Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sermon, "Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Saying No," Exodus 20:8-11, Mark 2:27-28

Sermon 1/26/2020
Exodus 20:8-11, Mark 2:27-28

Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Saying No

How many of you have read the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder? I have to admit I didn’t love them when I was a child, but I really loved them when I read them as an adult, and so I’ve been excited to finally read Caroline: Little House Revisited by Sarah Miller, which came out a couple of years ago. I’m only part way through, but a scene early on in the book struck me when I was thinking about how we keep Sabbath and preparing for worship today. The Ingalls family - Caroline and Charles Ingalls - and their two daughters, Mary and Laura, are heading west in their covered wagon. Along the way, they encounter lots of terrible weather, and of course, many Sabbath days - many Sundays. And on one day described in the book, those things collide - terrible, storming weather with pouring rain, and a Sabbath day. And so the family - particularly Caroline and the girls - cannot leave the wagon. But they also feel, to keep the Sabbath, that they can’t do much of anything else either. They can’t do any work, but their understanding of Sabbath also means they can’t play games, engage in frivolous activities on a day meant for worship, prayer, and holy rest. And so they sit there, and they sit there. Can you imagine being trapped in a small covered wagon with your family for the day and just - sitting still, all day? 
I had the Ingalls family on my mind as I studied our two texts for today. The first passage comes from the Ten Commandments, where the practice of keeping Sabbath, a day of rest, is encoded into the law of God’s people, as they get ready to live into the land that God has promised them. The commandment says, “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God.” Nobody - not even slaves or animals or foreign visitors - no one is to work on the Sabbath. Why? Because God, after the work of creation, took a day of rest, and then decided in turn to bless the seventh day and set it apart as holy. 
Our second short reading is from Mark’s gospel. Here’s the context: Jesus and his disciples are walking through cornfields on the Sabbath day. They’re hungry. And so on their way, some of the disciples take some corn to eat. The Pharisees - I’m not sure where they’ve been while this happens - hiding in the cornfields? Following Jesus? - they question Jesus. “Why are you disciples doing something unlawful on the Sabbath?” See, the Pharisees were experts in the law of Moses. They studied the law carefully and worked hard to figure out how to interpret the law, how to put it into action in everyday life. Over generations, understandings of the law by religious scholars added up, and so the Pharisees not only knew the original law, but they also knew how scholars over the years understood the law. And sometimes, these understandings, these interpretations became nearly as important as the original law. 
In some ways, the Pharisees were doing the very same work we do when we read the scripture and try to understand what it means. We know the Bible is not always crystal clear to us at first read. We have to study it, and test it out, and try to understand what it is saying to us. The Pharisees did the same. And then they tried to be very faithful to following what they - and their predecessors - said about how the law of Moses should be understood. So when it came to keeping Sabbath, the Pharisees, and many in the Jewish community, had an extensive understanding of what it meant to “Keep the Sabbath holy.” After all, without extra interpretation, the words from Exodus can be a little vague. We’re to rest from work - but what counts as work? Are there any exceptions? 
So when the Pharisees sees Jesus and his disciples eating from the field, they see more than just a snack. They see people harvesting food. And for a farming-based culture, you better believe that the work of farming - planting and tending and harvesting - was considered work. And God told us to rest from work on the Sabbath to make it holy. Is it ok, then, to break the Sabbath “just a little,” to do just a little work? The Pharisees didn’t think so, especially if it was just so things could be more convenient for us. Keep the Sabbath holy, unless it is inconvenient - and then just do what you want. No, the Pharisees felt it was important that we follow God’s law as closely as possible. That’s not exactly a bad thing, is it? 
