SERMON: 1 Epiphany C 1 13 19
You may have heard the one about the fellow who had been up all Saturday night drinking and was staggering home when he saw a crowd gathered by the river. He wandered over to where they were standing and the crowd turned to him and a man in a long white robe, standing in the river asked the man, "Would you like to find Jesus?"
Thinking if Jesus needed to be found he must be lost, the man thought he might be able to help. So he slurred, "Sure," and the man in the robe took his hand, walked him into chest-deep water, and pulled him under.
The man sputtered to the surface only to be asked, "Did you find Jesus?" and he could only shake his head. So the man in the robe dunked him again with the same result. So he dunked him a third time and when the man came sputtering up for breath and was asked, "Did you find Jesus?" he could only say, "Nope, I don't think he's down there."
That's certainly not a very enlightening story.
And it's not very kind to those traditions that use full immersion baptism in their baptismal rite.
Molly and I were in Israel a few years ago on a trip
led by a Presbyterian minister and a Jewish rabbi. We spent a fair amount of time at the Jordan River. One day we were driven to a development along the river which was basically baptism boot camp. Busloads of people were entering the spot and we saw one group of maybe a dozen, dressed in white robes, walking into the river to be re-baptized. Our Presbyterian leader observed facetiously, "Oh, my goodness, it's Six Flags over Jesus."
Baptism as an initiation rite is rather counterintuitive. Except, of course, that was what happened to Jesus himself. It was his official first appearance, courtesy of his cousin John.
It is perhaps difficult for us with our heated water and indoor plumbing to identify with the outdoor performance of the baptism rite. And we most definitely have trouble relating to people for whom water was a rare commodity.
The practical cleansing effect of water is easily recognizable. But the spiritual aspect of using water conveys much more about our dependence on God and God's generosity in creating a world with ample water.
Before we pour the water into the wine at the altar for Communion I pray, "We thank you Lord, for the gift of water." This comes from the baptismal rite and it conveys our need and our thanks.
It also carries us back in time to the baptism of Jesus. We can imagine being present then and witnessing Jesus praying after he was baptized, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove alighting on him, and a voice from above declaring, "You are my son the beloved, with you I am well-pleased."
We might react, as we've heard the story before, "Great! God is pleased with Jesus. Not terribly surprising." However we might want to take a moment to consider that when we were baptized the words were said over us, "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ's own forever."
In our post-Communion prayers we acknowledge that we are living members of Jesus, that is, part of him in this time. As such we might want to recognize that God at Jesus' baptism is speaking not just for that time but for all time and that in the course of time we have become living members of Christ our Lord.
You can probably see where I'm going here: at Jesus' baptism God expressed great pleasure at all the baptized as they have become living members of the God's eternal Son, Jesus Christ.
This idea was first presented to me when the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church came to New York and to the clergy of the diocese for a day of prayer and reflection just in advance of Andy Dietsche's ordination as bishop of our diocese. She challenged the clergy to consider the idea that God at Jesus' baptism was speaking to all of us. I have since then found myself considering this concept. And I have been considering it on my own behalf and on your behalf.
Because there is some significance to this idea and there is much to recommend it. If God is well pleased with us then we can delight in that. But what I think is going on is God is expressing pleasure in direct proportion to our ability to live into our membership as part of the Body of Christ. God is endorsing our fidelity to Jesus' teaching and earthly life and our understanding of and acceptance of Christian doctrine. But God is certainly not endorsing our lapses, our shortcomings, our forgetfulness or our faithlessness.
So on the one hand this idea of God being pleased with us is most warm and cuddly. On the other, it leads us to acknowledge we're not always engaged as God would have us be engaged. But ultimately it's a grand and glorious thing, because it helps us remember how we want to live, even as we are not managing to do so in a given moment. And we know God loves us even as we fall short of being well pleasing.
I came to understand unconditional love by the way my parents dealt with me in my less orderly days. I was an unruly youngster, yet after every mess, after every misdeed or mishap, it was my dad who always said to me that he loved me, no matter what. This did not reduce the sting of my poor decisions but it allowed me to feel the grace of being accepted regardless. And when the notion of a God with unconditional love for me was brought to my attention in my adulthood, I felt I knew what that meant.
I mentioned this at my dad's funeral in 2005. In fact that was the first funeral I had ever conducted and I felt I had been preparing my dad's eulogy my whole life. I offered my thoughts on unconditional love which you just heard and after the service my brother, who was better behaved than I was, or more discreet, or both, said he'd not heard that.
Now I know we're dealing today with baptism and not the Prodigal Son, but I think it is significant that the errant one gets the vital message. And I think we should all consider that as we deal with the people in our lives and love them, no matter what.
We are remembering today the baptism of Jesus. When we come to that point of the service during which we recite the Nicene Creed, today we will instead recite the baptismal covenant. The covenant contains the creedal phrases that are so familiar but also ties to our memories the five commitments we often call the job description of a Christian.
Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
These are the things we do which cause God to be well pleased with us. Let us remember that the covenant we have made and remake today is not something we offer to God in exchange or in remuneration for anything God has done for us. This covenant has far greater value. Because a covenant is offered without countermeasure. We desire and we expect nothing back. Our covenant is to do these things because we are grateful and we are trying every day to live our lives in a manner which leaves God well pleased. Amen
A sermon preached Dec. 13, 2019, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector