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Consecration Sunday Sermon

Pastor Cynthia Krommes
(Senior Pastor, St. John’s Lutheran Church, Phoenixville, PA)
Pentecost 23 A, 2017 (Matthew 25: 1-13)
November 12, 2017
Holy Trinity Lutheran, Manhattan

It is a joy to be here and especially, to serve as your Consecration Sunday preacher.  I’m not the first pastor from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania to preach in this pulpit.  The Rev. Dr. Robert Hershey who served here for 21 years, began his ordained ministry at Central Lutheran Church in Phoenixville, a congregation which later merged with St. John’s.  A while ago, a man stopped by my office and gave me a book of Pastor Hershey’s sermons entitled Think About These Things.  I read the beautifully crafted sermons and they did make me think.  Then last week, my husband John and I attended Bach Vespers, a ministry Holy Trinity began during Pastor Hershey’s tenure, now 50 years ago. Your faithful stewardship of the Gospel proclaimed through word, sacrament, music and deeds, has kept the lights on at Holy Trinity for 150 years.

“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  Matthew 25: 12

Wednesday is Bible study day at St. John’s where the focus is the Gospel for the coming Sunday.  There are two studies, one in the morning at the Episcopal House, a low-income housing community for the elderly and the other in the evening in the Fireside Room at St. John’s.   The morning one is made up of mostly older women in their 70’s and 80’s, some of whom have “lost their filters” if you know what I mean.  If they think it, they say it.  After the text is read, the question is asked, “So what caught your attention?”  This week Sissy immediately responded, “This whole thing is just wrong.”  She went on, “Didn’t Jesus tell us to share.  They weren’t wise bridesmaids, they were stingy ones.  Then the bridegroom locks the door and doesn’t let the foolish ones in even though they ran all over town to get more oil when he was the one who was late. It’s just not right!”  Almost everyone around the table nodded in agreement.  I suspect that when some of you heard the passage read this morning that ended with the proclamation, “The Gospel of the Lord,” while your mouth responded, “Praise to you, O Christ,” your mind was thinking, “What?!”

Putting this text in context helps.  It’s Holy Week. Jesus has left the temple precincts where there’d been significant conflict with the religious authorities.  In his parting shot he calls them hypocrites and a brood of vipers.  Now he’s preparing his followers for what is to come and not just his crucifixion, but what will follow his death and resurrection.  A second context for the text comes when Matthew’s writing his Gospel, 50 years later. The church has been waiting and waiting and waiting for Jesus to return and is losing hope. So, Matthew includes four of Jesus’ parables which are known as the Advent parables because they anticipate the coming reign of God.  They are stories about faithfulness, perseverance, readiness, obedience, compassion and specifically with the ten bridesmaids, stewardship.

Stewardship is everything we do after we say, “We believe.”  I like how Brother Curtis Almquist of the Society of St. John the Evangelist puts it, he writes, “In our baptism we give up both the delusion and the burden of possessing life.  We acknowledge that we are neither the author nor finisher of life. We’re a steward of life, an ambassador on a short-term, mortal assignment by Christ. Who knows for how long?”  Then he concludes, “Give it your all; you will be given all you need.” (http://www.tens.org/resources/blog/stewardship)   To be bluntly honest, five of the bridesmaids gave it their all and five did not.  I suspect on any given day we might be one of the wise or one of the foolish, or perhaps both.

So how do we keep oil in our lamps?  How do we show forth the light of Christ in our lives?  How do we live as baptized, as consecrated ones?  How are we stewards of life?

First, worship weekly.  I heard Church historian and Reformation scholar, Timothy Wengert, preach a sermon in chapel at the Philadelphia seminary in which he said that on Sunday after worship he feels confident and full of faith, but by Friday it’s all but gone, so he runs back the bath, word and meal, hungry for grace.  That’s true for me.  For you, too?  All I have to do is read the front page of the New York Times.  I’ve spent most of the past year feeling numb and then last week our national addiction to guns and violence violated the holy, sacred space of First Baptist Church in Sutherland Spring, and Jesus was crucified once again.  Numbness turned to tears.  Oh, how we need to be here, living under the sign of the cross, in a community of faith that dares to call evil, evil and good, good, that dares to tell the truth.

You, the people of Holy Trinity dare to not only to tell, but to sing the truth.  Last Sunday, my husband John and I heard the truth sung in Bruhns’ Cantata at Bach Vespers that “even though we are much too weak to wield the sword of the spirit, there stands by us, a mighty hero who has overcome Death, Sin, Hell and world…the foe conquered, the race is run, for all has ended to our delight. Triumph!” Worship weekly.