Still, they always found themselves on the other side of arguments with Jesus. They frustrated each other to no end. And that’s because Jesus kept telling them that they were repeatedly coming to the wrong conclusions in their interpretations of the law, following the letter but missing the heart and spirit of what God intended. I imagine that was pretty hard to hear. Jesus reminds the Pharisees that even the beloved and revered King David broke some Sabbath rules, eating the special bread reserved only for priests when he and his companions were hungry and on the run from King Saul. And then Jesus concludes, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath. The Son of Man (that’s a description Jesus uses for himself sometimes) is lord even of the Sabbath.” 
The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath. What does that mean? I think it means that the Sabbath is a gift from God to us. And like with any gift given to us by the Creator of the Universe, we should treasure it and make good use of it, and let it be the blessing for us that God intends gifts to be. I think that means that on the one hand, we shouldn’t make so many rules about “keeping Sabbath” that what was meant to be a gift and a blessing turns into a burden that we hate. And on the other hand, we shouldn’t ignore the gift of Sabbath as if it is something we don’t need or care about. If we constantly find ourselves too busy for Sabbath rest, we’re kind of missing the point. God’s gift is rest. God gives us permission - commands us in fact - to take a break. To stop. Literally to “cease and desist” from the regular rhythms that claim all the rest of our time. Sabbath time is a gift from God for us. God won’t make us open the gift. But God’s gifts are always good, and good for us. 
Peter Schuurman, who wrote the article that inspired this sermon series writes that we can think of keeping Sabbath as the spiritual discipline of saying no. He says, “The spiritual discipline of saying no often means saying no to more … saying no in order to open space for God. In fact every no is a yes and every yes is a no. A no to more activity can be a yes to prayer … Saying no is harder than saying yes … The fourth commandment[, the commandment of Sabbath rest], has become the one most easily dismissed, the one that seems almost frivolous in its impracticality ... Sabbath is a big NO … Sabbath is saying no to business as usual and deliberately creating regular moments of rest, recreation, and reflection that celebrate God's abundance and grace so that when the hard winds of adversity blow down your door and sweep through your hallways, you will be able to remember, picture, and believe that Sabbath peace is real, possible, and even bound to be our future, for we live into an eternal Sabbath.” (“Everyday Jesus Spirituality,” Reformed Worship 130, pg 8.) Keeping Sabbath is learning how to say no to our usual routine so that we give time and space for God to break in, time for us to revel in God’s love and grace, time for us to hear God’s voice. 
Don Schuessler shared with me a devotion from The Upper Room that came up this week that fits perfectly with this idea - saying no to some things to say yes to God’s thing. Timothy Sandridge shares, “During the Sunday morning worship time at my last youth retreat, I asked three people from the audience to stand in the front. I then asked them to arrange themselves from the busiest to the least busy person. The busiest person had to hold two giant boxes. The next held a stack of books, and the last held nothing. I then told them they had to catch a ball that I would toss them. I tossed the ball to each person, and only two out of the three caught it. I explained that the ball represented opportunities from God and that if we are too busy, then we won’t be able to catch what God is tossing to us.
“That afternoon, when I got home after the retreat, I realized how busy I was myself. Between school, Boy Scouts, band, choir, friends, and church, my arms were pretty full. We have control over much of the busyness of our lives. When we free up some space, we allow God to give us rest and are able to gladly receive the opportunities for loving service that God sends our way.” (“Free Up Space,” The Upper Room, https://www.upperroom.org/devotionals/en-2020-01-23) Are you making time and space in your life to receive what God wants to give you? 
