Preached at St. Mark Lutheran Church, first Sunday in Lent
Relevant lectionary texts are here.
Standing in this pulpit I am intensely aware of the honor it is to be with you all for the past few months, and particularly in this role here today. There have been a lot of mighty preachers who have also stood in this pulpit, including Pastor Clark, whose teaching of the Word have helped to spur on and encourage St. Mark’s, forming it into the powerful and caring Spirit-filled community that I have the privilege of experiencing with my family each Sunday. So thank you for the opportunity to be here, to learn from you all, to listen together to what God is saying.
Any time that I have a chance to preach I feel the holy weight of the responsibility that it is. There have been a lot of voices in my life telling me that I don’t deserve to be here, for a lot of reasons. But one reason is because despite the fact that scripture consistently chronicles women in sacred leadership positions, women in our tradition have not even been ordained for 50 years. And in large swaths and pockets of the church, even the ELCA, there are numbers of people who just can’t fathom that a preacher could look like me. They weren’t interested in hearing the Word of the Lord spoken by somebody in high heels.
Maybe some of you here can relate to this. And I’m not just talking to the women, although I’m sure this might resonate with some of you in a particular way. There are a lot of seasoned elders here, full of wisdom and experience, who have seen a lot of things – from Jim Crow to the back lash after our first Black president. So I’m talking to all of us. Because if I were to bet on it, I am almost certain that throughout your life, you got conflicting messages about who you were and what your value is.
Maybe, growing up, you sat on your granny’s soft lap and she whispered fiercely into your ear “you are as good as anybody.” And you listened to your granny, and you nodded, and took it to heart, even if you were confused at the time about why she kept repeating it to you, why her tone was so adamant.
But now you know. You know now why she was so intent on repeating that to you, “You are as good as anybody.” Because as you’ve grown older you’ve realized that there are a lot of other voices out there too. These voices are legion, they are many. And they are loud, and they are persistent and they are cruel.
There are so many voices out there, it can be hard to hear God above the roar and chatter of it all.
Our Gospel lesson today tells us that Jesus struggled among competing voices, too.
We begin our scene in the River Jordan, and what a scene it was. Scripture tells us that as Jesus rose out of the waters of baptism, droplets of water still clinging to his garments, shimmering and beading off his wooly hair, the very skies were torn apart and the Spirit descended like a dove when a voice from Heaven rang out, “You are my Beloved Child, you are the joy of my life.”
In the waters of baptism our Creator God claimed Jesus as God’s own child, dearly loved. And it was with this voice echoing in his ears, reminding him of who he truly was, that Jesus is able to begin his ministry.
I’m not sure how that voice sounded, but I picture it being not unlike some of our grannies’ voices, “You are as good as anyone,” full of love and fierceness, speaking with intensity, hoping to imprint this message upon Jesus’ heart.
And Jesus would need this message, for the battle to come. Jesus couldn’t do what he did in the desert without first being claimed and anointed by God in baptism. Because another message from another voice was waiting for Jesus out in the wilderness, ready and waiting to pounce, like a wild beast.
Satan, the accuser, spent 40 days hissing lies in Jesus’ ear. Lies about who Jesus was. Lies about what his role was. Lies about his true value and worth. The Gospel of Mark doesn’t give us all the details of the dialog; we have to look to Matthew or Luke for that. But even without recounting the details, we know what the voice of Satan sounds like. Because we live the effects of Satan’s messages.
While God’s voice tells Jesus and tells us, “You are my child. I love you,” Satan’s voice tells us we are worthless, we don’t matter, that we are disposable, dispensable. This voice can come in many forms.
The messages come every day. They come when they gut our public schools of funding… or even close them, like they’re trying to do in Englewood… telling our children, implicitly, “You aren’t worth it. You’ll never amount to anything.”
These voices are the kinds of voices that they print in the New York Times after an unarmed Black child is shot down in the street. They say things like, “Well. He was no angel.”
They are the same voices that whisper lies, they tell us that our guns and our false sense of security are worth more than the lives of our children.
Unlike the voice of God, who brings life, these are death dealing forces, whose messages lead us into despair. And when we start to internalize these voices? When these voices, these messages get in our heads and crowd out our true baptismal identity as beloved children of God…? When we start to believe these lies? You have seen what happens when people forget who they are. Their dignity begins to get chipped away. Folks either IMplode, withdrawing in apathy and depression and give up or EXplode in anger and rage (1). This week in Florida, again, has shown us all too clearly what happens when we buy into the narrative of death and destruction.
With so many competing voices, so much chatter, coming from politicians and the media and even sometimes our family and friends, it can be hard to discern which messages are coming from God, and which ones are lies from the Accuser.
God knew how hard it could be, God lived it, as Jesus, in the desert. That is why God, in God’s great wisdom has given us so many gifts to help remind us which voice to listen to, voices that tell us WHO we are and WHOSE we are. Because it is too hard to do this on our own.
So God gave us the gift of the stories of our ancestors in the faith, present throughout scripture. Stories of those who came before us, who beat down the path for us and showed us the way. Stories of dear saints that modeled faithfulness and the godly life, like Noah, stories that flow out of people who know that they are loved and claimed by God, the Creator of all good things. Those stories point us to the voice of God, the voice who calls us beloved.
We have the gift of this great cloud of witnesses on Heaven and on Earth to direct us and encourage us. That’s a good reason to come to church, ya’ll. To be around people who can sing us the good songs and shake our hands and look at us and remind us when we have forgotten, “You are a beloved child of God. You are as good as anyone.”
We have the gift of the sacraments, Baptism and Communion, that remind us we are all welcome to be fed at God’s holy table, that tell us we have been sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. That is who we are. The people of God, Gods own children, God’s beloved. God’s kin. The kind of people that God has over for dinner.
Dear beloved people of St. Mark – this Lent, let us listen to the voice of God, the loving parent who has claimed you in baptism and fed you with God’s own body. This…THIS…. is your true identity, the identity that girds your spirit up for battle against shadowy forces and hissing, snake-like lies.
And that identity means no one, no one, NO ONE, not even the devil from the very pit of Hell gets to tell you who you are.
(1) For more on this idea and framework, check out Cut Dead but Still Alive by Gregory C. Ellison III.