Water and Fire, Wheat and Chaff
A Sermon for Baptism of Christ Sunday
Offered at First Congregational Church, Rochester, Michigan
January 10, 2016
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John 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. 17His 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.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and 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.”
As many of you know, Jeannene and I have a new little baby, Elijah, in our household. He didn’t get out much before he had his first round of shots, but we did take him to the Christmas tree farm with us. There, a somewhat astonishing thing happened. One of the owners, who looked a great deal like the real Santa Claus to me, greeted us and admired Elijah. He talked to us about giving Elijah lots of love and thereby changing the world. The not-the-real Santa who was there also talked to us about how love, joy, and security, given to our baby, would give him the tools to change the world---the messages were very strong and beautiful that day.
Just before we left, the maybe-the-real Santa called us over for a hug. We talked more about Elijah and he introduced himself as Frank, Francisco, and said he was from Sicily and has traveled all over the world. Perhaps because I am a fan of the Latin American literary genre of Magical Realism or because I read too many fantasy novels, I actually pondered whether he could be St. Francis in disguise, even though Assisi is actually in Emilia-Romagna & not Sicily and, well, Francis is long-dead. Yes, silly, I know. But even if he was simply Frank, the tree farmer, his words of wisdom were taken to heart, as was his next action. This lovely man asked if it would be okay for him to bless Elijah with some water he brought home from a pilgrimage that included a visit to the River Jordan.
Well, who am I to refuse a blessing? We waited while Frank ducked inside to get his Jordan River water. Upon his return, he very gently and kindly anointed Elijah’s forehead and said a prayer of blessing over him. The end of the prayer touched my heart most deeply, as he asked that God make Elijah an instrument of God’s peace, a phrase from my beloved grandmom’s favorite prayer, the Prayer of St. Francis. We drove home with an extraordinarily beautiful Christmas tree and hearts full of gratitude for the kindness of this disciple of Christ.
Of course, when I started thinking about today’s story of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan, by his cousin John, the Jordan water blessing given to Elijah immediately came to mind. It wasn’t a baptism, but a simple blessing, asking that God use our wee boy to be a disciple, too. He’ll be baptized later this winter, but we already know that the Holy Spirit is with him and that he is God’s beloved child. The baptism will be our human recognition of the work the Holy Spirit is doing in Elijah. It will be our welcome to the community of the church and our promise to help him grow in his faith and learn to walk the path assigned by Jesus. It will be our recognition of him as a disciple.
You see, the term “disciple” doesn’t refer simply to the Twelve who walked with Jesus in his earthly ministry. It means, “one sent” and all of us who are baptized in Christ are sent to spread God’s message of love for the world. We’re all disciples, all God’s beloved children. Some of us are lucky enough to have been given the gift of affirmation by our earthly parents. Others have never been affirmed by earthly parents. Know this: whatever you have heard or not heard in the way of affirmation from your earthly parents, you are beloved of and affirmed by God, just as you are.
Baptism, then, isn’t fire insurance. Baptism is a recognition of the working of the Holy Spirit that is already going on in each of us. It’s also initiation into the community of Christ followers seeking to do justice, love neighbor, be kind, live in humility. Look at the promises parents, godparents, and congregations make when an infant is baptized. Show love & justice, encourage her or him to renounce the powers of greed, hatred, selfishness, and oppression, receiving new freedom in the life of Jesus.
Baptism means we aim to live into God’s audacious vision of the world as it could be, rather than cower in fear at the world as it currently is. We are not only baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, but into his way of being human, a way that defies cultural expectations and norms, a way gracious and loving to those on the margins, a way that basically turns things as we know them on their heads.
While the world around us sensationalizes all the things we have to fear, all the things that are wrong today, Christ would remind us that, as Tod O.L. Mundo states on his “Saturday Night Theologian” blog, because “God is seated on the throne, bringing order to the world, we do have hope, and we can share our hope with those who view the world as meaningless. In the midst of a world of poverty, war, terror, AIDS, unemployment, and hunger, followers of God must bring a message of hope to those who are suffering. Though things look chaotic now, and life seems to have no meaning, God is in control. In the name of God, let us proclaim a message of hope and make it our purpose in life to demonstrate that life has meaning for every inhabitant of the planet.”
If we, like Herod in the Epiphany text, are listening too closely to the voice of our fear, we can miss God’s still, small voice reminding us of all that love given to us, all the work to which we are called for the benefit of the kingdom of heaven. If we are looking too hard for danger and threats, we can miss the shining stars God places to light our paths. Our baptism calls us to tune out from fear and tune in to God’s voice.
