A Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany

St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Chelsea, Alabama
Sunday, January 8, 2017

The First Sunday after the Epiphany + Year A
First Lesson: Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Second Lesson: Acts 10:34-43
Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17

+ Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak through them; take our minds and think through them; take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

fig-13I’d like to begin my sermon this morning by taking just a few moments to thank you all for the warmth and hospitality that you’ve shown toward me and my family over the last several weeks. When we first received the call to come to Chelsea in November, our first reaction pure joy! We were so excited to be called back home to Alabama. But, then we quickly realized that a lot needed to happen between the end of November and the beginning of January in order to get us here. Not to mention that it was only a few weeks before Christmas! As you can imagine, it was quite overwhelming at times, but what made it all worthwhile was knowing that we would soon be welcomed with open arms into our new home here at St. Catherine’s. We can’t thank you enough for all that you’ve done for us- everything from helping us move here to bringing us meals- you’ve gone above and beyond what we could’ve hoped for, and for that, we are truly grateful.

A little over thirty years ago, a council within the Anglican Communion began developing a statement that would eventually be used to express the Anglican Communion’s understanding of God’s mission in the world and the Church’s commitment to that mission. Over the course of six years, between 1984 and 1990, the council worked to develop what we now call the “Five Marks of Mission.”

The first mark is to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom. Now, this may seem like an obvious place to begin a statement on mission, but it’s important because it places a special emphasis on evangelism and our commitment to proclaiming the Gospel by word and action.

The second mark is to teach, baptize, and nurture new believers, emphasizing the importance of the Great Commission that our Lord gave to his disciples soon after his resurrection. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

The third mark of mission is to respond to human need by loving service. Jesus said to his disciples, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The fourth mark is to seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind, and to pursue peace and reconciliation. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaims the truth of God’s Kingdom to the people gathered, saying such revolutionary things like, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,” and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Finally, the fifth mark of mission is to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth, recalling our role in the creation narrative as being formed in the image and likeness of God and having dominion over every living thing.

What I find most helpful about the “Five Marks of Mission” is that we can use them as a means to keep us on track- to keep us from wandering too far from what it is that we are called to do as followers of Jesus Christ. When you think about it, after hearing the “Five Marks of Mission,” they’re very similar to the vows that we make in our baptism- vows that we’ll renew together in just a few minutes. I think this is an important connection for us to make- this connection between baptism and God’s mission for the Church, which is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” To me, it says that, at our very core, we are missional people called to serve a God that loves us and wants us to participate in the building up of God’s Kingdom on earth.

Baptism is the beginning of our journey- a journey of transformation that, if we allow it, will take us deep into the heart of God. Brother Mark Brown, one of the monks of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Anglican monastic order, recently offered a beautiful reflection on the “Five Marks of Mission.” His reflection begins with the baptism of Jesus at the Jordan River, which we commemorate today on this first Sunday after the Epiphany. Brother Mark describes Jesus as the “embodiment of mission” and emphasizes the fact that Jesus, even before his earthly ministry begins, is identified as God’s beloved Son. This is important. Nowhere in the Gospels does it say that Jesus had to earn his status as God’s beloved. Nowhere does it say that he had to accomplish certain things in order to be known as the beloved of God. He simply was. And, his belovedness was made known through the waters of baptism when a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

To be baptized is to come to this important truth: that you are the beloved of God with whom God is well pleased, and it’s only when we accept this truth that we can truly begin to live into God’s mission for us.

The story of our Lord’s baptism always reminds me of my own, which I’m fortunate enough to remember since it was during my time as a student at Auburn. Father Wells Warren, the Episcopal chaplain and priest at St. Dunstan’s, discovered at the beginning of my senior year that I had never been baptized. So, he asked me if I would be interested in being baptized at the annual beach retreat in September, and I quickly responded by saying, “Yes, of course!” The weekend of the beach retreat arrived, and we traveled to Fort Morgan, Alabama, for a time of rest and renewal, a time of fellowship and building community. On Sunday morning, I was baptized and welcomed into the Body of Christ. I remember it vividly. The weather was perfect; the sun was shining, and the waters of the Gulf were particularly clear. We gathered together on the beach for worship. Chelsea was my sponsor, and when the time came for the baptism portion of the service, we waded into the gulf. I found myself surrounded by friends and loved ones, some of whom I had only recently met. I felt protected and secure, and most importantly, I felt loved by those who were present, a deep and abiding love that can only described as the love of God.

And, I was baptized in the name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. It was somewhat of a combination between being dunked in the water and having water washed over me, and the scene was worthy to behold, I’m sure. We probably looked like a bunch of Pentecostals waving our Prayer Books in the air every time a wave came crashing through.

After the baptism, we returned to the beach for the remainder of the service, and I was asked to serve as a chalice bearer for the first time, another important touchstone in my journey. In that moment, and quite possibly for the first time in my life, I felt as though I had been lifted up and called to fulfill a greater purpose. In that moment, I was fully aware that God was present in my life and that I was God’s beloved.

Dear friends, it is with this same type of love- the love that we discover in our baptisms- that we are called to share with all of our brothers and sisters, a love that knows no bounds, a love that is overwhelming and compassionate, and a love that calls us to serve as the hands and feet of Christ in the world. So let us now reaffirm those same vows that we made in our baptisms and recommit ourselves to the work that has been set before us. Amen.

 

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