31 January 2012

Are There Still Prophets Among Us?

Deuteronomy 18: 15-20 & Mark 1: 21-28 

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany/ 29th January 2012

 Prophet – one of the more problematic words in the Christian vocabulary and the wider public.  There’s something about this word, this role that makes us uncomfortable.  We probably think of those wild and wooly Old Testament prophets preaching death and destruction or someone like John the Baptist preaching out in the wilderness warning, “Repent!”  Say the word “prophet” and we think of someone like Nostradamus (1503-1566), who predicts the future and reports back what it coming, and it’s usually not good, it’s usually downright bad and scary, cataclysmic.  That’s why when many hear the word “prophet” they immediately think “doom and gloom.” We generally don’t have good associations with either the word or the role.  Prophets are controversial, adversarial. We don’t imagine them as particularly happy people.  They’re loners, outcasts, people who live on the fringe and a little odd.  They’re not people we aspire to be or become. Have you ever heard someone say, “One day, when I grow up, I’m going to be a prophet!”?  Have you? I haven’t it. A psychologist might say such a person suffers from unhealthy fantasies of grandeur or struggles with a messiah complex. Or given what often happens to prophets, such a person suffers from an unconscious death-wish.

            My meanderings here on our associations of this word serve to demonstrate that we have, yet again, an example of how our assumptions and culturally-determined definitions of biblical words can hinder us from hearing scripture and therefore hinder us from living faithful lives.  The Bible, however, casts a different light on the meaning of the word.

            A prophet is, quite simply, one who speaks on behalf of God.  It’s right there in Deuteronomy:  “I will raise up for [Israel] a prophet” like Moses, who spoke for God, “I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command” (18:18). Note several things here.  First, one does not ask to be a prophet.  One is called.  In fact, it looks like one doesn’t have a choice.  Second, the message of the prophet does not belong to the prophet, but to God.  The prophet becomes the mouthpiece for God.  The personality of the prophet remains, of course, God doesn’t take over his body and kick him out.  The prophet lives, as it were, close to God, close enough to hear the heart-beat of God, close enough to know the heart and mind of God, intimately close enough to hear what God has to say, close enough to understand that Word, close enough to know that the message given is holy, that it’s a matter of life and death, and that once heard, it has to be said. 

            This means we have to set aside notions of the prophet as a kind of seer predicting the future.  The prophet does not predict the future, per se, but rather imagines the future.  When the prophet preaches it’s always cutting edge and future oriented, yet it does not predict the future.   What the prophet offers always has a public and social dimension to it.[1]  The prophet has a burden in his heart, a concern for people – widows, orphans, the most vulnerable among us, the oppressed – for communities and nations.  Because the prophet is close to God, knows the heart and will of God, because the prophet has been given a glimpse of what matters most to God and what God hopes for, the prophet’s message will confront us with a choice:  either embody God's vision for creation and find life or ignore, reject, refuse God’s vision and deal with the consequences.  The prophet, speaking for God, helps us to see the world as it is and then imagines what it shall be and calls us to live into that reality. 

            Because the prophet usually has a very good sense of the values and priorities of the prevailing culture, he or she also knows that hearing this message and heeding it will entail considerable resistance and opposition.  The prophet knows what he’s up against.  She knows it won’t be easy, but she doesn’t have a choice.  The prophet didn’t have a choice.  As Jeremiah said, many will try to shut him up or expect him to be quiet. “But if I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,’” that is, if I tried to withhold God’s message, if I tried to stop talking about God and God’s vision, God’s “word,” he said, “is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9).  To contain that fire is exhausting.

            You see, a prophet – and even preachers now and again by God’s grace – have “received a window into the reality of God”[2] and know that that view is so amazing, so extraordinary and beautiful, that if fully acknowledged and embraced, it has the power to transform existence and the world.  A prophet is someone who has been drawn into the heart and mind of God and once there can no longer be content with conventional wisdom and values and superficial existence and unjust social structures that do not reflect the heart and mind of God.[3]

            In this way the prophet is actually more like a poet who, by grace, can imagine another world in this world, another reality, a different future.[4]  Biblical prophets are probably closer to poets – good poets – who through the power of language give us the ability to go deeper into reality, they help us to see things we might otherwise miss or ignore, and then they transfigure the way we see with our own eyes and hearts.  The nineteenth century American poet James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) captures this way of being in one of his poems.  He’s not talking about being a prophet here, but it applies:

