named in relationship to God.
And getting called by that name, like we heard in today’s hymn, can be frightening. Being in relationship with God means we are called to love God’s world, in ways that stretch and change us so that we can never be the same.

That’s certainly what happened to Jesus, after this moment of call. Don’t forget what happens after Jesus’ baptism: he leaves the Jordan and is driven into the wilderness, for forty days of fasting and temptation. Stepping out of those waters is, for Jesus, the first step on the road to the cross.

Maybe that is why he needed to hear those words, to know that truth: that he was Beloved of God. Maybe that is our good news: that the voice that calls us to do the difficult work of reconciliation in this world—the work that fills us so we can never be the same—that same voice is the voice that calls us by name and says Fear not: you are my Beloved, with you I am well-pleased.

There’s a Lutheran preacher, Nadia Bolz-Weber, whose blog I follow, and whose sermons I love. In many of her sermons there’s a particular refrain she repeats, after she proclaims the good news of God’s love and God’s mission: “nothing else gets to tell you who you are.” Not the fiery trials and the overflowing waters – it is your identity as God’s beloved that stands at the very core of you.

That is sometimes a hard message to remember. Which is why we need to hear it again, and again. Each week we come to the table, to remember—in tasting the bread and wine we taste God’s presence, and God’s promise. We remind each other who we are, and whose we are.
And on some special days, days like today, we remember in a different way: we remember through the waters of baptism. Today on our way to the table, we’ll pass the font—and you’ll be invited to touch the water, remember your own baptism, and take a stone to remind you of it in the weeks to come.

Coming to the font with us today is Ellie H. Right now, we know her best in relationship: as the baby daughter of members of this church. But she will be understood now as a part of St X’s Episcopal Church—and part of the family of God. Right now she has a gift of smiles, strong lungs, an open heart. What her gifts and calls will be, we will not know until later, perhaps. But we know that Jesus needs them, that Jesus has a place for her and work for her to do, as a minister of the church of God.

For that’s what she’s becoming, what we are: ministers of God. Yes, even those of us without the collar. Like you, I’m a lay person myself. I’ve never stood before the altar and made vows of ordination. But I did make vows of my own: or rather, my parents made them on my behalf, and I turn to renew them every year. My vows to keep fellowship with the people of God; to turn away from evil; to tell God’s story in the world; to serve my neighbor; and to work for everyone’s dignity. My vows to believe, love, and serve: all with God’s help.

Later this morning we will stand and say these vows together. We will say them for Ellie, and for ourselves, and for this community gathered here today. Because we have been called by name, and as Beloved of God, this is our chance to respond, with love for the world God made.

We are sealed by the Holy Spirit,
marked as Christ’s own forever—
and nothing else gets to tell us who we are.