It's been a while since my last post (2 months!) and its not for a lack of things on my mind but a lack of time to ruminate and write about them. There was a real crunch at the end of the semester, and then the General Ordination Exams (GOE's) to prepare for and Christmas, etc.... I've been busy and the blog is more for fun than a real discipline at this point. Good news though, I have very little on my schedule for the rest of the month and a very light load for my last semester, so I am hoping to have more time to think and write. I already have a backlog of things from school I want to rework and post so to my three loyal readers, there will be more to read soon!
BTW, if you're interested in what this year's GOE was like, check out the blog Crusty Old Dean by Tom Ferguson, the Dean of Bexley Hall Seminary
Sermon from the Celebration of the Baptism of Jesus
Given 8 Jan 2012 at St John's Episcopal Church, Columbus, Ohio
I love Mark’s gospel, it is my absolute favorite. In it Jesus moves relentlessly, heedlessly even into his ministry, he’s all in and almost always goes “immediately” from one place to next. You can almost feel the urgency as Jesus takes up his work – Mark’s gospel isn’t polished, or even particularly well written, it’s the first century equivalent of video shot with a cell phone. It’s a little rough and choppy but it’s too compelling to ignore.
So Mark’s gospel begins right here, at the baptism of Jesus. There aren’t any shepherds in a manger, or wise men; not even a precocious adolescent mocking his parents for not understanding him. No, in Mark’s telling Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of the story – this is the moment of incarnation when God and world combine in some mysterious and miraculous way that is going to change everything forever.
Mark tells us that John has set up in the wilderness where he is washing away sins in the river Jordan.
That his baptism of repentance is in the Jordan River is important. This is the river that the Israelites had crossed after wandering 40 years in the desert generations before and in his baptism John is inviting any who are willing to cross again out of the wilderness of sin and alienation from God and into a renewed life as the people of God.
And people apparently thronged to go see John, to hear what he had to say and walk themselves into the Jordan and back into the promised land, just as their ancestors had done.
But, I think that what we really need to be asking ourselves is why; why would so many be willing to walk for days into the desert to be immersed in the Jordan and symbolically re-enter the promised land?
Why does it matter?
We know that first century Palestine was a place of tremendous social conflict and upheaval, Greek ways and Greek ideas were popular and increasingly influential. The Roman Empire had just recently established political and economic control. This clash of cultures bred conflict over the meaning of Israelite identity, conflict between Greek and Roman ideas and traditional Hebrew ones. Surely, the question of what does it mean to be the people of God was at the forefront of many people’s minds. Maybe they asked themselves, “Is our covenant with God capable of leading us into the future or does it only pull us back into the past?”
Does God matter?
John’s answer was a resounding yes. John said yes, our covenant matters, look at the things God has done for us, repent of corrupting ways and hold fast to what is true and honored.
But John’s message isn’t some call to return to an imagined golden age. Because just as John is recalling Israel to its age old promises, he is also pointing the way forward.
The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…
I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit
What you are doing here, John says, is important, but it isn’t the end – there’s more.
Does it matter?
Isn’t that really one of the questions facing us now?
Is our faith relevant in today’s world?
Does it draw us forward; or
does it hold us back or
does it even matter at all?
One of the privileges of being a hospital chaplain is that every once in a while I get to baptize someone.
Our church has a beautiful baptismal rite and the baptismal covenant is a centerpiece of the Episcopal understanding of faith, but in the hospital, it’s a much simpler affair.
Usually very simple, a prayer over the water contained in a small bowl, an invocation of the Holy Spirit and then the three-fold application of water onto the baptized, in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
My first ever baptism was for a little boy, just a few weeks old, named of all things, Israel.
It was late at night and Israel’s parents and grandparents gathered around, the nurses there too, as we prayed for him and baptized him.
Like almost everyone I’ve baptized, he died shortly afterwards.
Does it matter?
Like the ancient Baptist whose name I carry, my answer is also yes. Very much yes.
Baptism is most assuredly not some kind of protection against pain, suffering, or death. It is not a testament of one’s perfection or an acknowledgment that you have everything figured out or even that you are in some way “right with God.”
I was baptized as an adult, and I remember someone asking me just beforehand if I was excited. And my honest answer was no. In fact I was scared, afraid of what God might ask of me.
And the years since then have confirmed to me that I was right to be scared because faith has led me places I would never have gone, it has forced me to confront things about myself I would rather deny.
Does it matter?
In all of the gospel stories, it is the baptism of Jesus that marks the beginning of the work that that takes Jesus to Easter.
Like John and Jesus’ contemporaries we live in a world where our identities, as Christians, and as Americans are in flux. There is no generally accepted way to be who we are, no mold to fit ourselves into. This is a great and tremendous freedom, but also the cause of great anxiety. The old solutions don’t work, the old patterns no longer lead to expected results. We may feel cheated, or lied to. Isn’t that the anger that drives our political lives? Isn’t that the fear behind so much hand-wringing about the wider Church?
In the baptism of Jesus, the Holy Spirit enters human life in a new way. Jesus’ life provides the model of our own, a life based on love for neighbor, willingness to give of oneself, and an ability to focus on the here and now and not get bogged down by the past nor immobilized by the possibilities of the future. A life that transcends our fears.
Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of something, not the end. For Jesus it is the beginning of a profound ministry and life whose meaning still echoes for us two thousand years later. In the incarnational moment of Jesus’ baptism, God and we transcended our covenantal relationship and forged a new unity whereby we can know God’s surpassing love and God can know our pain and fear. In Jesus’ baptism, God and we embark together on something new and mysterious which is moving towards a complete and unalterable joining together in the fulfillment of the new kingdom where the heavenly city and earthly city become one.
And our baptisms are also not endings, but beginnings. It is the beginning of our lives with Christ, in baptism we are immersed within Jesus and remade. Of course you can turn away, but baptism is a promise that God won’t, not ever.
That so many in this congregation are willing to step beyond themselves to address issues like inadequate housing, food security, homelessness, hunger, education, unequal distribution of resources id, to me, a sign of the work of the Holy Spirit in this community. It is evidence of the working out of our salvation.
And baptism is a sign of our salvation, but we are wrong if we think that salvation is something that just happens to the dead. Because salvation is the outpouring of grace in our lives, each and every day. In baptism a seed is planted that if tended, and cared for, grows into something mighty that spreads out into our lives and touches others.
If I had to answer why baptism mattered to the child Israel, I would say it is this. He was not some imperfect creature who needed a spiritual cleansing, but in his baptism, the lives of all of us present there were changed, marked forever and God broke in in a way that could not have been possible otherwise. And the same is true for allof us who have been immersed in Jesus, touched with the water of baptism, by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Does it matter?
Yes, oh yes, it matters.