Homily: January 11, 2015
BAPTISM OF OUR LORD, YEAR B; Rev. Theo Park
Well, the Christmas season may be over, but the arc of the story is not.
Today we start the season of Epiphany-tide and
as it does every year on the first Sunday after Epiphany.
the gospel story tells of the baptism of Jesus.
It does this to set the tone for the coming season:
having established the mystery of Jesus as a new light appearing in the world,
now we get down to brass tacks—how are we to live by that light?
So first we hear of Jesus coming into his own,
forming a sense of his spiritual identity and calling
and then choosing to act out of that identity.
Then for the next five weeks we will hear other stories
that reflect on how Jesus goes on to manifest God through his life,
and on how we are called to do the same as disciples of Christ.
And to reinforce that the importance of this theme in our community-story,
every year we set this Sunday aside as one of the appointed days for baptism
and the renewal of our baptismal covenant,
which our tradition understands as the cornerstone of our identity and spiritual growth, whether individual or corporate.
We give baptism a lot of weight in the Episcopal Church.
Officially, you cannot be elected to congregational leadership
without being baptized.
Officially, I cannot list you as a member in the annual Church census
if I don’t have a record of your baptism; I must list you as “participating other.”
And officially, although the Church at large is in disagreement over this,
if I do not know you to be baptized I am not allowed to give you communion.
Now both Gethsemane and I took a different position on that long ago,
but it is still the official position of the Church. so technically
any of you who are disgruntled with my leadership can have me brought up
on charges of “violating the doctrine and discipline of this Church.”
So you see we take baptism very seriously.
Why? Why does the Episcopal Church so emphasize baptism?
We didn’t always do so:
when that baptistery was created baptism was a private rite
that generally happened on Saturday or Sunday afternoon
with just the immediate family present.
So what changed?
Well to give you a short answer to the story:
the Episcopal Reformation that brought us the 1976 Book of Common Prayer.
From the 1930s forward the Church reexamined many of its practices
and much of its thinking on a variety of issues,
resulting in that “new” book and its renewed theology,
which was very different from the “old” book of 1928.
The 1976 book, in an attempt to recover the oldest Christian practices
and leave behind what had come to be seen as additions from the Middle Ages,
put Holy Communion and Baptism front and center
as the twin axes of communal Christian worship and identity.
In so doing the new book—and the majority that voted for it in General Convention—
reaffirmed our place as a Church in the catholic (meaning universal) tradition,
reformed, to be sure, but with roots in the apostolic age
(conforming to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, as we will shortly say)
and descending in an unbroken line of authority through the bishops of the Church.
Thus baptism returned to being a community act,
the central meaning of which is entrance into the Body of Christ,
as it had been in the earliest practice of the Church.
And the framers of the renewed rite emphasized its communal nature
by inviting the entire congregation to join in the renewal of the baptismal covenant,
at every baptism and on all appointed baptismal feasts.
Symbolically, God’s act of grace, our response in strength.
I ask you to pay deep attention when we stand in a few minutes;
don’t just mouth the words but let them sink into your hearts.
I want you to be aware that both for persons and for communities
the baptized life is the opposite of the undecided life.
Whether we are baptized as infants or as adults,
the baptismal life is a “yielded” way of life,
one that began when we were drowned in the baptismal waters,
and rose reborn in the Spirit.
After we were dried off and marked with oil as “Christ’s own forever,”
what was left floating in the font was, in the words of author Scott Peck,
“the freedom of uncommitment.”
After our baptism, aimlessness is no longer an option.
The decision for Christ—or, I should say, Christ’s decision for us—
becomes “the first thing” in the new life of grace,
while everything else, though important, becomes secondary.
Baptism, we believe, puts life into proper perspective.
We have but one purpose: to express Christ to the world.
I’m sure you’re aware that every community has a culture,
and every culture is driven by a value system.
One of the most common mistakes is not recognizing how our value systems shape us. People think that they can insulate themselves, that they’re different. We’re not.
So the relevant question in life becomes not “What will I do?” but “Who will I become?” What value system will you adopt,
and what will take on heightened importance in your life?
Because once you’re rooted in a particular system
it’s often agonizingly difficult to unravel yourself from its beliefs, practices, and rewards.
You’ll be a lot happier in life if you aren’t fighting the value system around you.
Find one that upholds a set of beliefs that you can really get behind.
Being in an environment of like-minded people
can have a powerful transformative effect.
This is one of the reasons so much emphasis was placed on identity work
during this transitional period at Gethsemane.
Because the issue is the same for a faith community as for individuals.
As I have laid out, the promises of the baptismal covenant are—on paper—
the core of our value system as Episcopalians,
intended to inform and shape our environment and our behavior.
I say “on paper” because often we express quite different values in real life.
It may be that the real values defining a parish system are conflict avoidance,
or fiscal conservancy, or power vested in an old-guard elite,
or passive-aggressive control, or…you get the picture.
None of those behaviors, I’m happy to say, seem to define us at Gethsemane,
although we’ve probably exhibited them all from time to time.
Are we then perfect? By no means!
It remains our work to deepen our identity as a community growing in Christ,
called to worship, to learn, and to serve, and to continue to ask
“Who will we become and how will we get there?”
This is a life-long process, individually and as a community.
It doesn’t stop because you put an identity statement on paper for the diocese.
It won’t stop when you have a new priest in the mix.
The kind of transformation that would conform us to the full stature of Christ
is a process of continual discernment,
of putting one foot in front of the other, spiritually speaking,
making ourselves over ever closer to the image of Christ.
Thus we are called, both as individuals and as a community,
to seek and nurture an ever-growing resonance in our life
with the teachings and actions of Jesus.
This is what the baptismal covenant seeks to express.
If this seems daunting, never forget
that as we come up from the waters of our baptism,
these words are meant for us:
You are my child, my Beloved; I am well pleased with you.
It is altogether likely that in growing up and as we say “maturing” that we forget this.
We forget ever hearing these words. We forget who we are and whose we are.
Sadder still, we often come to believe that this could not possibly
be God’s word to me, here, now, today.
Yet to believe this is to separate our selves, our very self, from the love of God.
And to separate our self from the love of God is what our Baptismal service calls sin. This is perhaps our most fundamental sin:
to forget that we are God’s Beloved; that God is well pleased with us.
Such forgetting is the beginning of so much that troubles us.
Such forgetting makes it nearly impossible
to follow and obey Christ as our Lord and Savior.
It takes a conscious effort to remember who we are and whose we are.
It takes daily reminders to accept our Belovedness.
It takes daily remembering, re-membering, to internalize this Good News of our baptism and make it a living force of God’s Spirit alive within us and beyond us.
Listen now to this short passage from Henri Nouwen’s little book, Life of the Beloved.
Listen to these words with great inner attentiveness as I read them
and then keep them in mind as we rise to make our vows.
At your center is a voice that says:
“I have called you by name, from the very beginning.
You are mine and I am yours. You are my beloved, on you my favor rests.
I have molded you in the depths of the earth
and knitted you together in your mother’s womb.
I have carved you in the palms of my hands
and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace.
I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you
with a care more intimate than that of a parent for an only child.
I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step.
Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch.
I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger
and drink that will satisfy all your thirst.
I will not hide my face from you.
You know me as your own as I know you as my own.
You belong to me.
I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover, your spouse.
Yes, even your child. Wherever you are I will be.
Nothing will ever separate us. We are one.”
Turning in your prayer books to page 292, please stand as you are able.