January 10, 2016 Baptism of our Lord – things left unfinished, stories left untold

I remember the day Caitlyn was born. In fact, Caitlyn remembers the day she was born, not in her own memories but in the story of that day that we told her one time and that she then asked to have told to her again and again until she was about nine.

It began with a trip to the coffee shop as so many of our days begin but this was after quite the Midwestern blizzard and we weren’t sure if they’d be open or not, but really, we just wanted to get outside for a while. Water broke, plans changed and we found ourselves at Abbott Northwestern hospital where, quite a few hours later, Caitlyn was born.

No that’s not the whole story, but part of the charm for Caitlyn I think, was hearing about all of the little things, the run up the stairs to ask a friend who just happened to live above the coffee shop if we could borrow a towel to keep the seat in the car from getting soaked. The trip to the hospital taking very little time because Daddy knew all the back ways since the coffee shop was near the seminary and the hospital was near the house and I drove that route a thousand different ways over the years.

Caitlyn liked to hear all of the weird little details, like how I walked back from the apartment where we were living to the hospital with the bag we had packed in advance, how we brought a lamp from home because Debbie and I like to do crossword puzzles in bed and the lamp would be comforting and familiar. She liked to hear that we decided not to go to visit Uncle Len and Aunt Karen in Sioux Falls for this very reason, that we thought she might come a few days early and she’d be delivered on the highway somewhere.

There are a thousand little details about that story and they are all just a little charming, just a little personal and they make that the very personal story of Caitlyn and how she came to be a big part of our lives.

Everyone has those stories, those moments when circumstance met love met random accident met joy and a story is born and those of us who tell stories for a living keep those things logged away in our heads and we use them at times like this to illustrate with personal details something that happens to everyone, like being born.

I sometimes wish that my parents had done the same. I have no narrative other than I know that I was born in the base hospital at the Portsmouth Naval Air Station in Maine because my father was training to be an Air Force weatherman there during his service with the Air Force.

But that’s what I know. Just that.

As a story teller, that is a little unsatisfying. That is a dry mine, nothing to extract from that extremely important part of my life and so that moment is practically in black and white in my mind, just facts one a page where we have done our best to color in the pages of Caitlyn’s memory of that day, all of it in her imagination of course, you don’t start forming memories on your first day of life, but still it is a tapestry and not a data point, a picture and not a sentence.

In fact, we’ve tried to tell her the stories of a lot of things. It helps that Debbie and I are that rare, almost extinct kind of person who cares about the genealogy and history of their family. This is no indictment on anyone else but it seems like people with this particular fascination only come along every two or three generations, usually only after someone has given Great Grandma Elvestrom’s wedding china to the Church Bazaar or some such tragedy of family history.

But we are the ones who love those stories, heck we even have a story of why we didn’t name Caitlyn what we didn’t name her, and what we would have named her if she had been a boy instead of coming out perfect like she did. We tell the story of how our ancestors lived and how they died and what they loved and what they left us as guideposts, what they left us in their genes, what they left us in their attics.

We are the ones who weave the stories of who we are and where we came from and then we tell the stories so that people might come to know us and what it is that makes us tick, so to speak.

It isn’t really a trick, anyone can do it, but you have to care about the subject matter which has always fascinated me because what subject matter does anyone nowadays care about more than themselves? You’d think people would be lining the streets shouting their stories at passing cars. Oh wait, that is what they do, it’s called Twitter.

But in the ancient world it was the way that people used to communicate. Before there was television to flood our minds with entertainment you’d have to read the letter from Aunt Mabel again and imagine what her Blueberry Pie tasted like and think of the sweater she knitted you back when you all lived in Iowa, and how good the milk tasted when you went to visit her and Uncle Earl on the farm.

Stories would weave and unweave themselves in your mind because you had to keep them alive there, had to keep imagining them so that they would not disappear from your memory entirely. Nowadays I can just pick up the phone and call Aunt Mary and talk for as long as I want because I have unlimited Long Distance. In the world before, it was the distance that was unlimited, and sometimes a loved one would cross the horizon on a journey and you would never see them again, never hear from them again, and suddenly the story of them was all that there was and so that story became precious.

I think that we have lost something from those days. We’ve certainly lost the memory capacity it took to hold alive all of the relatives who had moved away from sight. Why bother remembering stuff when you can write it down and keep it forever? Why bother learning stuff when you can just look it up? I actually heard an education scholar say we might be getting to a point of post-education society where we no longer need to know things because the information will be so easily accessible. Sounds interesting, but I’ll take a doctor who actually knows things instead of one who has to look them up, thank you very much.

But we’ve also lost the ability to tell the story. Like any muscle it had grown weak from lack of use. We don’t tell the stories of our ancestors, our relatives, how my great grandfather was killed when, in what would now be called dementia, he wandered out of his house, down the tracks to where he used to work, and was struck by one of the very trains he has spent his lifetime tending, repairing and laying track for, how, in other words, he had followed the routines of his life in order to find his way home.

But you cannot forensically describe the love of God in cold and calculating terms. Actually you can describe the love of God in cold and calculating terms, but that is theology and not preaching, not ministry at all and nobody has ever come to faith, I am fairly well certain, by a good, logical, meaningful theological explanation of substitutionary atonement. You can reduce the Word to merely words on paper but it takes a story for faith to flow.

Romans 10:17 says that faith comes through what is heard and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.

Black and white data points will not do the trick, you need a story.

How else could you tell someone that God loves them more than God loves pretty much anything else in creation? More than nations, more than peoples, it is a personal love for you as the individual that you are unless you could weave the words together and paint a picture like “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. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Sheba in exchange for you. 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. Do not fear, for I am with you.”

Those words have potency because they are not just a litany of God’s love, not just a promise of God’s love, but a picture, painted in hope and joy of the breadth of that love, an image you can hang onto and hold close, safety and protection, as of a mother hen, as of a mother’s love, something we can feel on our skin and not just in our heads.

What story do you carry about the blessings you have received? When was the last time you told it to anyone? Have you invested that story with the joy and love that you yourself felt when you realized that God had given so much for you to be free, for you to find a home and a family greater and more wonderful than you thought possible?

It’s okay if you haven’t. It is actually harder than you might think, just ask the folks who so willingly share their blessings with us all on those Sundays when I am absent.

But ask them how good it feels to be able to shape the words of the promise and the fulfillment of that promise with your own mouth, to speak and have truth hang in the air before you, God’s own word going out into the world.

The words fit into our mouths the way that they do because we were made to speak them, they were made to be spoken by us, we were made for each other.

I remember Caitlyn’s baptism just as vividly. I remember mine as well because I was in my thirties when it happened. But I remember Maddie’s and Addie’s and Christian and Sam and Jonathan and Evan and Noah and all the way back to William Lantz, the first baptism I did here. There are many more but they are each of them special. I can tell you a story about each of them.

But then I am a professional; which is no excuse for you to not think about the stories of your life, the stories of your faith that have made you who you are. Faith comes through hearing and hearing only happens if someone speaks.

If you think that you cannot speak, that you are too shy just think about the story that you hear in this place all the time . . .


This is the only thing left of the Sermon, I don’t know what happened, but this part s pretty good anyway.


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