Sunday, January 8, 2012
Baptism of Our Lord
Genesis 1.1-5; Mark 1.4-1
+ There are few things that I love more than when people start talking about all the great things happening here at St. Stephen’s. And let me tell you, they have been talking. Just this past week I was asked by some—from another churches:
“So…what’s the secret of the current success at St. Stephen’s?”
I’m usually pretty baffled by that question. It seems to assume there’s some great, well-thought-out plan. The fact is, there isn’t any grand, well-thought-out plan. At least, not on my part.
But, I think it’s a good question, and it’s good for us to think about it. It’s good for us to ponder it and to delve deeply and honestly into the why we are doing so well here. I think I personally am not able to articulate what’s happening.
But, this past week, I came across a wonderful quote by one of the best spiritual writers out there right now, the Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor, who, I would say, does a pretty good job of articulating what’s going on. Taylor writes:
“When I hear people talk about what is wrong with organized religion, or why their mainline churches are failing, I hear about bad music, inept clergy, mean congregations, and preoccupation with institutional maintenance. I almost never hear about the intellectualization of faith, which strikes me as a far greater danger than anything else on the list. In an age of information overload, when a vast variety of media delivers news faster than most of us can digest--when many of us have at least two email addresses, two telephone numbers, and one fax number--the last thing any of us needs is more information about God. We need the practice of incarnation, by which God saves the lives of those who intellectual assent has turned as dry as dust, who have run frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know God in their bodies. Not more about God. More God.”
More God. I think she nails it on the head with that.
I have found from many of our new members, this is one of this things (along with our open acceptance and our strong peace-and-social justice stance) that they love about St. Stephen's— a strong sense of spirituality backed up by action, in other words (i.e. rather than talking about worship of God and ministry, we are worshipping and doing ministry): We do that very well here.
And we also realize that we are all searchers after God here. In other words, what’s happening here is more than just social. We are more than just a social-justice organization. Any of us can find social-justice organizations out there, and they probably do social-justice better than we can any day.
And we are more than a church that intellectualizes out search for God. We don’t just sit around talking about God and pondering God.
We, at St. Stephen’s, put our money where our mouth is, so to speak. Rather than just talking about God, we actually worship here. We worship here in the liturgy—in our encounter with Christ in our Eucharist—and we encounter God in the music we sing. We, more talking about worship, actually worship here. God is real to us because we truly experience God here.
And we more than just talk about social justice here. We actually do it. But we do it not because it’s the popular thing to do or because we are pressured by society of the Church. We do it because it stems from that real Presence of God we experience here. We do it because our relationship with God compels us to go out and do ministry.
In other words, what we do here is we, by our worship, by our ministry, by what we do, by what we have been conditioned to do to some extent by our very baptisms, is help God in bringing God into the our midst. We are further the Kingdom of God. We—on this first Sunday of Epiphany—are in fact helping that epiphany of Christ in our midst.
This past Wednesday we commemorated the Feast of the Epiphany, which occurred on Friday. Epiphany is a beautiful feast, though I think it’s a bit anti-climactic, following Christmas. At our Wednesday night Mass, I shared some thoughts from Fr. John-Julian, an Episcopal priest and a member of the Order of Julian of Norwich in Wisconsin. He started out, in his talk, by reminding us that this word, Epiphany, comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, which means, “manifestation” or “showing forth”. He then went on to explain that the Epiphany commemorates four manifestations of Christ in his life:
1) The adoration of Shepherds at the manger in Bethlehem, which we commemorated essentially on Christmas Eve
2) The Visit of the Magi or the Three Kings, which is very much the traditional understanding of what Epiphany is.
3) Jesus baptism by John the Baptists in the River Jordan, which we commemorate this morning.
And 4) Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.
In today’s Gospel reading, we find what Fr. John-Julian and many other Christian thinkers call a Theophany. Theophany means “A manifestation of God”, but today we see it in a very profound way. We actually find the very Trinity—Father, Son and holy Spirit—being revealed—the Father, in the voice that proclaims, “You are…my Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” the Son in the flesh of Jesus and the Holy Spirit as the dove that descends upon Jesus.
