Monthly Archives: January 2013

Four Sermons on Baptism: 3. Joseph’s Tears


–Joseph Recognized by His Brothers, Leon Pierre Urbain Bourgeoise, 1863

Baptism of Oliver Magnus L.

Genesis 45:1-15; Luke 6: 27-38

If you don’t know the story of Joseph, you owe it to yourself to read it from start to finish. It has everything: jealousy, violence, sex, power, money, suspense, God — and a happy ending.  It begins in chapter 37 of Genesis when Joseph is 17 and a shepherd in the land of Canaan. It ends in chapter 50 (the end of the whole book) when Joseph dies in the land of Goshen at 110. In between, Joseph is transformed from a spoiled little Hebrew kid into a shrewd Egyptian potentate, and his pack of jealous brothers into men of honor.

The plot of this convoluted story has a large historical purpose: it is meant to explain the manner in which the Israelites whom Moses led out of Egypt got down to Egypt in the first place. But it has a theological purpose too: it is meant to demonstrate the character of Joseph’s God. This God has a plan, and everything that happens to Joseph happens for a reason.

God’s reasons become clear only in hindsight, of course; but to Joseph, the divine method in the madness makes even attempted fratricide meaningful. Joseph says to his brothers, after finally revealing his identity, “Don’t be distressed or angry with yourselves about what you did to me: it was not you who sent me here, but God, in order to preserve life” [45:5].

Now, the providential worldview that makes such a crime meaningful does not remove the need to resolve the nasty old family secret. The business of forgiveness is still pending, and it won’t be simple. Joseph will subject his brothers to a series of tests, some bizarre, before he finally reveals himself and absolves them.

But absolve them he does — through his tears. In the short passage we read this morning, Joseph weeps only once, but if you read the story from its beginning 3 chapters earlier, you’ll see that this encounter-reunion narrative is drenched in Joseph’s tears.

The first time Joseph weeps is after he has terrified his brothers by accusing them of espionage. When the brothers realize that they are in deep trouble with this powerful and enigmatic man, they can only think that their crime has returned to haunt them: “We’re about to pay the price for what we did to our brother,” they all agree. “Joseph pleaded with us, but we turned our backs. Now we will surely answer for his blood…” [42:21-22]. And Joseph, who has pretended he can’t understand their language, is overcome — he hurries from the room to weep.

Why these tears? Well, why not? Here he discovers that his brothers have come to comprehend the gravity of what they did. So it all comes back to him — the horror of being snatched and stripped and thrown into a well in the middle of nowhere, left for dead by your kin. When he hears them recall the crime, he also discovers that for all these years in a foreign land, he has not been altogether lost; he has been remembered by these brothers of his — their guilt has kept him near, and so has their grief, a grief not unlike his own.

Does he see a glimmer of possibility for a new relationship, one woven of regret and empathy for their mutual emptiness, their mutual sorrow? Does he weep, then, also in joy, because he knows now what he will do with his power over them — that he will use it to be kind to them, and that soon he will effect a reunion with his father and his mother’s only other son, the youngest of the brood, Benjamin?

Joseph’s tears fall again when, much later, the brothers return for another sojourn in Egypt, still unaware of who “the man” who so dominates their lives now really is. This time, they bring Benjamin. And again, tears force Joseph out of the room: “Then he looked up and saw his brother Benjamin, his mother’s son… He hurried out, for he was overcome with affection, and was about to weep. So he went into a private room and cried. When he composed himself and washed his face, he came out…” [43:29-31].

Joseph then plants evidence of theft on Benjamin, and when Benjamin is caught, Joseph decrees that he must remain behind as a slave while the rest of the brothers return to Canaan. This is the greatest test — whether they will abandon Benjamin just as they abandoned Joseph once upon a time. They do not. One of the brothers offers himself in Benjamin’s stead. His father’s grief would undo him, he says, if he were to go home to report yet another lost son.

Joseph is overwhelmed by the pain of his own absence and the genuineness of his brothers’ loyalty. He bursts out weeping, and this time there is no hiding his tears. His passionate weeping, the scripture says, echoes through the palace — an eruption of pain and possibility so intense that it compels him at last to drop the game and reveal himself: “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt…” [45:1-2].

