January 12, 2014


Zapata Falls - Alamosa, Colorado

Note: Preparing this sermon put me in mind of the time I helped put together an impromptu wedding at the base of Zapata Falls, adjacent to the Great Sand Dunes, near Alamosa, Colorado. If sermons aren't your thing, consider hearing about that tale instead.

Sermon for Year A, The First Sunday After the Epiphany
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
January 12, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

We can certainly understand from what we’ve just heard
 That Jesus goes out into the desert to be baptized, and that that happens.
But, did you ever think about why?
I mean, there is no Christianity at this time,
 And Jesus never understands himself to be anything but a Jew.
So what exactly is he going out into that dangerous desert to accomplish, anyway?
What’s the point? ... Well, that’s a fair enough question, and a good enough place to start.

The evidence we have tells us that many before and during Jesus’ time
 Practiced some form of baptism, specifically at times of birth and death.
The Old Testament, just for one, makes clear the idea
 That in times of antiquity, ritual cleansing was good in God’s sight,
   Not just for the Jewish body but for the Jewish soul, for purification or consecration.
Baptism was not unheard-of as a thing a person might choose to do or have chosen for him,
 Especially at an important life-moment,
   When stepping over some otherwise invisible threshhold
   Between one phase of life and another.
It marked a new beginning -- water, cleansing, starting over, or even just joining-up.
But. As Lars Hartman points out in an essay on the subject,
 Baptism meant a lot of different things to different groups, even in Jesus’ time,
 So we would want to be careful about assigning too much specific meaning to it overall.

This much, though, is clear from what we do know:
 Beginning even before Jesus’ time,
 Some groups of Jews and Jewish priests became dissatisfied
   With what they were seeing happen around them.
For example, they thought the Temple in Jerusalem was being run by crooks.
So, they began to pull away, retreating from society.
They believed that those responsible for corrupting the faith would soon be punished,
 And they wanted to live what they considered to be pure, upright, service-oriented lives,
   Studying their sacred texts, working in quiet,
   Away from all the hullabaloo in their contemporary society.
One of these groups, the Essenes, left in good number; some landed on the edge of the Dead Sea.
Conditions down there were dry and dusty,
 And they followed ritual cleansing practices around bathing.
Purity was so important to the Essenes, and not just for personal hygiene or food preparation;
 It had a strict tie in to the faith of this people; indeed, cleanliness wasn’t too far off from godliness.
(In fact, to this day you can still see archaeological evidence of their many baths.)

By the time Jesus comes on the scene, this practice of baptism can be observed happening
 Up and down the Jordan River --
 Preachers and baptizers standing in the water, and people stepping up, saying,
   I want to start over, get away from all this corruption.
   I want to get back to the heart of the faith.
   And I want to be baptized as a symbol of that.
And then, John, the cousin of Jesus, shows up down at the Jordan,
 Baptizing folks and demanding repentance and amendment of life.
For someone like Jesus, it just seems like an easy call that he would want to be baptized.
Not baptized, as we do, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,”
 Because that would just be weird;
   But baptized in the name of common decency and a desire to be at one with God
   And to live in accordance with the principles of a righteous life.
A desire to do better, to live better, to make the world better.
All well and good.

But when it happens, something else comes along with it:
 The heavens are torn open like we’re starting over --
     Not just for individuals, but with the beginning of all creation, chaos and rain, the Big Bang --
   And the simple delight of the Father for his only Son
   Is announced for all to hear.

Just so. Especially on that last point,
 Where I was helped along this week by one of my colleagues, Pastor Del.
You may recall the very first moment you were aware that you had become a parent,
 A mom or a dad,
 If you have had such a time in your life.

In my case, back in 2004, it went like this:
 In one moment there were just a certain number of us in the room,
   And then the next instant, the waters began to flow
   And this tiny little boy came into our lives, and the room got a lot smaller.
After a few minutets he was placed in my arms,
 And all I could do was look at him, and love him.
He hadn’t done a thing to earn any special favors, but right then he was the only thing anywhere.
In truth, there were no words.
All I could say was, “I have a son,” and I just kept saying it over and over, maybe to myself,
 And big fat tears spilled down my face.

I could feel my life completely reorienting itself around this new life,
 A threshhold breached, a line crossed, a dam broke, and it was like baptism for both of us --
 A welcome to the world for Gabriel, and a very simple announcement by me:
   That in this little thing, my Beloved, my son, I was “well pleased” to say the least.