            For I believed the poets:  it is they
            Who utter wisdom from the central deep,
            And listening to the inner flow of things,
            Speak to the age out of eternity.[5]

            Because the glimpse, the vision into “the central deep” of God – I love that – is so precious and holy and good and wise, the prophet feels called, obliged, compelled to stand against everything in the world that threatens God’s intention for creation.  And God’s intention is righteousness and justice – which is not vengeance! (another biblical word often misunderstood) – two words used over and over in scripture that point to God’s desire for healing, for wholeness, for relationships mended – with our neighbors, with God, with ourselves.  If God’s desire for creation is wholeness and healing, for things put right, then that means God is against everything that hinders this.  It means that God’s heart breaks with every breaking heart.  It means that God wants compassion for everyone who knows or is a victim of brokenness – and God calls upon us, through the prophets, to do something about it.

            The message of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others like the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1926-1968), comes on strong – to put it lightly – but we must not fail to see the heart that stands behind their urgings, of the compassion, of the desire for change and reform, for the sake of suffering people.  The prophet has a call to liberate, to heal, to redeem, to make whole. 

            When God’s message of justice (again, not vengeance) is heard and heeded it will inevitably clash with the prevailing powers that be, because the powers that be generally don’t want to hear this message.  That’s why its feels controversial or adversarial. Prophets say things the majority doesn’t want to hear and because the majority has considerable power and influence, it does everything it can to silence, mock, ignore, and – if need be, even kill – the prophet to maintain the status quo, knowing full-well that status quo, the way things are, is not offering liberation, healing, redemption, wholeness to everyone.  Yes, to some, the majority, but not everyone.  You can also see why the prophet is always the voice of the minority.  I can’t think of a prophet, ancient or contemporary, who spoke from the center of society.  They’re often on the fringe – on the left, but also on the right of things.  The message is always unpopular.  That’s why prophetic preaching in the church, especially today, is unpopular.  It’s never been popular.  It doesn’t build churches because it’s not the preaching the masses want to hear.  It’s also why we generally don’t find prophetic preaching in today’s megachurches.[6]  For example, you don’t find Joel Osteen – the pastor of the largest church in the United States, the Lakewood Church, in Houston, TX, with 43,500 in attendance each week – preaching prophetically.  They also took the cross out of their sanctuary because some might view it as a downer.

            How can you remove the cross from Jesus’ message? It’s easy when you remove the prophetic element of Jesus’ message and ministry.  Jesus knew that prophets often got killed.  The cross itself is a reminder that we often refuse to hear the Word of God; we often resist the message of the prophets.  We would rather he just go away so that we can carry on with our false pieties that comfort us and our values and our priorities.  Jesus comes preaching from a long line of prophetic preachers with a message of liberation and healing that was really more than the powers could tolerate, either then or now. 

            Just look at this healing story in Capernaum.  Jesus comes with considerable authority to heal, to make whole.  The text says that the people were amazed, startled by his authority, that he was able to heal.  But why are they so amazed?  Isn’t this what one would expect from the community of faith?  Isn’t this what one would expect from someone coming in the name of God, with good news, and a word from the Lord?  That is, unless, the community in Capernaum, at some level, really didn’t expect or want such display of power and authority, did not want God’s presence in their sanctuary messing things up too much, did not want God coming in and telling them that all is not well in the world and then try to change it, did not want anyone coming among them in the name of God and claiming an authority that would make the Roman Empire nervous.  No wonder Jesus was escorted from many a synagogue and village.

            I think it’s important to remember, as J. Herbert Nelson (director of the Office of Public Witness for the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.) in Washington, DC) reminded us several weeks ago here in worship, the prophet speaks truth to power in love.  When Jesus spoke truth to power he did so in love.  Jesus’ message was radical and controversial, but that was not his aim.  If it was, then he didn’t come in the name of God.  Yes, he came to tear down and overturn, but in order to build up and love people into the kingdom, into God’s vision of justice.  And Jesus could do this, he had the authority, because he knew the message and was faithful to it because he knew the heart-beat of God, he lived close, intimately close to God and shared God’s dream and promise of a world made new, he knew the heart and will of God.

