Sermons on baptism
The Rev. Barbara Hutchinson, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church “In those days”. In those days, when God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. “In those days” darkness covered the face of the deep, chaos abounded, and God intervened and said, “let there be light”. God continued creating and delighted with each step of creation…
This rhythm of release then embrace is the deep pattern of our spiritual lives. In our baptism, we release ourselves from the draw and claim of culture and convention upon our lives and souls, by renouncing the evil forces in this world first, and then we reach for and embrace the draw and claim of God upon our lives and souls, adhering ourselves to Jesus as our Lord and Savior. It is the rhythm that biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman speaks of in the cycle of disorientation of our lives, when the prevalent culture doesn’t fit us anymore, which when we release it, opens up that place of granting permission to God to shape us through love, or as I so often speak of, the deconstruction of our world as we know it, for the reconstruction to emerge. There’s often barely a pause, hardly the space of a breath, most likely a shared motion of the release and the embrace that moves us along the track of God’s Kingdom. God is always asking us to let go of something, a stuck way of thinking, a habit which no longer fits, a hardness in our heart, a worry about something that will never come to be, so that we can grab onto that baton of the Kingdom of God and run with it, move into whatever will come our way, with a trust and faith in God that Andrew and Peter and James and John had in our story today. In these call stories, there were no sidebar conversations recorded, nor detailed deliberations offered as to the wisdom of becoming fishers of men. There was no hand-wringing action reported, no endless lists of the pros and cons of staying or leaving. Maybe that happened in real life. But the story is written the way it is because Mark doesn’t want us to go there, doesn’t want us to be distracted with the practical implications of the ask. Pick up that baton and go! “Follow me. Grab that baton and go!” says Jesus and they do.
As Jesus was emerging from the water, God tore open the heavens. This was a dramatic, compulsive, and directive motion of God, which released an immense amount of spiritual energy, and forever changed the relationship between heaven and earth, between God and humankind, through the ministry of Jesus. When we feel spiritual energy, when we have a desire to get rid of what no longer fits us, we are like Jesus breaking through the plane of the water, beginning the process of receiving the Spirit, once again, and it is the same spiritual energy with which God tore open the heavens and released into our world.
The good news is that we don’t do it alone. Just as Jesus claimed that the Spirit of the Lord has anointed him, which was true in a very particular way for Jesus, yet it is also true for us – for this happened for and with us at our baptism. We have been anointed by the Spirit of the Lord, the Holy Spirit, which enables us to be guided in this Advent work of preparing our hearts for Jesus,…
All of our passages today are about new life: the new life being offered in the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah, the psalmist calling the bride away from her home, Paul calling the faithful to begin new lives away from the bondage of sin, and Jesus telling his disciples that in their relationship with him, they will find a new understanding of power and of service. New life, in all of these situations, means becoming a stranger to one’s former life, distancing ourselves from who we were, looking at our life from a new perspective, or identifying within the landscape of our soul that which we need to be estranged from, what you need to let go of, all of that which is not of God. This can be an exciting and scary process, and it is always really hard work to allow this transformation to happen. We seem, naturally, to resist this change, but our scriptures give us helpful examples of how to prepare ourselves to do this hard and holy work of becoming a stranger to our old lives. I think it has to do with how we welcome the stranger.
And yet, how can our compassionate hearts not meet these people in the complex layer that lies behind, or beneath, or alongside our rationality in these situations? How do our hearts not break for Hagar, cast out into the wilderness to watch her child die? How could I not have enfolded in my arms that young mother who was allowing a family to be born for others, but not for her. How can we pretend there are children in our societies who go unprotected due to the enslaved condition of their mothers? We can’t and we shouldn’t. We can’t and we shouldn’t dismiss the grief of anyone, whether there were actions or circumstances that should have foretold the impending despair.
Lent is a season in which we move past the expected, the conventional, the easy answers and trust that God is drawing us out of the shadows of complacency or comfort and into the brightness of discipleship, so we may see the glory of God around us.
I pay attention to those who come last, for often some of my most important conversations are with people who come “at night,” people who are afraid or feel unworthy to come to me or to our church in the light of day. It is often from the darkness of night, don’t you think, that we bring our deepest questions, or search for some purpose to our lives, other than our mundane existence or routines.
The final and most perceptive set of eyes would have looked into the souls of those gathered, seen the spiritual place each resided in their relationship to God and to the world, and discerned the spiritual truth of each person present. Jesus would have looked within their souls and in many would have found poverty of spirit, a hungering for a better life, a restless heart bound up in an unjust system. This is the spiritual truth Jesus addresses when he shares what we call the Beatitudes, his statements about God’s blessedness meeting our deepest need.
Jesus’ baptism sets loose the Holy Spirit into the world, inspiring and strengthening Jesus for his baptismal ministry, of bringing in the Kingdom of God, through healing, teaching, and preaching. The same Spirit that anointed Jesus anoints us in baptism, and this baptism immerses us into the same service and ministry in the world. One way to look at baptism is divine empowerment so that we, like Jesus, can make meaningful contributions to our church and society. Baptism immerses us in service and ministry in the world.
There is one expression I photographed which haunts me, mainly because it shows the seriousness of seeing or being Jesus in this world. It was in the church at Bethpage, where Jesus rode through on what we now call Palm Sunday, as he entered the city of Jerusalem. There’s a gathering of women watching, one holding her son, who looks to be about 3 years old. Her eyes reveal an awareness of the radical nature of this moment that changes everything, a sense of awareness that from here on out, she is dedicated to this man who is passing by on a donkey to die in Jerusalem. She is giving her heart and life over to the God who saves, although God does not save this man before her, but all of humankind through his death and resurrection. There is almost a quiet joy and a steadfastness which becomes noticeable. In her expression, she reveals the depth of her commitment to enter into the holiness of the moment, through which she will live the rest of her life in faithfulness. I can’t believe she’s not on her knees, because I see this same expression in the eyes of many of you, as you come forward and kneel at the rail, and in receiving the body of Christ, you who know from here on out, your life will be changed and challenging, as you receive the love of Jesus, whose name means “God saves”. This is what our response to salvation looks like.
We come to church to be refreshed, restored, renewed, and it happens because we go around the carousel. We go through the service, again and again, and our hearts anticipate the forgiveness, nourishment, and the abiding Spirit we receive each week. This is good; one of the purposes of our liturgy and one of the gifts of being a part of the body of Christ. Comfort through the familiarity of being renewed to meet the world again, only to return the following week, is part of the gift the Church offers us. However, the startling and fiery message of John the Baptist we heard in our gospel story today is calling us into something else, something deeper, something which prepares us for our connection to Jesus’ resurrection. For this is also what we come to church for: tapping into the resurrection of Jesus and being changed, being offered new life, seeing life in a brand-new way. This goes beyond refreshment, restoration, and renewal. Resurrection involves complete change and is included in John’s message through the word repentance.