Fire and Water
The First United Presbyterian Church
“Fire and Water”
Rev. Amy Morgan
January 13, 2019
But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.
5 Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you;
6 I will say to the north, "Give them up," and to the south, "Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth--
7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made."
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,
22 and 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."
It was a work of art. A thing of beauty. Perfect and lovely. And beloved.
The sculptor stood back to admire her creation. It was everything she had imagined and hoped for. Her vision was a reality.
The sculpture was admired and looked upon with awe. Others tried to replicate it, but without the skill and passion of this sculptor, all imitations fell short.
And so, out of jealousy, or fear, the sculpture was attacked. It was chipped here and there. Parts were broken off and fell to the ground. Over time, the sculpture was hardly recognizable as the thing of beauty is was created to be.
The sculptor tried to repair it, again and again. But something, once broken, is never quite the same again. The fractures showed. The glue wouldn’t hold for long.
And then, one day, the sculpture was dashed to the ground. It shattered into pieces.
If you were to come upon this scene, you wouldn’t recognize it as a beautiful, awe-inspiring sculpture. All you would see is a mess. Something to be swept up and thrown away.
But the sculptor would see something very different. The sculptor knew every detail of her creation. No matter how many broken pieces there were, no matter how far they scatted, she alone knew, and remembered where they all belonged. She alone could repair it.
This is what God is reminding Israel in this prophecy of Isaiah.
God formed and sculpted this people into a thing of beauty, into a light to the nations, a people beloved and honored by God. But they had been battle-scarred. They had been attacked by enemies and self-inflicted injury. They were a total mess.
God had tried to repair them. But the law and the prophets just couldn’t put them back together again. The fractures showed. They wouldn’t stick together.
And now, they were absolutely shattered. Jerusalem had been sacked, and they’d been carted off into exile in Babylon. They were broken and unrecognizable to themselves. Taken from their land, their God, and their communities - their identity had been destroyed.
So God reminds them that they were created and formed by God. They were named and belong to God. God knows and remembers how they were made. God will gather up all their broken parts and make them whole again.
While none of us appear to be living in exile today, our identities are fractured, and we are alienated from one another.
The brokenness of our national identity has been painfully evident in recent weeks. While our country was formed out of bloodshed and cobbled together by flawed people, it has, throughout the centuries, stood as a beacon of hope in the world. America is beautiful, and others admire and covet our democracy and our freedoms.
But today we hardly recognize ourselves. We have fallen from the perch of our principles and ideals. Our image of ourselves is shattered.
It doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum you stand on, or even if you are apolitical. It’s true for all of us. One Nation, Under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all has been broken by division, corruption and greed, modern-day slavery, and oppression. At our southern border today, some see lawlessness and some see heartlessness, but all of us see something that doesn’t remotely resemble the people we thought we were. We are broken in our national identity.
Our community identity is fractured, too. A few generations ago, people were “from” somewhere. People were born, lived, and died in close proximity. Now, the average American will relocate more than 11 times. We’re not “from” anywhere anymore.
All the institutions we used to identify with – schools, churches, civic organizations – have been crumbling for decades. Even the brands we used to shape our identities have failed us. In our global, disposable economy, with a dizzying multitude of choices, we grab the first thing we see and figure we’ll get something else later if we don’t like it. So much for “my bologna has a first name.”
While we may be aware of the mess made by these broken collective identities, we may not notice the effect on our individual identities. But those identities are the most broken of all. Because when we look in the mirror, we don’t know what we see. We’re not looking for an American or a Canadian or a Mexican. We’re not looking for a Coloradan or a Presbyterian. We’re not looking for a Ford person or a Chevy person.
We’re looking for ourselves. For someone created and formed by God. For someone who is precious and honored and loved.
But for most of us, most of the time, that’s not what we see. We see a mess of a human being. Someone broken by losses we’ve endured, decisions we regret, bodies that are failing us, people who’ve hurt us, and the utter unfairness of life. Perhaps you’re only missing a few chips. Or maybe you’ve got some seriously broken parts. Or maybe you’ve been completely shattered. But we are not the things of beauty we once were. We do not see ourselves as fearfully and wonderfully made.
