Sunday, January 8, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Baptism of Our Lord
watch this service online (readings start around 17:36; sermon starts around 23:44)
Over the weekend, I got the chance to really give my house-blessing muscles a workout, haha. You may have seen the little Facebook Live video I shot on Friday, in which I blessed our house of worship here – or if not, you probably noticed the chalk blessing over the front doorway as you came in this morning. The practice of chalking this inscription over the door of a house is a form of house blessing that Christians have been practicing for centuries. I also did a blessing of the parsonage in the same way.
But Friday evening, we went all out with the blessing. My friends Jacob and Coco just moved into the parsonage house for Jacob’s first call, down by Lincoln; and on Friday they invited a bunch of clergy friends and several members of the congregation over to the house, and they asked me to lead them in a special service of blessing. We did the traditional door chalking, of course. But one of the gifts of our very liturgical ELCA tradition is that we actually have a much, much fuller and longer service of house blessing that we used for the occasion. In this service, you don’t stop at just blessing the house as a whole; you actually go through and bless each individual part of the house from top to bottom – everywhere from the front door to the mud room to wherever it is your pets hang out.
So after chalking the front door, our whole little entourage moved throughout the house in procession, and with us, we carried a lit candle and a bowl of water. In every room, we would stop and do the same little ritual: I would dip a little brush into the bowl of water and then sprinkle water around the room – being careful to avoid sprinkling on cats or electronics – then I would read a verse or two of scripture and we would pray. And it was amazing, sometimes bordering on hilarious, these bits of scripture that this service would pull out to be read in particular places in the house.
For instance, in the front entryway, we read a verse from Psalm 121: “The Lord will watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth forevermore.” Such a lovely and fitting verse to read in the entry of a home! Or in the kitchen, we read a verse from the book of Joel: “I am sending you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied. Be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God.” Excellent. The one that really made me chuckle was a verse from Exodus that we read as we were blessing the laundry room; it read: “So Moses went down from the mountain to the people. He consecrated the people, and they washed their clothes.” It just tickles me to imagine someone combing through the scriptures looking for the perfect verse for blessing a laundry room and then stumbling across that one!
The purpose of reading all these quotations from scripture is to help us connect our lives to the stories in the bible – so that we may find our place in the long, ongoing history of God with God’s people. And the overarching message and effect of a service like this is to emphasize how, even in our ordinary, day to day lives, we are surrounded by blessings. This service of blessing is meant to emphasize that absolutely every corner of the spaces we inhabit is chock full of God’s presence. We don’t live in a world strictly divided between sacred spaces and ordinary spaces; God’s Spirit is present and active everywhere we go.
For me, this came together most powerfully when it came time for us to bless the parsonage bathroom. I think it’s safe to say that most of us would consider the bathroom to be probably the least divine or dignified room in the house. But this service of blessing actually connected the humble bathroom with the most central and important things of our faith; in the bathroom, we prayed this prayer: “O God, through the waters of baptism you raise us up and make us alive together with Christ. Let the waters of this room refresh and renew all who use them in each new day. In Jesus’ name.” The ordinary waters of the bathroom are just as holy as the waters of baptism! Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the waters of baptism are just as ordinary as the waters of the bathroom.
The waters of baptism – the waters of blessing – are ordinary. Even the water that we were using to ritually sprinkle throughout the house to bless each room wasn’t water we’d gathered from some like sacred spring at the top of some far distant mountain – it was just plain old tap water from the kitchen sink! Likewise, the water I poured into the baptismal font at the start of this service has no special or magical properties to it – it’s just water that came out of the tap in the sacristy. It’s water that had an equal chance of coming out of the taps in one of the bathrooms!
The central things of our faith are almost absurdly ordinary. And it just strikes me as funny when I think about how comically different that is from a lot of the stories that are prominent in our pop culture. Our culture at large has this fascination with epic, heroic stories, with heroes that often have to go on difficult and dangerous quests to find some rare and precious material that they need in order to save the world. In fact, this idea of needing some kind of super-rare, useful, hard-to-find material is such a common trope that it even has its own name: “unobtainium.” If you’re an Avatar fan, you already know this term, because “unobtanium” is literally what they call the material in their movies! But there are many examples: In Lord of the Rings, Frodo would never have made it to Mordor without his priceless mithril armor; in Doctor Who, the TARDIS – the Doctor’s flying time machine – has to be refueled periodically with “rift energy”; and in the MCU, the Avengers can only save the day with a full complement of infinity stones and some vibranium for good measure.
But for us, as Christians, our salvation doesn’t require any kind of rare and precious unobtainium. Our salvation comes to us through something common and precious: through the ordinariness of water. In our gospel reading, Jesus himself joins the crowds that are going out to be baptized by John in the Jordan river. They aren’t making some arduous pilgrimmage to a distant, mystical river; they’re just going to the river basically right outside town – a river that probably provided their water for drinking and washing and the daily tasks of life – a river that could be considered the first century version of the kitchen tap.
You might expect that the Creator of all that is would choose something a little less common as the symbol of salvation, something with a little more flair! But the choice of water tells us so much about who God is and about how God chooses to relate to us. God chooses water as the sign of redemption and reconciliation with us. God chooses the stuff that covers over 70% of the planet and literally makes up over half of our own bodies. God does not want to be distant and out of reach, only accessible to a few people. God, like water, wants to be everywhere – God is everywhere. Like the blessings we sprinkled around Jacob and Coco’s house, the presence of God is all around us, as common as water.
Like the water with which we wash ourselves each day, God’s love and mercy and grace are always ready and waiting to wash over us and make us new again and again. Like the clean water we drink, God wants to be taken in, to become part of the very fabric of who we are. Like the flowing waters of a quiet stream, God is gentle and healing, the kind of God who will not break a bruised reed or quench a dimly burning wick. Like the mighty waters of a flood, God’s awesome power throughout creation deserves our reverence and praise; and like floodwaters that overflow their banks, God’s great love flows over the barriers we place between ourselves – as with Peter and Cornelius in our second reading – bringing us together with God’s children all around the globe. Like the creeks and rivers and lakes and oceans that connect the place where we live with places far away, the love of God connects us and binds us together with all people and all of creation.
As we remember the baptism of Jesus today, let us take it as an invitation to bring our awareness to the abundance of water in our lives. May our Lord’s baptism remind us that God is present with us in every moment of every day. And may the waters of our lives – precious and holy and wholly ordinary – be a sign for us all of how deeply our lives are immersed in God’s blessing and salvation and love.