2016 02 10: Ash Wednesday

Posted on 15 Feb 2016

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Every Lent I am reminded of an anonymous writing, “I’ve learned.”

I’ve learned that, no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life goes on, and may be better tomorrow.

I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about people by the way they handle three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.

I’ve learned that, regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life.

I’ve learned that making a “living” is not the same thing as making a life.

I’ve learned that if you pursue happiness it will elude you. If we focus on your family, your friends, the needs of others, your work and doing the best you can, happiness will find you.

I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision.

I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one.

I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn.

Yes, I am reminded each Lent that we are all walking, wounded warriors who have a lot to learn. We carry our wounds stoically. Some wounds we have borne all our lives; others are new as we enter and pass through the seasons of life. Of course, we would like to believe that we have grown a bit wiser and have avoided another year of errors and miscalculations, but that doesn’t always happen. We still have a lot to learn as we search for a source of strength and renewal.

My friends, I believe that God has given us a gift in the sacraments to nurture us for this journey, and that is what I would like to share with you this Lent through a series of reflections drawn from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. Tonight, we will begin with the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.

Two ladies in their eighties were enjoying sunshine on a park bench in Florida. They had been meeting in that park every sunny day for years, just talking and enjoying each other’s company. One day, the younger of the two turned to the other and said, “Now dear, don’t be angry with me, but I must ask you a question. After all the time we’ve been together, I am so embarrassed but I just can’t remember your name. Could you please remind me? ” The older of the two stared at her, looking very distressed, and said absolutely nothing for two full minutes. Finally, she broke the silence and said, “How soon do you have to know?” As we begin our Lenten journey, it is good to know that we can celebrate a God who never forgets our name or his promises.

The Reformer Martin Luther once said, “There is on earth no greater comfort than baptism” and he proclaimed this often in his personal life and experience. Luther confessed that when he was in the distress of affliction and anxiety he consoled himself by repeating the phrase, “I am baptized!” Yes, when it seemed to him that the whole church had left the teachings of the Gospel, when he was under scrutiny from Church officials as to the truth of his beliefs, when his own life was under threat, and when he suffered self-doubt he would boldly claimed, “I am baptized.” So what did he really mean by such a statement? How could the sacrament of baptism be such a source of strength?

It may be best to start with the simple question. What is a sacrament? In today’s pluralistic Christian world, simply agreeing on the number of sacraments is often the first challenge. Roman Catholics and the Orthodox confess that there are seven sacraments. Perhaps you can name them. Baptism, Communion, Confirmation, Marriage, Penance and Reconciliation, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick. In the Protestant tradition, theologians state there are only two sacraments. Baptism and Communion. The other five sacraments are good, but they don’t have the words of Jesus’ command, “Go forth” and “Do this.” There are of course, Norwegian- Americans who believe that church coffee is a sacrament- and more important than all the others. They really do have a lot to learn.

The religious debate over sacraments, however, doesn’t end with counting. Christians also differ on the significance of the sacraments. Some Christians believe that something mystical happens in the sacrament, while others believe that it is merely a symbolic act. In fact, the ancient Latin phrase spoken by the priest at the moment of the presentation of bread as the body of Christ, “Hoc est corpus,” has become the less than sacred magicians’ phrase, “Hocus pocus.”

Lutherans, however, seem to enjoy walking between these two traditions. We define a sacrament as a rite commanded by Christ that uses an earthly element with the word of God to convey God’ grace. A sacrament isn’t simply a symbol or a sign of God’s activity, but we believe that it actually conveys God’s activity and grace. Through the sacrament we experience God’s immanence and transcendence. At the moment of baptism, the water has salvific powers, and at communion, the wine and bread truly are the body and blood of Christ. Before then and afterwards, the elements are simply water, bread and wine.

Mind you, we don’t really care about the moment that such great things happen. We don’t have the bells to announce when the earthly elements become God’s instruments of grace. Instead, we believe that their intrinsic power only works for good upon believers who trust in the accompanying word. At the moment they are received into the hands of the believer they become the means of God’s grace providing strength and encouragement for life. The sacraments are the means of God’s grace. And in Holy Baptism, we receive the benefits of the forgiveness of sins, redemption from death and the devil, and the gift of eternal life.

For Lutherans, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism is first announced over the waters of baptism, and is experienced time and again in touching the baptismal waters and remembering our baptism. It is God’s promise that he will watch over and protect the baptized one from the devil and all his empty promises. For me personally, this is one of the most humbling aspects of my role as the pastor standing at the baptismal font and pouring water over an infant’s head. In baptism, you are given God’s word, that there is nothing in all creation that can separate you from his love in Christ Jesus. Nothing. That is the power of baptism. So, remember the words, “I am baptized.” It is a promise that cannot be taken back, even from those suffering from old age and dementia, and who cannot remember their own name. God will not forget them, and there is nothing that can separate them from his love.

Now you may be wondering, but how can water and words offer such powerful promise? Light for life’s darkest valleys, consolation for one’s greatest sorrows, strength for times of weakness? Martin Luther once said, that baptism is a once-in- a- lifetime experience that takes our entire lives to fulfill. It goes hand in hand with the words, “I am baptized.” In many ways, his thoughts were a corrective to the magical practice and superstition of the middle ages- and for some critics even today. Of course, as a church we believe in only one baptism. But sometimes I meet people who want to join a church either before or right after a baptism of a child, simply thinking that once they’ve got the baby done, they won’t ever have to worry about going back to church again. Yes, there’s a lot to learn. There is something about this approach that completely misses Luther’s understanding of a once-in-a-lifetime experience that takes our entire lives to fulfill.

Your assurance of God’s promise, you see, is nurtured and strengthened by the Holy Spirit throughout your lifetime through the study of scripture and through a life of prayer. Baptism is not simply a one time, magical act which prevents all harm from drawing near. Baptism is the beginning of a new life which leads to salvation, and is remembered every time you wash and recall God’s word. The assurance of God’s promise begins every time you recall the words, “I am baptized.”

And why does it take a lifetime to fulfill? Because, ultimately baptism is about who you are and who you belong to. John the Baptist called the people to a baptism of repentance, washing away all that separates one from God. Jesus was baptized to identify himself with all those who felt separate from God, and when he came up from the waters, the Spirit of God descended upon him and the voice of God could be heard saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with who I am well pleased.”

What was declared at Jesus’ baptism is your true identity as well: You are a child of God, His Beloved. That’s who you are when you are baptized in Christ. So in saying, “I am baptized!” you are not boasting that life is all about me and my desires. In stating that, “I am baptized,” you are not announcing to the world that God is on my side so I can journey through life alone. No, when you say, that, “I am baptized,” you are confessing that ultimately you belong to the life and death of Jesus Christ, and that you are trying to make his ways your ways. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that takes an entire live to fulfill.

A pastor once offered the parents of an infant being baptized the following story. Suppose a rich uncle came to you this morning and said, “I’m giving each of your children a check for a million dollars.” You would be thrilled and your children would be blessed even though they wouldn’t understand the significance of it. The check would guarantee your children’s financial future. However, a million-dollar check is useless unless the person who receives it also endorses it and deposits it in the bank. If you never endorse it, the million dollars never really becomes yours. The promise of baptism is like that. You need to claim it as your own.

In a baptismal booklet appended to his Small Catechism, Luther wrote, “Ah, dear Christians, let us not value or treat this unspeakable gift so halfheartedly. For baptism is our only comfort and the doorway to all of God’s possessions and to the communion of all the saints. To this end may God help us.” As you begin your Lenten journey find strength in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, and dare to say, “I am baptized.” Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.