Last year, I read a book called Saying No to Say Yes: Everyday Boundaries and Pastoral Excellence, by David C. Olsen and Nancy G. Devor. I think it has some good advice not just for pastors, but for all of us. They talk about how learning to say no sometimes leaves us room to focus on our true purpose, our real vision and God’s real vision for our lives. They write about New York Times columnist David Brooks, who wrote a column called “The Leadership Revival.” Brooks noted that we’re inspired by people like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. How do we follow in their footsteps? Brooks says we do that, in part, by learning to say no. He writes, “Close off your options. [We] live in a beckoning world. [We] have an array of opportunities. [We] naturally want to keep all [our] options open. The shrewd strategists tell [us] to make a series of tepid commitments to see what pans out. Hedge your bets. Play it smart.” (As quoted by Olsen/Devor, 79-80) But when we do that, Olsen and Devor note, we “spread ourselves too thin and dissipate our energy, unable to communicate our initial inspiration.” Our bias should be toward focus: “to say ‘no’ to some of the innumerable requests filling our days in order to say ‘yes’ to what we truly value.” Only when we learn to do that can we put our full energy behind any cause. Brooks wrote, “Only the masters of renunciation leave an imprint, only those who can say a hundred Nos for the sake of an overwhelming Yes. (80) 
I wonder what other paths Jesus could have traveled. I wonder what other ways to fill his short days walking this earth Jesus turned aside from so he could continue to say yes to God’s path. I wonder when Jesus had to say no - things that would have been harmful or destructive, sure, but also “no” even to good things, joy-giving things sometimes - so that he could stay focused on the best thing - saying yes to God. 
And what about us? Sabbath isn’t meant to be a rule-laden punishment that keeps us sitting still under a covered wagon all day, miserable every moment. Why would God want that for us? No, Sabbath is for us, a gift. A gift of no. I’m going to say no right now to the regular, seemingly relentless rhythms of life - for a day, for a season, for this new chapter of life, and say yes to God. What do you think you need to say no to, in order to say yes to God more fully? Where and to what do we say No - to things that lead us away from God, always! - and sometimes even to good things that keep us from God’s best thing? As disciples of Jesus, we wrestle with these questions throughout our lives, so that we can continually say Yes to God with our whole hearts. Amen.  
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As I said, I really resonated with The Upper Room devotional that Don called to my attention. Sometimes - like we all do - sometimes I’ve been carrying two big boxes, and so I haven’t been ready to respond to the thing - the opportunity, the hope, the call, the vision, the future - that God is longing to throw my way. 
I’ve been feeling like God is calling me in a new direction, and to say Yes to God, I have to say No to some other things. I have to set down some big boxes, even though those boxes contain some things I love, things that have brought me great joy. At the end of June, I will be finishing my time as the pastor here in Gouverneur. I am applying to go back to school - again - to pursue a PhD that will help me prepare to shift my focus to teaching in the field of Christian Ethics. I’m not sure exactly what form that teaching career might take, but I know that I need to go back to school in order to open up that pathway. I know more school might sound surprising since I already have a doctoral degree, and I can talk to you about that in more detail outside of worship, but suffice it to say that my Doctor of Ministry was meant for clergy who serve in the local church, but I’ll need a degree geared toward working academically. I’m in the process now of waiting to hear if I’ve been accepted to school this coming fall. I will share with you more details about my possible plans as they unfold. 
This isn’t a path forward I’ve chosen without weighing it carefully. It’s not a path I’ve chosen without considerable grief for the things I will have to “put down” in order to be available for school. I love being your pastor, and I love you. My years of ministry with you have been a rewarding blessing in my life. If things weren’t going well, if I didn’t feel loved and supported by you, it would be easy to say it was time to go. But I have felt supported, encouraged, and affirmed by you since I first met with the joint First UMC and North Gouverneur SPRC nearly four years ago. And I will continue to value and count on your strength in the coming months as we head into this season of transition. 
In the next weeks, our District Superintendent Mike Weeden will meet with our Staff Parish Relations Committee, to talk about the process of receiving a new pastor. As soon as they are able, the SPRC will announce to you who will be coming to serve and minister alongside you starting in July. I hope you will join me in praying for the DS and the SPRC as they go about this work. 
God never stops calling us! And so we’re always engaged in the hard work of figuring out how to respond. Together, and with the help of God, I think we can help each other be strong enough to say no to 24/7 business as usual, and yes to whatever God has in store. 
And now let us go forth in peace. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all, now and forever. Amen. 

