The Ineffective Power of Baptism

*This week, our community will participate together in R&Bs first official baptism, which is a ritual that may be foreign to many. Part of our DNA is to inspect, dissect, and rebuild traditions, and in that spirit, here's a little primer on what baptism might mean:

The Ineffective Power of Baptism

Like a lot of religious stuff, baptism is odd. Therein lies the secret of its beauty and power. Baptism is done once and only once. It doesn’t in fact “do” anything. Unlike communion where we return over and over to practicing community with God and others, sprinkling or dunking someone in water is a sheer, unnecessary plunge into what is just straight up given to us.

If we get too worried about what it all “means,” we get it backwards. Then it becomes “I need to go through a ritual with this specific meaning in order to get a spiritual payoff.” But the whole point of baptism is that no action, no process, can make us worthy of love. The glaring ineffectiveness of the make-believe washing reminds us of the “here it is” quality of God’s love for us. It’s a subversion of an actual cleansing, which would imply that we need to be buffed up and polished before deserving total love.

The gathered community is also central to baptism. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are entering into a commitment with the person being baptized, to reflect in our own imperfect ways the same love we are coming to know and trust. We are for one another a real, radical, tangible, day-to-day reminder of God’s overflowing, surging, sustaining love.


Could've Moved Mountains

Could’ve Moved Mountains: A sermon series on faith, doubt, and moving mountains. 
September 2015

“Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Mark 11: 22-24

Is there some sort of relationship between faith, doubt, and things coming to pass? Jesus’ remarks here makes it seem pretty straight forward: have lots of faith, do not doubt, and the craziest impossible things will happen. Yet the straight forwardness of this formula is deceptive. It contains an almost, if not totally, impossible standard. Is it not laid out in such a manner that one could never argue against it? For if whatever it is we want does not come to pass, than surely we must’ve doubted. Or perhaps we were looking at the wrong mountain. Or the mountain is metaphor. Or what you thought was a mountain was no mountain. So we seem to always have ready to hand a quick response and an easier dismissal. A Jesus taken out of context, a failure of translation, a literary allusion to a foregone prophecy not meant to be taken literally—or, perhaps, a Jesus that is just wrong.

But we have mountains to move do we not? There is the possibility of resigning ourselves to our own efforts and limits, and there is the risk of taking on an impossible task. No answer can be given here but join us as we try to figure it out. 


Holy Saturday - I Meet You

‘I meet you. I remember you. Who are you? You destroy me. You’re so good for me.’ This is what elle says to lui in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) after he accuses her of having no memory and so no idea of what it is to forget or not forget. Elle is a French actor making an anti-war movie in Japan just after the war. Lui is an architect and a veteran, elle merely a tourist. What does their 36-hour love affair amount to? ‘You destroy me. You’re so good for me. Plenty of time. Please. Take me. Deform me, make me ugly.’ A confrontation...


Holy Friday - Separation


From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.

The Psalmist 

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
    and by night, but find no rest...



Holy Thursday - The Last Meal

Mark 14:12-26

On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.


Learning a New Language

Learning a foreign language is hard, especially after we've lost the soft, squishy brains of our early childhood.

Religion can be usefully compared to a language not only because it also is made up of a particular vocabulary and can be found in books, but because each religion comes with its own grammar and patterns of use - an unspoken underlying structure that determines HOW the religion is put to use in our daily lives, and thus how our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are ordered, put together, and made meaningful - something other than a jumble.



The killing of Michael Brown and the lingering, malignant racism in our country that has led to such agonized and powerful feelings of justice not being served point to an undeniable reality that hurts all of us and that demands a response from our community.

That reality includes but is much bigger than the question about whether the officer who shot Michael Brown had valid reason to fear for his life. In a sense it doesn’t really matter what you think about the reliability of eyewitness accounts or the way the investigation and grand jury proceeding went down. What is impossible to ignore in the ghastly light of the violent death of another young, unarmed black man and its affect on the people of Ferguson is the following:

1. There are entrenched, gaping, racial and economic divides in our society.

2. Violence is bound up with those divides, both as a result of them and as a means of enforcing them.

 3. The mere fact that reactions to the decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson have been so different in the black and white communities is proof of a wide gulf that separates the experiences of those groups.  Lets get biblical with our language here. There are those whose realities are shaped by powers and principalities most of us don’t ever see.  There are forces of darkness that most people in this country are privileged to ignore. To deny this experience isn’t a sign of greater enlightenment, it is a sign of arrogance born of self-righteousness. 