Pray daily.  At the Wednesday Evening Bible Study, the question was asked, “How do you keep oil in your lamp?”  Around the circle, we went and just about everyone said, “I pray.”  One woman shared her nightly prayer and it was beautiful.  Another, a recent widower who is deeply grieving the death of his beloved wife, teared up and said, “All I have to say is Dear God, and I know that I am not alone.”  Now there might be some here who do not know how to pray.  In fact, when we do newcomers’ class at St. John’s often a brave soul confesses he’s clueless when it comes to prayer.  That’s when our Lord’s prayer can be very helpful.  Pause after each phrase and ponder what that means for you.  “Our Father….I am not alone…..give us our daily bread….bread for me and the beggar in the park…forgive my trespasses….my envy and lust, my greed and self-centeredness….for thine is the kingdom, which means it belongs to you God, not to the elite and their politicians or even me.  Amen.  Oil for your lamp, pray daily.

Serve joyously, or as Brother Curtis said, “Give it your all.”  You are an ambassador on a short term, mortal assignment by Christ.  Elsie had given it her all, but now her husband was dead and she was living at Parkhouse, the county home, stuck in a wheel-chair, missing him, her friends, her house, her everything.  I was there with communion not knowing what to say so I prayed “God, help me help her.”  Then, by grace, God did.  That day Elsie was commissioned to be the St. John’s Missionary at Parkhouse.  She said, “What do I do?”  I replied, “You are going to have to figure that out, but I think it is mostly loving other residents and the staff.”  She figured it out and the next time I visited was full of stories about the people on her floor and how wonderful they were.  She said the residents started taking turns praying before meals.  She told me about a man named David who refused to leave his room. Elsie said, “I just wheeled myself to his room and told him, there is a place for you at the table and when you aren’t there we miss you. Besides we can’t pray until everyone’s present. And you know what?  He wheeled himself to the table.”

You are God’s missionary.  It might be as a member of a board who dares to ask the difficult questions that go beyond what’s legal to what’s ethical. There’s a difference.  Or taking supper to a sick neighbor or you’ll figure it out.  But know, mostly it has to do with love.  Serve joyously.

Give generously.  It’s important to have discipline when it comes to giving because every time we turn around someone is trying to sell us something that promises to make our lives better, easier, more satisfying.  If we buy it, there’s a short-term high and we do feel better, but it’s temporary and before long we need another fix.  Just look in your closets and you know this is true.  In Phoenixville people rent storage units, bigger than many Manhattan apartments, crammed with stuff they bought to make their lives better, easier and more satisfying.  No wonder there are so many foolish bridesmaids, out of oil with bad credit ratings.
This is where proportional giving – giving a percentage of our income towards or beyond a tithe which is ten percent – is a blessing.  It makes us think about our money and what we do with it.  It instills discipline and helps us to use our resources on what really matters.  To give is to make a difference beyond ourselves, it makes life worth living.  Give generously!

Giving keeps the lights on, literally and figuratively.  And they were on here last Sunday evening when the dark came early as the marathon was ending.  All day long thousands ran and ran and ran.  Just as we do every day, sometimes making progress, sometimes not.  At Holy Trinity the lights were on and a young man and his mother saw that and came into this holy, sacred space and through music and words heard the truth.  He had run the race and proudly wore the light blue poncho to prove it.  It was a moment of personal victory, but he, they, needed more than that and knew it.  After Vespers he shook your pastor’s hand and thanked him, for the light.  The race is run and all ends to our delight.  Triumph. Amen.

“The Disgusting Offense of God’s Grace”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
“The Disgusting Offense of God’s Grace”
(Matthew 20:1-6)
September 24, 2017 (16th Sunday after Pentecost)

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is a month away. As October 31 nears, you will hear a lot about grace. We Lutherans beat our breasts when we hear the word “grace.” We are so proud that we have foresworn the revolting thought of anyone getting into heaven by doing even one good work. Oh, yes, we are sinners, we are Lutherans, we are champions of grace.

I suspect, however, that most of us are not quite as enamored with grace as we claim. The quaint thought that God saves the good, bad, and ugly with no apparent distinctions can be downright offensive. Plain ol’ grace can be as disgusting as someone cutting in front of us in the Fairway Market checkout line. Plain ol’ grace feels like giving a leg up to someone who hasn’t done nearly as much as we think we have done.