            Are there still prophets among us?  Who are the great prophetic preachers in our age?  Can you name them?  What about prophetic elders and trustees and deacons?  Prophetic members of congregations? What about prophetic congregations?  The fact that their names don’t come rolling off of our tongues probably says something about the nature of Christianity in the world today.  Dr. Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, professor of preaching at Yale Divinity School, believes that “We have lost our will to preach prophetically because we have lost the prophetic vision that comes from being intimately connected to God, with God’s world, with God’s people.”[7]  What do you think?

            This past week global leaders gathered from around the world for the annual meeting of World Economic Forum in tony Davos, Switzerland; the brightest among us came together to discuss the future of the world economy.  A sobering statistic emerged this week, given in a report to one of their committees. There are problems with throwing out statistics, but this appears reliable and was presented to help raise our awareness of things.  “At the end of the 19th century the ratio of the 20% in the world to the poorest 20% in the world was about 7:1; at the end of the 20th century, it was 75:1.”[8]  In other words, the richest 20% had 7 times what the poorest 20% had at the end of the 19th century; today, the richest 20% have 75 times what the poorest 20% have.
            Now, how does that make you feel?  Now imagine, from what you know is near and dear to God’s heart, how do you think God feels about this?  And then imagine, what do you think God would say about this situation?  Then ask, what would God have you do about this?  Then ask, what would God have you say?  What needs to be said? That’s how prophets are born.  That’s how the prophetic voice emerges.  So, are there still prophets among us?

Image: The prophet Ezekiel (14: 1-21), August DorĂ©'s (1823-1883), English Bible (1866).

[1] Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, Prophetic Preaching:  A Pastoral Approach (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 1-4.
[2] J. Philip Wogaman, Speaking the Truth in Love:  Prophetic Preaching to a Broken World (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 3, cited in Tisdale, 4.
[3] Wogaman on preaching, Tisdale, 4.
[4] Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, for example, often interchanges poet and prophet in his writings.
[5]James Russell Lowell, “Columbus,” The Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell (Boston:  1876), cited by Wogaman.
[6] One notable exception would be Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, IL, a theologically liberal, socially progressive megachurch that has grown in membership precisely because of its prophetic stance.  See:  http://johnvest.com/2012/01/30/worth-holding-on-to/
[7] Tisdale, 20.
[8] This statistic was shared by Dr. Miroslav Volf, professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, who participated in discussions on economic justice with the Global Agenda Council on Values. See also this very informative presentation by Hans Rosling on the growing economic disparity:  http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/hans_rosling_at_state.html

24 January 2012

Course Correction

Jonah 3: 1-5 & Mark 1: 14-20

Third Sunday after Epiphany/ 22nd January 2012

 The Revised Common Lectionary for this Sunday intentionally links these two texts, primarily because each has something to say about what happens when God calls us.  God’s call to Jonah in chapter three is actually the second call.  You’ll recall that after the first time God called him, to go to Nineveh and preach against the city, he fled.  The text reads, “But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD” (Jonah 1:3).  He fled.  He ran away.  He sailed away – or tried to.  God hurled a “great wind storm upon the sea” (Jonah 1:4) and then he was eventually hurled into the sea and into the belly of “a large fish” (not a whale, Jonah 1:17). In Mark, we find Jesus preaching, announcing the kingdom of God, inviting people to repent and then follow him along the way into the kingdom.  Two call stories.

            Now when we hear the word "called,” it’s often assumed that it refers to a "religious" calling, to be a minister or priest or rabbi.  In order to be clergy one has to have a call, we know; clergy therefore are the only ones called, it’s believed.  I often hear my Roman Catholic friends, especially priests, refer to the priestly life as having a vocation, a calling, suggesting that the word is used only for religious work. 

            But why do we assume that God is only concerned with so-called “religious” tasks or professions?  Are we saying that God only extends a call to people to do a religious task? As if God is only concerned with religious or holy professions.  Psalm 24:1, however, offers a different take on the matter; it’s very clear: “The earth and all it contains belongs to the LORD.”  God’s sovereign care and concern is not for only a portion of the world, the religious bit, but for all of creation.  God doesn’t divide up the world into that which is sacred and that which is secular.  These are our ways of dividing up reality, especially since the eighteenth century Enlightenment.  Our own separation of church and state doesn’t help matters and only adds to the confusion.  I’m not criticizing this – let me be clear; our own Presbyterian forbears were instrumental in making sure that there was a strong wall separating church and state.  However, we shouldn’t assume that that’s how God views the situation.  Reality is one.  Sacred and secular – it’s all one and God has concerned for all of it and all of us.  In God’s sovereign care for the world, God is concerned about people and how people live, and cares for us by calling people to do God’s work and God’s work means working for things that ultimately matter, things that provide the care and welfare of all people, things that call us to life. 

