A Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ + January 7, 2018

St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Chelsea, Alabama
Sunday, January 8, 2018

The First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord
First Lesson: Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Second Lesson: Acts 19:1-7
Gospel: Mark 1:4-11

Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak with 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.

26694861_1598507506907166_745071654_nLately, I’ve been reading a wonderful book by an author named Rachel Held Evans, who is probably most known for her blog posts and Christian-related articles. She posts a lot of her material on Facebook and Twitter, which is where I first learned about her. The title of the book that I’ve been reading is, “Searching for Sunday.” In it, Rachel writes candidly about her rocky relationship with the Church, beginning with childhood and continuing through college and young adulthood. She writes about the struggles and the frustrations of growing up in a tradition that had no tolerance for people who asked questions or expressed their concerns or doubt. She writes about the fear and disappointment of eventually leaving Church altogether and the hope of one day finding a way back.

Rachel’s story is not uncommon. I’m convinced that many young adults her age (and my age) end up leaving Church, not because they’re heathens who don’t care about having a relationship with God or serving those in need, but because they’re common perception of the Church is one of hypocrisy and intolerance. They see a Church that is more concerned with keeping certain people out than bringing people together, a Church that is more concerned with keeping its doors open than reaching out to those on the margins of society. This self-serving image of the Church is what so many people have come to associate with modern-day Christianity, and because of this, they’ve become apathetic. In other words, they could take it or leave it. They certainly have better things to do with their time off on Sunday mornings than to be told what to think and how to believe. Who can really blame them for their apathy if they think that, in order to be part of a church, they have to be willing to give up the ability to think for themselves and sacrifice what they know to be true in their hearts.

In her book, Rachel tells her story in seven sections, representing the seven sacraments of the Church: baptism, confession, ordination, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage. Her story begins with baptism, which seems to be a good place to begin since baptism is the beginning of our journey with Christ. In the first chapter, she writes briefly about water- that precious gift that we’ve been given by God yet so often take for granted. She writes about the dual nature of water, being both unpredictable and dangerous yet an essential element for life, and how water has existed since the very beginning of Creation. “In the beginning, the Spirit of God hovered over water,” Rachel writes. “The water was dark and deep and everywhere, the ancients say, an endless primordial sea. Then God separated the water, pushing some of it below to make oceans, rivers, dew drops, and springs, and vaulting the rest of the torrents above to be locked behind a glassy firmament, complete with doors that opened for the moon and windows to let out the rain.”

She writes about water and its place in God’s Creation and how it is used throughout the Biblical narrative as a symbol of purity and salvation, a vessel of the Holy Spirit. “Water knits us together in our mothers’ wombs,” Rachel writes, “our ghostlike tissue inhaling and exhaling the embryonic fluid that grows our lungs and bones and brains. Water courses through our bodies and makes our planet blue. It is water that lifts cars like leaves when a tsunami rages to shore, water that in a moment can swallow a ship and in eons carve a canyon, water we trawl for like chimps for bugs with billion-dollar equipment scavenging Mars, water we drop on the bald heads of babies to name them children of God, water we torture with and cry with, water that carries the invisible diseases that will kill four thousand children today, water that if warmed just a few degrees more will come crashing in and around the earth and wash us all away. But just as water carried Moses to his destiny down the Nile, so water carried another baby from a woman’s body into an expectant world. Wrapped now in flesh, the God who once hovered over the waters was plunged beneath them at the hands of a wild-eyed wilderness preacher. When God emerged, he spoke of living water that forever satisfies and of being born again. He went fishing and washed his friends’ feet. He touched the ceremonially unclean. He spit in the dirt, cast demons into the ocean, and strolled across an angry sea. He got thirsty and he wept. After the government washed its hands of him, God hung on a cross where blood and water spewed from his side. Like Jonah, he got swallowed up for three days. Then God beat death. God rose from the depths and breathed air once again. When he found his friends on the shoreline, he told them not to be afraid but to go out and baptize the whole world. The Spirit that once hovered over the waters had inhabited them. Now every drop is holy.”

I bet you’ll never look at water the same way again, will you? To me, Rachel’s beautiful and evocative writing strikes deep at the heart of what it means to be baptized. Like water, it’s both unpredictable and dangerous yet an essential element for life. Baptism unifies us; it strips away the walls that divide us. It reconnects us to the truth of who we are and who we were created to be. We are made in the image and likeness of God- a God who loves us so much that he came to live and die as one of us, a God who longs to be in communion with each of us, a God who will never forsake us, despite our worst mistakes.

The sacrament of Baptism is an invitation to take on a new way of life, to allow the Holy Spirit to dwell deep within us, to be buried with Christ in his death and raised to new life through his resurrection. Baptism calls us to be more than just a congregation who gathers to worship once a week on Sunday mornings. It calls us to be more than just a group of friends whose only interest is to serve ourselves and those whom we consider worthy of God’s love and mercy. We should be reminded of this every time we enter the church, and this is why the baptismal font stands near the entrance, filled with the water of baptism. It stands there, filled with water, to remind us of our covenant with God, to remind us that we are called by name, each of us, to serve Christ and to proclaim the Gospel by word and deed. On this First Sunday after the Epiphany, as we remember and celebrate our Lord’s baptism in the River Jordan, let us also remember our own baptism and the vows that bind us together as one Body in Christ. Amen.

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