A New Direction

            This morning our gospel reading is about the baptism of Jesus, and I want to invite us to reflect today on our own baptisms. In today’s story we remember what happened in the wilderness long ago, when John the Baptist “dunked” Jesus in the river waters, and we remember our own baptisms, either from when we were babies or maybe much more recently than that. How many of you remember your own baptisms?

Jesus goes to the wilderness to be baptized. Isn’t that interesting? The wilderness is where the wild things are, isn’t it? John the Baptist, that raggedy man with wild hair and clothing and a strange diet, he’s there. But so are the outcast, those on the margins, those with no real place to call home, that’s where they live, too. Stephanie Crowder, a bible scholar, says that this is where those who don’t belong in Galilee went to find belonging. And that’s where Jesus goes, too. Jesus is always going into the wilderness of life. Have you ever felt like an outcast, like you didn’t belong? I have. And so I’m intrigued by this wilderness experience that Jesus is inviting us to. Jesus is calling us to get a little wild, to move out into something uncertain and new, and maybe even a little confusing. And for Jesus, this begins with a fresh bath, clean clothes, and a new direction.

            You know, for awhile now I’ve been feeling that God has been pulling me in a new direction. Have you felt that, too? Now whenever I feel uncertain, whenever I feel God pulling on my heart, whenever I know that something needs to change but I’m not sure how to do it, God usually does two things: First, God makes my stomach rumble. Do you know what I’m talking about? I think we all get to a point in our lives where we know things need to change, we know things should go differently, and maybe we have no idea how that’s going to happen, but our stomachs know. In fact, and Heather Beggs probably knows this better than most, it is in our bodies rather than our minds that I think we begin to first notice that change needs to come. Our bodies communicate to us in a language that doesn’t use words but rumbles, and aches, and it gives us this sense that something has got to give, something has got to go differently, something has got to change.

            The second thing God does is God physically moves us to change. Now sometimes, this is something we want: God opens doors for us, God sets us up with a new job, or a new set of friends, or a new opportunity. Other times, we experience something we don’t want – we lose a job, we encounter pain or discomfort in our lives, we get sick, or we lose someone important to us. It is in these difficult circumstances where God invites us to turn and find a new direction. Too often too many people shut down when these things happen, but God reminds us that no matter what, no matter what is happening to us or what we’ve experienced or where we are on the journey, God is still with us. God is still on our side. And that makes it a little easier to take a step forward and trust God is leading us where we need to go, even if it’s to the wilderness.

            Last week I spent some time in a literal wilderness. For six days last week I found myself in Carefree, Arizona, about an hour north of Phoenix. Here, cactus grew around me, red sands shifted beneath my feet, and flora and fauna combined to paint a picture of the American Southwest that left me speechless in its beauty. And yet, even though there was so much to enjoy here, I was not super excited at first to be there. For those of you that don’t know I was in Arizona to attend a gathering of a group I’m participating in, the Next Generation Leadership Initiative in the United Church of Christ. I’m part of a 15 member cohort that meets twice a year to support one another but also to learn from experts in the fields of leadership, congregational ministry, and spirituality. I’m honored that I was selected to participate in this selective group, and that this church supports me in going. There are 4 years of these cohorts that get together all at once, and so there were about 60 of us that gathered together in the Arizona wilderness.

            Why was I uncertain about going. Well, first, there are so many brilliant ministers there, I thought. What if I’m the odd one out? What if I don’t belong? What if what I’m learning is too hard to understand? What if my roommate talks in his sleep? Actually he does a little bit, by the way. But what concerned me the most was this feeling that God was setting a new direction before me, an opportunity to wrestle with questions about my very identity: Who am I? What do I believe? What do I want for my life? Those are big questions, they are wilderness questions. Sometimes we feel like we are on our own figuring them out. But what I found in the Arizona desert were people that cared for me, people willing to listen to my questions, people and experiences that reminded me of God’s love for me, reminded me of my ability to stand on my own two feet with confidence. I was reminded that I can trust that God is guiding me and to know that I don’t need to do it all alone.

            That’s what I hope for all of us. That we come here to church each week to find a connection to something bigger than ourselves and the ability to trust that while we might not see the bigger picture, God does. God knows. God walks with us when things might seem unclear.

Did you catch the words that God speaks to Jesus after he is baptized by John? In the gospel, just after Jesus comes up from the water, the scripture says that the heavens were opened and Jesus sees the Spirit of God descending like a dove and covering him. And a voice from heaven says, “this is my son, with whom I am well pleased.”