There is no such thing as a free lunch, we grouse. “Come on, Pastor, we may be saved by grace but we have to do something, we at least have to believe!” “Sure, I believe in grace but if I don’t treat my neighbor well, what’s it all worth? There have to be a few good works along the way on my part or the world will disintegrate.”

Today’s gospel shocks those of us who support an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. We would never dream of coming to work late and expect to be paid the same as the person showing up at six-forty-five in the morning. How can Jesus commend such an outrageous business practice? We work hard and deserve every cent we get. And, oh by the way, we obey the laws of land, pay our fair share of taxes, and don’t panhandle on Broadway.

A good friend of mine, a very committed church person and a very successful businessman, more than once came to me in desperation and complained: “Pastor, if we ran our business the way you run the church, it would be dead.” I told him, without fail, “You are exactly right. And, that’s why yours is a business and ours is the church.”

Have you ever pondered what grace is? Frederick Buechner writes: “Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about anymore than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace…A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do.”

It is so easy to mess up the beauty of grace, to end up believing we must offer God some of our expert assistance in the process of being saved and God saving the world—God could never do that alone!

Think about how it works here at Holy Trinity. We are proud of our outreach ministries. Don’t you tell others about our homeless shelter where twelve women call Holy Trinity’s community room their living room? Who doesn’t celebrate HUG where, for forty years now, fifty people have enjoyed a warm Saturday meal and a little friendship here? And we are delighted this morning to receive the news that members—YOU! —have contributed $2550 to Lutheran Disaster Response to help those digging out from the hurricanes. And while we may not mention Bach Vespers in the same breath, isn’t it similar? We spend the largest amount of any outreach ministry on a host of people who come to Vespers week in and week out and allege, “I’m not religious, I just come for the music.”

We love these ministries and those they serve and well we should. But don’t we occasionally resent having to bear the load? We heat this barn, worry how to fill it up on Sunday morning, and patch its leaky roof. Shouldn’t we get a little more credit?

Oops, I forgot one other ministry for outliers, that free Sunday brunch that has been served here at Holy Trinity for nearly 150 years! Regardless of what dastardly thing we have done during the week and in spite of our scanty offerings, we are served free Sunday brunch, right now. We are the workers hired at the end of the day to whom Jesus says, “This is my body and blood given and shed for you.” That, dear friends, is grace.

St. John Chrysostom lived in the fourth century; he was the archbishop of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). He preached a sermon that continues to be read in Eastern Orthodox churches at every Easter Vigil. His sermon might surprise those active Christians among us who tend to look down our noses at folks who show up just on Easter. They would never consider setting foot in this sanctuary on a toasty September Sunday morning and yet, to our disgust, they parade their dressed-up families up the center aisle every Easter morning, sitting in the very front pew so they can smell the lilies and sing “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” to brass and timpani accompaniment. They act as if they belong here!

You can imagine how old Chrysostom lambasted them…or can you? “Let those who have toiled since the first hour, let them now receive their due reward; let any who came after the third hour be grateful to join in the feast, and those who may have come after the sixth, let them not be afraid of being too late; for the Lord is gracious and He receives the last even as the first…He has pity on the last and He serves the first…Come you all: enter into the joy of your Lord. You the first and you the last, receive alike your reward; you rich and you poor, dance together; you sober and you weaklings, celebrate the day…”

Sounds a bit like Jesus, don’t you think. It’s a crazy method of bookkeeping, the first being last and the last being first; it’s no way to run a successful business. And yet, when we realize we, too, have received free tickets to this Sunday feast served by God, oh my goodness, what a joyous celebration it is.

“For God’s Sake, Let the Weeds Grow!”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“For God’s Sake, Let the Weeds Grow!”
Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
July 23, 2017 (7th Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

This is an amazing day as we receive seven new members into our Holy Trinity family.  Quite a few of you have said, “This is terrific.  What a gift from God.”  Yes indeed, our hopes are high!

Those joining are excited, too.  You do not take this step lightly.  You have thought about this for a while, looking around at churches, even exploring other denominations.  You are praying, “Make this the perfect faith community.”

We all want our life together to be perfect.  Jesus understands our longings.  That’s why he tells the parable of the wheat and weeds.

In today’s parable, we are reminded—and glaringly—how oblivious Jesus is to rational horticultural practices.  He tells us to let the weeds sprout up with the wheat and all will turn out fine. “Jesus, you have got to be kidding!” we protest.  Nevertheless, Jesus urges calm and we agree to excuse his botanical naïveté; he is, after all, our Savior.

