Monthly Archives: January 2015

“Babies, Baptisms, and Beginnings” – Sermon on the Baptism of Our Lord

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BaptismOfOurLord

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” – Mark 1:4-11


I always love hearing the story about my baptism. I was about two months old. My parents dressed me in the same beautiful hand-made white baptismal gown and bonnet that my older sister wore at her baptism five years before. My parents and my sister dressed up in their nicest church clothes – my father sporting his white pant-suit.  (Yes, it was the early 80’s.)  And many of my extended family came into town that weekend to attend the service.

It was a beautiful ceremony – with the liturgy taking place over the baptismal font in front of the congregation at the Presbyterian Church in my hometown. Everything was calm and beautiful. Just perfect for a baptism…

Until I decided to have a huge blowout through my diaper and my gown as my dad was holding me during the baptismal vows in front of the congregation…

And it got all over my dad’s white suite…

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Though there was a bit of a surprise and commotion at my baptism after my accident, this was quite tame compared to the baptism of Jesus.

John – the radical Baptizer – the one who hung out in the middle of the wilderness, was clothed in camel’s hair with a leather belt tied around his waist, and whose diet consisted of locusts and wild honey – was proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People were traveling from all over the Judean countryside and Jerusalem to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. As lines of people awaited their baptisms and were confessing their sins, John loudly cried out: “The one who is greater than I will come after me. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

And – in the midst of this chaos – just as we hear about this One who is greater than John the Baptizer, guess who shows up to be baptized by John: Jesus, the Son of God, himself.

Yes, this baptismal event would have been a definite surprise and quite the site to see.

I love so many things about Jesus’ baptism. I love how John – this radical Baptizer seems to remind us of Elijah, the prophet who had been long expected to descend from the heavens and prepare the way for the Messiah to come. And I love that while – in his own insecurity – this popular Baptizer proclaims that he is not even worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals.  And yet, it is this very same John to whom Jesus shows up and is baptized by.

I love how it is in this baptism that we find out that the One who is to come, this Messiah John is preparing the way for, is not the worldly king that the people had expected.  Rather, this Messiah is Jesus, the son of a poor carpenter from Nazareth, the One who had started his life as a homeless refugee on the margins of society.

I love that in the midst of this chaotic baptismal event in the Jordan River, as Jesus emerges from the waters, the heavens tear open and the Spirit swoops down on him like a dove – reminding us of the Spirit-wind swooping over the waters of chaos in the beginning of creation in Genesis 1.  And it is in this moment during Jesus’ baptism when the heavenly and earthly realms collide and all that has separated God from God’s people is torn apart.

I love how it is in this moment when Jesus hears God’s voice crying out to him from the heavens, claiming him and marking him as God’s beloved Son, saying: “With you I am well pleased.”

But what I love most about this baptismal event is that it comes at the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel… before any of Jesus’ miraculous acts or prophetic sermons about the Kingdom of God he was reigning in. Before Jesus’ brave and bold journey toward the cross and his hope-filled resurrection from the dead. Before anything that Jesus does in his ministry.

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A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend who recently got engaged.  As with many engaged individuals, my friend has found the wedding planning process to be quite a stressful one… Searching for the perfect attire, reserving the ceremony and reception venues, narrowing down the guest list, selecting the best food, cake, photographer, you name it…

Just the other day, this friend said to me: “I am so ready for the wedding to finally occur so that all of this tension will be past us and we can finally be done with this kind of stress in our lives… After the wedding, things will be so much easier and better. I’m so ready for this all to end.’”

These words may sound familiar to many of us who are or have been married, as we, too, may have felt the same way during the planning process of our own weddings. And yet, now that we are on the other side, we have likely come to realize that our weddings were not the endings to struggle and tension and that our marriages are not the “happily ever after’s” our fairy tales have told us they would be.

We have likely come to realize that rather than an ending, our wedding was a beginning. That as we joined with our partners in marriage on that special wedding day, we began the long, wonderful and also quite difficult journey that we have to continue to work at daily.

And this is also true for the gift of baptism.

As Mark states in the very first verse in chapter one, the baptism of Jesus is only: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

It is in Jesus’ baptism when he is commissioned for the wonderful and yet difficult work of ministry that is to follow. It is in his baptism when his journey of spreading the good news of God’s love to the world begins.

