133 Cloth Napkins — The Baptism of our Lord

133 Cloth Napkins — The Baptism of our Lord

Last year, around New Year’s Day, it was my clothes closet that I tackled. I attributed my robust and energetic drive to relinquish 2/3 of my clothes to the book on tape we listened to during our car trip to Bill’s family right after Christmas. The author set firm guidelines: keep only clothes that bring you joy – and only those which you can keep in one closet. No cartons under the bed, no using extra closets in unused bedrooms, and no clothes that you don’t absolutely love. In addition, I added the stipulation that I would keep no clothes that were three sizes too small, which meant, in addition to discarding a pile of once-beloved skirts, I also had to release the dream that someday I would indeed fit into them. The goal was a neat, tidy closet with clothes that I could delight in. I took 5 huge garbage bags of clothes to Good Will, while a few other bags of unsuitable clothes went into the trash. I remember looking at the row of 9 skirts, which were now all I had for the whole year, and feeling a mixture of regret that there weren’t more, and yet an over-riding sense of freedom that everything in my closet I loved and could feel good about wearing.

This year, again around New Year’s Day, I tackled a closet, this time my linen closet. I had no idea why I felt this compulsion to pull everything out of the closet, to throw out many of the sheets which didn’t seem to be a part of a matching set, and to gather an enormous pile of cloth napkins to wash and sort. After 5 church services in 24 hours during the 4th Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and then the Christmas Day Dinner, which was glorious but involved a lot of standing on my feet for many hours, and two family gatherings, I was completely physically exhausted, so why now did I find it impossible to sit by the fire and relax, rather than tear through my closet with a fury rarely seen in my daily existence? I continued in the insanity of my decision to wash all my napkins, and it took me 2 nights to iron them all. 133 napkins, cleaned, sorted, and neatly folded, were now located in another cupboard, which of course, first needed to be cleared and cleaned out.

Had I just gone insane, or was there something else going on here? At first, I imagined my compulsive behavior to declutter, discard, and to put into order items from our home as part of an old history of making New Year’s resolutions. I had a vague memory of my family sitting around the kitchen table writing out our resolutions for the upcoming year, but then I realized it’s been years since I’ve taken this practice seriously, so that probably wasn’t it. Then the epiphany happened. This cleansing inner urge, happening so shortly after Christmas, was probably related to Christmas itself. Yes, it was true, I was physically exhausted the week after Christmas, but I was also spiritually invigorated. After each of the services or during the Christmas meal, (which always seems like an extension of our Christmas Eve services,) I recall saying, “It doesn’t get better than this!”. My heart has never been fuller. On a personal level, I had never felt the fullness of my vocation as a priest as at the Christmas Eve services this past year. This was what I was born to do – and I knew it. And on a parish-level, to me, our church has never felt so vibrant and alive, the presence of Christ has never felt more tangible, and the sense of the depth of people’s souls never seemed more expressive and real. This was clearly a mountain-top experience for me, and hopefully for others. My expression of “It doesn’t get better than this!” was another way of me saying I was living into the fullness of my priesthood and the fullness of Christ in community was all around us.

Today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord – Jesus’ baptism by John as told through the evangelist Mark. We will repeat our baptismal vows and once again be reminded of the rhythm of Christian life, which begins with our baptism, but continues throughout our life – the process of renunciation, release, decluttering, or discarding that which keeps us away from God, and then the subsequent adherence, attachment to, or alignment with that which is of God and of our true self. And as we heard in our gospel today, the outcome of Jesus’ initiating and moving through this rhythm of release then attachment through baptism, was so that he could be clearer about his identity and mission.

I believe that this the deep rhythm I’ve been experiencing with my drive to discard, first my clothes, then my linens, so that I may move into a place of new identity and mission. I needed to clear out the old, that which belonged to a former life (all those tiny little skirts) or former me, in order to embrace the new identity and mission God was placing on my heart. As many of you know, creating a safe and enjoyable space at our home for you to gather, create spiritual friendships, and seek deeper knowledge of your spirituality and beliefs, has been my growing deep desire given to me by God. It makes sense to me, then, that my energy this year, after the spiritual high of Christmas, has been to make the process of creating this space easier, by having my 133 cloth napkins neatly ordered and stored in a readily accessible closet, so that I could more fully embrace planning our times ahead.

This may seem like a stretch to you. You may imagine that I’m reading way too much into the simple act of cleaning out a closet. And that may be true. But it occurs to me that we often experience these spiritual epiphanies and transforming moments and then, as they dissolve or dissipate into the rhythm of our regular lives, we forget them, or imagine that revelation is just for that particular moment, and fail to see the energy which comes forth. One image I have of the spiritual energy of our lives is a revolving door in motion, which means you can step in at any place in time – sometimes the spiritual epiphanies or mountain-top experiences lead us to the cleansing and decluttering of what is residing in our soul or lives that we need to get rid of – and sometimes the decluttering is what draws us into the open place for our spiritual epiphanies and to embrace the movement of God in our lives. Either way, the rhythm is the same as in the baptism of Jesus, and our baptism, the driving away of that which keeps us from God, the going down into the water, and then the attachment to that which is God, the coming out of the water. The outcome of this process, at either entry point in the revolving door, I believe, is that we come out of the water with a clearer sense of our identity and mission. My massive decluttering of my closets also spilled over into my crossing a huge number of administrative tasks off my “to do” list, which freed up the energy for me to identify 12 different projects that I’m really excited about doing with and for you this coming year. The spiritual invigoration which happened in my soul on Christmas Eve and Day has settled into a sustainable level of spiritual energy which will shape my ministry among you and our year ahead. This is the gift of working with God. Christmas will continue to live out within and among us each of us and in us as a gathered group of Christians  who intuitively respond to the underlying rhythm of our baptismal vows, so that we grow in our ability to find and live into our true selves and into the image of God.

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.

When we look closely at the baptism stories in the various gospels, one can reasonably ask the question, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized, since he didn’t need forgiveness of his sins?” One answer is that Jesus needed to be baptized so that he could noticeably state his solidarity with those who did need forgiveness of sins. This is good news for us, because it means that when we need forgiveness of things done or undone or done on our behalf, or when we need purging of the things, ideas or behaviors that alienate ourselves from God and our true selves, or when we need to declutter the closets in our souls so we can see the important parts that need to be developed and answered, then Jesus is with us. Jesus willingly went down into the water, where things can be dark and murky, where we can get tangled up in the debris, where we can lose sight of what really matters, so that he can find us there – and bring us up into the light, into the open air, where we can breathe anew, and rejoice that there is something marvelous awaiting us.

Mark’s gospel begins, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ.” One interpretation of that sentence is that the good news of Jesus Christ is not about the past good news but rather about the good news that continues to unfold. May we look at our spiritual epiphanies and our cleansing times and the thrust of our spiritual energy into a new identity and mission as the unfolding of the good news about Jesus Christ that began as Jesus came out of the water, and the heavens opened, and a new relationship between God and humankind was forged. I invite you to see how this is happening in your life – to pay attention to these bursts of energy to clear away, to straighten up, to give order to chaos, and to see these of God, so you too can be attentive and responsive to what God is calling you—and us—into next, and to pay attention to the spiritual highs you experience and be on the lookout for something to be awaiting you.

As we recite our baptismal vows in a few moments, because Jesus put himself in our place, may you put yourself in his place, and imagine what you are letting go of in your renunciation of evil and what you are adhering to in your affirmation of faith, and hear the voice of God saying to you, “You are my beloved.”, for that love of God is always the force behind the rhythm of our spiritual lives.  Amen.


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