Now well into my second year on the Bishop's staff, the biggest difference I've noticed from parish ministry is that I tend to be "everywhere but nowhere." As my old Methodist friends say, I'm an itinerant preacher now. But this is a little bit less true at All Saints in Worcester - my spiritual home when I am not called to be somewhere else. It's the place where my spouse worships regularly and for most of Advent and Christmas I had the opportunity to join her in the pews. That's been a welcomed experience for me. And they have been searching for a new rector, so I've had a close relationship with them through this process of transition. Now that we are in the season after Epiphany, today and twice more in early February, I'll be in the pulpit and behind the altar at All Saints. My ministry is itinerant, but All Saints is starting to feel a lot like home, for which I'm deeply grateful. Today the Church celebrates The Baptism of Our Lord - and at All Saints we'll also baptize Nora Jane at 10 a.m. One Lord. One Faith. One Baptism.
Perhaps some of you here subscribe, as I do, to “Brother, Give Us a Word” – a daily on-line meditation from the monks at the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge. A little over a week ago one of the words for the twelve days of Christmas came from Brother Curtis, “Presence.” Here is what that little tweet-sized post said about “Presence:”
If this Christmastide you are asking the question, maybe desperately, whether God is with you, I suggest you rephrase the question. The question is not whether God is with you, but how is God with you?
Today is the first Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany. That word, epiphany, comes from two Greek words epi-phanos: literally “to shine forth.” These six Sundays from now until Ash Wednesday invite us to ponder the mystery of the Incarnation and the ways that God-with-us isn’t something that happened a long time ago in Palestine, but is still true today. Not whether God is with us, but how: as light that shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it. To pay attention to how God is being made manifest among and through us even now. To pay attention to the ways that God is made manifest not just inside the stone walls of this beautiful church but out on the streets of Worcester.
So hold that thought – we have six weeks to reflect on it. And it will be my great privilege to be back here twice more in February, so I’ll have lots more to say.
But for today, this first Sunday after Epiphany is called the Baptism of our Lord. The name is pretty self-explanatory, and today’s gospel reading is pretty straightforward: Jesus comes from Galilee to the Jordan River where he’s baptized by John. Soon after, his public ministry begins. We heard this same gospel (basically the same) just one month ago—on the Second Sunday of Advent. Since then, a month has passed: same text, but a new context, a new preacher, a new year. Now the shepherds have gone back to their flocks and the angelic choristers are back in the heavenly choir room, and the wisemen, after leaving their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh have gone home by another way. Most of our trees have been chipped and our crèches have been packed up and put back into their boxes until next year. New Year’s resolutions have been made, and a few have not yet been broken.
So on this first Sunday after the Epiphany—this Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord—we return to these verses from the first chapter of Mark for another look. This time our focus is less on John the Baptizer, out there preparing the way in the wilderness, and more on the One who comes to be baptized by him in the Jordan River. And that Voice, speaking from the heavens:
You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
We are invited on this day to hear these same words spoken to us. It is no “Messiah complex” to do so, but God’s deepest yearning as a Parent that we hear—and believe—these words. You are my Son. You are my Daughter. You are my Child, my beloved and with you I am well pleased. If Holy Baptism unites us with Christ—and of course that is exactly what it does—then I believe we are meant to hear these words addressed to each of us by name. As we celebrate the Baptism of Nora Jane today, and remember our own baptisms - whether they happened in this font or at another font in another church, or in a river; whether the liturgy was Roman Catholic or Episcopal or Baptist – it’s all the same. One Lord. One faith. One baptism.
|At the Jordan River five years ago, renewing Baptismal Vows|
Before anything else—before we can take up our crosses and before we can serve others or even attempt to live the ethics of Jesus—we need to soak in these words. They represent a pretty radical claim in a culture that treats us first and foremost as consumers, insisting that our identity is dependent upon the clothes we wear or the car we drive or the college we attend or the salary we take home. It represents the beginning of the faith journey and a Word we need to return to again and again in our lives. You are my child, my beloved…and I’m crazy about you.
Before moving to diocesan ministry I spent two decades as a parish priest. If I learned anything at all from that work it is this: a lot of people struggle with self-image. Even those whom you might think on the outside have it all together very often struggle with wounds that go deep and are not easily observable to the naked eye. Even those who live in the biggest houses or drive the fanciest cars have a story - and no matter how privileged our lives may appear on the outside, most of us are our own worst enemies on the inside. Old tapes sometimes continue to play decades after we’ve thrown away our cassette players, tapes that remind us that we aren’t good enough or thin enough or smart enough to be loved.
