Sunday, January 13, 2013

I Create and Connect Therefore I Am (Maybe) (1/13/13)

I Create and Connect Therefore I Am (Maybe)
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 13, 2013

Mark 1:9-12 (Scholars’ Version)
During that same period Jesus came from Nazareth, Galilee, and was baptized in the Jordan by John.  And right away as he got up out of the water, he saw the skies torn open and the spirit coming down toward him like a dove.  There was also a voice from the skies:  “You are my son, the one I love—I fully approve of you.”
And right away the spirit drives him out into the desert.

On this day designated on the church calendar as Baptism of the Lord, we ordain and install our new elders and deacons.   When we have new members ready to join, we often welcome them on this Sunday.   Even though we don’t have anyone joining this Sunday, still this is a good day to reflect on what it means to belong and to serve.    When I say belong and serve, I don’t mean belong to the church and serve it.  

·         I mean belong on this planet and serve life.   
·         I mean belong to our communities and serve them. 
·         I mean belong to our families and serve them.  
·         I mean belong to another and serve her or him. 
·         I mean belong to Earth and serve the creepy, crawly things.   
·         I mean belong here and serve what is.  
·         I mean belong to you and you to me and we serve one another.    

You may remember a few months ago, I preached a sermon on happiness.  The author I quoted was psychologist, Jonathan Haidt.  In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, he offered a happiness formula.   It was nice that it was a formula as opposed to a poem.  For those of us who find our meaning in algebra as opposed to quatrains it was a little something for us.   

He wrote that H = S + C + V.

H is happiness.  

S is your biological set point.

C represents the conditions of life (and the most important of these conditions are relationships).

V represents  voluntary activities.

The bottom line is that happiness is set biologically.  However, you can boost it by developing meaningful relationships and by doing meaningful work.    This is no big secret.  This isn’t something new we have learned since the invention of psychology.   Although it is nice when psychologists also come to similar conclusions as did the sages of old.

Think of Jesus.   The parables he told were ultimately about improving our relationships, overcoming enmity, seeking and granting forgiveness, and treating others as we want to be treated.   The things he did centered around helping others:  healing the sick, comforting the brokenhearted, feeding the hungry, and encouraging dignity and worth.       Jesus was all about meaningful relationships and meaningful work.

The baptism of Jesus is the symbol that draws all of that together.  

The baptism of Jesus is an interesting puzzle, historically.  According to Mark, the earliest gospel, John is baptizing for forgiveness of sin, to repent, and to start a new way of life.   Jesus is baptized by John.   So did Jesus sin?   Did he need to repent?   How could he sin if he was the sinless son of God, the second person of the Trinity and so forth?   Why would he undergo a baptism for forgiveness of sin?

Mark has no problem having Jesus undergo this type of baptism.    He sees no conflict.  Neither John the Baptist nor Jesus objects to this state of affairs.   

Later gospels do notice the problem.    

·         Luke has John the Baptist imprisoned before Jesus is baptized.   Luke simply writes that Jesus was baptized.  It is not clear whether or not John even baptizes Jesus in Luke.  
·         In the Gospel of John, Jesus doesn’t appear to be baptized at all.   John the Baptist in the Gospel of John simply announces that he saw the spirit hover over Jesus like a dove.  There is no narrative of the baptism itself.
·         In Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist tries to stop Jesus and says:  “I’m the one who needs to get baptized by you, yet you come to me?”  Jesus simply replies that “this is the right thing for us to do.”
·         In a later gospel that didn’t make it into the New Testament, the Gospel of the Nazoreans, sometimes called the Gospel of the Hebrews, we find this story:
The mother of the Lord and his brothers said to him, “John the Baptizer baptized for the forgiveness of sins.  Let’s go and get baptized by him.”  But he said to them, “How have I sinned?  So why should I go and get baptized by him?”
Those who search for the historical Jesus are likely to say, yes, Jesus was baptized by John because the early church would have been embarrassed by such a story and therefore not likely to have invented it.    Those later gospels are reflecting a theology of the divine nature and thus sinless nature of Jesus.   They have to do something with this embarrassing story.  They all seem to need to explain his baptism by John the Baptist or to dismiss it in some way.   