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And this is true for us, as well. As we come here today to celebrate the baptism of our Lord, Jesus Christ, we also are called to remember our own baptism. Because our baptism is not a means to an end. It is a means of grace and a means to a beginning.

In the ELCA, we talk a lot about being called to live out our baptisms. We do this by following the way of life and love Jesus has set as an example for us. We do this by proclaiming the good news of God who came into the flesh, died on the cross, and rose from the dead for each one of us. We proclaim this good news by learning about the story of God’s presence and work in and through us and by hearing about the story of God at work in the lives of others. In recalling our baptism, we are reminded that we are in God’s story and others are in God’s story, as well.

And in our baptisms, we are called to live out that story daily in word and in deed. We live out that story when we worship together here at Ebenezer Lutheran on Sunday mornings, when we care for our children, when we visit someone who is ill. We live out that story when we sit with a grieving friend, when we bring a meal to our homeless neighbors, when we stand with others in our communities to call out injustice.

Through us, God is at work in the world: As our ELCA motto says: “God’s work, our hands.”

Now, there may be times when we – like John the Baptist –wander in the wilderness and get lost in the chaos of our lives, wondering how we might ever be worthy of following Jesus and living this baptismal life we are called to.

And yet, just as Jesus showed up to John the Baptist in the midst of his own insecurities, when we get lost wandering in the chaotic wilderness and our lives seem to be falling apart, Jesus shows up to us, as well.

In these times when we feel overcome with self-doubt and fear, I think we can learn something from Martin Luther.  As he was held up for almost a year hiding away in Wartburg Castle and translating the New Testament from Greek to German, he found himself questioning his adequacy, wondering how he might ever be worthy of doing the ministry Jesus called him to. And it was during these moments of insecurity, when he would often be heard throughout the castle halls shouting: “I am baptized!”

In our own times of feeling inadequate to do the work Jesus has called us to, we should be heard shouting this, as well. For in our baptism, the same voice of God who cried out from the heavens to Jesus while he was being baptized in the Jordan River cried out to each one of us, as well, before we ever even began our faith journey:

“You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. With you, I am well pleased.”

In our baptism, we are claimed by our compassionate and merciful God – who loves us in and through all of our failures, our struggles, our doubts. In our baptism, we are called and welcomed into the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims – a Kingdom that is full of grace, forgiveness, and unconditional love. We are welcomed into this Kingdom of God, and nothing and no one can keep us from it. For, as Paul stated in his letter to the Romans: “not even death nor life, not even angels nor demons, not even the present nor the future, nor anything we have done or will do – can separate us from this love of God.”

When we celebrate the baptism of one of the members of Ebenezer Lutheran Church, we do this here in community. Because we are not expected to pursue this baptismal life alone. Rather, in Christ, we are called to live this baptismal life together. In Christ, we are called to join together as one family to help carry the burdens and share in the joys with one another that come as we continue to follow this wonderful and yet difficult journey of sharing this good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

And so as we come together this morning to celebrate the baptism of our Lord, Jesus Christ, let us also remember our own baptisms. Let us remember that each one of us here has been welcomed into the Kingdom of God – this loving family – and that each one of us is and will always be claimed by God as God’s beloved and cherished child. Because no matter what we do or say or think, in the midst of all of our fears, failures, and doubts, Jesus will keep on showing up to us, offering us God’s love and forgiveness whenever we are ready to accept it. And no matter how chaotic our lives may feel or how lost we may be in the wilderness, God’s voice will continue to be calling out to us:

“With you, I am well pleased.”

Amen.

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“A Message For Troubled Hearts” – Sermon for the funeral of my beloved Grandpa Wes

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Supper at Emmaus - He Qi

Supper at Emmaus – He Qi

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me…

‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. – John 14:1-6, 25-27

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As I was thinking about memories of my grandfather, Wesley, many of the memories that first came to my mind were times when our family shared meals together. The memories stuck out not necessarily because of the food – though because it was never cooked by Grandpa – the food was always wonderful. But these meals were special because they were always times where cherished conversations and storytelling took place.

