January 12-13, 2013
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
I was reading our church Constitution the other day…
(I think I can pretty much guarantee that this is the only time I’ll ever begin a sermon with that phrase!)
But anyway, I was reading our church Constitution the other day
and I was struck by one of the things it says pastors should do.
Our constitution says that every pastor shall
“seek out and encourage qualified persons to prepare for the ministry of the Gospel…”
(Church council members are asked to do the same thing in their installation vows.)
So I’m going to do that today.
I’m going to encourage you – everyone of you – to consider ministry.
Firstly, because I think all of you are ‘qualified persons’.
And secondly, of course because God asked you first – God invites all of us to share in the ministry of the Gospel –to proclaim the love in God in what we do and say.
There are a lot of reasons to consider ministry.
But here’s one you might not have thought about before…
Ministry gives opportunity and even the expectation to share God’s blessing with others.
In ordained ministry,
you get to lay on hands and pray the words of blessing at baptism which we heard this morning – whether it be to an infant or an adult:
“Child of God, You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked by the cross of Christ forever.”
Until I had the opportunity to say those words myself,
I don’t know if I understood what power, what an experience of the sacred, the holy, that is.
Child of God,
You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit,
and marked by the cross of Christ forever.
In her book Gilead, Marilynne Robinson tells the story
of a young preacher’s kid named Ames who’s hanging out with his friends.
The group is outside playing one day and they come upon a litter of barn kittens.
…and they decide it might be a good idea to baptize them.
Ames takes the kitten and sprinkles water on its head three times
just as he’s seen his father do.
He does it for the next couple of the kittens, as well,
but not long afterwards, the mama cat comes,
and isn’t so sure she likes this ritual,
and starts carrying the kittens off one by one.
Well of course the children aren’t sure which kittens
are now Christian kittens and which are pagan kittens,
and it makes them a little worried.
So Ames decides to go to his father and he asks casually,
“What would happen to a cat if one were to, say, baptize it?”
The father’s response is not what he had hoped for.
The father responds that the sacraments should be treated with respect.
But later, the young Ames grows up and becomes a preacher himself.
He remembers touching the kitten with his wet palm so long ago.
And it amazes himself to imagine, that while pretty much everyone has petted a cat at some time or another,
very few have touched a cat in the same way he did,
with the pure intention of blessing it…
and that he says, is the wondrous thing.
As he blessed the kitten at baptism,
he could feel the power of the sacrament.
In that simple act of blessing – with the words and the touch– he could feel the sacredness in the other living creature.
Ames goes on to say, now,
“I don’t wish to be urging the ministry on you, but there are some advantages to it you might not know to take account of if I did not point them out. Not that you have to be a minister to confer blessing. You are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position….it’s expected of you.”
So there’s your encouragement for considering ministry…whether ordained or not —
the opportunity and even the expectation to offer blessing
and in that interaction to feel the sacredness in another human being.
Two of the Scripture passages we read today focus on blessing –
God’s words of blessing.
They are words which remind the hearer of who they are.
And they are words of comfort and promise and grace.
In Isaiah….the blessing is given to the nation of Israel.
God says to Israel:
“You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
It’s the only place the whole Bible where God says those three words, “I love you.”
In Luke… God’s blessing is given to Jesus at his baptism.
After Jesus is baptized, as he is praying, the heavens are opened,
a dove descends,
and a voice speaks to him saying,
“You are my beloved Son.
With you I am well-pleased.”
Jesus hears those words of blessing,
those words of affirmation,
those words of love from his father,
and they prepare him for beginning his ministry.
You may remember that until this point Jesus hasn’t done much of anything yet.
He hasn’t done any miracles.
He hasn’t done any healing.
He hasn’t done any teaching.
The baptism and words of blessing which follow
become his commissioning to go out into the world to begin his ministry.
Blessing is more than words.
It acknowledges the sacredness of the other.
It affirms our mutual belongingness to God.
And just as it was important for Jesus in his ministry,
blessing is important for us in our ministry in daily life.
Words of blessing do not need to come from a pastor.
In fact, sometimes words of blessing are heard and felt most when they come from someone who is not a pastor.
There was a story on the “Today” show this week
about an Iowa City teenager who made a decision to combat
cyber-bullying (bullying by social media)
by offering words of blessing instead of ridicule to his fellow students.
He created a Twitter feed of compliments to his fellow West High School classmates.
Tweets included things like this:
“You’re an outstanding musician, with your guitar and your voice.
Keep being lovely and caring of all.”
“Your encouraging personality and generosity toward others makes you very likeable.
You’re quite the intelligent kid, keep it up.”
“You are the man, one of the best runners West has right now. You have more work ethic than just about anyone.”
The teen had a group of friends who joined him,
and so far, they have delivered about 3000 tweets.
This group of teens in Iowa City understood the power of blessing,
in a world where words of blessing don’t seem to come naturally,
in a world where it’s more common to put down someone else rather than build them up.
Their effort became a movement,
as the rest of the school’s students and even the whole Iowa City community
have responded to the effort,
paying forward the effort in their own tweets.[i]
Offering words of blessing don’t seem to come naturally
for many of us humans.
And just as Jesus needed to hear those words from his father before he began his ministry,
we too need to hear them so much more often than we do.
So as we name those who have been baptized here at St. James during the past year,
hear the words of blessing that God says at each and every baptism ….
You are my beloved.
With you I am well-pleased.