Monday, January 20, 2020

Sermon, "Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Hands-On Labor," Genesis 2:15, Ecclesiastes 2:18-26

Sermon 1/19/2020
Genesis 2:15, Ecclesiastes 2:18-26

Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Hands-On Labor

A few years ago, I came across an article on CNN, “Meet Khe Hy, the Oprah for Millennials.” I’m not a huge Oprah fan or anything, and I’m not a millennial - I’m on the tail end of Gen Xer generation. But nonetheless, I was curious. Khe Hy was a successful Wall Street businessperson, but at 35, he quit his job, without a clear plan of what he wanted to do next. The article said that he “looked around his fancy New York office and realized something: More money wasn't making him happier. So many people he knew on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley believed if they could "just make" another $1 million or $10 million or $100 million, they would be set and life would be great.” He started writing an email newsletter called “Rad Reads,” and sent it to his friends. Over time, the newsletter has grown, and he has thousands of subscribers. A lot of the content is about productivity and optimization - organizing your life in the best possible way. But another major recurring focus in his newsletter is a movement called “F.I.R.E - Financial Independence - Retire Early.” I’d never heard of it before, but it seems to be growing in popularity. 
According to Dave Ramsey, the F.I.R.E movement, “the goal is to save and invest very aggressively—somewhere between 50–75% of your income—so you can retire sometime in your 30s or 40s … How do people do it? In order to be able to sock away that much money toward investing, folks who are on F.I.R.E. are always looking to do two things: keep their expenses extremely low and raise their income. The general idea is that the higher your income is and the lower your expenses are, the faster you can reach financial independence.” (2) Of course, for most of us, this seems way out of reach. I don’t have 50% of my income that isn’t used on my monthly expenses! I have bills to pay, student loans and a car payment and so on. But for folks who are earning a high income, this is a movement. And why? Why the push to retire early, and to get out of the working world? Because, according to a Gallup poll, only 15% of workers worldwide feel “engaged” at work. In the US, 30% of workers feel “engaged” at work, but that’s still not a very good number, is it? (3) Many of us spend a lot of time working. A huge chunk of life is going to work. And apparently, for many, many people, that’s a chunk of life that people aren’t enjoying.  
Of course, not finding work engaging isn’t a modern problem. We just have to turn to our reading from Ecclesiastes, where the author would be glad to tell us that there’s nothing new under the sun, not even grumbling about work. Ecclesiastes is part of what is called wisdom literature in the Bible, and the author - sometimes called the Preacher or the Teacher - is something of a philosopher. In our text for today, the Teacher is talking about work. He calls it toil, which means excessive and incessant work. Even the word he chooses for work tells us something about how he feels about it! Our text begins, “I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun,” and it continues in the same vein for most of the passage. The Teacher regrets knowing that all the fruits of his hard work? Well, eventually he’ll die and the benefits will all go to someone else, who might be wise, or might be foolish. Knowing that all your hard work might be for nothing, might be given to someone foolish as a beneficiary someday is, for the author, “a great evil.” “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” he asks. “For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” Wow - this sounds achingly contemporary, doesn’t it? 
What do we do, then? Work and toil and suffer and have no rest for our minds even at night, and just endure? That can’t be what God wants for us, can it? I hope we know that what God wants for us is life, joy, and abundance. God wants us to love life, because God loves us and life, our existence, is a gift to us. But God still intends for us to work. It’s right there in the second chapter of the whole Bible. When Adam is still in Eden, before he ate the fruit, before the serpent, before there’s even an Eve yet, God puts Adam to work. We read, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” Adam works as a gardener in Paradise. If there’s work in what’s meant to show us Creation as it was meant to be, perfect harmony between God and God’s creation, then work, as it’s meant to be, is meant to be a