The dinners were often shared at my Grandpa Wesley and Grandma Harriet’s home, with Grandpa at one end of the table, looking out quietly and smiling at his wonderful family he always said: “we were sure lucky to have.” But these meals also took place at my parent’s home, aunt Becky and uncle Lloyd’s home, or at a lovely picnic spot overlooking the Mississippi River at Eagle Point Park. And let’s not forget the meals that took place at the grandkid’s favorite birthday celebration location: Happy Joe’s Pizza.

But no matter the location, the same thing often occurred during these meals. The family would sit around sharing funny family stories – often the same ones over and over again that we all knew by heart… and that sometimes lasted for hours.

And with a group of pretty expressive Heitzmans – Grandpa Wes – the quiet one of the bunch – usually sat there listening, taking everything in, chiming in when he could, but most definitely smiling and giggling with the joyful twinkle in his eye that everyone knew him by.

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Though he was often quiet, anyone who knew Grandpa knows that he wasn’t quiet because he was disengaged. Rather, he was quiet because he absolutely enjoyed being with the family he loved.

And this is one of the greatest gifts Grandpa gave to those he encountered: the gift of truly being present with others.

This past August, much of the family had the opportunity to get together for one last meal at Eagle Point Park to celebrate my Grandpa Wes’ 92nd birthday and Grandma Harriet’s 90th birthday. We did not know at the time it would be our last supper there with Grandpa. But even still, we had a very special celebration.

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 Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not let them be afraid.

These are the words we hear from Jesus this morning in our reading from the Gospel of John.

Jesus says this to his disciples – his students and dear friends – during their last supper with him. Throughout the meal, Jesus has been dropping hints about having to leave them soon and no longer being physically present with them.

And so the disciples are a bit scared. They had left their homes and jobs to follow Jesus, had spent the past few years traveling with, learning from, and hanging out with him, and they no longer knew what life would look like without him. So now what are they supposed to do when their rabbi – their teacher – was to leave them? How were they supposed to continue to share the good news about God’s love through Jesus Christ without Jesus, himself? How would they know what to do when he was gone? And how on earth would they be able to get by without their dear friend, whom they loved?

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not let them be afraid.

Jesus’ words not only speak to the disciples, but they are also speaking to us today, as we sit here grieving Wesley, our beloved friend, uncle, father, father-in-law, grandfather, husband.

And yet, if I am honest with you and with myself, I can’t help but feel a little troubled. I can’t help but feel a little afraid.

Troubled that my Grandfather had gone so quickly – without more than a few month’s notice.

Afraid of what it will be like at family gatherings and holidays without him. Knowing it will not be the same.

My grandpa Wesley will be missed. Even family friends who barely knew him said in the last few days: “Wes made an impression on me. He was truly a gentleman. Wes was so hospitable. He was such a sweet and kind-hearted man.”

So how can any of us here who did know and love my Grandpa not feel a little bit troubled?

And yet, this is also a wonderful gift that we have. To be able to feel the love we do for such a wonderful man. To come here today in this place and to celebrate the beautiful life that Grandpa Wes did live and to know that we will not be the same because of him. To recall and cherish the lovely memories we have with him.

And to hold onto, emulate, and carry on the love that he shared and the legacy that he left this world with.

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…And boy, did he ever leave a legacy.

That Grandpa Wes of mine left a legacy that will always stand.

As a life-long Dubuquer, no matter how much he enjoyed traveling with his wife to places like Turkey, Singapore, Switzerland, Dubuque, Iowa was his favorite place to be. He loved it so much that he brought his beloved wife, Harriet, whom he met at Iowa State, back to share a life and start a family in.

He loved Dubuque so much that he had to come back to it with a grand entrance… One I’m not so sure Grandma Harriet was too excited about – as it definitely took her by surprise. When Grandpa, his father, and my grandmother were moving a piano from Spencer, IA to their new Dubuque home, they decided to place the piano in the back of a pick-up truck on top of several bails of hay. As they entered Dubuque, Grandma looked out the rear view mirror to see what had happened as she wondered why on earth a bunch of fire trucks were flying down the street with their sirens blaring… And as the trucks got closer and the sirens got louder, she soon came to realize that these trucks were actually following them… That these firefighters were there to put out the fire in the back of their pick up truck… A fire that was caused by our very own beloved Grandpa Wes, when he threw his cigarette out the window and it hit the bails of hay, setting them ablaze.

