Untitled Sermon/ Rev Mary Nelson Transitional Conference Minister

Calvary UCC, St. Louis

Second Sunday after Epiphany (but observing Baptism of Jesus)

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Good morning, Calvary Church! I’m your Transitional Conference Minister, Rev. Mary Nelson, and I’m so honored that Pastor Dennie invited me to preach this morning. I wish we could be together in person – it has been very strange to be here in St. Louis for the last two weeks but barely leave Eden’s campus, but I trust that one day soon we will be able to gather together again safely – we know that Covid is no joke, and I commend you for keeping one another safe this way. Stay safe, and stay strong!

I always begin with a word of greeting, and a word of gratitude, and a word of prayer:

First, the greetings: I bring you greetings on behalf of the Missouri Mid-South Conference and the 139 congregations to which you belong. I bring greetings on behalf of Camp MoVal and the Shannondale Community Center, our outdoor ministries sites. I bring greetings on behalf of the schools and the healthcare and human services organizations with whom we are partners in ministry in Arkansas, Memphis, and Missouri. I bring greetings on behalf of the Conference Board of Directors, our Board Chair Elaine Tebbenkamp, and from the Conference staff as well. I bring greetings from Holy Trinity Community Church in Memphis, where I preached via video last week, and with your permission I will bring greetings from you to the next church where I preach, when I am invited.

And I want to thank you, Calvary, for your generous and consistent giving to Our Church’s Wider Mission basic support, as well as to other appeals like the Christmas Fund, Neighbors in Need, and the medical debt relief campaign. I want to thank you for offering leadership and time and dedication to the Conference Community, through Karen Miller’s service on the Conference Board of Directors, Pastor Dennie’s participation in clergy groups, and through your individual volunteering as well. Your support does not go unnoticed or unappreciated – I am grateful for the ways you give of your financial resources, as well as your time and expertise, in support of the wider church’s work. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

And now, will you pray with me please: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.

We are now in the season after the Epiphany. It happens every year – just like Christmas is always December 25, Epiphany is always January 6 – and it came and went ten days ago with even less fanfare than usual this year, because of the many other things that were all over the news.

But what I love about the liturgical calendar is its insistence that God’s time will unfold, no matter what happens in our time. No matter the news cycle, no matter the Covid stats, no matter the weather or the price of gas or the celebrity gossip. The liturgical calendar insists that God’s time will not give way to our daily concerns. No matter what else happens on December 25, Christ is born this day. No matter what else happens on January 6, the light of Christ is revealed to the nations – that’s what happens on Epiphany: the light of Christ breaks into the world.

So now we are in the season after the Epiphany – the light is in the world, it’s here and now, we’re not waiting for anyone else to show up or anything else to happen.

And early in the season after Epiphany, we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus: the official beginning of his ministry. If we do it right, we remember that Jesus’ baptism is connected to our baptisms – if baptism was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, then it’s the beginning of our ministries, too. The light has been revealed, the heavens have been opened… and now we have to deal with it. We have to think about what it means for the light to be revealed. We have to live like we are part of that revealing – because we are.

Luke’s gospel tells of this time early in the story of Jesus’ ministry, when people were gathered at the riverside in order to hear John the Baptist preach, and to be baptized by him. At least some of them have begun to think that John is the Messiah, the one they were waiting for, of whom the prophets had spoken—the one who was supposed to save the people from oppression and hardship. John is trying to explain to them that the Messiah is still coming; that he, John, is a messenger preparing the way for the Messiah. “One who is more powerful than I am is coming,” he says. “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and with fire.”

And then there’s this line that has caused so much trouble for so many people down through the centuries – one of those lines that has been twisted and used to hurt people, to keep people thinking that some are “in” and some are “out,” and trying to determine who is who. John’s describing this one who is coming, this Messiah, saying, “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.” Notice that John doesn’t say anything about a gate or a door here. This is not a who’s in/who’s out metaphor.