            We won't find such a dualistic view in the Bible; not in these stories.  Yes, it’s God calling, calling to a particular task, to do the work of God in the world.  But this is not the call for just some, for the “religious professionals,” its God’s call to all of us.

            Since the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Reformed tradition – the Calvinist-Presbyterian tradition – has strongly affirmed that everyone who is baptized also has a vocation.  To be baptized is to have a vocation, from the Latin vocatus, meaning, “called.”  We remember and honor our baptism by answering that call.  Everyone baptized has a particular calling (and callings) from God.  This doesn’t mean everyone is called to be a minister or a preacher – it might be for some – but it does mean that to be set apart in the waters of our baptism means that we have been set apart by God to love and serve God, which is what it means to be called.

            And it’s important to lift up that from a Reformed perspective, we do not have a hierarchy of callings.  One call is not higher or better than another – and being clergy is not the highest calling.  In fact, if pressed to privilege one profession over another, John Calvin (1509-1564) said, at the end of his Institutes (1559), that perhaps the most important profession is not the minister, but the public servant – a king or queen or magistrate, an elected official, those who are entrusted with the support and care for the common good.  Why?   Because it’s the civil servant’s responsibility to seek and maintain the welfare of the people in the community.  Just imagine what the world would be like if more public servants – including politicians – saw their professions as a calling from God, instead of a job, or a game of party politics or personal aggrandizement. Many of our public servants are serving the public because they do feel it’s a call, but not everyone, as we know.  Calvin also said, more than two hundred years before our own Declaration of Independence, that if the monarch or the public magistrate is not caring for the needs of all the people, then he or she should be removed from office.[1]

            The perennial question, though, is how do we discern what God is calling us to do with our lives?  Discernment is a skill, even an art.  It requires considerable prayer and listening – listening to the community around us, listening to our hearts, paying attention to our passions. 

            And there isn’t one calling for a lifetime. We should probably talk about callings, because the content and the direction of God’s call changes.  What matters most is that we acknowledge that we are called and are being called. Yes, it could be called to parish ministry (when was the last time someone from this church was called to preach and teach or go to seminary?), or it could be a call to social work or engineering or teaching or science or economics or to be a stay-at-home mother or father.  Every profession has the potential of being viewed as a calling if it is done to the glory of God – and the work of God is not limited to the church, as Jesus himself showed us; it’s both here, in the church, but “out there” in the wider world.

            You see God never ceases in calling, inviting us to live lives worthy of the God who created and continues to recreate us; God never ceases enticing and imploring us to give our lives to something bigger than our egos or self-interests.  We were not created and endowed with the image of God to make lots of money.  We were not created for the pursuit of our own happiness, despite what our Declaration of Independence might say. This universe was not created simply to satisfy our own selfish, egocentric needs.  Teenagers and college students are often asked the question, “What do you plan to do with your life?”  On the surface the question appears innocent enough. It’s a question that assumes, however, that our lives belong to us, which from a theological perspective we know is seriously misguided and wrong. 

            Our lives do not belong to ourselves.  At some level that’s what baptism means, that we don’t belong to ourselves, or to our parents, or to our families, or to our community, but that we belong ultimately to God.  Perhaps we should ask, of teenagers and young adults, any adult, including ourselves: “What do you sense God calling you to do with your life or in your life?”  or “Where is God leading you, calling you?  What is God calling you to do?” 

            The Presbyterian minister and writer, Eugene Peterson, who once served in Baltimore Presbytery for many years at in Bel Air, MD, remembers the day his life was changed, when he realized the purpose of his life as a minister, when he was called, as it were, within his call.  One day he went to hear the novelist Chaim Potok (1929-2002) – author of The Chosen, The Gift of Asher Lev, and The Promise – give a lecture downtown at Johns Hopkins University in the Shriver Hall. 

            Potok shared “that when he went to college his mother took him aside and said, ‘Chaim, I know you want to be a writer, but I have a better idea.  Why don’t you be a brain surgeon.  You’ll keep a lot of people from dying; you’ll make a lot of money.’  Chaim replied, ‘No, mama.  I want to be a writer.
            He returned home from vacation, and his mother got him off alone.  ‘Chaim, I know you want to be a writer, but listen to your mamma.  Be a brain surgeon.  You’ll keep a lot of people from dying; you’ll make a lot of money.’  Chaim replied, ‘No, mama.  I want to be a writer.’ 