If Dubuquers did not already know the Heitzmans were moving back to town, they sure did then!

But little did any of these (probably now quite terrified) Dubuquers know that this very same Wesley Heitzman would also leave a legacy here in Dubuque that would make an impact on and be enjoyed by many generations to come.

As an architectural engineer in a long family line of builders, Grandpa developed a strong passion and love for building. Several years after moving to Dubuque, he, his brother, Don, and his father William started the highly respected Heitzman Construction Company and began their work of beautifying his favorite place in the world.

And did he ever beautify this city! From commercial and industrial projects to schools and buildings on the University of Dubuque campus, Grandpa created places where people will work, play, learn, and grow for many many years.

And Dubuquers have Grandpa Wes – along with his good friend Wayne Norman – to thank for saving the 4th street district buildings from being torn down when they decided to buy and refurbish many of them below and around the Cable Car. History in this town stands and will continue to be enjoyed by people for years to come because of the acts of love and care made by our dear Grandpa Wes.

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Our family has Grandpa Wes to thank, as well. Influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, Grandpa prided himself on using natural and quality materials when he built his lovely family home on Sunset Ridge, which encompasses so many cherished memories from our past and will house many more with the Heitzman family as Grandpa’s legacy continues to live on in it.

And as a life-long and dedicated member of Westminster Presbyterian Church – one who was baptized as an infant in its original downtown location – Grandpa was inspired to devote his time and energy to building this new church structure we are sitting in today. And as someone who had a deep love for God and for the people in this community, this became the project he was most proud of – even in his final years.

Yes, Grandpa Wes left a legacy in Dubuque that will stand for many generations. And we have received this gift from him: that we will always be connected to Grandpa in a special way whenever we drive past a building he built, take a ride on the Cable Car, worship at Westminster Presbyterian, or share a family meal together in the dining room at Sunset Ridge.

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Now, though Grandpa Wes was a very hard worker and made sure the work he did was always of the highest quality, he also made time for his family.

From picnics in the parks to annual family vacations in Chicago, Grandpa Wes loved spending quality time with his family. He took his children fishing and canoeing, he spent some time talking with his sons while they would watch him shave, and he often took his kids with him to the construction sites to show them around and allow them to play while he conducted inspections.

Grandpa attended his kids’ and grandkids’ sporting events, practices, and performances as much as he possibly could (even when they were out of town). He helped move his grandchildren when they relocated (and would often be seen with half of his body outside their apartment windows, scrubbing away, to ensure his grandchildren had the cleanest windows on the block.) He was even caught at his granddaughter’s new apartment at age 88 carrying boxes up two flights of steps.

Grandpa loved through his ears, his actions, and his generous heart. He always took his grandchildren aside and shoved a few 20 dollar bills in our pockets, insisting that we needed it for gas money. He took special care of Grandma when she broke her arm several years ago. He would give his daughter the keys to his Dodson Z when he and Grandma went on vacation because he knew how much Becky loved that car. And when he saw his daughter-in-law rock her first newborn back and forth with her body while sitting on the couch, he went to the store, bought a rocking chair, and had it dropped off at her home that Mother’s Day.

Grandpa Wes loved all of his family and was so proud of each and every one of them. I remember how excited he was when his granddaughter, Peili, was first adopted. He kept saying over and over again: “Boy, she’s such a great kid…” as he laughed in his regular sweet and quiet way. I knew that meant he immediately fell in love with her.

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Grandpa was also extremely proud to be a great-grandfather. He loved to hold all of his great-grandchildren – no matter their size. And he really enjoyed watching them play together – along with Peili – and tickle, tease, or wink at them through his glasses – when he could, while he smiled and giggled to himself in the most gentle way.

Grandpa found joy in the little things in life. His face lit up any time he was around dogs… especially Ducheous – the family dog – and Oscar, his god-dog. He enjoyed playing bridge and poker with his friends, card games with the family, and he loved to put together puzzles with his grandkids while eating oreos and listening to kid-friendly comedians on the cassette player out on the screened-in porch.