And it makes me wonder what would happen if we took our own baptisms
 And our children’s baptisms
 And all our birthings into the faith community
   As seriously as God the Father takes the baptism of God the Son.
What would happen if baptism were taken as a deadly serious, high-stakes affair
 And not just some cute thing we do for kids to meet family obligatons.
What would happen if it all finally somehow flipped over and our defenses lowered
 And we remembered that we have in fact been baptized --
 Not just symbolically, away from sin and death, which is huge;
   Not just symbolically, towards inclusion into the life and people of God, which is huge ...
 But rather, what would happen if we took it in
   With the awe and the wonder of understanding that in point of fact,
   Baptism is no less important than birth itself.
That in some way we can’t quite grasp, they’re really two sides of the same coin.

I dare say that trickle of water from our baptisms so long ago
 Could be a flood into our lives and souls.
A deluge of water that cuts new channels and paths.
And to be clear -- to say it once more -- not just in some safe, simple way,
 But in fact in a life-altering way. Just what if?

I don’t often end sermons by letting others have the last word,
 But sometimes I find a passage in a book or a poem
 That perfectly summarizes everything I’ve been wanting to say.
In a book called The Solace of Fierce Landscapes,
 A Presbyterian pastor named Belden Lane reports on a time
 When he was leading a retreat at Ghost Ranch, in New Mexico, north of Santa Fe.
Ghost Ranch is a dangerous and holy place if ever there were one,
   Slapped down plum in the heart of the wilderness.
It’s where Georgia O’Keefe lived for years,
 Painting those wild animal skulls and redrock hills.

Lane tells in his book about how he went for a hike one day, on a beautiful afternoon,
 Several miles from civilization of any sort,
 Vaguely in search of some kind of transformation.
I think he would have understood Jesus’ need to move away
 From the corruption of good things that carry the label of God
   And to move toward a better, more pure and relationship with God.
He longed for some simple contact with the divine;
 Perhaps in some small sense he longed to start over.

He said he hiked up into a narrow little box canyon
 With hundred-foot walls and a creek running out of it.
When he’d gone as far in as he could go, he found a big flat rock and laid on it, and waited.

He said, “As I lay in silence, dark, churning clouds began to fill
 The space of sky framed by the canyon rim above.
Then came the first loud crash of thunder,
 And I knew I was about to be caught by a cloudburst in the middle of the desert.
As the initial drops of rain fell, I scrambled up a nearby ledge, looking for shelter,
 Finding the small opening of a cave going into the canyon wall. It wasn’t large.
I looked carefully to make sure it was empty, then crawled in just as the heavy rains let loose.
Soon they were followed by hail the size of quarters --
 Bouncing everywhere, ricocheting off the rocks, dancing in the fierce thunder and lightning.
There I lay, under the mountain, looking wide-eyed at this glorious apocalypse,
 Scribbling away in the yellow pad I use for a journal.

“Soon sheets of water beg[a]n to pour over the top of the canyon rim,
 Loosening the dirt and rocks high above.
Then the sound of falling boulders echoed through the canyon like shotgun blasts, [!!!]
 Crashing right before me on the path I’d followed an hour or so before.
I heard the sound of other rocks falling further down the ravine.
Torrents of water flowed wildly in every direction.
What was it that had followed me into the remoteness of that box canyon,
 Having stalked me to the very end, hiding now in the cleft of the rock?
What had I been suckered into all along in coming to Ghost Ranch? ....

“When the rain passed and the rock slides ended, I crawled out of the cave.
The winds quickly carried the storm clouds away, and before the long the sun was out again,
 Shining on a world made perfectly anew.
Water droplets on every leaf and rock were lit by the sun.
The air was clear as crystal, cleansed by the rain. Silence had returned.

“Then, gradually, a trickle of water began to flow over the rim at the canyon’s end,
 Cascading a hundred feet down in sunlit brilliance onto the rock where I’d lain before.
It grew in strength, becoming a massive waterfall of light-tan waters,
 Fed by arroyos from high above, bringing the runoff of rain from surrounding mesas.
These waters of life poured down into the place of death. I stood there watching.
Then slowly I walked through the falling water, being soaked in its sand-filled wetness,
 As a loud, resounding laughter erupted spontaneously ...
It echoed down the canyon, summoning everything to life....

“I began to walk back down the canyon, following the creek that was now quickly rising,
 Coming to a place I’d passed on the way in,
   Where a side canyon joined the one I’d been walking.
The place where the two canyons came together was filled with vegetation,
 Sparkling now with life.

“Dark red waters flowed down from the side canyon
 To join the light-tan waters from the upper creek, flowing side by side,
   Then merging together in some great mystery.
The new waters entering the creek were a deep, chocolate red....
Viscous and thick, they poured especially heavy from between two large boulders.
I climbed over to the place, cupped my hands, and let the waters fall over my head,
 Rolling down my hair and onto my shoulders.

Here, at the place of the joining of the two waters, everything came together.”

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