Like Jesus, I am no gardening enthusiast.  There have been countless occasions when Dagmar has flown off to Germany with no choice but to tolerate my mismanagement of her prize-winning gardens.  In advance of the gut-wrenching separation—from the gardens, Dagmar has taken me by hand, warily expounding on how to water and how to discern ripeness in vegetables and fruit; she inevitably provides a tutorial for dummies on the minute differences between weeds and blossoms.  Invariably, upon her return, Dagmar weeps: “Wilk, those were artichokes you pulled out, not dandelions.”  I always promise to do better the next time.

While many of us have no gardening experience or have purposely chosen to live in this concrete jungle to avoid the nauseating nuances of flowers and weeds, we all yearn for Eden.  That’s why Jesus instructs us, “Leave the wheat and weeds alone or you might end up ruining the good stuff.  I will take care of the rest.”  Jesus knows we want things to be impeccable and, in the face of the least little flaw, we will drive ourselves and others nuts in seeking perfection.

This longing is nothing new.  We are embarking on the 500th year of the Reformation when the reformers yearned for a purer church.  Protestants and Roman Catholics remain tragically divided as we attempt to separate weeds from wheat.  You may believe things are purer because of Martin Luther and his sidekicks, but don’t forget the wars waged over pure doctrine, the heads lopped off, and the families devastated when their beautiful Catholic daughters married vulgar Lutheran boys.  And that was not the only time the church was torn asunder.  500 years prior to the Reformation, in 1054, another theological squabble led to the Eastern and Western Church divide.  And that wasn’t even the first monumental fracas.  Remember how the first Jewish Christians tussled with the Gentile Christians over the earth-shattering issue of whether believers should be circumcised?  Oh, how we long for perfection and what ugly rubble we create in pursuit of it.  Could it be that every 500 years or so, we, the people of God, forget what Jesus has told us about wheat and weeds, and try once again to purify the church with our own preferred gardening techniques?  Perhaps you have noticed the church is at it again, this time, issues of human sexuality are causing all manner of discord and people are ripping out wheat and weeds in all kinds of devastating ways.  Oh, if we only would listen to Jesus: let the wheat and weeds grow together, he said, particularly since you are clueless what is a weed and what is wheat.

Something within us believes we can achieve perfection and, doggonit, we will stir up all manner of havoc in the struggle.  When our personal lives and families, church and nation, are flawed, instead of doing as Jesus commands and letting the wheat and weeds coexist, we rip everything asunder, inevitably losing precious artichokes in the process.

I have a hunch Holy Trinity attracts lots of folks in search of purity.  Would you agree?  How many of us are here because we love the liturgy being “just so,” reflecting the venerable church traditions through the ages?  We want to bow right, make the sign of the cross at the precise times, sing theologically fitting hymns with only the finest music, and wear appropriate vestments even when it is 95 degrees and soupy…By the way, I like it that way, too, or I wouldn’t have accepted your call to become the pastor here and I certainly wouldn’t be wearing this toasty get-up this muggy morning.

And yet, we need to be careful.  My favorite author Annie Dillard writes: “The higher Christian churches – where, if anywhere, I belong—come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.”

Perhaps our freedom comes when we ease up a bit, taking ourselves less seriously and letting the weeds and wheat coexist.  Rather than becoming nervous wrecks if we commit a nauseating faux pas like making an improper left turn instead of right as we process to the altar, let us manage a little smile, trusting that God will spare us the raging fires of hell and mysteriously let us enter into heaven.  You could call this grace.

In a few moments, when the bread is broken at the altar, I will say, “Holy things for holy people.”  You know better than that, of course you do, and you will shout out the ancient response, “Only one is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God.”

Here’s what is astonishing: pure and spotless Jesus comes among us, repellant weeds that we are, looks straight into our eyes, and says, “Let the weeds remain.”

Perhaps Jesus, crummy gardener that he is, knows a thing or two about beautiful flowers.  Maybe he knows beautiful flowers are nothing more than trained weeds…or at least forgiven ones.

“With a Little Spit and Mud”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“With a Little Spit and Mud”
John 9: 1-41
March 26, 2017 (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

The man was born blind for goodness sakes…Jesus and his disciples passed by him as so many others had, day after day.

Curiously, however, no sooner had the disciples passed by the blind man than they asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The disciples’ initial reaction was not to alleviate the man’s suffering; instead they probed why he was born blind: had he sinned or his parents? They wanted to study the matter of suffering a little more deeply.

