Rev. George Miller
January 10, 2016
Christianity is about many things.
There is the part that is about wonders, majesty, and miracles. There’s the part of doing justice, kindness, and humbly walking with the Lord.
There is also the part about God doing a new thing; that God is still speaking, God is still dreaming, God is still stirring the waters.
We experienced this during the Christmas season when God does the unexpected and comes to us a baby born in a manger, to live amongst us, and to share in our life and death, our joys and our sorrows.
Today we experience another new thing, as Jesus is baptized. It is an important moment in the life and ministry of Jesus, and it is an important moment in the life of the church.
As we discussed during Tuesday’s Bible Study, there is something distinct in Luke’s telling of the baptism story: Jesus is not baptized separate or apart from the other people.
Jesus does not request a special appointment to be baptized. He is baptized after all the people were baptized.
What this implies is that Jesus was present with everyone. He was there with the crowds, with the other Israelites, with tax collectors, with soldiers, with repentant people hoping for something more.
It meant Jesus went into the same waters they did. It meant he received the same words they did.
It meant that Jesus was not acting aloof or better than anyone else, but that he publicly shared in their human condition, and in doing so Jesus showed that he identified with our humanity and our yearning for a new start.
That is deep, but it’s not what spoke to me today. It’s the words of John the Baptist that come before.
As Luke tells it, we have the rebel John in the wilderness. At a time of tumult in which the nation is being divided, John is out in the Jordan proclaiming to the people a chance to be baptized.
This baptism John’s promoting is one to help folk to turn from their sins and to be forgiven.
John is direct with his words. He demands that they learn how to share, they learn how to play fair, and they learn how bear fruits of good consciousness.
John’s passion fills the people with a sense of urgency and excitement that something great is about to happen.
He tells them that the One to Come will have a winnowing fork that will separate the wheat from the chaff.
To be honest- John scares me. He’s a bit too charismatic for me. Not knowing anything about winnowing forks, this image is a bit too Freddy Krueger-ish for me.
But after doing some research, it turns out John is using a rural, farming term, one that people who worked in wheat fields would understand.
Back in John’s day, when it was a windy outside, farmers would go out and toss the wheat into the air using their hands or a fork.
This would separate the wheat from the chaff; which was the waste or discards.
Chaff was dangerous, as it was highly combustible, so if there was ever a fire in the field, there would be no way to contain it.
So on a windy day, the farmers, using a fork, would throw the wheat into the air, and all that was useless, unnecessary, or dangerous would just blow away, leaving the healthy wheat behind to thrive and to grow.
It’s kind of like John saying “Be prepared for the Lord and untie your cats from the chancel.”
Let me explain- back when I attended seminary, a professor shared a story that has stayed with me.
Once upon a time there was a church that had the most unusual custom- during worship they always had a cat on a leash that was tied to a piece of chancel furniture.
No one knew the reason why; it was just something they had always done.
Eventually someone asked “Why?’ and discovered the reason: a long time ago they had a pastor who brought his cat to church on Sunday and tied it there while he preached.
Apparently he had been there long enough that people assumed that the cat on a leash had religious significance. So year after year, pastor after pastor, Sunday after Sunday, some poor cat on a leash was tied to a piece of chancel furniture.
I don’t know if this story is fact or legend. I don’t know if it really happened, or if it’s something my professor made up.
But I do know this story was told to share an important truth- in church there are things we do that we don’t always know the reason why, and there are things we do simply because we’ve always done them that way.
For example, why do we light the candles? In the age of electricity it’s not like we need the light.
We light the candles because symbolically we are welcoming the light of Christ into worship.
Another example: why do I wear a stole? One theory is that centuries ago, the pastor had a handkerchief to wipe up any juice that spilled during Communion.
At some point, someone conveniently draped the handkerchief over their shoulder. Over time that handkerchief grew and grew until it became what it is today.
Then there is the question- what do the colors of my stole mean, as well as the colors of the paraments?