            This conversation was repeated every vacation break, every summer, every meeting:  ‘Chaim, I know you want to be a writer, but listen to your mama.  Be a brain surgeon.  You’ll keep a lot of people from dying; you’ll make a lot of money.’ Each time Chaim replied, ‘No, mama. I want to be a writer.’  The exchanged accumulated.  The pressure intensified.  Finally there was an explosion.  ‘Chaim, you’re wasting your time. Be a brain surgeon.  You’ll keep a lot of people from dying; you’ll make a lot of money.’  The explosion detonated a counter-explosion:  ‘Mama, I don’t want to keep people from dying; I want to show them how to live!’”[2]

            We were created to participate in something larger than our egos and self-interests. We were created to experience something more profound than the meeting of our narcissistic needs or obtaining financial security. Our lives are precious and short.  They are precious because we are endowed with God’s own image.  We were created to give our lives, called to place our lives in service to something larger than ourselves, a higher purpose than personal satisfaction.

            Jesus' word for that larger life was kingdom, the kingdom or realm of God is that larger life, the vast realm of God and life in such a world fosters life and growth and healing and justice and love, it seeks the welfare of all God’s people and is not afraid to fight for it.  That’s what Jesus discovered about his own calling – after he was baptized, after he went into the wilderness to discern his call, he arrives on the scene in the Galilee proclaiming the “good news of God,” inviting people to repent – that is, change the direction of their lives away from other lesser, competing concerns – and give their lives to God’s work in the world.  And note the order here, it’s very important.  Jesus didn’t say, “Repent. Then receive the good news of the kingdom of God.” Jesus said the kingdom of God has come near, therefore repent, change direction, and follow.   Embrace the good news and follow, live!  Jonah discovered the same thing, although reluctantly, after his own baptism of sorts.  Baptism – or spending three days in the belly of a fish – has a way of wrenching us from the orbit of our egos and then re-aligns us within the orbital pull of a larger planet, as it were, a larger body that has pull and sway over us, a larger world, a larger reality, the kingdom, the life, the vast realm of God, which continually beckons all of us. 

            The kingdom of God is always calling out and inviting us to enter it.  That was what Jesus was called to do in his life.  That’s what a life is for.  And by God’s grace, Jesus calls us to join him, as he shows us how to live with compassion and mercy, with love and with justice. 

[1] See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), IV.xx.1-32.
[2] Eugene H. Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant:  An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 46-47.  Emphasis mine.

09 January 2012

New Beginnings

Mark 1: 4-11

Baptism of the Lord/ 8th January 2012

The beginning of Mark’s gospel–his account of God’s good news–s situated near water, along the River Jordan.  We’re not sure where.  Today, there are not one, but two “official” sites, pilgrimage places, where you can go down into the water. For one U.S. dollar you can buy a little vials or for a couple of bucks a larger container to bottle the water, bring it home as a souvenir, maybe mix the water with ordinary tap water used in most baptismal fonts.   One site is in Galilee, in modern-day Israel; the other is in Jordan. 

The exact location is not important, of course.  What’s significant is that Jesus begins his ministry in and around water and that he was baptized.  Luke and Matthew’s story of Jesus’ life and ministry start with his birth in Bethlehem.  For Mark, Jesus is “born” as it were here in the water, in the act of baptism. There are probably good historical reasons for this.  Mark’s gospel was probably written first, early, around 70 AD scholars suspect.  Mark was probably not aware of the birth narratives; he didn’t know the tradition rendered by Matthew and Luke.  For Mark, Jesus’ origins start not with a virginal conception or as a baby in a manger.  Jesus is “born” here in the waters of the River Jordan.  He is conceived by the Holy Spirit who rests upon him when he comes up out of the water, after having gone down into the depths of the flowing river and rising up a new person.  It all begins here, according to Mark.