blessing, not a curse. After all, God works too. God’s work is creation, and the product of God’s work God deemed very good. God rests from work. Work isn’t all there is. But God’s work is done out of love, with joy, serving creation even as creation serves God. We know one of the best ways we can be disciples of Jesus is by imitating him, and Jesus worked too. Work is not meant to drag us down. It is meant to be a blessing, a rewarding part of life. Think of something hard to do that you’ve completed, accomplished, and the feeling you get when you’ve done a good job and finished a task. It could be for your “day job,” or part of volunteer work, or something you’ve done on your own time. I think that sense of reward and satisfaction we get in those moments is what God hopes for us to experience regularly, in much the same way that God looked on God’s own work in creation with a deep sense of rightness. 
How do we get to that, though? How do we let work make us feel deeply satisfied instead of deeply discontented and exhausted? First, I think we reclaim a sense of vocation. Vocation is from the Latin word meaning “to call.” We’re meant to do the work, to have the vocation to which God calls us. Theologian Frederick Buechner said in his work Wishful Thinking, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.” That’s vocation. I think, though, we’ve done a disservice to our people - pastors and other church leaders - when we’ve let people get the impression that being called into church work, into ministry, or even into some sort of social services field are the only “real” vocations. I think sometimes we leave folks feeling like if they are doing some “regular” job - whatever that is - that it doesn’t count, isn’t enough, and isn’t a way to serve God. My Grandpa worked at Rome Cable for many years, and then he was a gas station attendant in retirement. I don’t think he felt called to those jobs. I don’t think those jobs were his vocation. But I think he did feel deeply called to make sure people knew that Jesus loved them, and so did he. People who interacted with my Grandpa in turn felt that deeply - that love. That was his vocation. And he could fulfill that work at Rome Cable or at the gas station or when he went grocery shopping or wherever he was. Vocation isn’t a job. It’s whatever path allows us to serve God and neighbor and to do so with joy in our hearts. There are countless paths that bring us opportunities to do that, whether we’re preaching, or working in social services, or doing one of the countless jobs we undervalue in society, or whether we’re retired, or raising children, or volunteering. 
Even our cynical Teacher in Ecclesiastes? That’s what he concludes too. “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.” He means that - we’re meant to live life and find joy in what we do. This, he says, is from “the hand of God,” because joy comes from God. Our aim, the Teacher says, should be pleasing God. When we aim to please God in all we do, what could be toiling can become wisdom, knowledge, and joy. 
Sometimes, embracing the gift of work will mean we have to rethink how we’re spending our time, and look for a way to work that better helps us respond to God’s call. Sometimes, it will mean that we advocate for better, more just conditions for those who work in jobs that are thankless, or oppressive and abusive. Sometimes, it will mean adjusting our own attitudes, so that we don’t look down on others who do work we don’t want to do. Sometimes, embracing the gift of work means discovering how to respond to God’s call when we’re retired, or staying at home, or dealing with a condition that keeps us from traditional employment. Sometimes, it means working a paid job that gives us the resources we need to do the unpaid work that is our true vocation. Sometimes, embracing God’s gift of work means realizing how many opportunities to serve God and serve others we have right where we are. Sometimes, it means remembering that God does hard work, and considers work part of our world at its very best. Sometimes, it means remembering to rest from work too, so we can stay passionate about what God calls us to do. If you need help figuring it out - how to find meaning in your work, whatever that is, please know I’d love to talk to you about that, and help you find and answer God’s call, the place where you deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. 
Some days, I know whatever tasks are before us, it will feel like we’re toiling in vain under the sun. But when we make pleasing God and shaping our lives after God’s own pattern our aim, we can trust that God will help us find joy and purpose in the work we do. Amen. 


  1. Long, Heather, “Meet Khe Hy, the Oprah for Millennials,” cnn.com, https://money.cnn.com/2016/12/30/news/economy/khemaridh-hy-rad-reads-oprah-for-millennials/, December 31, 2016. Accessed on 1/18/2020. 
  2. Ramsey, Dave, “What is the FIRE movement?”,  DaveRamsey.com
  1. Clifton, Jim, “The World's Broken Workplace,” Gallup,






Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Sermon for Baptism of the Lord, Year A, "Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Being Grounded," Matthew 3:1-17

Sermon 1/12/2020
Matthew 3:1-17

Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Being Grounded

As I think most of you know, I just returned from a long-planned vacation to Florida, where my family and I visited Disney World and Universal Studios. We had a great time, and after a week of living in one house together, everyone in the family is still speaking to each other, so I count that as a win! Seriously, it was a wonderful trip. I was particularly proud of my mom. Not all of you know this, but she’s a bionic woman. She’s had rotator cuff surgery, and both knees replaced, and twice had her ankle fused, all remnants of her physically demanding nursing career. Before her surgeries, she was walking with a cane, and we feared she was headed for a wheelchair. Things were better after the surgeries, but she still wasn’t great with long-distances. When I first started planning our vacation, I assumed we’d have to rent her a scooter. I knew she’d never be able to do all that walking. But she’s worked so hard this year, and lost a significant amount of weight, and she walked all over those parks with ease. A scooter would have just slowed her down! But even though she can walk everywhere, some things are still challenging for her. She doesn’t do well on ground that isn’t level - inclines are very uncomfortable on her fused ankle. And she struggles with things that require a little extra balance. The people movers at universal were like an adventurous ride for her, and especially challenging were a couple rides where you’re standing on solid ground, and step onto a moving platform to get into the ride vehicle, but then when you get off, it looks like the part you’re standing on is the solid ground, and the part that’s really not moving at all looks like it is the part that’s in motion. Does that make sense? Everytime we got on one of those rides, she needed a little extra help finding the solid ground. 
I’ve been thinking a lot about solid ground this week, about being grounded, sure of the earth beneath our feet. Have you ever been in an earthquake? The only earthquake I’ve ever felt was back in 2011, when an earthquake hit Washington, DC. You could feel it in Syracuse, very mildly. But I remember that I was in my office at my church in East Syracuse, and everything just started feeling weird. My first thought was not that I was experiencing an earthquake, but rather that I was ill. I got up and walked carefully down to the secretary’s office, where she was speaking with the custodian, and only when I realized that they’d felt it too did I realize that we’d felt an earthquake. This mild experience left me feeling very unsettled. The ground is not supposed to move beneath your feet. What do you do when the ground - something that is supposed to be solid and steady and supporting you when nothing else does - is moving? I can only imagine, then, what it feels like to endure a truly catastrophic earthquake. The people of Puerto Rico, still recovering from Hurricane Maria, have been dealing with a series of strong earthquakes this week. I can’t imagine the anxiety of wondering whether the ground will stay where it is supposed to, much less the literal and figurative upheaval of life again. Over and over, the ground is moving beneath their feet. 
Aside from these devastating earthquakes, I think a lot in our world right now makes us feel ungrounded, like the world isn’t steady beneath our feet. We’ve been anxiously watching things unfold in our relationship with Iran - an assassination, the downing of a commercial airplane, and a lot of rhetoric that makes us fear war and violence. We have on our hearts Fort Drum soldiers deploying to the Middle East. We’re wading through the impeachment of the president. Wildfires of enormous magnitude are devastating the continent of Australia. And that doesn’t touch on any personal losses we’re experiencing, upheaval in our personal lives. We desperately need some solid ground on which to stand. How do we find it? 
Today we’re starting a new sermon series, focusing on some creative spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are repeatable practices that we engage in that help us grow in our faith and stay close to God through the good times and the struggles of life. Traditional spiritual disciplines are things like prayer, reading the Bible, meditation, and fasting. But for the next several weeks, we’ll be exploring some less traditional spiritual disciplines. Peter Schurrman, author of an article in Reformed Worship magazine, the source for our sermon series, writes, “Spiritual disciplines … are not just about doing the right things. The Pharisees read their Bible and prayed every day, but it drove many of them deeper into pride and prejudice. Jesus called the Pharisees religious fibbers and spiritual graveyards. Spiritual disciplines are not defined by what you do, but by the desired goal of the activity, and the key desire for Christians is to become more like Jesus. Anything can be a spiritual discipline if it gets you to become more like Jesus. You could say that spiritual disciplines are defined by this Christian motive and intentional repetition.” (“Everyday Jesus Spirituality: Customized Spiritual Disciplines,” Reformed Worship, December 2108, 5.) 
That’s what we want: to be more and more like Jesus. And to help us do that, become more like Jesus, we’re starting by exploring the discipline of being grounded. Schurrman writes, “Practicing being grounded means when worry creeps up on you or distractions call on you, you focus on God’s presence in the here and now. You listen and attend, neither dwelling in the past or rushing headlong into the future. Your vocation, your mission, is clear. Your mandate is the healing of the world.” (6) Being grounded means we keep our focus on God’s presence, right now, and that we draw strength from God’s presence. How do we do that? 
Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, a day when we remember Jesus’ baptism by John, and a day when we also remember our own baptisms, or anticipate the time when we will be baptized. Our text from Matthew’s gospel begins with John the Baptist’s ministry, where he appears in the wilderness, preaching about the need for people to repent, to turn their hearts and lives back to God. Matthew tells us that John is embodying the words of the prophet Isaiah who wrote, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” In that passage from Isaiah, the prophet talks about the valleys being filled and the mountains being brought low in anticipating of the coming Messiah. The ground before the Messiah’s arrival seems awfully unsteady. Indeed, John’s message to the religious leaders who come to see him as he baptizes the crowds implies that they are not as grounded in their relationship with God as they like to think themselves. He tells them that they can’t just rely on the faith of their ancestors. They need faith - and repentance - of their own. 
And then, Jesus comes to be baptized. John doesn’t understand why Jesus wants to be baptized, a sign of repentance, which Jesus doesn’t need in the same way we do. Jesus responds, “Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” His answer is a little confusing, isn’t it? But by being baptized along with us, Jesus joins in our human experience. He joins the community. He throws his lot in with ours. (see Chris Haslam’s notes: http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/apr01m.shtml) But it isn’t just for us, I don’t think. The baptism is for Jesus, too. It gets him grounded in preparation for the ministry that he’s about to begin. When Jesus is baptized, the heavens are opened to him, God’s Holy Spirit rests on him like a dove, and God’s voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” He can always come back to this reminder of his identity and task. When he’s tempted in the wilderness a chapter later, he can remember this grounding moment. When he’s transfigured on the mountain, joined by Elijah and Moses, words like this will come from God again. When he takes some time alone to pray, he can immerse himself in the truth of these words. When he’s wrestling with his impending death, and when he’s suffering on the cross, these words remind him of his commitment to God’s path. This moment, these words, this baptism, this affirmation from God comes before he preaches and heals and travels and calls disciples and dies and rises. This is where Jesus can get grounded. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Grounded in the truth of who he is. 
What truth grounds us? How do we stay grounded? I really love dance. I took ballet and tap on and off as a child, although never regularly enough to become really good at it. But I loved every minute of it. My mom and I would see the Nutcracker every Christmas, and just as my niece did when my mom took her this year, I’d leave the theatre twirling and pointing my toes in the aisles. I still love to watch dance of any kind. It’s amazing what dancers can do. And all those spins - pirouettes and others turns - they can do so many in a row without falling over from dizziness. Impressive, isn’t it? 
Well, dancers are able to spin like that because of a technique called spotting. A dancer focuses on a certain point on the horizon, and they keep their eyes on that mark as long as they possibly can while turning. They have to look away for a second, of course, but as soon as they make the turn, the first thing their eyes find is that spot again. And by coming back to that spot over and over, they can turn and turn and turn without losing their balance. It takes a lot of practice, of course. But it is one of the first things dancers learn to do when they’re ready to learn any kind of turns. 
How do we stay grounded? I think being grounded is a bit like spotting for dancers. To stay grounded in our relationship with God, we make sure that no matter where else our attention needs to focus, our eyes are fixed on God as much as possible. God is that “spot” on the horizon that is the center of our equilibrium, the balance, the home to which we return again and again, and as quickly as possible. In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus starts heading relentlessly toward the place that will result in his death on a cross, Luke tells us that Jesus “sets his face to Jerusalem.” He’s got his focus, and it is ever on God and God’s hope for the world. Where is our face set? Let’s fix our sight on God, and keep it there. 
How do we stay grounded? We do our part, and thankfully, God does God’s part. God’s part of us staying grounded is this: God loves us - adores us! God is well pleased with us, delighted in our very existence. We are God’s beloved children. And God tells us that over and over again, in a million different ways. God tells us that in the gift of Jesus to the world. God tells us that in the baptismal waters. God tells us that in the love we share between each other. God tells us that in the gifts of creation. God tells us that in the voice we hear deep in our souls, urging us toward our best selves. And God uses us to tell that to each other. God can use you to remind someone else that they are beloved. We can’t hear it enough. We can’t be too grounded in that knowledge. So make sure you let someone know who needs to hear it: God loves you. God thinks you’re great! God hopes for your best future. 
Our part of staying grounded is making sure we remind ourselves of God’s message as often as possible, in as many ways as possible. Our part is making sure that whatever else turns our head, we fix our eyes back on God at the first possible opportunity. Our part is remembering our baptism, remembering our invitation to a life walking alongside Jesus, and being thankful for the promise of God’s love and grace. Some days, our world shakes us to the core, and we can’t seem to stay on our feet. Remember. Stay grounded in God. Come back to God again and again, and you’ll find the balance of deep faith, and unwavering love. Amen.