As many of you may know, though Grandpa was sweet and giving, he could also be quite stubborn… He was a Heitzman, after all. He would often be found on the roof cleaning the gutters… even in his late 80’s. And no matter how many times his children and grandchildren urged him to fly to his annual trip to Aspen, he insisted on taking a few extra days to drive. Though he loved spending time talking and singing hymns with his life-long friends when he and Grandma arrived in Colorado, those long drives with Grandma were always the highlight of the trip, he would tell us.

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Grandpa Wes was talented in many ways. He was a fantastic dancer and an impeccable dresser. He gave great back rubs, could fit large amounts of luggage into the back of a car when nobody else could, and his specialty was making his famous root beer floats whenever his grandchildren came to visit. One of the things he enjoyed most was zipping around Dubuque in his Dodson Z dressed in his black leather jacket and cap… Sometimes he enjoyed this so much that he’d drive right past his own kids while they were walking home from school, not even noticing they were there.

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Now during the last supper with his disciples, just before our reading in John, Jesus gets on his knees and begins to wash the disciples’ feet. The disciples were shocked and did not want him to do this, as the act of washing one’s feet was something that only a servant would do for a houseguest.

Yet, after he finished, Jesus said to them, “You call me Teacher and Lord. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Then a little later, he goes on to say: “I am with you only a little longer… [So] I give you a new commandment, just as I have loved you, so too, should you love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Here, Jesus is preparing his disciples for the fact that soon he will no longer be physically present with them on this earth. So he commands his disciples to follow him. To follow his way of life. A way that was full of compassion, service, and love for others.

And it is through the compassionate and loving acts of these disciples – when they do follow this way of life Jesus has set out for them – that others will – in fact – experience God’s love. In other words, Jesus is commissioning his disciples to continue Jesus’ ministry when he leaves this earth by being His hands and feet to the world. This is the way, the truth, and the life. This is how people will come to know and experience the love of God the Father.

I think St. Theresa of Avila explains it best: “Christ has no body now but yours.  No hands, no feet on earth but yours. 
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world. 
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
 Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world. 
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet. Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
 Christ has no body now but yours.”

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And this is exactly what I think of when I think of Grandpa Wes. Though he loved quietly, he always loved first with his ears and eyes and then through his hands and feet.

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not let them be afraid.

One of Jesus’ disciples – Simon Peter – can’t let go of the idea that Jesus will soon leave them. “Can’t I go, too? Can’t I follow you to God the Father?” – he insists just before our reading for today. “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now,” Jesus responds. “But you will follow me afterward… when it is time… Believe and trust in God. Believe and trust in me, also.

For in my Father’s house there are many rooms.”

After my cousin, Sandi, found out that Grandpa passed away, she posted a picture on facebook of Grandpa, his brother Don, sister Lois, and his parents. Under the picture, Sandi wrote: “All together again.”

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This is the hope and promise we have in Christ. While we know the tragedy that comes after Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, as he journeys toward his brutal death on the cross, we can have hope because we know what happens next. Jesus’ death is not the end of the story. It is only the beginning. Through his resurrection, Jesus conquers death and brings forth new life. And as children of God, and children of the resurrection, we – like Jesus – are promised this gift of the resurrection, as well. Like Jesus, we will be resurrected from the dead and given new life eternal with God and with one another.

Yes, in God’s house, there are many rooms. One for Simon Peter, Thomas, and the rest of the first disciples. One for Great-grandma, Great-Grandpa, Uncle Don, Aunt Lois. One for Grandpa Wes and for my Uncle Lloyd. One for me, and one for each one of you.

And yet, as Jesus says to the disciples, as we wait for our time to follow him to our God the Father, let us continue to follow his way of compassion, service, and love. Let us be Christ’s hands and feet, as Grandpa was, caring for one another – especially in times like these. And in those painful moments when we just don’t know how we might get by, let us remember that we are not alone. For the Holy Spirit, our Advocate, is always with us, teaching us, guiding us, and comforting us in our greatest times of need. And we know that Grandpa Wes is right alongside her as She does.

As Jesus says: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.

Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Do not let them be afraid.

Amen.