This is worth noting as it provides an important insight into the meaning of baptism.  We need to remember that the Christian church didn’t come up with the ritual of baptism, although the two–church and baptism–are now inextricably linked in our consciousness.  Baptism literally means to wash or to bathe.  It’s a ceremonial washing, an act of purification.  Jews practiced different forms of ritual cleansing, which were commonplace during Jesus’ lifetime.  This was especially true for the Jewish apocalyptic sect, the Essenes, who lived out in the wilderness, primarily along the Dead Sea, near Qumran, away from the Romans and the Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem.  John the Baptist was probably associated with the Essenes and perhaps even Jesus. 

Baptism emerges from within a radical religious sect of Judaism.  This, too, is worth remembering because John didn’t baptize Jesus because Jesus decided he was ready to become a Christian.  And he certainly wasn’t baptized because he wanted to become a member of a church.  The church didn’t exist when he was baptized.  The early church modified the original understanding and turned it into an act, a ritual, a sacrament of incorporation, incorporation into the church. 

A simple surface reading of this text, however, would lead us to see that it has very little to do with the church.  We could say it’s an act of incorporation, but incorporation not into the church, but into something, dare I say it, more important than the church, incorporation into the mission of God, the missio Dei

Baptism here is really more about initiation into the mystery of God, into the knowledge of God, and then, once initiated, one’s life and the life of the world are forever changed.  Baptism here is really more about participation, of Jesus participating in the life of the Spirit of God flowing through him and the world and then getting caught up in the Spirit’s flow, the Spirit’s movement in the world fulfilling the purpose and work and mission of God.  Baptism here is really more about identification, through this act Jesus’ identity is firmly rooted in his relationship to and with God.  He is identified, associated with God.  And he discovers his name:  the Beloved.  He discovers who he is: the Son in whom God takes immense delight, the object of all God’s love and joy.  And when Jesus discovers that his life is not his own, he’s places his life in service to the one who loves him and now sends him on a mission–the missio Dei, the mission of God–first into the wilderness for further training and then into the Galilee to proclaim the good news of God. 

The way I’m characterizing baptism here has very little, if anything, to do with the church. Yes, Mark wrote his gospel for his community, his church.  But the emphasis was and is not on the church as church.  The church is not an end itself and has value and importance only when it is being pressed into service to something far more profound and meaningful than itself:  the mission of God, or, as Jesus called it–the kingdom of God.  If the masculine, royal image doesn’t speak to us, we could also translate kingdom as the realm of God, or the kin-dom of God, or even the Empire of God.  All would be correct.  All point to God’s generosity, healing justice, redemptive power, and love governing our lives and the world.  Jesus is called to serve this mission, to embody it with his life, and he invites us to join him, to be “born” like him in the waters of baptism, to allow the Spirit of God to conceive within us something of God’s mission, to begin something new for the sake of the kingdom. 

The way I characterize Jesus’ baptism here can also be applied to everyone willing to go down into the waters.  On some level, Jesus’ experience was entirely his own.  But his experience, when we pay attention to it, tells us something of what we can all expect when we encounter the Living God.   Baptism is about our initiation into the mystery and knowledge of God and once initiated our eyes are opened and how we view ourselves and our neighbor and the world are forever changed. Baptism is about our participation, you and me participating in the life of the Spirit of God flowing through us and the world, getting caught up in the Spirit’s flow, the Spirit’s movement in the world fulfilling the purpose and work and mission of God.  Baptism is about our identification, through this act we discover our identities firmly rooted in our relationship to and with God.  We are identified; we are associated with God.  And we discover our true name:  the Beloved.  We discover who we are in God’s eyes: children of God, beloved daughters and sons of God in whom God takes immense delight, the object of all God’s love and joy.  And when you and I discover that our lives are not our own—and when we rediscover this time and again because, unlike Jesus, we forget who we are, we forget that our lives are not our own—when we know this and remember it, we then by grace can place our lives in service to the one who loves us through and through and in love now sends us on a mission—the missio Dei, the mission of God.  It will require going into the wilderness for further training—always required—but then we, too, are sent to embody the mission with our lives, to proclaim God’s good news.

Jesus had to go into the wilderness to discover what his special mission was.  So, too, we have to discover our purpose, what God is asking of us, whether we’re 18 or 88.  We are called to follow Jesus, yes, but not necessarily become exactly like him.  His journey belonged to him.  But he leads the way in showing us that we, too, need to discover what God is asking of our lives, on our journeys.  What are the unique things that you and only you have to offer the world?  What are the gifts that are unique to you that are being asked of God?  What are the passions, the hope, the dreams, the hungers that make you you, and how are these, too, being asked of God?  For this life does not belong to us, “you are not your own,” as Paul said (1 Corinthians 6:19), and as John the Baptist knew, and his parents, and Mary and Joseph, and Jesus, and every other character in the Bible.