There continues to be a lot of suffering in the world. People are hungry and homeless, refugees and unemployed, depressed and addicted. Is our initial impulse to speculate on why they suffer or do we act immediately to alleviate their agony?

Jesus answered the disciples’ question curtly: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work.”

Did you hear Jesus’ answer: the man was born blind so “that the works of God might be made manifest in him.”

Enough speculation, Jesus said. Let God’s work begin! It’s getting dark.

There wasn’t a moment to spare because Jesus was going to die soon. And so, he spat on the ground, made clay with the spittle, and wiped it on the blind man’s eyes. Jesus then told him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam,” and soon after that, the fellow returned without a white cane and German Shepherd on a leash and he began to dance.

Just wondering…If you walked down the street after Mass today and passed a blind man, would any of you spit in the mud and wipe a bit of the concoction on his eyes? Do you sense the urgency Jesus sensed or are you a bit more cautious? Rather than stooping down for a little spit and mud, might you suggest we first form a task-force or at the very least do a cost analysis? After all, don’t we want to make certain that spit and mud is acceptable to all even if it might heal a blind man?

I did my seminary internship in 1976 at Emanuel Lutheran Church in South Philadelphia. Emanuel was the largest African American Lutheran congregation in America located in the rough and tumble Southwark Housing project where thousands and thousands of people lived. One day, fourteen-year old Kenny Williams was shot in the head on the twenty-first floor of one of the dilapidated twenty-five story high-rises as he and his two friends played a fatal game of Russian roulette.

I was at the church when my internship supervisor, Pastor John Cochran, called and said: “Drop everything and come immediately. Bring a silver bowl for baptism and oil for anointing. Kenny has had massive trauma to the brain and is on life support.”

Soon after “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” had been declared and water was dabbed on dear Kenny’s blood-soaked head, he breathed his last.

That Thursday evening, following the seven o’clock Mass, our broken-hearted staff sat in the pastor’s office, staring numbly into space. Pastor Cochran’s question will stay with me for a lifetime: “Why hadn’t Kenny been baptized before he was on his death bed? Why hadn’t we sensed the urgency?”

Like Kenny’s baptism, the healing of the blind man rings of urgency for Jesus. There was no time to speculate as to why he was born blind; he had to be healed, now, not tomorrow. Bring the spit and mud!
Remarkably, even after Jesus had done the miraculous, the Pharisees, good and faithful ones they were, still had nagging questions, “This man is not from God for he does not keep the sabbath.” Never mind that the blind man could now see for the first time in his life! The issue for good religious folks was whether all the rules had been followed. As so often is the case when merciful things are done, the Pharisees concluded that, in fact, Jesus had broken the commandment by healing the blind man on the sabbath; he never should have healed the guy.

My experience has often been that when the most good is done, there are complaints and critiques, not by bad people, mind you, but by good, caring people: a congregational meeting should have been held first to seek the mind of the membership; it was a splendid idea but didn’t you realize a few “influential people” might leave the church in disgust; or someone who knows the Bible will inevitably say, as did the Pharisees, “Couldn’t you have waited until Monday after the sabbath?” And, of course, you can hear them demand, “Why in the world did you have to use spit and mud on the Upper West Side?”

Jesus gathers us here this morning to remind us, yet again, that there is an urgency to act in his name, not tomorrow, not in six months, but today, now! It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there. What we do may be sloppy but, much more importantly, what we do might save a person’s life.

Our actions may come in small ways, volunteering in our Women’ Shelter or just bringing a few new pairs of women’s underwear for those who live here six months of the year; you may help at the Saturday meal for HUG for those living on life’s edges; or you may make a generous contribution to the courageous work of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service helping those seeking a safe place to call home (with your generosity, we are well on our way to collecting $4000). When we do these things, today, God’s goodness is made manifest in this place and in our lives.

When Jesus saw the man born blind, the incessant deliberations ceased and the gracious healing began. The old rugged cross loomed near and it was time to act.

I pray that our ministry here at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity may always be filled with a similar sense of urgency. Now is the time to use some spit and mud!

 

“Look Whom Jesus Is with at the Jordan!”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Look Whom Jesus Is with at the Jordan!”
Matthew 3: 13-17
Baptism of Our Lord (January 8, 2017)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan

Today, as water crashes over us and we are dripping from our baptismal remembrance, we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In the spirit of celebration, let’s roll the film.