            “Well pleased.” I like those words, but don’t they seem a little…. I dunno, missing something? Missing a little….oompf? Well pleased, not “Holy smokes everybody, God is here! The world will never be the same!” Well pleased, not “Woo hoo! Hallelujah!” Actually, this tells us something about our own baptisms.  You see, we look at our baptisms and our confirmations as a turning point, right. A marker in our lives from the way we used to live, to how we will live going forward. Baptism is a turning point, setting us off in a new direction. But baptism is not the be-all-end-all of our journey with God. Baptism is not the end, not the thing that ensures we will get into heaven or keeps us “clean” forever. Baptism is a beginning. After all, it is only after Jesus’ baptism that all the miracles, all the wonderful things that we see him doing actually occur. Baptism is a starting point. A fresh start, and thankfully, one that we can be have each and every moment of our lives. Beginning again, every single day.

            This new year is an opportunity for a new direction. This new year of 2020 is full of new possibilities. New experiences. New challenges. It is all there before you. In this new year, you will encounter new opportunities, you will have new discoveries, you will be challenged. And this year so far might feel like all the ones you’ve already had, right? You might not be able to see how this year can be, will be different. But here’s the key: your baptism sets you free to live this life of new discovery and new direction. Your baptism is a turning point that speaks to you by reminding you that God is well pleased with you, but God is not done with you yet. Oh no. God has gifted you with a new day, a new way to follow God whether in the wilderness or the city or the country. Our baptisms are a reminder that we are not alone, that we are together in all of this, that we are a people, a family, a church ready to do new things for the sake of love and the gospel. And you don’t have to wait to begin, you only have to take that first step.

            Where are you headed this year? What do you need this year in order to live a fuller life? Whatever you need, know that help is here for you. God never leaves us and God always finds a way for us to get the help that we need. I want to give you a few suggestions this year to help you on your way. I mentioned my time with the Leadership program in Arizona, and I mentioned how I was uncertain about going. Well, I’m so glad I did. I learned so much there, I leaned on new friends and I have returned with a sense of joy, confidence, and fulfillment that frankly I’ve not had for awhile. Sometimes the wilderness gives us exactly what we need. So, these suggestions come from the covenant we wrote at the beginning of our time together in Arizona. They are:

First, Be Present – in other words, live deliberately. Be in the moment. Second, Ask for what you need, Offer what you can – too often, I think we forget to ask for what we need. This year, I invite you to be more direct with others in saying what it is you really need. Remind yourself that you are a person, too, and you have the right to speak into the world what you need from it. But don’t stop there. As you ask for what you need you must also offer what you can. You might not be able to solve all of the world’s problems but there is something we can all do to make life a little easier for us. What can you do this year to offer what you have within you to someone else? Third, Have a good question. Ask questions. Be adventurous. Wonder. This reminds me, and I’ll just share quickly, about our last night in Arizona. We were sitting out at the fire pit and we saw this amazing white ring around the moon. It was this rare event and we had no idea what it was so I texted Matt over there, the scientist, and he helped us understand what it meant. And it made the experience that much more meaningful.  Fourth, Listen with curiosity. Really listen. Don’t just wait until that moment when you’ll get a chance to finally talk. Give space to others and really hear them. You’d be surprised at what lies beneath the words we speak. Fifth, Move with gratitude. See that everything we do in our lives has purpose,  and be grateful for where God has brought you thus far. Sixth, Harvest the Yes. Too often we are unwilling to say yes, too often we want things to simply stay the same. Too often we insist on the status quo. Maybe because we’re scared? This year, look for ways in which you can say yes to yourself and to others. You’d be surprised at how this can change the way you approach your day. And finally, Be Leaven.  May we help one another to rise.

Wherever you go this year, remember where it all begins. Be reminded of your baptism, how you were called into a community of faith and a family of belonging, a family that loves and encourages you no matter what. May this year be a new road, a new journey for you, where all things will be new, because they are. Life does not need to be the same as it was, you know. Remember, God gives us a gift: a new day. A new opportunity, every day. A chance to follow a new direction, every single day.

            I want to end this morning by sharing with you words by Jan Richardson. This is a poem called “The Year as a House,” and it tells us something about starting again, about taking a new direction in this new year. May these words be a gift for all of us:

Think of the year
as a house:
door flung wide
in welcome,
threshold swept
and waiting,
a graced spaciousness
opening and offering itself
to you.

Let it be blessed
in every room.
Let it be hallowed
in every corner.
Let every nook
be a refuge
and every object
set to holy use.

Let it be here
that safety will rest.
Let it be here
that health will make its home.
Let it be here
that peace will show its face.
Let it be here
that love will find its way.
let the weary come;
let the aching come;
let the lost come;
let the sorrowing come.

let them find their rest,
and let them find their soothing,
and let them find their place,
and let them find their delight.

And may it be
in this house of a year
that the seasons will spin in beauty;
and may it be
in these turning days
that time will spiral with joy.
And may it be
that its rooms will fill
with ordinary grace
and light spill from every window
to welcome the stranger home.

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