On this First Sunday after Epiphany, we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, when Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River. This is a remarkable occasion, not only because of the miraculous signs that accompanied it (see Sunday’s Gospel reading in Mark 1:4-11), but because it marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to proclaim God’s reign in word and deed. This Sunday is a time for us also to consider the meaning of our own baptism. Since we have been created in God’s very image (Genesis 1:27), in baptism we are re-created in God’s image through the power of the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus received the commission to witness to others through words and actions, so we too are commissioned to spread God’s all-inclusive kingdom through our words and works of love toward others.
This week our choir will sing a contemporary gospel/jazz-style hymn “I’m going on a journey.” The Christian life begins at baptism with Christ’s wet mark on the individual but matures with the community’s support and nurture. God’s grace is in constant motion. Appropriately, the tune for “I’m going on a journey” is called WET SAINTS.
Kenneth Larkin (1929-2011), a Lutheran minister, wrote the words for “I’m going on a journey” for the consecration of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York City in 1978. The hymn was written not for the dedication of a brick-and-mortar building, but rather for a rededication of the people. During the singing of the hymn, a water pipe to the baptismal font broke. So there really were some “wet saints” that day as the congregation tiptoed through the water.
The tune WET SAINTS was composed for this hymn by Edward Bonnemere (1921-1996). In addition to being a part-time cocktail lounge pianist, he was a jazz musician, teacher, lecturer, and composer, who often worked with Count Basie and Duke Ellington. His Missa Hodierna (1966) was the first jazz mass to be used in a Roman Catholic Church. For thirty years he led the jazz ministry at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. When Virginia and I lived in northern New Jersey, we were able to attend several jazz services at St. Peter’s, and Eddie Bonnemere was at the piano. Talk about uplifting and Spirit-filled!
St. Peter’s Lutheran Church has an interesting history. The church was begun by German-speaking New Yorkers in 1862. The fast-growing congregation constructed a large Gothic-style building in 1905 at Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street. But by the 1960s St. Peter’s congregation had dwindled. Rather than closing up shop, its members unanimously adopted the statement that “we must neither fear nor avoid our mission, but must strive to bring a witness to this city.”
Citibank had been eyeing the valuable piece of property that St. Peter’s occupied, and in 1970 made them an offer that they couldn’t refuse. The congregation sold the building to Citibank for $9 million and made a condominium agreement. The 1905 structure was torn down, and Citibank incorporated a church building at the street-level of their new 59-story office tower. St. Peter’s has developed a ministry that reaches far beyond the Sunday morning congregation. In addition to its jazz offerings, the church also has thriving arts, drama, and social ministries programs. Once we can travel again and if your journey ever takes you to midtown Manhattan, head over to 53rd and Lexington to see a unique worship space and baptismal font.
I’m going on a journey, and I’m starting today. My head is wet, and I’m on my way.
Christ’s mark is on me; it’s on you, too; God says he loves me, and he loves you, too!
I’m becoming this day a saint of God. It really doesn’t matter what roads I trod.
Wherever I go, God’s been there, too. God’s love has touched me and will carry me through.
There are other saints who have said amen. They’ll keep me faithful to my journey’s end.
Along the way, I want to be the kind of person that God set free.