See John the Baptist out in the middle of the Jordan River, about three feet deep, in a white shirt, skinny black tie, and rubber hip waders amidst a motley crowd of riff-raff.  Watch him thrust them under the water and wash away their sins.

And, goodness gracious, there stands Jesus, right at water’s edge!  Can you believe your eyes?  He’s there with the double-crossing camel dealer, the flamboyant drag queen, the corporate executive convicted of bilking clients of millions, and that floozy neighbor constantly getting thrown into the county drunk tank—how dare he get so close to them!

Okay, let’s stop the film for a second and catch our breath…

Didn’t you always think Jesus is God’s son?  Why in the world is he hanging out with such a notorious crowd of lowlifes?

Let the film continue.

Do you notice there are also some modest and holy looking folks in line to be baptized?  They appear to be nervously quivering, churning with doubt and silently rotting away at the core; their sins are tucked far back in the furthest reaches of their bedroom closet, hidden under extra bedsheets and grandma’s old comforter, out of sight from devout company; they are fearful someone will find out.

Look closely at water-logged John.  Do you notice how he keeps glancing out of the corner of his eye?  He appears to have spotted his cousin Jesus standing in line for baptism—see how John trembles!  Listen carefully; can you hear him: “Why in God’s name is Jesus here?  Why does he want to be baptized?  He is God’s Son, the sinless one.  I need to be baptized by him!”

Now, we can get all misty-eyed about this, but let’s not kid ourselves.  Jesus’ baptism has not always been an occasion for celebration.  His presence with such a horde of sinners has embarrassed the church down through the ages, actually, to be more precise, it has horrified the church.

One of our finest Lutheran liturgical scholars, Gordon Lathrop, suggests that Jesus’ baptism was actually not about his becoming pure for our sake but rather becoming dirty for us.  How can God’s son become dirty? you ask.  He gets dirty the very same way this precious little thing born in Bethlehem ended up dying the filthiest death imaginable, in love for all his brothers and sisters, on the cross at Calvary.

While we celebrate Jesus’ baptism this morning, truth be told, if we are not also appalled and fuming, we likely have not quite grasped how deeply God’s grace runs for us.

When I mentioned a bit earlier who Jesus was in line with—drag queens, painted ladies, Ponzi schemers—my hunch is that most of you smiled and poked someone in the side.  There is, after all, a quaint delight in seeing Jesus with such company—it makes our open-minded Upper West Side hearts quiver in delight. But I want to up the ante to explore just how open we really are to God’s grace.

I must tell you in advance, what I am about to say comes with no small amount of fear and trembling; I really do fear that I may offend some of you and cause you deep anger.  If that occurs, I beg you in advance, please forgive me.

Let the film roll and let’s locate Jesus once again.  Now look carefully.  Do you notice that he has his arm around a gangly young white guy with a weird bowl hair cut?  That can’t be Dylann Roof, can it, the same Dylann Roof who attended a Bible study at historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a year and a half ago and brutally murdered nine parishioners?  Even after family members said, “I forgive you, my family forgives you,” Dylann Roof wrote, “I would like to make it crystal clear I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”

Listen, listen…I think you can just make out the conversation Jesus is having with Dylann, “Dylann, dear brother, it is never too late to repent.”

While the film is stopped momentarily, let me remind us all, in case we have forgotten, that Dylann Roof’s family are members of one of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations and that two of the African American pastors murdered that evening, Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the Rev. Daniel Simmons, graduated from our Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina?

Jesus standing at Dylann Roof’s side…He can’t possibly be doing that, can he?

As you know, the penalty phase of Dylann Roof’s trial is now in session.  Should he be executed?  Are there ever any of God’s children in line with Jesus who should be executed, who are unloved by God?  Said another way, how dare we cut short the life of anyone whom Jesus loves?

As I think I mentioned, Jesus’ baptism inevitably scandalizes polite company.  Grace is messy; it can be numbing, sickening, and offensive.  That’s why we now start the film rolling again.  Watch as Jesus slips and slides up out of the muddy river, dripping wet from head to toe.  Listen carefully as God proudly proclaims from on high, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

There is something about Jesus’ willingness to stand in line at the Jordan and submit to this baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins that pleases God and horrifies us.

Look one final time as the film nears completion.  Are you surprised to catch sight of yourself standing there at the Jordan?  Sometimes, it is almost impossible to believe the words of that old hymn:

“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea…
For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind.
And the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.”

What a thrill to hear the water crashing and to celebrate God’s amazing grace for this terribly mixed up world…and for us, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.