Now, I’m not even going to pretend this is easy. It isn’t. Not at all. But it is necessary. Just as the fire of turmoil appears to be necessary. In today’s scripture, John the Baptizer speaks of Jesus as one who comes with a winnowing fork. He speaks of wheat being separated from chaff and Jesus’ flame ready to burn the chaff into nothingness. This passage is used by a lot of hellfire and damnation preachers as a warning to those of us who, in their eyes, need to straighten up and fly right, for fear of being burned when we are discovered not to be wheat, but only chaff, after all. For them, the burning is the deepest fires of hell (they must not have read Dante, who envisions the deepest circle of hell as frozen. He must have lived in Michigan in January and February) and God is sending all the unworthy there.
The God I know through the life of Jesus, though, is infinitely merciful and wise, so I don’t really believe that’s the intention of the burning of the chaff. Further, I did some research on the threshing process. First, the wheat heads are beaten to remove the grain from the stalk and to loosen the hard, dry protective shell from the outside of the grain. Then, they are (or were, back in Jesus’ time) tossed in the air with the winnowing fork to allow the wind to blow the chaff off the grain heads. The chaff was often burned, as the most expedient way to deal with it, since it isn’t digestible by humans. However, it is digestible by livestock, so it was sometimes added to their feed. It was also sometimes ploughed into the ground to enrich the soil. So, chaff isn’t even all bad. It can be useful.
My theory is that the chaff is the parts of ourselves and our lives which no longer serve us well and which hinder our participation in the work of discipleship. Sometimes, we need that hard shell of protection to keep us safe. Sometimes fear, to name just one characteristic that can be helpful or hindering, keeps us from doing something dangerous. Other times, fear can paralyze us or even spur us into taking harmful actions our rational brain wouldn’t take. When we have matured enough, like wheat grain, and grown out of the need for a particular fear, having Jesus winnow it out of our lives is a pretty great thing. It’s not a thing to be feared or a sign that God disapproves of us. Quite the opposite. God sees the potential we could reach, if the things that are not serving us well were removed. God loves us and loves the world, so we are given opportunities to grow and shed our chaff.
Another example comes from my blacksmith mama’s forge. Steel must be heated in order to make it hard enough that it doesn’t simply wear down quickly with use. However, when it’s not properly tempered, going through only one heat and then cooled rapidly by a plunge in the slack tub (a pretty gnarly tub of water kept in blacksmith shops for the purpose of cooling metal), it will be plenty hard, but too brittle. It won’t wear down from use, but it will break easily. Steel, heated twice and allowed to cool slowly and naturally on the anvil, becomes softer and stronger.
Think of that! Softer means stronger for metal. I think it’s the same for us humans. We need to have some hardening so we won’t just wear down---crisis, hard times, and tragedy are pretty good for hardening us, as are repeated news stories about horrible realities. I don’t for a moment believe that God creates these things to temper us, but they are a reality of life in our imperfect world, with all its free will. So, if we are able to take our time and fully recover from trauma and grief, rather than forcing ourselves---or being forced by society---to “get over it” more quickly than is natural, we become stronger.
However, if we are simply hard and not at all resilient, we become brittle and can break too easily. In order to be good, strong, durable tools employed by God in working for the kingdom of heaven here on earth, we have to also lose some of that hardness and allow some softness and vulnerability. Jesus, by asking to be baptized, is continuing to make himself vulnerable, as he did with his willingness to experience incarnation as a human baby. His baptism is another immersion into openness, into making himself one with us humans, into vulnerability. Jesus’ entire ministry, indeed, is built on vulnerability. Talk about turning the ways of society on their heads! To submit to baptism is to begin to live quite dangerously, to shed some of the protections of defensiveness and to live with open hearts.
Something else magical happens in the fire of the forge and under the hammer of the smith. Even in today’s world of steel that has supposedly had the impurities worked out of it before it hits the blacksmith’s door, some (as my mom says) “pretty wonky” steel, rife with impurities, comes through the blacksmith’s shop. However, forging forces the impurities out and, in my mom’s words, “they go zizzing out, as the hammer is striking, as miniature fiery comets.” As alarming as I find the prospect of metaphorically being put in the fire, then pounded between the steel of the hammer head and the steel of the anvil, I love the image of all my impurities being forced out and flying into the air as tiny comets, all ablaze. Perhaps I am, after all, okay with a certain level of trial by fire. Not so much it destroys me. Just enough to make me strong, soft, and resilient.
Jesus didn’t live a safe life, did he, avoiding conflict and following the rules? He didn’t keep his heart and his person armored so he would never come to harm. We don’t get that luxury, either, not if we are to follow him truly. So, in remembering and affirming our baptisms, we are reminded that, as Christians, we are called to act against injustice, strive for peaceful hearts and loving interactions with all (this takes practice!), and work to end oppression wherever we see it. A tall order, but one for which we are created, stronger than we realize, softer than we might be comfortable being, resilient enough to make a difference.