Saturday, January 11, 2014

Taking On Sin

Living Grace Lutheran Church, Hawley, MN
Installation of Pastor Hope Deutscher
January 12, 2014
Matthew 3:13-17

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Think back to a time in your life when you were the dirtiest you have ever been--when you were the dustiest, sootiest, muddiest you could imagine yourself every being.

I grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota, and farms are places where it’s easy to get dirty—on a regular basis, in fact.  

One of the dirtiest jobs I remember was when we sold our stored soybeans—often in the heat of summertime, eight or nine months after harvest.    I remember climbing into a hot, dusty grain bin….scooping the grain into the chute in the bottom of the bin that fed the augur that took the grain up into the truck we used to haul our harvest to the elevator in our little town.

The dust hung in the air and it clung to us, mixed with our own sweat, as we scooped and swept out each bin of soybeans.

We were so dirty—my mom, my dad and I—that we actually needed a pre-wash of sorts….we needed to hose ourselves down outdoors, lest we drag all that dirt into the bath tub in the house.

And even then, when we’d gotten the worst of the dirt off us outdoors, the bath water could get pretty nasty….which was bad news for whoever drew the short straw and was the last in line to use that bathwater…because in our modest farm home we took turns “getting clean” in water that we shared.

It’s pretty bad when bathwater gets so dirty that you’re not sure if you’ll come out of it any cleaner than when you went into it!

Hold that image, please, and look again at this gospel reading for today, the Baptism of our Lord.

Jesus comes from Galilee to the Jordan river—a river that was hardly clean to begin with, a river made even dirtier by all the sinners who were flocking out to hear John’s preaching and to be baptized by him, to wash their guilt and regret and mistakes and waywardness—to wash it all away.

When Jesus showed up by the Jordan, something in John knew it was all wrong.   And he gave voice to his apprehension:  “Wait a minute, Jesus.   You don’t belong here, and you certainly shouldn’t be the one getting washed by a miserable sinner like me.  By rights ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’   This is all wrong—there is nothing right, nothing righteous in you, Jesus, getting soiled, stained by the accumulated filth in this river!”

But Jesus just brushed away all that kind of talk.  “You’ve got this ‘righteousness’ business all wrong, John!   ‘Righteousness’ isn’t about possessing some kind of pristine purity—it’s not about keeping your distance from those who are dirty with sin.   No—righteousness is about making others right, right with God, right with one another, right with the good creation.   I need to be here, John, in the Jordan River, dirty as it is. ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’”  

So Jesus who’s clean as a hound’s tooth—Jesus who bears no sin of his own—Jesus insists on falling into line with all those sinners who came out to the Jordan to be washed by John the Baptist.

Jesus brings no sin, no dirt to the river….but he comes out of the river just covered in sin, covered by the dirt of others….because that is what he came for.

So it’s entirely right and proper that here—precisely here where sin and guilt and regret are all most palpable and real—it’s the perfect time for an epiphany, a “revealing” to take place as Jesus hears these words:  “"This—this sin-identifying, sin-embracing, sin-removing One--this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

God in Christ never keeps a safe distance from sinners.   No-- God in Christ goes right toward sinners, gets close to sinners, so close that their sin rubs off on him.   That’s how it began at the River Jordan, and that’s how it would be throughout Jesus’ time on earth, and that’s how it would all end for him—on a sinner’s cross, where Jesus who (in Paul’s words) “became sin,” crucified sin once and for all—doing away with it for good—“so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  (II Corinthians 5:21)

Pastor Hope, I was so excited when I realized you’d be installed today, as we remember the Baptism of Our Lord, because this amazing gospel story is what pastoral ministry is all about—and, I think it’s what Living Grace Lutheran Church is all about.

A church is not a haven for the holy.   

A church is not a fortress for the righteous. 

A church is a hospital for the sick, a forgiving, healing place for persons who know their hands are empty, folks who realize they can do nothing to get on God’s good side, that they stand before God “guilty as charged.”

The church is not where we escape from, where we run from sin and sinners.   The church is where God the Beloved Son does what he does best—runs toward sinners, embraces sinners, forgives sinners, transforms sinners into new creations, and sends those redeemed, now righteous sinners into his royal service in the world.

Living Grace exists because there are in Hawley, Minnesota believers who get it—that God loves sinners unconditionally, that Jesus came to “take on sin,” and that a church worthy of his name will always open its arms to everyone, and I mean everyone, absolutely everyone!

Lately, no one has been giving voice to this vision of the church better than this amazing new pope, Francis.    In late November he released his first major encyclical, appropriately titled The Joy of the Gospel, in which Pope Francis laid bare his evangelical heart and set forth his approach to the mission of God in our world.

Francis wrote:  "I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security….I do not want a church concerned with being at the center and then ends up by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures….More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us, 'Give them something to eat.'"[1]

So, Pastor Hope, that’s what it’s all about.   No one shows us the way better than Jesus our Lord.   See where he locates himself here in this gospel lesson.

Jesus takes his place among sinners.   Jesus gets close to people who are lost, needing direction.   Jesus associates with the dirty, the dregs of this life.

Conventional wisdom says that “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch”—and yes, if we were responsible for the produce section of the local grocery store, we’d need to heed that warning on a daily basis.

But God calls you to tend people, not produce.   And in the amazing grace and abounding mercy of God another wisdom holds stray:  One Good Apple transforms the whole bunch….and the good apple I’m talking about is Jesus.

For Jesus “takes on” sin in order to undo sin, to take it away, to bear it to his Cross and Grave for you and me and all sinners everywhere.  

This is the Jesus whom you serve and whose forgiving, cleansing Word and presence you now bear as pastor of this faith community.

So walk in this Hawley community and move within this congregation as a sign and ambassador of the One who went down under the water of John’s baptism in the muddy Jordan River.   Get close to sinners—rub elbows with them every chance you get—and tell them, better yet show them, this Jesus who takes on sin in order to take away sin from us—as far as the east is from the west.

And then set them free to become signs and ambassadors of this Jesus, wherever they go.  For Jesus never saves us to make us fat and sassy and content with ourselves.  Jesus always saves us to send us into his great mission of redeeming and blessing all people and the whole creation.  Help and guide and encourage these folks and all who will come here simply to live in the grace that has found them.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.


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