Passing the baton — 3rd Sunday of Epiphany

Passing the baton — 3rd Sunday of Epiphany

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church

The Rev. Barbara Hutchinson

3rd Sunday after the Epiphany

January 21, 2018

Although it was never something I personally aspired to nor had the natural talent or body build for, I was always mesmerized by the people who could run track and field. I remember watching with pure amazement how some of my high school classmates simply and completely took flight over the hurdles like fleeing gazelles, how some of my classmates held their bodies with such precision and natural grace as they released then reconnected, step after step, with the earthen track, from which they seemed to have been formed. I could almost sense the spiritual energy (although these would never have been my words then) that was being drawn toward the surface in these long lean bodies as they prepared to sprint forward at the release of the gun. But where my attention always most deeply and particularly settled was the hand-off of the baton from one relay runner to the next. It was beyond my imagination how two runners seemed to enter the same space, the same moment in time, and shared something that must have gone beyond all the training and practice in the world. It was almost as if one motion was shared by two individuals, the letting go and the embracing happening simultaneously. My heart would begin racing as the crucial moment approached. I could hardly breath, I think, in fear either that it wouldn’t work, someone would misstep and the baton would come plummeting to the ground, or likewise, in fear that it would work perfectly, and somehow, I would have witnessed this amazing glimpse of intimacy, of connection, of anticipation and fulfillment being met in the same moment, and I knew my life would be changed by it. I often wondered where I would see, where I would experience that same transfer of spiritual energy, that sharing of the same motion, that same place of trust and mutuality, that I inherently knew we were all born to live from.

Little did I know that I would have this experience many times.  Each time I would step into that sacred place with God, each time I would receive communion, each time I found myself lost in meditation, each time I would baptize someone, each time I would feel an odd awareness of something other than me settle into my heart, each time I touched your forehead in blessing, each time I would hear God’s call and respond, I would move into a similar space of one motion shared by two, this time, the holy and me. You may feel it too, when you’re behind the altar or laying healing hands on others, or showing up at soul-level to meet someone’s pain, that sharing of one motion with the holy, for which there is no training or practice, just the courage of heart needed to walk into that place of vibrant energy with God. Oh, we share these sacred moments with humans too, of course, (that’s what the incarnation is all about), but it’s the shared moment and motion with God that I’m most interested today.

So often it is with me and God the Holy Spirit, just as I have imagined the passing of the baton between two relay runners, seamless, nearly indistinct of each other, and with a flow of spiritual energy that I was called to hold, to take forward, to pass onto the next runner. It’s true for you too – God is always the one behind us (and this is the mysterious part of God – as well as the one beside and ahead of us), opening and entering that holy space with us, placing the Kingdom of God into our hands, for that’s what the baton is, the Kingdom of God, ours to hold and run with for a while and then to give away, over and over again, always moving it forward. This seamless spiritual transaction of God’s call and our response is meant to have the same urgency and motion as a relay race, and we are all to become equally practiced at the receiving and the handoff of the Kingdom as experienced runners are with the baton, for we all are on the same track of bringing God’s healing grace to the ends of the earth. That’s our goal, that’s our mission, that’s what we see happening in our gospel today, this baton hand-off of the Kingdom of God.

John the Baptizer is imprisoned, cut off, silenced and in his retreat from the spotlight of the story, he trusts the prophetic voice into the hands of Jesus, who immediately and with urgency proclaims the Kingdom of God is near, and almost in the same breath, calls his first disciples, to whom he begins to pass along the care of this Kingdom. John the Baptizer handing the prophetic voice to Jesus. Jesus claiming the new reality. Jesus calling the disciples to hold it, learn it, question it, treasure it, embrace it, live it, and then to pass it forward. There’s hardly a pause to the whole sequence of the inauguration and disbursement of the Kingdom.  It’s seamless, it’s of God, and it sets the pattern and sense of urgency for our response to God’s call to accept the baton of tending to the Kingdom of God, until we pass it forward again.

Now in that split second between receiving the baton from John, that moment when the anticipation of the hearts of ancient Israelites of a Messiah met its fulfillment in the person of Jesus, and Jesus calling his first disciples, Jesus does something really interesting. In that compressed moment of time, in that shared motion, Jesus boldly shouts the one thing, the only thing, we would ever need to know to be ready to receive the baton from Jesus: “repent and believe”. These are Jesus’ first words in the gospel of Mark. We can almost still see the water dripping from his fingertips as he emerges from the River Jordan as he shouts this Greek word, “Metanoeite!” This is not a quiet whisper from Jesus to a close friend. This is a booming call to anyone who can hear. Repent! It is an enticing and alluring verb in the gospel of Mark, not tied up to sin as often used in our current culture. It’s an invitation. God’s reign is within breathing distance. There’s urgency, there’s passion in Jesus’ voice for he wants us to join in. We have some changing to do, some new direction to take. Every wall of resistance to God’s future must fall. Jesus knows that and he is inviting all who can hear to return to God by going beyond the minds they have now. John began that process of stretching minds and hearts: he brought the people out into the wilderness, away from the temples, to look for God in a brand-new and radical way. They had to release their grip on the baton of the Kingdom of God they knew, allow it willingly to slip from their fingers, so in the same step, could embrace the Kingdom which stood before them, this man, who, without skipping a beat was now taking up John’s voice, and calling them to repent and believe.

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.

Now this word, metanoeite, this Greek word used in Mark’s gospel, which we translate as repent is a plural verb. So that adds something new into our mix, our own repenting, our own stretching of our minds. This is our call to do this work in this community.

Our work as Christians is always in community. It is always a group effort. Together we loosen the bonds to the past, to the church that was, to the expression of the Kingdom which we knew, whether that means 25 years ago or 6 months ago, or that which we knew within our last breath. It doesn’t make what we knew to be wrong. But to answer our deep spiritual yearnings, we need to be able to release our grip on the baton so we can go forward with a new expression of God, we need to release or repent. We don’t repent in order to usher in the Kingdom of God, Jesus did that. We repent, we change our orientation, so that in the space of a breath, we like Andrew and Peter can drop our nets and see the kingdom is here. We find an alternative path to completely surrender ourselves, our souls, and body, not to find Jesus, but because Jesus has found us and continues to call us.

On this day of the calling of our patron saint Andrew, and our annual meeting, when we will celebrate what we’ve done this past year and look forward into what will be in this year to come, we move as a community in the spiritual pattern of release and embrace

John the Baptizer prepared. Jesus the Savior proclaimed. Andrew and Peter built a community around the Jesus’ truth.  With barely a breath taken in this introductory sequence in Mark, we know we are called to pick up the baton, to be in that moment of shared motion with the Holy Spirit, that seamless place that is of God, that radically changes our lives, that is intimate and sweet, that we were born to live out of, that which reminds us of our deepest identity. Metanoia! It’s an alluring and enticing invitation to move from a casual faith to a committed one. To move from occasional curiosity to real intrigue and exploration of the depths of your spiritual life. To move from convenient complacency to having your hearts being set on fire. We, like Andrew, have been given the Kingdom of God to hold, to treasure, to question, to embrace, and to be good stewards of – let us also allow it make a difference in our lives, waking us to a new expression of the truth of Jesus. Let’s pick up the baton and go, following Jesus!



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