Now you might conclude that Joseph was a sentimental fool prone to exaggerated displays of emotion. And maybe he was — no one else but Joseph weeps in this story, and he’s not done weeping yet. When his father Jacob finally comes down from Canaan, Joseph “weep[s] on his neck” a good long while too.

But I think Joseph’s tears are more than sentiment. I think he knows that the sin of human enmity is something that can only be grieved, and never quite fully repaired. He knows that human estrangement is something to be borne, and never quite completely fixed. I think he knows, in the words of another preacher, that with those who hate us and with those whom we despise, with those who have harmed us and those whom we have harmed, we share a single damaged heart, and for this common wound he also weeps. I think he knows that the great tragedy of the refusal to forgive is that at a certain point in that stubborn sustenance of estrangement, all you succeed in doing is erasing yourself from your own on-going history; and because the absence of anyone from a rich human life is unutterably sad — a waste — it is worth weeping over.

I think he knows that you can’t retrieve, relive or reconstruct the past, and you certainly can’t forgive on command. You can only hope, by the grace of God, to test and probe and dare the present to see if you can get a little closer each day to the empathy and regret that make reconciliation and new relationships thinkable — a bit closer to the experience, the knowledge that we are in truth each other’s Josephs, that all our enemies (and those who scare us) are kin in disguise.

So in that hope he also weeps — the hope for joy in solidarity, in eventual reunion, in a holy communion. He knows it is possible: after all: his brothers tried to kill him once upon a time, but now they refuse to sacrifice Benjamin. He knows it is possible, after all: for now somehow he who was their victim is now holding them in his arms.

Today we baptized Oliver Magnus. What did we do for him? We passed him through water into a Company of Forgiveness. We wet him down with tears — God’s ancient tears, the same ones Joseph shed over his brothers, the same tears Jesus wept over us — and ushered him into a Way of Reconciliation.

Now, we know he didn’t need those tears of mercy today, didn’t need to be wept over. So far he hasn’t hated anyone, started a fight or a war, or decided he’s more righteous than the rest of us and treated us that way. He doesn’t have any siblings he can throw into a dry cistern (although there is a pesky cat in the apartment…).

But even if it’s hard to imagine him sinning today, he will need these tears some day, for sure. We all sin, there’s no reason to think he won’t end up sinning too.

So what we did for him today was to give him the best defense and the best offense we have found. Led by the Spirit, the church has for centuries collected the copious tears of God’s grieving over our alienation and aimlessness; God’s tears of regret for our foolishness and anger, our need to kill (in one form or another) to protect our own lives and the life of our tribe; God’s tears of hope for our turnaround, and God’s tears of joy at our homecoming — the tears that bathe our wounds and water our growth and enliven our pleasure and refresh our loves; the tears we too learn to shed for others, whether they belong to our tribe or sojourn in foreign places. We collected tears in this cistern (which can never dry up) and plunged this baby boy down in it, bathed him deep.

He is drenched now, and sealed: no matter what he ends up doing, where he wanders or is carried off to, God’s tears can find him, reach him, wet him down again and again. God will never lose him or let him lose himself. He is entrusted to us, too, who are likewise bathed and sealed and are wept over daily. We are each other’s kin now, now and always, God hanging on our necks and weeping tears of love, pure love, always love, nothing but love for us all.

God bless you, Oliver Magnus. We are Joseph, your siblings. Don’t be afraid. All will always be forgiven: Welcome home.

Four Sermons on Baptism: 2. Keep to the Trail of Water


–Photo: National Park Service

Exodus 15:22-27; John 2:1-11

Baptism of Aiden D.

Have you heard about extremophiles? I don’t mean people who hang-glide over belching volcanoes or snowboard down Mt.Everest blindfolded. Those risk-taking, rock-climbing, canyon-jumping, rapids-rushing, bull-running, totally insane folks can’t hold a candle to the critters I’m talking about.

Extremophiles, I read in yesterday’s Boston Globe, are microorganisms that thrive in the most unforgiving conditions imaginable. Some of these remarkable beings live miles below the earth’s surface. Others survive in temperatures reaching 250 degrees. Some breathe iron, some consume hydrogen, some eat rocks. The ones that live under the ocean floor have respiration rates 100,000times slower than organisms nearer the surface. As Beth Daley, the science reporter, put it, they lead “a mellow life” for millions of years – scientists call them “Zen microbes.”