Separating wheat from chaff is a metaphor for something else: it’s part of a bigger process. Think about a grain of wheat – or maybe imagine a kernel of popcorn, that’s more familiar and it’s a similar idea. Wheat grows on a stalk with a protective cover around each berry, each grain of wheat, just like a popcorn kernel has that hard shell that breaks open when it pops, and the thin hard shell comes off – wheat has a similar shell, called the chaff. Wheat is not wheat, it cannot grow in the first place, without this protective shell. But after the wheat is harvested and prepared for milling, there comes a time when the protective shell has to be broken to get to the good stuff, the wheat berry, the part that goes in to the mill to be ground into flour, the part with the nutrients. The chaff has served its protective purpose, and it’s not needed anymore – it’s briefly useful as fuel in the fire, but that’s about it. Hear it: the whole stalk of wheat has a function, a purpose, but not all the parts have their purpose at the same time. The newly-harvested wheat is cracked against the floor, and the miller uses the winnowing fork to lift up the stalks of broken wheat – the berries fall back to the floor, but the chaff is light and it blows off the fork into the wind. What’s left on the floor after this process is just the wheat berries, which can be scooped up and put into the mill to be ground into flour.

Hear it again: the miller releases the chaff, the part of the wheat that has already fulfilled its purpose, so that the rest of the wheat, the berry, can become what it is meant to be.

The miller releases the part of the wheat that has already fulfilled its purpose, so that the rest of the wheat can become what it is meant to be.

That is what John the Baptist tells us the Messiah will do. It’s not keeping some in and some out, it’s letting go of that which does not serve us anymore, so that we may become that which we are called to be.

There comes a point in each person’s life, and in a community’s life, where we have to let go of the protective barriers we’d set up around ourselves – when the walls that were once keeping us safe become the walls that keep us from growing. In life, sometimes that tipping point, to borrow a phrase, is obvious. And sometimes that tipping point is subtle, and it sneaks up on us. To hear John the Baptist tell the story of the Messiah coming, the tipping point is obvious, but it’s still sometime in the future. Luke’s gospel sets up the narrative that way. But the liturgical calendar gives us a different orientation to the timeline: the Messiah is not coming in the future, the Messiah was born at Christmas, and now the light has dawned. The wheat has been cracked and now those protective barriers are not needed anymore, it’s time to discard them.

What is the chaff in your life? What is the barrier that once offered you protection but now prevents you from fulfilling your purpose? Where is the miller, and the winnowing fork, in your life, in your community? Has your protective shell been cracked open yet, so that you can become who and what you are called to be?

Luke tells us that the people heard John’s words and came forward to be baptized, and he baptized Jesus, too—and when Jesus was baptized and he began to pray, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit came down like a dove, and he heard a voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.” Even Jesus had a breaking-open moment! Even Jesus had a protective shell—and when it was cracked apart, his Belovedness was made known to him.

I hope, Calvary, that your Belovedness has been made known to you. I hope that your cracking-open was not traumatic, but a gift – a release from all that was keeping you small and compressed – and that now you may fulfill your purpose, and become who God made you to be. I hope that the miller’s winnowing fork was strong enough to let the chaff separate easily, and the threshing floor soft enough to receive your fall with gentleness.

The beauty of the liturgical calendar is that we can declare today, as a community, that this has been so for us – regardless of the individual journeys each of us has made. I think part of why this wheat-and-chaff metaphor is so often misinterpreted as a gatekeeping metaphor is the fact that it is read at the same time we tell the story of Jesus’ baptism, and historically we have used baptism as a gate—this kind of baptism is okay but that kind isn’t, this kind of person can baptize but that kind of person can’t—we build those gates, those barriers, but they are not of God: Baptism is a ritual of welcome and blessing and belovedness. Baptism is about God’s light breaking forth, and breaking us open so that light can shine through our lives, just like the wheat is broken open so its nourishing qualities can be shared.

As a community of Christ, as a family of disciples, we can witness together to God’s breaking us open, to God’s shining of light, to God’s promise of belovedness, so that those whose personal journeys have not yet brought them to the threshing floor will know that it’s nothing to fear; and those whose eyes have not yet seen God’s light will know that they have a celebration to look forward to, and those who do not yet know themselves as Beloved can at least know they belong to a Beloved Community.

Yes, Calvary, this is a season of JOY. This is not a time of breaking-down, but a time of breaking-open. This is not a declaration of restraint, but a declaration of release. This is a season of Epiphany: the light has come into the world! You are God’s beloved, with whom God is well pleased!

Thanks be to God! Amen.