Great question, because there are meanings behind the colors we use.
Today we have white. White represents holiness and purity. It may not be the most festive color, but it makes the point that the day is special and different than all the others.
Therefore, white is used for baptisms, weddings, funerals, Transfiguration, World Communion, All Saints, the 12 Days of Christmas, and the Baptism of Jesus.
Next week you’ll see the sanctuary decked out in green. Green represents life, growth, Creation.
Green is used when there are no special events to commemorate, but to remind us that the Living Lord is still amongst us.
During Lent we switch to violet or purple. Why? Because purple is a color that represents royalty and majesty…it is also a color that represents wounds and bruises, like those Jesus experienced on the Cross.
Then for Easter Sunday and the 6 weeks that follow, when we proclaim Christ has risen, the color will be???
Then for Pentecost and the months that follow we use red. Why? Because red represents fire, power, strength, boldness and bravery.
August comes along, we go back to green. Then Advent comes along and the colors change to blue. Why?
Because blue represents hope and expectation. Blue is the color that covers the earth in the hours before the sun rises in the east.
Then December 24 and the 12 Days of Christmas comes along and everything goes to ????
There you have it- all you never wanted to know about why we do the colorful things we do.
There is nothing in the Bible that says we have to have different colors throughout the year. There is nothing in my contract that says I have to change my stole, or even wear one.
But if we didn’t use the colors, if we didn’t engage our visual senses, I’m not sure if things would feel the same.
But then again, there may be people here who would not care if we used stoles and paraments and colors as long as we were worshipping the Lord and living as Christ would want us to.
I share all this because just last week we welcomed a new iteration of the Council.
Some members of Council are serving for the first time, some are continuing to serve, and some are serving in a new capacity.
For those who are on Council for the 1st time, you have been called to a unique opportunity: to lead pre-existing committees, but to lead them in your way.
You are inheriting things of which you had no part in. You will inherit committees that have their own cats on a leash, and their own handkerchiefs that have becomes religious emblems.
There will be things you’ll want to continue. There’ll be things you’ll wish to tweak. There will be things you’ll want to cast away, like chaff in the wind.
There will also be new, exciting, different things that you will want to do. Things that only you could have envisioned. Things that only you can do the way you can do them.
And there will be things that you’ll want to try that have been tried before and didn’t work, but you’re fairly confident that they will work this time with you and your committee.
And for all our new and returning Council members I’d like to say “Try away!”
Do your new things, switch things up, step into new waters, adapt to the times, talents and speaking of the Spirit.
There’s a saying that goes like this “If no one will die, give it a try!”
And for the members and friends of Emmanuel I’d like to encourage you to encourage our Council members.
Let our leaders take chances, take risks, dream big, do things new.
I encourage us to hold back from saying “It won’t work,” or “we tried it once before and it failed,” or perhaps worse of all “We’ve never done it that way.”
Because the truth is, Christianity has always been about taking chances, taking risks, dreaming big, doing a new thing, and shaking things up a bit.
Christianity has always been about wonders, majesty, and miracles. Of doing new things, of stepping into new waters.
Yes, the Christmas Season has come to an end. But now we have entered the time in which we get to experience who Jesus is, what he’s about and what it means to follow him.
We have the chance to reflect not only the light of Christ, but the gifts of Christ.
We already know the gifts that God wants from us: to do justice, love kindness, and to continue humbly walking with the Lord.
Now, it is time for us to do so, and to have fun doing it. To play, to dream, to imagine.
To take chances, to do new things, to fail. To fail small, to fail big.
We don’t need to tie cats to the chancel just because that’s what’s been done before. Nor should we hold onto chaff that is better off blowing in the breeze.
It’s time to go out, to build, to create, to hold on, to let go, to reboot, to remix, to repent, to stand in the water.
To believe that if no one will die, let’s give it a try.
Because if we thrive, we will stay alive.
John did something new; Jesus did something new.
Let us be bold enough to do so too.
Amen and amen.