How cool is that?

It turns out that life is far more pervasive, varied and enduring than we ever suspected. And so simple! While we complicated human creatures are madly trying to lengthen our lifespans and improve our looks with no carbs and comb-overs, these strange invisibilities are eating granite and living practically forever. Even as we reach for our cell phones, breathing hard and on the run, there are bugs out there sitting calmly in lotus positions, simply being bugs – they have no mortgages, no soccer practice, no sibling rivalries, no crummy co-workers to moan about, no nuthin’…

Of course they have no brains, either – no self-awareness, no emotions, no music, no aspirations, no ice cream. There’s not a Rembrandt or Ted Williams among them. And that’s one reason that, as cool as it is to contemplate the sheer tenacity of these little lives, and as humbling as it is to know that when our high-achieving species disappears from the planet, extremophiles will still be doing their no-thing thing in unseen places, I’m glad I’m me, and not one of them.

And yet…  Aren’t there times when our human environment seems every bit as extreme as theirs? Times when we discover that we are all extremophiles (well, not philes exactly, since we don’t usually love our hardships)?

Sooner or later most of us find ourselves in unforgiving conditions, at the far limits of livability, eating grief instead of bread, breathing pain instead of air; colonizing a subsurface world of depression and shame, or sojourning in the bewildering landscape of a bad diagnosis, an unfair dismissal, a financial disaster or some other almost casual calamity.

We cling to life in the hot core of anger or on the frozen crust of indifference, subsisting for what seems like an eternity on only the tiniest of kindnesses and paper-thin hopes. And somehow we hang on, scratching out a living in extremis, expanding the definition of the spiritual habitable zone.

How do we do it? Some people think it’s by force of will. Others think it’s by dumb luck, or good genes. More and more people swear by pharmaceuticals. But if you ask me, I’d say it’s water. We would never make it for a minute without water.

The Globe report agrees with me. It noted that one of the reasons scientists are so excited about the discovery of extremophiles is that in the search for life elsewhere in our universe, the amazing microorganisms we are finding here may be the clue to what to look for there. And in that search for life, scientists have one cardinal rule: Keep to the trail of water. “Studying life in extreme environments,” one said, “reinforces our focus on water. One thing all these life forms need at some time in their life cycle… is water.”

And let all the thirsty Israelites of today’s first reading say, “Amen!”

They have come out of Egypt thinking that unbearable misery is behind them, a painful memory. But now they are three days into the even more miserable wilderness of Shur with no water in sight, except for the polluted stuff they find at Marah. Worse than no water at all is lots of water you can’t drink; and so, wanting to live and not to die, the people cry out to Moses to do something. Moses cries out to God to do something. And God? God answers Moses by giving him… a piece of wood.


Moses picks it up and tosses it into the water. Now, notice that God does not tell Moses to do that. He does it on his own. I read one preacher who wondered if, when he saw that piece of wood, Moses thought, “Great! A piece of wood. This is so not a good answer to our prayer!”, and threw that stick into the bitter water in disgust – or in utter despair.

But Moses’ God is the same God who makes it possible for some little bug somewhere under the earth in Peru to do rather well by eating rocks and breathing iron, so there’s no reason that a piece of wood can’t quench the thirst of God’s people, ailing in the wilderness of Shur.

And sure enough, it does. As soon as it hits those acrid waters, they turn sweet. The people drink and live. They live to thrive, for soon afterwards they arrive at the oasis of Elim, with its twelve springs and seventy palms. And there they camp, the Bible says, “close to water.”

If you are looking for a life that persists in extreme conditions, for a life that thrives when by logic it should shrivel up and die, keep to the trail of water.

And if you want a life that is more than life, more than merely coping with adversity, more than occasionally rearranging the furniture, more than the illusion of balance; a life rescued from the undertow of regret, fear, guilt or the dullness brought on by a lack of depth and challenge or by casual sin; if you want your life of obligation (and resentment) transformed into a life of delight and inexplicable, indestructible joy, take the same advice – keep to the trail of water.

