Bearing the Heavy Things in Life Series – Part 7 of 8: Where to Find Power
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
April 23rd, 2017
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with[e] water, but he will baptize you with[f] the Holy Spirit.”
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
All right, a show of hands, how many of you are scared of the dark? You don’t have to lie, you are in church. It’s okay. I’m scared of the dark and I avoid darkness. I’m fifty years old; I’m scared of the dark. I know; I know; I am fifty. That’s the big mystery. [laughter] Actually it started as a child, I can tell you that story another day. We put night lights around the house mostly so the Legos wouldn’t find us. You find with your feet in the night and they are sharp and you talk to Jesus in that moment. That gave way to shoes being left around and then over at your feet when you step on because they’re soft and but they sure can get your feet wound up and the ground comes up awful fast when it’s dark. That’s not really what I’m scared of the dark though.
I got a call this week, one of our neighbors that live down the street — don’t really know them — think I’ve seen them at one of the HOA gatherings and that was about it. They said we heard you are a Methodist pastor. We both grew up Methodist. We meant to find a church; we haven’t. Our child is at hospice; can you come? Their child, nine years old, is dying. Can you come? I went.
I’ve been a pastor for a lot of years and not very often do I find myself in over my head. I was in over my head. Standing in the dark halls of hospice, in my memory they are dark, not because there’s not enough light. They are well-built buildings, there is plenty of light. But in my memory, they are dark because darkness makes it easier to see the lights of the world. And driving. wondering why did they call me? What do they hope I can bring. I have not completed medical school or a residency. They are not looking for medical advice. Hospice has its own janitorial service are not asking me to come clean the room. What do they hope that I’ll bring? They must hope that I’ll bring a word. What word is there that is sufficient when a nine-year-old child is dying?
There are a few people that I do believe have been given the gift of having the right word to say. I believe this because the words do not come from them. It is not their words; it is not like they have a book of words. Jennifer Hagerman has that gift; David Wilkinson has that gift; Cynthia Kirk has that gift. There are others and I strongly believe this — think it is best not to name names — who believe that they have developed in their mind pastoral words to say to comfort people in difficult times. One of them told me rather vociferously: in moments like this someone has to speak for God. I’m a trained theologian in biblical interpretation. I’ve been doing this for a lot of years. I get really nervous when someone says I’m speaking for God, especially when they put on their pastoral voice and begin to speak like this. I believe God is very capable of speaking for God’s self. I believe God has spoken, and I believe the church has done a faithful job of offering and remembering those words for us. I’m also quite clear that I have not received that gift.
What I’ve received, my gift, and I truly believe it is a gift because it does not come naturally for me. My gift is the freezing of my mouth in moments of darkness. I have a very clear understanding that in times of waiting for light to come into our darkness that talking is a way of controlling the moment. Talking and doing and being busy and filling the silence and lighting the darkness with our own words and filling the emptiness with their own words. Don’t just stand there do something. That’s the voice that comes naturally into the back of my mind. Be helpful, be useful, be insightful, be profound; puts me right in the driver seat.
But then I remember the story of Mary and Martha, Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus had died; Jesus comes to their home. Martha makes herself busy in the kitchen. Martha makes her so busy I can hear the flap of the rag that she is using to wipe the table. Mary sits at the feet of Jesus. I’m natural tendency is to be like Martha, make myself busy but I’m very aware that I will miss what Jesus has to say. So I’ve tried to become better at being a lot more like Mary: sitting, listening, waiting. Don’t do anything; just sit there. That’s the voice in the front of my mind.
I don’t know if you notice in our text today. John was the preacher and he was not a kind preacher. He’s proclaiming; he is baptizing; he’s hesitant to baptize Jesus, but he does and for all the ferocity in John’s voice when he’s proclaiming the gospel message for all of the importance of his personal holiness and social holiness; I don’t know if you noticed but after the baptism we don’t hear from John the Baptist again. He’s right there. He is the preacher. God sends a dove, the dove descends onto Jesus and John has the sense to remain quiet. Maybe he knew that anything he might add to the moments would take away the meaning of the moment and point back to him. When God is moving, perhaps it’s best for us to be still. I think we come to church sometimes because we are looking for a word. We are trying to get a handle on the parts of our life that are not in our control. Birth and baptism, and death and funerals are right at the top of that list of where we feel most out of control. We started by talking; I was telling you about a nine-year-old and hospice. In that moment in the darkness of hospice, the only words that I could find, the only words that came to me are not my words. What came into my mind was an awareness of the prayer ministry here at church. Persons who set aside time each week to be useless to the world. Say that with me: useless to the world. To the busyness of the world: useless. To the likes of the world: useless. To the fears of the world: useless.
People who pray are so ordering their lives. They are setting aside time to engage in a different kind of power. I’m not talking about the power of prayer to overcome all challenges. I told you before I don’t believe in the power of prayer. I find prayer to be very disempowering. I’m talking about a different kind of power that comes with being useless to the world.
I thought about this power as I looked on a nine-year-old. Do you realize how small a nine-year-old looks in a hospice bed? Thinking about this didn’t make me smarter; didn’t make me more insightful; didn’t make me helpful, didn’t make me taller or stronger. In the United Methodist Church we celebrate two sacraments: baptism and communion. Some people asked me: why don’t we have more sacraments in the United Methodist Church, like last rites. We should have last rites. Well we do. Most people don’t know it though. Baptism is a sacrament of dying. Most people don’t know that.
And so baptism at the beginning of life is baptism into dying, dying to the ways of the world. But it’s even deeper than that – let me help you understand this — in our text today, Jesus is baptized. At his baptism three things happened. Number one: heaven is torn apart; the spirit of the Lord descends on Jesus like a dove; and a voice from heaven proclaims that Jesus is God’s beloved son. We go to the end of the gospel of Mark, at the moment of his death, the temple curtain is torn apart. Jesus breath’s out his spirit. And a voice of the world, a centurion, declares Jesus to be God’s son. Jesus’ baptism is like Jesus’ death. Jesus’ death is like his baptism. Baptism and death are the bookends of life.
In hospice, looking on this nine-year-old and looking into the faces of parents and grandparents, two sisters, a brother. The only words that I could find in that moment of darkness came to me from the light. Through the sacrament of baptism we are initiated into the body of Christ. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation. We are given new birth through water and spirit. All of this is given to us without price and we placed our hands on this nine-year-old and then I said you were baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit. Through baptism you are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation. All of your life is gathered into the body of Christ. All of your life is redeemed.
I stopped talking and a few milliseconds later, the child’s father said these words. Just as the feet of Jesus were baptized by tears and dried by the hair of a grateful person, we have gratefully been placing our tears in your hair, on your hands and touching your feet. You are so loved. And in that moment, I think we all knew that the love of God was not enough to make it bearable to lose a child. But that in the long run, the love of God would be enough. And so we were able to say something like: it is with joy and thanksgiving that we send you before us into the presence of Christ.
I tell you this today to encourage you to begin and if you’re already doing it to deepen and strengthen your practice of being useless to the world. Trust the presence of God. Trust that God will get done what God needs to get done. I tell you this because I want to make sure that you know the meaning of baptism is mostly about what God is doing in life. It is also about what God will do at the moment of death. I tell you this today so that when it’s your turn to be present in the dark, you will know how to bring light. Be thankful for your baptism.