010922 Baptism of Jesus

A Baptism of Belovedness, Wind, and Fire

Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

       Ever since visiting a group of refugees in a remote village in Peru, I’ve been fascinated by John’s words about wheat and chaff to describe Jesus’ baptism:  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. Some of you have heard me recount the story of going to visit a community that was establishing a new home away from violent persecution from the Shining Path guerillas. We spent the night at a rustic house before we arrived. In the morning, I saw things I’d never seen: one of the daughters was grinding coffee, the mother was preparing to break the neck of the chicken we would eat for breakfast, and the father was winnowing the wheat from the chaff to make bread.

         I’d studied the passage about wheat and chaff in seminary, but it never meant much until that day. It has continued to grow on me over the years. Many of you may already know what I learned that day. Since chaff is lighter than wheat, when the farmer lifts the wheat and chaff together with a winnowing fork, the wind carries the chaff away, while the wheat falls back to the ground. Afterwards, the pile of wheat is carried away to make bread, and the chaff is swept into another pile to be incinerated.

       John says that Jesus has the winnowing fork in his hand to gather the wheat into his granary, and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. Luke is careful with words. The winnowing fork is in Jesus’ hand at the ready. Luke doesn’t say he’s going to do the winnowing now; he will at the right moment. Remember that chaff is the husk or hull that protects the wheat while it grows. It is separated only at the harvest. If it is separated earlier, it cannot fulfill its purpose in helping the wheat to grow. Chaff is useful, but outlives its usefulness before wheat does. That doesn’t make it bad. It simply means its purpose is fulfilled before wheat’s purpose is. Chaff is a good thing that must be separated from the wheat before the wheat can be consumed. Once wheat is eaten, it too becomes waste-fertilizer or new soil.

     I’ve gone into the details because I think they speak to what we are living in this country. The wisdom of waiting until the harvest to separate wheat from chaff runs counter to what many are doing, or want to do. People want to remove the chaff from the wheat before the harvest; they fail to recognize its value. Judging too soon is increasing divisions in the U.S.

       As we commemorated the first anniversary of last year’s attempted coup and insurrection, we heard talk of secession, civil war, and daggers at the throat of democracy. For the first time in many years, the country remembered a major attack against it without a shared acknowledgement of the damage done to the nation on that day. Even those who acknowledged the violence last year changed their tune this year, despite being on record as having said those things. The nation is divided because some are bringing the harvest of judgment too soon. On one extreme of the divide, people seek purity of birth, race, loyalty, and belief, and are willing to commit acts of violence to achieve it. The other side shakes its head in disbelief that friends, family, neighbors, and fellow citizens use the same words to mean such different things – patriotism, freedom, respecting the body, securing the vote.

       The Gospel is clear that judgment must not occur until history has run its course. If we try to cleanse the field of impurities before the harvest, we put the entire crop at risk. Even some who claim to be followers of Jesus refuse to believe that. They want God and the government to judge now, to winnow the wheat from the chaff now. If they won’t do it, these folks will take things into their own hands and impose the judgment themselves. Those of us who care about the harvest must do everything in our power to assure that wheat and chaff are not separated too soon.

       So, John uses the image of wheat and chaff to describe Jesus’ baptism. But when Luke tells the story of Jesus’ baptism, it looks gentler than that. The Holy Spirit descends like a dove onto Jesus, and a voice from heaven says, You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. That doesn’t sound like wheat and chaff, or wind and fire. The image of a dove wafting down from the sky is gentler. Will someone whose baptism looked like that baptize with wind and fire?

       Maybe the images aren’t as different as we think. Luke says Jesus was praying when heaven opened. In Luke, every time Jesus does something important he prays first. The North African Desert Mothers and Fathers were dedicated to prayer. They tell the story of a monk who came to his spiritual guide asking about the next steps in his spiritual journey. He described his monastic solitude and daily rituals, and then asked what more he could do to experience God in his life. His spiritual guide simply said, “Become fire!”

       I’ve reported in recent sermons that in my healing journey I was told that I had to go through the fire. We heard from Isaiah this morning that when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. And we don’t have to be afraid, because God has called us by name. You are mine, Isaiah’s God says. In Luke’s Gospel, we hear God say, you are my beloved. Those are the truths that empower us to walk through fire.  

       Fiery followers of God encounter challenges that can overwhelm. To become fire is to take risks, test new behaviors, and embark on adventures to new and strange places. Exciting as these new adventures may be, they can also heighten anxiety or make people turn back from the path God has invited them to follow. To be reminded in our baptism that we are beloved enables us to keep walking at every season of life. Prayer reminds us of that when the evidence we’re looking at leads us to think we’re not beloved and dare not be fiery. When we breathe in God’s spirit and bathe in God’s healing waters in prayer, we radiate God’s fire. How could we believe otherwise with the reminders we’ve had in the news about Desmond Tutu in recent weeks? He was a picture of this truth: bathed in being beloved, he exuded the fire of love and justice.

       I’m sure the Arch would agree that the baptism into our belovedness is still a baptism by wind that blows the chaff away and by fire that burns it so we can’t change our minds and try to get it back. No matter how dearly we appreciate certain parts of our lives that have served us well, fruitfulness only comes by letting them be blown away and burned.

       What is the chaff of my life, whose past usefulness I may acknowledge but which I need to shed in order to be useful in the present stage of life? If we found security by staying in our own neighborhood, we may be called to go someplace that feels scary. If being shy has always made us feel safe, we may be called to speak up for something we believe in.

      What is the chaff of our country that must be burned with the fire of repentance to find healing for the nation? If we have clung to a false image of our history, we’re called to face the wounds that keep us from being ready for the harvest. If we’ve glossed over our differences, we may have to engage in a process of truth and reconciliation to be healed. Once again, Archbishop Tutu can be a good guide here.

       We don’t have to, and must not, impose a Christian narrative on the country to accomplish this. Baptism into belovedness and fire is not a possession of Christians alone. It’s an initiation into life that doesn’t require the physical act of immersion or sprinkling. We will prove this in a few minutes as we renew our baptism virtually, without water. This is good news, because what the Spirit burns and blows away would otherwise enslave us to the safety of the past rather than liberate us for the risky faith of the future.

       Friends, may we all know both the baptism of belovedness and the baptism of wind and fire, that we might reach the unity God desires for us.