Follow that trail to a village wedding where the wine has run out, or to some other human circumstance in which even the best intentions and the hardest work have not been enough to make us completely happy. Follow it to an ordinary disappointment or embarrassment that rubs your nose in your everyday limitations, brings you face to face with your lack of foresight and wisdom, your inability to control circumstances, your lack of imagination, your tendency to give only a small fraction of who you are and what you have to the great feast of life, and then to complain that you have been shortchanged, that there is not enough.

The trail of water – follow it to six stone ceremonial washing jars, holding twenty or thirty gallons each. Follow it to Jesus, who said that he has living water for everyone, and who out of compassion for our ineptitude is always changing the water of obligation and self-preoccupation and low expectations into a kind of extravagant and useless delight, a new and better wine. Always transforming the bitterness of the cross into the sweetness of resurrection. Always taking ordinary life and creating from it a miraculous adventure.

How do we thrive in impossible climates?  Human will?  I admire it. Dumb luck? I am always amazed (and amused) by it. Good genes? I wish I had ‘em. Drugs? They can help. But I believe, and I know, that we would never make it for a minute in the challenging conditions of this life without the daily water of God, without the Christ of transformation – without their extremophile grace.

Call it mercy, forgiveness, acceptance, welcome. Call it the power of the Holy Spirit, divine adoption, vision, vocation, hope. Or call it the central symbolic expression of Christian faith – call it baptism – that washing, drowning, refreshing, soaking, birthing, forgiving, restoring, including, welcoming water that makes extremophiles of us all, able and even willing to live and thrive in any circumstance or condition, including the forbidding habitats we are, by our sin, forever creating for ourselves.

In a few minutes, God is going to make an extremophile out of Aidan. We will pour over him the water that signifies the grace that will help him thrive in all climates and conditions – including the harsh geology of his own sins and weaknesses (which, of course, he does not have very many of right now, but will surely start acquiring as soon as he is old enough to make a mess of things other than the purely biological ones he now makes several times a day).

We don’t know what life holds for him – bringing a child into the world is one of the greatest acts of faith anyone can make – but by baptizing him we believe we will have done the best we can for him from the start. We will have given him water, the secret of an existence more astounding than iron-eating microbes and Zen bugs breathing slow. We will have welcomed him to the trail of water, where Life is always seeking other life, to know, to love, to thrive and to rejoice.

Now, how cool is that?

Four Sermons on Baptism: 1. Water World

Isaiah 41:17-20; John 4:1-15

Baptism of Anne Elizabeth B.

He gets really tired, our Jesus, and worn out from traveling. So he takes a load off his feet at the highest, hottest hour of the day at a well in a Samaritan town where the neighbors are unlikely to be friendly. But it can’t be helped, because he has this great thirst. And because he has no bucket, and the well is deep, he’s going to have to ask somebody for help, the first person who comes along, who is likely to be a woman, and if she happens to be hard-nosed about Jewish-Samaritan relations, she might just cut him dead if he speaks to her, and if she does, he won’t get his drink of water. And water is what he wants.

When she comes, Jesus asks her for a drink. She gives him a little lip about not having a bucket, but he isn’t put off; before long they’re talking theology. First they talk about water, although at the start she thinks he’s talking about the water from Jacob’s well. But eventually the conversation gets around to establishing that the water she needs and the water he wants to give her are different. Then they move to the subject of life—just a short step away from the topic of water, since water and life are twins. But it’s not life in the abstract he is interested in; he wants to talk about her life, including her five husbands, and “everything she’s ever done.”

She drinks his “living water.” How quickly it revives her; how unencumbered she becomes! She drops everything and plunges into town to tell everybody about Jesus, and about a soul-thirst she didn’t even know she had, about the thirst Jesus first awakens in her, and then slakes. It turns out that she is the one who had no bucket, standing at the deepest of deep wells. It turns out that Jesus is the one who hospitably dips into unseen depths to refresh her. You could even say that he baptizes her, immerses and drenches her from the inside out; and from that day on, she who lived in a hot, dry world begins living also in a world of water, amid secret pools of refreshment, intimate cascades of acceptance and favor, and subterranean streams of joy.

She enters a water world: we have come to call it the church, the great reservoir of life. Since time immemorial rejuvenating waters have been collecting in its cisterns: the waters that buoyed up Jesus in Mary’s womb, they’re in there. The water by which John the Baptist cleansed Jesus, it’s in there, too. That water that by wedding’s end became good wine, it’s all there.