Please don’t mishear me: I do not believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ should ever be reduced to the power of positive thinking. Nor do I think that the gospel is the religious equivalent of “I’m ok, you’re ok.” But it is always—at the beginning and at the end—about God’s abiding love and affection for us. You are God’s beloved: male, female, transgender; young, middle-aged, old; gay, straight, or not sure; conservative, moderate or liberal, black or brown or white. Did we miss anybody? God is crazy about you. Jesus loves the little children of the world; all the children of the world. And calls us by name…
That love isn’t earned. It doesn’t require perfection. I think that’s where our theology can go askew very quickly. I love my wife and my two kids with all my heart. But it wouldn’t take me long to make a list of their shortcomings. And I know this: it would take even less time for them to make a list of mine. When we love someone, we don’t just love them in spite of who they are. We love them for who they are. We don’t just tolerate the wounded places, because each of us is a package deal. If a person is outgoing and gregarious, then there is always a shadow that sometimes she will be overbearing. If a person is quiet and reserved, there is always a shadow that sometimes he will become withdrawn. All of us have those shadow sides. There’s just no getting around that; it’s at the core of our humanity. It’s what being flesh and bones is all about.
But think about it: we don’t just love someone on the good days when they conform to our image of what we want them to be. We love them for better and for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer. Our human love is a reflection of the divine love for each of us and God’s love is deeper and broader still. It isn’t: “I’ll love you when you stop drinking or smoking” or “I’ll love you if you lose fifteen pounds” or “I’ll love you as soon as you stop that annoying habit…” or lose that tic. God loves us from before our births and beyond our deaths and in every moment in between and nothing in heaven or on earth can separate us from that love. “You are God’s beloved.”
What I think happens to us when we are truly loved in that way and we risk soaking it in, is that we desire to grow and learn and soften the hard edges toward growth in the full stature of Christ. We don’t need to become perfect in order to be loved; but exactly the opposite—because we are already loved, we want to be better. We want to reciprocate that love. And we want to share it.
The beginning of faith is about hearing that Voice first and foremost over all the others – that Voice of the one who claims us and marks us forever, and calls us by name. It’s hard to hear in the midst of all the other voices giving us all kinds of different messages, but if we trust that Voice over those that tell us we aren’t good enough, then we become radically free to live against the grain and to commit ourselves to the way of Jesus and to follow him all the way to the Cross. To be the person we were meant to become.
You all are getting closer to calling a new rector. Every time I am blessed to sit in the pews here I join all of you in that prayer during the time of transition and even when I’m not here, I’m praying not only for you to find the right rector but for you to continue to become the parish God means for you to be in this city. My dream for this parish is not that you will call a perfect rector, or that you will become the perfect parish, but that you will keep trusting that Voice of Love that has already claimed you and know that with love all things are possible. My hope for this and every congregation in our diocese is that no child—not a single one—will ever go through this church school program or this youth program without getting very clear about the fact that they are each a uniquely beloved child of God. That is what these vows you take today are about for Nora Jane and every child who has ever come to this font: those vows define who you are and who you are becoming. It is our work to model what is possible by living as the beloved community, by treating one another with love and mutual respect and kindness. This is the work God has given us to do: love God, love neighbor.
And so as we begin a New Year and celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, and renew our commitments whether we are four or ninety-four – we remember that we are God’s beloved. Sin thrives when we suffer from a kind of spiritual amnesia and forget this abiding truth –when we literally forget who we are and whose we are. Compulsive behaviors and addictive behaviors and destructive behaviors all grow out in some sense from this deep-seated fear that we are not loved or that we are not worthy of being loved. Most of our sin comes most often from those places where we have been hurt or feel broken or unloved. So we can make all the resolutions we want toward self-improvement but the journey of faith is to live more deeply into the person God already loves.
Love came down at Christmas and the question is not whether or not God is with you, but how. You are God's beloved child; with you God is well pleased. The work of Epiphany is to live into that truth; this is the good news that takes us to the very heart of what the Incarnation means. Let that light shine for all the world to see.