The earliest gospel, Mark’s gospel, had not yet developed that “high Christology” as they call it and so Mark spilled the story without explanation.    The conclusion is that it is likely true that neither Jesus, nor John the Baptist, nor the author of Mark saw Jesus as sinless.   He was a guy, not unlike one of us.     
Jesus was obviously Jewish and so he would engage in the religious practices of his time as anyone else.   Baptism, as John seemed to be practicing it, was a purification ritual.   Presumably, you could have it more than once.   Like a bath, you would be symbolically cleansed to go and do good works.    Jesus was game for this as much as anyone.   

We all need that.  We all need to be forgiven so the past doesn’t haunt us.  We need to practice honesty and forgiveness with one another so that we can continue in those relationships.   We need a safe space and people we can trust to share our struggles so that those struggles do not overcome us.    We confess sin to let it go.    

I personally find a human Jesus who needs a baptism for sin to be far more compelling than a Jesus who is so divine that he is above it all.  I like that Jesus was a sinner like me.   Not that he just pretended to be a sinner, or took on my sins on the cross as later Christian theology tried to spin it, but that he really did sin.  He would smoke, drink, chew and hang around with girls who do.  

If there is a difference between Jesus and us, it is not one of kind but of degree.   Jesus submitted to a life of belonging and doing.   That is why he is worth emulating.   He was baptized as one of us because he was one of us.   

Later Christian theology took baptism and made it a one-time event that would supernaturally cure us from original sin.  Then the sacrament of confession and communion was a vehicle to keep us updated.   In a sense the Lord’s Supper for Christians served a similar role that baptism did for John the Baptist.   It is an ongoing update.  The different Christian sects interpreted all of these symbols  in different ways.   They all claim to be right.   I can’t even keep up.    

Here is my theology.  It plus three dollars can get you a coffee at Starbucks.   

I should say something about the sermon title.  It is a riff from Rene Descartes’ famous phrase, “I think, therefore I am.”  Descartes was so sure of himself.   But I am not sure that we are only thinkers.  I like to think we create and connect and that gives us meaning.  But maybe there is more to it than that as well.  Hence the “maybe.”   I would say, however, that connecting and creating are pretty darn important.
Anyway, my theology begins with life.

Life is what is.  We are human beings.   We are neither sinners nor saints.  We are not born into original sin.  We are born into a complex web provided by genetics and environment that makes us who we are.   We are rarely conscious of the feelings and impulses that drive us.     We have inherited language, stories, and symbols that open us to the larger world, but it in the words of the Apostle Paul, what we think we know or see is like watching life through a clouded mirror.     

Into this fog of life to which we are thrust naked and crying, we need to find that which can hold us.   In addition to food, clothing, and shelter, we need at least two more things.  We need to feel that we belong and we need to feel that we are not a burden but instead have something to contribute.  
The purpose of religion is to help us find connection and belonging and to help us find something meaningful to do.   This is the reason for the church, in my view.  I am not talking about things as simple as church membership.  I am talking about life and death.  I am talking about surviving and thriving in this world.   
I feel great pain for those who do not feel they belong and who feel that they are a burden more than a blessing.   It doesn’t matter if it is objectively true, if we could ever know that.  It has to do with self-perception.   In order to be able to survive and thrive in this world each of us needs to be able to say,
“I belong and I have value.  
I love and am loved and I have something to contribute.  
I connect and I create.”    
I know that we cannot force people to believe that about themselves.   That is painfully true.   When I see people struggling and acting out, or when I watch them try to manage things unsuccessfully, I think of these two needs, to belong and to contribute, and perhaps I can pause, not to judge, but to understand.    Perhaps I can help, and if not, at least not hurt.

The baptism of Jesus in Mark’s gospel is our story.   He comes out of the water and is blessed by the voice from the skies,
“You are my son, the one I love—I fully approve of you.”   
How we all need to hear that!   How we all need to know that!    
You are my son, you are my daughter, the one I love—I fully approve of you.
You are a loved and loving human being.   
You are fully approved. 
Don’t be afraid of that desert.
Enter it and create.
We are loved.  We are approved.  

If I had a magic wand and could make people believe that about themselves, I would wave it every day.   

That’s my religion.


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