            As we explored this morning in adult education, the Christian life has often been described as a journey.  We are all pilgrims walking to the place where we might discover our resurrection.  Across Europe in the middle ages there were pilgrimage routes to holy shrines and cathedrals.  To go off on pilgrimage—like one day making a pilgrimage to Mecca for Muslims—was a special opportunity to grow in one’s faith.  Dante’s journey in the Divine Comedy—through the Inferno, Purgatory, and finally Paradise—expressed such a view of the Christian life.  John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is another example.  The Hero’s Journey, reflected in the story of King Arthur and the search for the Holy Grail, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and even J. K. Rowling’s adventures of Harry Potter, are all rooted in the Christian narrative of journey.   Pilgrimage is becoming very popular in Europe these days.  In 2005, 93,921 pilgrims completed the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Way of St. James of Compostela that begins in Southern France and cuts across northern Spain ending at the cathedral of St. James in Galicia.    Many of the old routes are being restored, such as the 402-mile route to Nidaros, to the shrine of St. Olav in Norway, or the 71-mile St. Andrew’s Way, following the ancient pilgrimage route from Edinburgh to the great cathedral (now in ruins) in St. Andrews.[1]  We don’t have pilgrimage routes in this country, unfortunately.  But we are still called to venture forth on the journey, to begin and begin again and again.

            In T. S. Eliot’s (1888-1965) stunning poem Four Quartets this theme of the Christian journey is central.  I’m a huge Eliot fan.  He has been a wise and faithful companion to me along my way.  For Eliot, the Christian life is a journey, it’s an adventure, a quest that requires courage and most of all, love.   Eliot wrote at the end of Four Quartets:
            With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
            We shall not cease from exploration…[2]

In “East Coker,” the second poem of four in Four Quartets, named for the village in England where his ancestors once lived before immigrating to the New World in 1669, he writes: 
            Home is where one starts from. 

Home matters, but it’s the starting point. We can’t stay there.  We have to leave home and venture forth.  It’s in the venturing forth that we discover who we are and whose we are.  For Eliot, the goal of the journey is a deeper connection with God, of discovering our purpose in life through the depth of that relationship.  The journey will take us through some difficult places, dangerous places, life-threatening places, but it’s the journey toward God and discovering our lives in relation to God that was central for Eliot, probably because it was also central for Jesus. Because it was so for Jesus, it’s the way for all of us too. 

            Eliot wrote:
            We must be still and still moving
            Into another intensity
            For a further union, a deeper communion
            Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
            The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
            Of the petrel and the porpoise.      In my end is my beginning.[3] 

This last sentence, “In my end is my beginning,” a quote of the English mystic and anchorite Julian of Norwich  (1342-c.1416), sums up the poem.[4]  “In my end” refers to death, but also end as in purpose, or as the Westminster Catechism asks in the first question, “What is the chief end of man?  To glorify God and enjoy God forever.” 

            When we know our end or purpose, that’s the place where life begins, that’s the place of new beginnings, that’s where we are conceived, that’s where we are born.  We are born with our calling.  And that end, because it is always love, will move us, as it moved Jesus,

            Into another intensity
            For a further union, a deeper communion.

            Drawn by love and the voice of this calling.  Isn’t that what Jesus discovered along the River Jordan?  Isn’t this, too, the purpose of our journey, “a further union, a deeper communion” with God, with one another, with ourselves? 

            Drawn by love and the voice of this calling the journey takes us “through the vast waters,” down into the depths, through the dark cold and empty desolation of human suffering and sorrow, down into the depths of the waters, down, down, down, then through and up and out of the waters—not unlike baptism itself!    For, “With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling/  We shall not cease from exploration.”

[1] See Ian Bradly, Pilgrimage:  A Spiritual and Cultural Legacy (Oxford:  Lion Hudson, 2009).
[2] T. S. Eliot, The  Complete Poems and Playa, 1909-1950 (New York:  Harcout, Brace & World, 1962), 145.
[3] Eliot, 129.
[4] Probably taken from Revelation of Divine Love (1413).  It was also the motto of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587), “En ma fin est mon commencement.”

Image:  "Baptism" by Nina Lagervall, member of Catonsville Presbyterian Church.