When I arrived at seminary, I of course began to hear the lore and the stories of the school. I heard stories about present professors and past professors, building lore and events or famous or infamous classes or lessons. How the maintenance and grounds keeper could hear the teaching of a sort of uptight professor through an open window and in the middle of the lesson a voice from outside rang back through the classroom indicating that the unseen felt that that was a load of something or another. Evidently he did it to just rile the professor up. I heard a lot of stories, but the story of one past professor’s experiments really made me think. He told the class about his time as a theological student and a bank teller. He was working the drive through and he made up a bunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and wrapped them up. When the customers received their receipts back, they got a pb and J. He reported they were all skeptical about what it was and what it was for. His point had to do with grace. I have at different points since put myself in their shoes or car seat. All it was was a free sandwich, probably a really tasty one… from a bank. What’s up with that? There was no real explanation, just a free surprise sandwich. How many reasons can we think of for being creeped out or mistrusting of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich through the air tube at a bank from a stranger. Remember, in all fairness, this was about 25 years before Covid. The professor indicated that the reactions were as expected. There was a mix of mistrust and sort of shock and not knowing what to say or do. This was just a small act of grace. Do you realize how many quotes there are out there about how nothing is free? “There is nothing free in this world, it is only the matter of realization that if you are not paying for the product you are the product.” “Nothing in life is free everything comes with 100% of effort. “Nothing is free in this world. Everything has its own price. Either is money or life.” “Nothing is free in this world and when it seems to be free then remember you are the cost.” “Nothing is given. Everything is earned.”” Nothing comes for free. Nothing. Not even good, especially not good.” There are many others and some perform some interesting gymnastics to try to develop this point. One pointing that not even breathing and another, not even love. I think all of these folks would point to the fact that the professor had to buy the supplies and spend the time and I think we often tie ourselves in knots applying our human systems to God. Maybe there’s no such thing as a “free” PB&J from our hands, but love? Isn’t that the point of agape or unconditional love, and let’s make it clear. This is the good news, that God’s love is unconditional and free! It is a gift of grace bestowed in baptism. But if you remember the professor’s point, we are so quick to mistrust, disbelieve or “yes, but” grace. We point to forgiveness and payment for sins as proof that nothing is free and that salvation or being in a right relationship with God has to be somehow earned. Yes, baptism is about forgiveness. But it’s also about relationship and promise, about being named and claimed as children of God.
Pastor David Lose points out that we often tend to think of forgiveness as a mechanism rather than a result or gift. A mechanism is defined as a natural or established process by which something takes place or is brought about. What we do is put the cart before the horse by thinking that God forgives us in order that we can be named, claimed, and called God’s children. The truth is that God forgives us not to make us God’s children but because we already are God’s children. Forgiveness is a result of God’s love for us, not a condition of that love. Forgiveness then is by-product of that love, not a mechanism by which to earn it. We tend to do the cart horse thing quite frequently in other parts of our theology. I think there’s a subconscious effort to take grace out of the equation so that we can be the heroes of our own story, arbiters of our own fate, or responsible earners of our way back to God’s side. We also make the same mistake with the cross of Christ. For so long many have espoused what is called a “substitutionary” theory of atonement. We work it out and create a chain that is logical to us. We are sinners and sinners deserve punishment. Jesus, who is sinless and therefore doesn’t deserve punishment, suffers it in our place on the cross as our substitute. Therefore, Jesus’ death on the cross is necessary for God to forgive us. Pastor Lose wrote, “But there are so many contradictions in this crystal-clear explanation that it’s downright painful. I mean, if the cross is a necessary condition of forgiveness, then why does Jesus – and by extension God – forgive people throughout his ministry (and before he dies on the cross)? Moreover, is forgiveness really forgiveness if someone else suffers in your place? (I mean, if I default on my mortgage and you pay it for me, the bank hasn’t forgiven me, it just found someone else to pay.) And do we really believe that God, as creator and sustainer of the universe, can’t forgive absent violence and bloodshed and punishment? (Something, by the way, that we mere mortals seem to manage from time to time.) All of which pushes me to confess that the cross isn’t what makes it possible for God to love and forgive us, but rather that the cross is what happens because God already loves and forgives us. God in Jesus comes to offer us forgiveness and show that love and forgiveness and we’d rather kill him than admit that we need forgiveness and love. Our Baptism is about forgiveness. But forgiveness is not a mechanism but rather is a gift. We aren’t forgiven in Baptism in order that God can call us God’s children, but rather we are forgiven because we already are God’s children.” End quote. We struggle so hard with God’s grace, far more harder with a bank sandwich. I wonder how many unwrapped it and ate it. The struggle can be very painful and pastors even struggle with it. The good news is that God’s grace and love is there for us despite our words, thoughts or actions or those of anyone else. Pastor Karoline Lewis shared the story of the realization of God’s grace in one of her parishioners. Maybe it can help us to understand the depth of God’s love for us. She made this point in her sermon, “It is God that extends the gift of baptism to us, without us having to earn or deserve it. It is God’s action that baptized us.” Then she wrote, “After the service, a long time member of a church, 90-year-old Dott, came up to the pastor and asked, ‘Is that really true?’ ‘What?’ I responded. .That GOD baptizes you?’ ‘Well, yes. This is what we believe, Dott.’She then told me why she doubted the “you.” Dott had a sister, born too early and not expected to live, about three years before Dott was even born. The only option was to bring her home for her two-to-three month lifespan. During that time, the grandmother baptized her. Then, when Dott’s sister died, of course her parents set up a meeting with the pastor for the funeral. The pastor told them that he would do the funeral, but not in the sanctuary because he had not baptized the baby. The funeral was held in the basement of the church. Dott then said to me, “Do you mean my sister is okay?” The sister she never met. The sister she had mourned for her entire 90 years. The sister for whom she wondered, “is God really for her?” Oh, yes. I said. The “you” your sister heard, God meant. And God did not, and will never, let her go because he loves her as he has loved you before you were even born.” This goes for all of us, and that is the greatest news. Amen.
Blessed be the holy Trinity, ☩ one God, who creates us, redeems us, and calls us by name.
Amen. Let us confess our sin in the presence of God and of one another.
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you and your beloved children. We have turned our faces away from your glory when it did not appear as we expected. We have rejected your word when it made us confront ourselves.
We have failed to show hospitality to those you called us to welcome. Accept our repentance for the things we have done and the things we have left undone. For the sake of Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us and lead us, that we may bathe in the glory of your Son born among us, and reflect your love for all creation. Amen. Rejoice in this good news: In ☩ Christ Jesus, your sins are forgiven. You are descendants of the Most High, adopted into the household of Christ, and inheritors of eternal life. Live as freed and forgiven children of God. Amen.
Almighty God, you anointed Jesus at his baptism with the Holy Spirit and revealed him as your beloved Son. Keep all who are born of water and the Spirit faithful in your service, that we may rejoice to be called children of God, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The reading opens with questions about the identity of the Messiah. John the Baptist insists that he is not the Messiah; instead he points ahead to one who is coming. And whether the voice of God was heard by all or only by Jesus, God settles the matter: Jesus is God’s beloved Son. Luke 3 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.”
God, who leads you in pathways of righteousness,
who rejoices over you,
and who calls you by name,
☩ bless your going out and your coming in,
today and forever.