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Please Exit through the Gift Shop
The Reverend Krystal Leedy
January 13, 2019
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
If you tend toward the skeptical, like I do, you may wonder why a chunk of this gospel passage has been removed. There is an aside about how John the Baptist ended up in prison and how angry Herod was with him. An angry, powerful tyrant throwing people in jail simply because he does not like them will not be our narrative for today, because it lends itself to a whole other sermon about oppressed people and how we should respond. It is a privilege that we put this narrative aside today.
Today we start at the beginning of the Christian journey, which begins even before anyone gets to the font. And we focus today particularly with the baptism of our Lord, Jesus, who shows us how we too should live. So, hear now a word from God as told through the gospel of Luke.
A reading from Luke’s Gospel:
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I had the opportunity to go to College Conference at Montreat, the week prior to last. I like Montreat. It’s a nice place. They have some great speakers, lots of Presby-celebrities among others. The College Conference is made up of about a thousand college students, and for any plenary sessions, we are all in a big auditorium called Anderson that can hold us all. It was warmer in North Carolina than it was here, but it was still cold outside as I walked into the opening worship service, met by a rush of warmth. Being from Texas, I had on four layers and I had to remove all but one. In a room of a thousand, I only saw a couple of familiar faces, after travelling all day, and they were very welcomed. It’s a nice place, Montreat.
A man stood up in front of the gathered people and said, “Welcome home!” And my brow inadvertently crinkled, and I became instantly curious because this place didn’t feel like home. It felt very far away from home. It felt a thousand miles, a thousand people, a thousand moments away from home. Many other people gathered felt differently because they seemed to take a collective deep breath of understanding as the greeting was made, they seemed to nod and close their eyes for a moment. Obviously, I was not one of these people. I think Montreat is a nice place, but it’s not home. Now, I know there are people gathered here today who are about to throw rotten fruit at me, but hold on. I know that I, like John the Baptist, am not preaching a popular message, but it gets better. I promise.
We know what home feels like. It’s comforting. It’s a place where we can sink our bodies into love and care. It’s a place where we belong, where people will endure with us, where people give us grace. It’s a place where we can commune with God and not even think about it. It’s all in our heart, maybe a little in our gut, but it’s not only relegated to our heads. Our whole self knows home.
Yet, I have a very cerebral relationship with Montreat. I know it’s important. People have told me. You may have heard about it too. It’s been called the “Presbyterian Mecca” in some circles. It is a place that many make pilgrimage to in order to have an experience with God. But each time I go, I feel like a stranger in a foreign land. And this time especially.
It must have been hard to leave the comforts of the heavenly realm. It must have been hard for God to step foot into a strange land, to step into the painting God created, to step into our skin. I can’t begin to know what God was thinking and feeling, as God shows up in the water. It must have been strange. It must have been weird to have the clouds open up and voice from heaven come down and then there’s the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters, but wasn’t this scene all too familiar to God? Wasn’t this scene the one from the beginning of all time? Well, yes and no. It is true that the Spirit hovered over the waters. It is true that the voice of God spoke truth and creativity intertwined into existence. It is true that Christ was present then, but in a different place, in a river touched by human hands rather than a void untouched by the grittiness of humanity. It was the same but very different.
Each time I go, to Montreat I always look for reminders of home. I don’t realized that I do this, but I do. I look for a Table and a pulpit. I look for the font. I remember that these are my people, like super distant cousins who have funny accents: this is my tribe that lives a thousand miles from me.
I stayed with a church from Georgia. They invited me to their table, and they cooked for me. They showed me new games. They told me about how Bernie compared each person to a plant when they graduated. They told me about their campus ministries, and I knew that language. They called up to me from the living room when I needed to move my car. They had me go pick up spinach and tomatoes from the grocery store. They told me about a man whose sole job at their church is to make pie for session meetings. They let me sign a hand-made speaker system that someone made. They friended me on Facebook. They welcomed me to their home.
And even though it wasn’t home, it was home-like. Each year, my seminary intern Alex Pappas and I go to the Montreat store and inevitably pick out matching shirts, but she was not on this trip with me this year. But, I pulled out the shirt that we brought last year out of my suitcase and put it on. I felt like a little piece of home was with me, as I went to the Montreat store once again, picking out a souvenir from my time this year when I heard famous speakers and sang songs from “The Greatest Showman” at the top of my lungs.
Because I wanted to remember this place where I felt like a stranger who was welcomed into a story that I wasn’t yet ready to write but that I could just observe and sponge up. I wanted a memento to help me remember that moment that I felt like a stranger who was welcomed into a family. I wanted to take that feeling with me.
We have favorite vacation spots and favorite moments with our family that we want to remember, even if they only vaguely give us a good feeling. And so often we mark these special moments in our lives with souvenirs, literally, remember-s. And we collect a piece of that place, that time, that moment with us, and those times remind us of who we were in that place or maybe who we wanted to be or the ideals that we held about how things were going to be different when we got back. We want to remember, so we get a thing to remind us. We get a remember.
This place, this church, is a home for people. It is a place of refuge for some. It’s comforting. It’s a place where we can sink our bodies into love and care. It’s a place where we belong, where people will endure with us, where people give us grace. It’s a place where we can commune with God and not even think about it. It’s all in our heart, maybe a little in our gut, but we don’t just know it in our heads. Our whole self knows home.
And we take this home with us wherever we go. A good friend and dear colleague…. Let’s be honest, it was John, reminded me the church-home for a long time had a lot of remembers. Candles and holy water, rosaries and blessed salt, the sign of the cross—all pointing back to the important events that they reminded the people of God of, the sacraments that Christ gave to God’s people. And Protestants became concerned that these were stumbling blocks, and certainly these sacramentals can be. They can obscure the very heart of Christ that we are trying to find our way back to, but let’s not forget that we too have evolved from the Reformation, and in some ways, have brought back these sacramentals because we need help remembering.
Candles at baptisms that call us back to the Resurrection, chalk blessings of hospitality that call us back to the Table, the washing of feet that calls us to service and leads us once again to the Table, the opening of a book of Scripture which points us back to the story that led us into these sacraments in the first place, the turning on the tap of ordinary water in a sink to wash our faces to call us back to baptism, the cooking of a meal for our friends that calls us back to the Table. Yes, even ordinary acts of washing and eating are sacramentals. They are the church’s remembers. We can’t help but be reminded. We are wired to remember the feeling of home.
We will remember our baptism today, and I know that many cannot actually recall the moment in which they were baptized, the moment that we were recognized as a part of this family of faith. Let me tell you it was a joyous day. Christ met us there. The Spirit hovered over the waters. And God had something to say.
In that formless void right before a breath was taken, before the water was even poured, before your name was spoken, we all held our collective breath, because we were surrounded by thousands of saints, but we still felt at home. The familiar words were spoken that call us to a life beyond the one that we live today, the one life that we breathe into, that we cry into, that we love into. The tomb from which we are resurrected each day, the womb from which we are born again each moment, that’s what’s captured in a piece of wood and metal that sits in the middle of our sanctuary. It is a bowl for water. It is a t-shirt in a gift shop. But, the thing doesn’t matter. We need to remember this day that God spoke to us that we are beloved, that we are home, and we are going to live our entire lives figuring out what that means to be a part of this family.
Even on those days when we feel strange, even on those days when we feel unlovable, even on those days when we truly miss the mark, this sacramental reminds us:
People of God, welcome home.
In the name of the Father who always runs after us, the Son who will always invite us to walk alongside, the Spirit who will hover over us, remembering us, reminding us, Amen.