It is an incredible event—in the lives of those first followers and in our lives as Christians as well. Here the standard is set. In this moment, it has all come together. In this moment, it is all very clear how this process is happening. Here the breakthrough has happened.
For us it’s important because we too are still experiencing the benefits of that event. From now on, this is essentially what was spoken to each of us at our own baptisms:
“You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
For most of us, we have no doubt taken for granted our baptisms, much as we have taken for granted water itself.
Yes, I know: I preach a lot about baptism. And I don’t just mean that I preach a lot about how much I like doing baptisms. I preach often about how important each of our baptisms are to us because they are important. In a sense what happened at Jesus’ baptism happened at our baptisms as well. And when we realize that, we also realize that Baptism is THE defining moment in our lives as Christians.
Whether we remember the event or not, it was the moment when our lives changed. It was the moment we became new. It was, truly, our second birth.
I am so happy that we do something as simple as commemorate our baptisms here at St. Stephen’s. I asked early last year for many of you to search out the dates of your baptisms. And you did. And we remember those dates in our prayers here in the Eucharist each Sunday. I like to encourage people to find out the date of their baptism.
Of course, as you know, I always look for a reason to celebrate, but baptism anniversaries are truly great opportunities to celebrate.
I often reference my best friend from high school, Greg. As you know, he is a die-hard atheist. Well, I did manage to find out the date of his baptism—July 16—and, much to his chagrin, the poor man receives a baptism anniversary card on his baptism anniversary. Whether or not he appreciates it is not really the most important thing. The important thing is that, even despite his atheism, which I actually respect and, in a very real way, understand, he still belongs to Christ. He was marked by Christ in his baptism for all eternity. And nothing he—or anyone else can do—can change that.
That’s why I think Baptism is so very radical. In our current Prayer Book this bond is probably best defined. After the Baptism, when the priest traces a cross on the newly baptized person’s forehead, she or he says, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”
This is essential to our belief of what happens at baptism. In baptism, we are all marked as Christ’s own. For ever. It is a bond that can never be broken. We can try to break it as we please. We can struggle under that bond. We can squirm and resist it. We can try to escape it. But the simple fact is this: we can’t. For ever is for ever.
No matter how much we may turn our backs on Christ, Christ never turns his back on us. No matter how much we try to turn away from Christ, to deny Christ, to pick Christ apart and make Christ something other than who he is, Christ never turns his back on us. Christ never denies us.
What Baptism shows us, more than anything else, is that we always belong to Christ. It is shows us that Christ will never deny us or turn away from us. It shows us that, no matter what we might do, we will always be Christ’s. Always. For ever.
In this way, Baptism is truly the great equalizer. In those waters, we are all bathed—no matter who we are and what we are. We all emerge from those waters on the same ground—as equals. And, as equals, we are not expected to just sit around, hugging ourselves and basking in the glow of the confidence that we are Christ’s own possession. As equals, made equal in the waters of baptism, we are then compelled to go out into the world and treat each others as equals.
And that’s what we do well here at St. Stephen’s. For us, Baptism is not some quaint dedication ceremony. It is the event that still provokes us and compels us to go out into the world and make a difference in it. Our baptism doesn’t set us apart as a special people above everyone else. It forces us out into the world to be a part of the world and, by doing so, to transform the world.
So, in those waters of baptism, something incredible happened for us. We went into those waters one person, and emerged from those waters as something else completely. It was an incredible moment in our lives, just as it was in the life of Jesus, who led the way and showed us that Baptism was an incredible outpouring of God’s love and light into our lives.
So, with this knowledge of how important it is, let us each take the time to meditate and think about our own baptisms and the implications this incredible event had and still has in our lives. When you enter this church, and when you leave it, pay attention to the baptismal font in the narthex and the blessed water in it. Touch that water, bless yourselves with it, and when you do, remember you do so as a reminder of that wonderful event in your life which marked you forever as Christ’s very own. And let that water be a reminder to you that you are called to go now from this church and from this Eucharist we have shared in, to love.
To love, full and completely. To realize that we are equally loved by God—no matter who we are or what we are.
And as we go from here, let us listen for those words—those beautiful, lulling words—that is spoken to each of us, with love and acceptance:
“You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”