The church’s well holds the angry sea that Christ rebuked to save his friends, the waters he made as firm as a road so that he could reach them in their swamped boat; the tears he cried over the city he loved, and over Lazarus, his friend; the water from the basin he dragged from foot to foot at his last supper; the water that flowed from his side when the soldiers pierced him; the waters of ecstasy and revelation at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit, poured out from above, became living water within us.

The church is a great reservoir of all the waters that heal and challenge, cleanse and refresh, delight and save and serve and compel. And when by God’s mercy we are invited into the church, we who live in such hot, dry places get drenched with them. Safely submerged, we learn to swim in a brand new world, wet and wondrous; we learn to go deep and drink to our heart’s content.

Today we baptize Anne Elizabeth, child of God. We bring her not into the world (her parents managed that just fine), nor into communion with God (God knew and loved her from her mother’s womb), but into Christ’s body, into the church, into this world of water. By water we quench a thirst she is too small even to know she has—a thirst for becoming completely who she is, a thirst for fellowship with God’s people, for belonging to a household of faith and service, a thirst for home and the eternal vision of God.

Her baptism is pure gift to her: before she is able to fend for herself, to understand anything, to name anything or even to ask for anything, Christ drenches her with welcome and acceptance, makes her an indispensable member of his body, and reserves for her a unique place at our table of memory, justice and love.

Her baptism is pure gift to her: it is a lifetime pass to our village well, a right to draw from the church’s reservoir that never dries up or runs out and at which she will always find Jesus waiting for her, ready to help her, to talk with her about her life, to help her uncover who she really is, what she most truly desires. She will always find him at the center of town, at this well; and in life-long conversation with him she will drink in the kind of unencumbering good news she can’t produce for herself or get from anybody else.

And if the rest of us water babies do our part, the part we promise in our vows to God, as she grows up among us, she’ll never dry out, because we will daily be soaking her in the gifts of God with which the church is waterlogged—worship, sacraments, prayer, singing, fellowship, encouragement, teaching, counsel, correction, stewardship, healing.

If the rest of us water babies do our part, she too will someday go squishing about to tell others what it’s like to live in a water world, about the One who lives at the source, the One who can awaken their thirst too, and then quench it, the One who will hospitably draw out for them the same unending joy she knows.

Anne Elizabeth, child of God, baptized today. You came here with no bucket of your own to draw water from this pool, and Jesus was here waiting for you. He has now given you everything you’ll ever need to be safe and sound  — he has given you to us and us to you; he has made you a water baby and introduced you into a water world.

And something else too, something that we all too soon forget; but as you grow up here, we want you to remind us of it. Here it is: today we baptized you also into a mission and ministry. “What is it?” you will ask someday.  I’ll tell you now, and if we keep the promises we made to you today, we’ll be telling each other again and again for years to come.

Remember the drink that Jesus asked for? In all the commotion, it isn’t clear if he ever got it. We need to find out. Our mission and ministry is to ask and keep asking if Jesus ever got his drink of water, to ask and keep asking whether he is still thirsty, and to be on the lookout for him in all the village squares where he is dying for refreshment, in all the places where in so many guises he sits down to rest (including pews like these). Our ministry is to see him and give him that drink, to make sure someone passes by to refresh him. It isn’t much, but it’s all he’s ever asked for, all he’s ever wanted, all he wants from us today.

If you see him in the heat of the day or in the cool of the evening and give him a drink, if together we help each other do this day by day, on the Great Day when God calls us home, you and I and everybody here who loves you, along with all the saints who, waterlogged with the works of love, squish their way before Christ’s seat at God’s right hand, will hear Christ say:

“Well done, good and faithful church; well done, good and faithful Elizabeth Anne. Now enter my Father’s joy, prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I gave you living water, and you gave it back to me. When I was thirsty, you gave me a drink.”



They paint you standing in the river, or kneeling,

never more than waist deep, head inclined,

hands folded in prayer or fluttering at your breast

like a demure virgin answering an angel, ecce ancilla,

while John pours dainty trickles from a shell over your hair.

They are all like this, annunciations not baths,

not baptisms, nothing like the drowning dream

you gasp through at night: dead weight in water,

you kick and claw but go nowhere, air gushes out

in a geyser of bubbles, and the last thing you see is your own

dear face upturned, lolling half sorrowful, half serene

just beneath the surface, the panic over, given in.

In Season and Out


By the time you read this, Advent will be a memory—although we never really leave Advent, do we? We are always longing for love to materialize, always waiting for promises to come true, always scanning the signs of the times, always living under the judgment of a God who prefers mercy to sacrifice, always creating highways in the human wilderness to announce the good news about God’s unshakeable commitment to the earth and all who dwell upon it. Advent may be over, but Advent never leaves us. Desire for joy and justice is the permanent subtext of our lives.

Christmas will have come and gone too—although we never really leave Christmas, do we? We are always adoring on bended knee at cradles occupied by unfathomable babies, always surrounded by glory-singing angels, always offering ourselves and all we have in praise, always finding God most tenacious and tender among the suffering, the homeless and the poor, always subverting the violent power of kings with humility, with the insistence of stars, with the simple truth. Christmas may be over, but Christmas never leaves us. Human life is forever divinized. God forever wears a human face.

By the time you read this, it will be (almost) Epiphany—the season when eyes of faith flood with the most wonderful light, and the beauty of the One who lives and breathes in Jesus’ ministry is irresistible. All season long, the veil lifts and God is known in the wonders Jesus does, the words he speaks, and the kinds of people he calls to his side to share his company and his daily work.

You too, come and see, Jesus says. Come, see for yourselves. And if we go, and if we see, and if by his grace we stay, we will never leave Epiphany, nor Epiphany us.

Come and see, he says. And if we do, we will become like him, all light from light.

According to Matthew


–Joseph Sleeping, Gentile da Fabriano

According to Matthew, angels do not sleep: in the small hours they intervene, scattering the sleep of others.

They harry exhausted fathers and tip off shrewd men who hail from far away.

According to Matthew, the world is a place where good people’s dreams bulge with warnings, and hope is barely one hard breathing step ahead of tyrants bent on harm.

According to Matthew, there is an inexhaustible supply  of tyrants.

Angels have to work overtime; even then children die.

Only one escapes this time.

He will grow to be the sort of man who accepts angelic ministrations in wilderness and garden, but no more intervention.

Even forewarned, he will not flee; not even put up a fight.

“Leaking Light” — Epiphany


–Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423

Our planet has come full circle, and things should feel new; yet for many people, the calendar is cleared only for business as usual, and the soul’s season, like the weather outside here in the northern hemisphere, is winter. But the church has entered a different season. We call it Epiphany, from a Greek word meaning to point out in a striking way, to reveal.

Epiphany is a season of signs. It starts with a Star in the East and ends with fire on a mountain. A season of voices, it starts with directions in a dream and ends with acknowledgment from a cloud. A season of unveiling, it starts with a glimpse of a baby’s skin and ends with a display of gleaming garments. A season of worship, it starts with the homage of kings and ends with the prostration of disciples.

How generous and wise the liturgy is to gives us this string of bright, hot God-sightings in a cold, dark time. It is the church’s way of showing us that our world only appears solid, still, dark, and cold, but is in fact ardent, vivid, and porous. As Barbara Brown Taylor says so eloquently, Epiphany reminds us that we live in a world that is leaking light, and that this long stretch of predictability we call our daily life is really a wondrous game of hide-and-seek with the divine.

Starfire, dream-clouds, baby’s flesh, garments of light, kings on their knees and disciples on their faces—in Epiphany we learn, again, to see, to listen, to worship, and to be called; for discipleship (we know, but too soon forget in our drive to be useful and productive) is as much about being spoken to as it is about speaking, as much about adoring as serving, as much about perceiving as doing, as much about being found as searching. Discipleship is born in awe, it arises from encounter, it is a consequence of worship.

Our planet has come full circle; but for us this does not mean just another round in an endless, futile turning of things. In this new year, we are not so much going around again as we are spiraling down and in, deeper and deeper. Spiraling down and in on a mystery. A mystery that calls to us to duck under the surface, to come and see, to taste and hear, to feel and know, to adore, and thus to follow.