Sermon for Year A, First Sunday After the Epiphany
(The Baptism of Our Lord)
By The rev. Torey Lightcap
Saint Thomas’ Episcopal Church
January 9, 2011
Sometimes a sermon has been written, or mostly written,
And then something happens in the news,
And the writer returns to the manuscript in the fresh light of that news,
And it all seems so wide of the mark
That the preacher feels compelled to start again,
Even when it’s inconvenient to do so,
And, I suppose, when even there’s a risk that it might not make for much.
Christians do not ignore the world around them – not if they believe in God.
They live in it; they love it; they critique it; they allow themselves to be formed by it;
A Christian is a responsible member of the human family.
A pulpit whose occupant ignores the life around
Is an empty place filled with contradiction.
So when I saw the news of a shooting in Tuscon yesterday
That a judge and a nine-year-old girl, among six total, had been killed,
With twelve others injured,
And that a congresswoman (the mother of two children) was fighting for her life
After being shot at nearly point-blank range,
I felt compelled to basically scrap what I had,
And pray it through,
And begin again.
Every so often, I get a call from someone who wants to have a child baptized.
(In my experience, it is almost always the mother who makes the call.)
There may be a solid connection to the church,
But in most cases there isn’t.
We make an appointment; the responsible parties bring in their baby;
And we sit down and I ask why this is desired at this time.
There’s usually a litany of reasons.
Many have to do with fears of what happens with a soul when a human body dies
And that person has not been baptized.
This view of baptism suggests that one is best placed
To have purchased some kind of insurance just in case.
Some say that it’s simply what they themselves did, and now it’s the child’s turn.
Others speak to an innate desire for their children
To participate in some ritualized way
Of acknowledging that they exist
(I mean, other than with a birth certificate or a Social Security card),
And of showing that the person they have labored to bring into this world
Is really real in the eyes of God.
Some talk about baptism as recognition of forgiveness
And the need for some symbol that we all get a clean start.
Every once in a blue moon, there’ll be mention of the idea
That having a community to belong to – some kind of family –
Is probably better than not having one,
And that somehow baptism is connected to that.
This is all tied to language, of course.
When someone says, Look, I want to have Little Johnny done,
What they mean is, Do for Johnny what your precedecessor did for me.
They mean to say, Johnny needs doing and you are the doer.
So do what you do, and we’ll be done.
They mean, in other words, to say, that regardless of the reasons we could list,
There is a task called baptism they know needs doing,
And the priest is the one to do it.
But “done,” of course, means precisely what it implies: getting whatever it is over with.
One of my Lutheran colleagues here in Sioux City says
That whenever he is presented with this language he tries to turn it around,
And to suggest that instead of Little Johnny getting “done,” he needs to get “started.”
Started in a gathering community of faith, started in study and prayer,
Started in nurturing a fellowship, started in learning about selfless service.
Jesus comes to John to be baptized not at the end of his ministry, but at the beginning.
He participates in a small token of his intention to walk more fully in God’s ways.
The cultural institution of baptism has a hard time recognizing this;
Yet all who minister in any capacity know that one does not set out on a journey of faith
Without having been consecrated for the task in some way.
For Christians, baptism is the primary symbol of that consecration.
Those who toil for the sake of God’s kingdom as Jesus saw it and preached it
Need some touchstone – some way of knowing that they, too, got started at some point.
In a country that still thinks of itself as Christian, then,
With so many people walking around consecrated for service and community,
Why does it seem that so many never got started? Why so much immaturity?
Why is there so much hate? Why so much hate parading as Christ?
I can only conclude that thinking or saying that one is a Christian is far easier
Than it is to actually ask myself what it means, and to go to Scripture,
And to live out the example laid forth by Jesus himself.
We preach openness, but we practice exclusion.
We advertise love, but we practice hatred.
We affirm tolerance, but we practice bigotry and small-mindedness.
We advocate charity toward our neighbors, but we practice the religion of self.
Maybe we just never actually got started; maybe we thought there was a loophole.
Jesus got started in a river and then went into public ministry.
I read those actions as a direct invitation to follow him,
And to do what he did to the best of our ability.
(It’s a cop-out, by the way, to suggest
That just because we can’t turn water into wine,
We somehow get a free pass but still get to wear the cross around our necks;
That’s not how it works.)
Openness, love, tolerance, and charity are on the billboard.
Exclusion, hatred, bigotry, small-mindedness, and love of self are on display.
Which would you believe?
And so judging by their actions,
We might concur that Christians have no time for anyone but themselves …
That they live a failed philosophy …
That indeed their baptisms are collectively an empty symbol …
That they have successfully deluded themselves.
The life-giving, spirit-restoring waters of baptism have flowed over so many of us.
To us is given the task to speak a word of peace, as Jesus spoke it,
To speak out against violence –
To incite no persons to use their power negatively.
The waters of baptism flow, and the example to follow is clear,
But when we don’t follow, we shouldn’t be surprised at what else flows.
Blood flows, and it’s perfectly obvious.
Blood in Tuscon.
Blood at Virginia Tech.
Blood at Fort Hood.
Blood in Lower Manhattan.
Blood in Oklahoma City.
Blood at Columbine.
Blood in Uganda.
Blood at Auschwitz.
Blood at Uzbekistan and in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Blood in South Africa.
Blood flows and tears flow and life ebbs away.
Tears in Algeria and on the West Bank.
Tears in Tiananmen Square.
Tears in Belfast, Juarez, Kent State, Zanzibar, Lebanon, and Armenia.
Life ebbs away in El Salvador and in Northern Ireland and Paris
And Afghanistan and Greece and Constantinople and in Macedonia.
This is not some external problem.
Blood flows in Sioux City, too, and tears flow, and life ebbs away.
Even so, the Spirit intercedes with words too deep for sighing.
Even so, Jesus enters the locked rooms of our hearts and psyches
And breathes on us and pronounces,
“Peace be upon you.”
Even so, Jesus lifts up his hand and stills the storm and says,
“Don’t be afraid.”
Even so, Jesus looks to the grieving parent and says,
“Do not fear. Only believe.”
Then, looking at us and loving us, he says,
“Now go and do likewise.”
We can’t get around this; we have to do this.
Baptism is an initiation into the Christ-life.
We must live lives of peace and self-control,
And we must speak out about what seems unjust
Before threats become real violence.
We have to get started now on what it means to have been baptized.
It’s way past time.
Let us pray.
Lord Christ, you tell us plainly to work for peace, to speak for peace: help us, we pray, to set aside whatever it is that keeps us from doing that, so that we may be channels of your love and grace – imperfect as we are, and as unready as we may be. For yours is the way of peace, and you alone are the Way. Amen.