The First Sunday after the Epiphany: the Baptism of our Lord
Speaker: The Rev. Deborah Meister
Tags: baptism, christian, episcopal
10 January, 2016 Rev. Deborah Meister
Isaiah 43:1-7; Ps 29
Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you…: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine.”
This is a hard morning at St. Alban’s. As many of you have heard by now, our Director of Music, Sonya Sutton, who has brought transcendent music to this church for twenty years, will be leaving our community next week. Many of you are understandably saddened by the news; others of you are angry; some are frightened. Yesterday, we had a long vestry meeting which two parishioners attended as observers. When I gave them the chance to speak, one of them stood up and said she was there to figure out “what on earth was happening in this parish,” which she loves. I am sure that many of you feel the same way. I had the great pleasure of singing under Sonya when the choir went on pilgrimage to Wells, and I experienced her there as an encouraging, patient, spiritual leader who consistently taught us to sing together better than we thought we could, and who was gracious even when we did not. This is a real loss for our parish, and particularly for our singers.
But this is also good day at St. Alban’s. Down the road at the Little Sanctuary, our Spanish-speaking members are jubilant about our decision to call Debbie Kirk as a part-time Assistant Rector to pastor them and to help us all continue to form rich relationships with one another even through our language difficulties. And it is a joyful day at St. Alban’s, because C.C. Butcher, one of our teenagers, has chosen to be baptized today. C.C. has been discerning this decision for three years in conversation with Matthew, whom she has asked to be her godfather, and with her fellow youth, who have shown her the best that Christian community can be.
C.C., what I want to tell you this morning is this: Christian community is a good, strong, joyful thing, and it is also the hardest thing on earth. It will stretch you and challenge you and push your buttons and make you gasp with joy and bring you to your knees. You’ve experienced the deep trust you and your friends have in one another, and how you’ve had to work for it because even though all of you are great, none of you is perfect. And you’re old enough by now to know that it is possible for good people, acting under the best of intentions, to get things wrong, and then you end up with a roomful of tears. But it is still better than not having having Christian community. It is still better than not having Jesus and not having the people who love him. Like you, I made my decision to follow Jesus when I was old enough to choose for myself, and in the twenty years since, I have seen hard things and beautiful things and painful things and miraculous things, and I would not trade any of it, not even for all the world.
Today is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, and so we find ourselves back with John the Baptist, the wild-man who comes roaring out of the wilderness, dressed in stinking hides and popping locusts into his mouth, to call the people of Israel to serve their God. I want to spend some time with him today, because of all the people who knew the blessings and the weight of community, the prophets of Israel knew it best. The prophets were the lovers of Israel. They were the men and women who were so close to God that they saw the beauty even of a faithless people, and who saw the brokenness even in a beautiful people, and who had to say the hard, good things that would bring them home.
And so John the Baptist goes to the people, talking about threshing floors and winnowing and unquenchable fire. Do you think those were easy things for him to say? Let me remind you: the prophets were the lovers of Israel, and it is never easy to say hard things to those you love. They are the people who see the the suffering of their fellow human beings so acutely that they are no longer able to be silent about the indifference which allows it to continue. Over and over, they thrust into our faces the unpleasant realities that our relationships are broken, our communities are being damaged, and that we need to name those things, repent, and find a different way forward. That is what we are doing when we decide to be baptized: We are renouncing the callous ways we too often treat one another, and we are setting our feet into the path of Christ.
That is what has happened here this week: Over the course of the last four years, Sonya and I have been unable to find a way to work together that is fruitful for our parish. The tension and dysfunction in that relationship have damaged the staff and are actively degrading the quality of our community, undercutting both our ministries and our trust in one another. The decision that Sonya would leave is deeply sad, and I have cried over this situation for years, but it is necessary for us to be able to reclaim healthy ways of being together, joyful ways of doing ministry together, and deep ways of trusting one another. There was no other path forward.
But the prophets remind us that with God, all things are possible. There is always a way forward. It may involve going through some deep water; it may involve walking through pain as great as fire; but God is with us, God’s light is in us, God’s spirit is working in us, and God’s way is to bring new life out of death, new growth out of our hard losses, new hope our of even our darkest hours. In the words of the great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, there is “an eternity of love hovering over moments of anguish; at the bottom there is light” — and, I would add, the darkness does not overcome it.
When we go to the waters of baptism, we promise that we will seek that light, come what way. We will seek the light of God, who is already seeking us. We all know that it is hard to see when we’re in a dark place. But it is equally hard to see when you leave the dark room and enter into a place where bright sun is pouring in. It is possible to be blinded by the light, to be surrounded on all sides by the deep and abiding love of God and not be be able to see it. But it is there; it has always been there, and it always will be.
When Jesus went down into the waters of the Jordan to be baptized by that hairy, smelly prophet, the Holy Spirit came down upon him and he heard a voice saying, “You are Son, my Beloved.” C.C., when you step up to the font in few minutes, when Matthew pours water over your head, listen for those words in your heart. Open yourself to the Holy Spirit; open every pore of your being to the Holy Spirit — because God is pouring himself upon you in love.
It’s not likely that the heavens will visibly open for you. It’s not likely that the roof of this church will be torn off (and the property committee is really grateful for that). But the heavens are open for you today; there is no gap between you and God today, and if you look around this roomful of people, you can see the very faces you will see gathered around God’s altar in eternity. Because there is only one altar, and only one God, and only one beloved community, and whether we are here at St. Alban’s or far away, we are never far from one another or from God.
That does not mean you will never face a hard thing; in fact, it makes it more likely, because the people of God are people of courage, who face into what is broken in order to bring life. I was talking yesterday with Felicia Ball, a young woman who grew up here, just like you, and who’s now a college student in Syracuse. She told me she hadn’t given much thought to the city itself when she was looking at the college, and when she got there she discovered it is one of the poorest cities in our country. And she told me about how the university functions as a bubble, a place where most of the students live comfortable lives and do not interact with the surrounding community. But Felicia and her friends did not want to stay in the bubble. Instead, they have started a youth mentorship program, recruiting students to go out into that scary city and work with teenagers one on one, and keep them in school, and out of harmful practices, and listen to problems they don’t even know how to begin to solve, but to show those kids they are not alone. That’s what a disciple does: they go where the pain is, and they make it better.
And it is always a choice. There is a verse from Deuteronomy which echoes as a refrain through the service on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of Atonement: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life, that you and your descendants may live.” (Deut 30:19) God sets before us a life of mixed experiences: life and death, blessings and curses, good things and bad. We seek to ensure that we will see more of the good than of the bad: we fatten our savings accounts and wear seatbelts and run genetic tests on our unborn children. But, C.C., in spite of all our careful preparations, we cannot really choose what we will confront in our lives, or when. We can choose how we will respond. We can blame others, or we can ask forgiveness. We can reach out to our fellow parishioners in anger, or in friendship. We can dwell in bitterness or we can choose to live in such a way that we get back our spiritual friendships tenfold.
This day, as any other, God sets before you the choice: life and death, blessings and curses. C.C., you are choosing the way of blessing, but for all of us, that choice is not a one-time thing. God’s choice is irrevocable. But we have to choose that path each day, sometimes, even, each hour. Jesus came to be our way, our truth, and our life. It’s up to us to walk in that way, to proclaim that truth even when it takes us to difficult places, to live that life, come what may. But you will have the Holy Spirit to guide you, and from now on, when you still your heart and make it quiet, you will be able to hear again the words God said to us this morning:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you…
For I am the Lord your God,
…you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you. (Is 43:2-4)