In the early 1960’s, there was an asylum for men with cognitive disabilities outside Paris. All day, the 80 adult men in the institution did nothing but walk around in a circle and take a compulsory 2-hour nap. These men were viewed as lesser creations, mal-formed and deficient. The state’s responsibility was to keep them alive, but no one saw them as worthy of a whole and meaningful life.
That is, until a man named Jean Vanier arrived. Vanier believes that “To love someone is to show to them their beauty, their worth and their importance.” And so he invited two of the men from the asylum to come and live with him. And he loved them. He showed these men who’d been discarded by society their beauty, their worth, their importance. The home he created was called L’Arche, the French word for Ark. And over time, many more L’Arche communities were formed and are thriving today.
Jean Vanier was not born or bred to be more loving and compassionate than anyone else. In fact, his early career was as a naval officer. But somewhere along the way, through the fires and waters of life, he experienced the love of God, he knew himself to be truly beloved, precious, honored. And from this experience, he was able to recognize the beauty of broken pieces. He was able to see the magnificent sculpture that is each human being, even if it is shattered all over the floor. And he believes that, with great love, those pieces can be reassembled. If only we can be shown our beauty, our worth, our importance.
When Jesus came to be baptized by John, he was not sinful or broken or estranged from God. He was sinless and perfect and one with God. And yet he was baptized. This often puzzles people.
When we speak of baptism, we talk of being cleansed of our sins. Of dying with Christ and rising to new life. Of being grafted in to the family of God.
But the model for our baptism is Christ’s own baptism. Where God says, “You are my Son. I love you. I delight in you.” Jesus’ baptism is not about cleansing or dying or grafting. It is about love and identity. God’s love shows Jesus his beauty, his worth, his importance. This love empowers Jesus to love others into wholeness and righteousness and peace. This love is with Jesus in the waters of baptism and the fires of temptation. This love is with Jesus as he dies a painful and shameful death. This love overcomes death itself and brings resurrection and hope.
And this is the love God has for us. This is the love we claim in our baptism. Baptism is a sign and seal of this love. And yes, with this love, we are cleansed of sin and brokenness, we die to our false selves, and we are welcomed by the family of God. Because that is love. That is how we, who are broken and sinful, alienated from God and one another, are shown our beauty, our worth, our importance. That is how God gathers up all our broken pieces and makes us whole, forms us back into that wonderfully made thing of beauty.
From this experience, we emerge, like Jesus, with an identity that calls and equips us for ministry. The new officers we will ordain and install today were qualified for this ministry in their baptisms. They are all wonderful people, but they are not especially holy or especially righteous or especially special in any way. But they each know the love of God. They have been shown their beauty, their worth, their importance. And so they come to their ordered ministries to share that beauty, to honor that worth, to fulfill their important roles in this body of Christ. They come as transformed people to do the transforming work of God.
Our baptism transforms not just our personal identities, but our communal identities as well. As those baptized in Christ, we are sent out, we are called and equipped, to work for God’s redeeming purposes in the world. Jean Vanier says that “we are at the same time very insignificant and very important, because each of our actions is preparing the humanity of tomorrow; it is a tiny contribution to the construction of the huge and glorious final humanity.”
That “huge and glorious final humanity” is the fulfillment of God’s promise to bring us from the east and gather us from the west, to collect us from the north and south, to be with everyone whom God formed and made and to mend our broken pieces so that we can see our beauty, our worth, our importance. God will gather us all - Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Socialist – urban, rural, suburban, small town – farmers, construction workers, teachers, border patrol agents – Canadians, Americans, Mexicans, Central and South Americans – all these shattered pieces of our humanity will be re-formed into a glorious and final humanity because we were created for God’s glory, we are precious in God’s sight, and honored, and loved.
To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.