Asian God-Man

At Techny Towers, a retreat center in Techny, Illinois, there resides a collection of paintings depicting various scenes from the New Testament and Jesus’ life. The interesting (great? bizarre?) thing about these paintings is that everyone is Chinese, including Jesus! All the characters are drawn wearing traditional Chinese clothing, sporting fu manchus, and just looking so so dope. Here is a website I found depicting “Chinesus.” 

When I first saw these paintings, I laughed. A lot. I had never before seen an Asian Jesus. Black Jesus, white Jesus, lego Jesus, but for whatever reason, it never occurred to me that there could also be a Jesus who looked like me. The more I looked at those paintings, I started liking them more and more. Why not an Asian Jesus? We here too! 


Strangers into Neighbors

I was sitting outside a room full of ministers, waiting for my turn to be examined for my fitness to enter the long process of maybe one day becoming one myself.

My wise friend and mentor, Michael, who had accompanied me to the meeting, pulled out his early generation smartphone and slowly loaded a YouTube video. He held out the phone in front of me.

It was of Mr. Rogers.


Hope Grammar

At a recent panel discussion, I got to hear four men nearing retirement reflect back on their lives.  They all came of age in the 1960s, so they couldn’t tell their stories without mentioning the anti-war protests, marches for racial equality, community organizing for social justice.  One guy even dropped out of graduate school to study “alternative education” in Mexico, only to return to the States and got a job as a factory worker with hopes of radicalizing the labor force.


Easter Words

It’s ironic that Easter is for many people the one day of the year they feel compelled to go to church, because the event that Easter is meant to commemorate is one of the most perplexing and difficult to understand ones the Christian tradition talks about.

Because of the presence of the “masses,” I could imagine it would be tempting for many ministers to say something accessible about resurrection, hoping to cast the net as wide as possible. For example, seeing resurrection as a metaphor for all the little moments of rebirth in life, from budding trees to new jobs to breakthroughs in stuck relationships. All obviously huge and important things, but not necessarily challenging to the way we tend to already look at the world.


Power to the People

Every 10th grade world history student learns that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In Game of Thrones, power is that luminous jewel that makes kings of those who have it and servants of those who don’t. In Ukraine, power comes in the form of Russian soldiers protecting “national interests”.  On Wall Street, power shows up in Italian suits and capitalism’s “invisible hand” that, besides turning the gears of globalization, also tends to buy those I-bankers ever more Italian suits.


Trust the Hunch

Yesterday I went to a massive celebration of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. The point was not only to honor the victories of the civil rights movement, but also to remind us of what needs to be done right now to bend the “moral arcs” of our communities toward greater racial and economic justice.

In his struggle, MLK, along with so many others, beautifully linked the racial divisions in our country with the tradition of prophetic critique in the Bible, which called out the sad human tendency toward injustice in the name of something better. The Hebrew prophets called that something better God’s justice, or righteousness, or “ways” – a radical claim that something at the core of not only our selves but also the universe itself “wants” there to be less meanness in human affairs. In the Gospels it’s called the “Kingdom of God,” a phrase that rings weird today but signifies a surprising reordering of things – where something lovelier than might makes right. King called it the Beloved Community.


Happy New Year from Root and Branch Church

While it is customary to begin the new year with hopes and promises of things to come (maybe this is the year I’ll be able to grow facial hair!), lets look back for a minute to 2013.

The end of the year is my favorite time to assess and give thanks (sorry Thanksgiving…you are about food).  A year ago Root & Branch Church wasn’t around. It was merely an idea about a community that would try and figure out how to live better lives, help others live better lives, and do so by exploring this old, sometimes problematic, often beautiful religious tradition (you can read more about all that here).  It was a hope for a space where people could eat together, sing/hear non-whack songs, and find some reprieve.