On Sunday, January 12, 2020 I offered a sermon on the Baptism of Jesus as part of my Candidating Weekend at the Annisquam Village Church. Following the worship service, the congregation voted unanimously to call me as their new pastor. (Hooray!) In this sermon, I presented my vision of church in the 21st century, a vision rooted and grounded in the love of God expressed in contemplation and compassion.
Today, at this threshold moment for the Annisquam Village Church community, followed by a week that that saw threat of war with Iran, fires in Australia and even a stabbing at the Rockport Middle School – a time of hope and peril – the baptism of Jesus offers us a powerful window into the purpose of the spiritual life and the purpose of church. We are called to receive God’s love and to be God’s love.
Leaving behind his everyday life, Jesus travels miles into the wilderness to go where people who are expecting God’s judgment are engaging in a ritual of purification. John expects Jesus to offer a fiery condemnation of sinners. Instead, Jesus submits to the same powerful ritual of cleansing and healing that they experience. At one with struggling people, Jesus demonstrates what the meaning of his name “he will save us from our sins”—really looks like: not judgment, but understanding and love.
At his baptism, Jesus is gifted with an epiphany.
He sees God’s spirit descend on him and he hears God’s voice:
“This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
In that moment, his identity and mission are revealed by God
to be one and the same: love.
All four gospels agree – the baptism of Jesus is the turning point in his life,
transforming him from a carpenter to a teacher and healer;
from a resident of Nazareth to an itinerant preacher;
from many years of living a private, undocumented life
to a very public life whose story informs and inspires us to this day.
If only our own baptisms had such meaning for us.
The Baptism of Jesus calls us to expand our understanding of what baptism is all about. Yesterday morning during our “meet and greet,” I raised a question about what it means to you to be a member of this church. Another related question is this: What do you really think your baptism means?
I understand that there is a diversity of theological viewpoints in this congregation. So answering the question about the meaning of baptism, may have a variety of responses.
But, If we think it is the moment we are saved forever from sin and given a ticket to heaven or escape the fire of hell, we truncate its meaning.
If we think that baptism is just about our personal salvation, we truncate it’s meaning.
And if we think that baptism is just about joining a particular faith community,
we truncate it’s meaning.
At heart, the baptism of Jesus reveals that the purpose of his baptism and our baptism
is the same: to receive God’s love and be God’s love in the world.
Because most of us were infants when we were baptized, we remember neither the ritual nor the love of family and friends showered upon us.
And even if we can remember the day our children or grandchildren were baptized,
if they were baptized, we might still have been operating out of a limited understanding of baptism. I know I was. When I had my son, Pete, baptized 27 years ago, I saw it as a way to initiate him into a particular denomination and community of faith.
Over a year ago, a single mother, Marcia, approached me to have her child baptized. Her story is not unlike the story of many young parents today. Marcia no longer feels comfortable in the church she grew up in. In her case, the primary reason is because her sister is a lesbian. Since her son’s father was finally on the road to recovery from an opiod addiction, she felt eager to bring the family together to celebrate her son, Jimmy. Marcia was also living with her devout 80 year old father who kept asking her when was she finally going to get his grandson baptized! She also wanted me to know that Jimmy was struggling to keep up with all of the homework in 3rd grade, causing him anxiety.
As we planned the service of baptism together, we added a tangible ritual of blessing so that over the course of his life, Jimmy might always be able to remember and draw on the love of family, community, and God for him. A few days before Christmas, over thirty family members and friends crowded into Marcia’s living room. Each person was given a small stone. After an opening prayer and scripture reading, they were guided into a moment of reflection, to consider a blessing for Jimmy and then write it, along with their names, on the rock.
When they were finished writing, Jimmy walked around the room with a basket as family members and friends, often tearful, spoke their blessings aloud and gave Jimmy hugs and kisses. The love in the room was palpable. When he was finished collecting the blessing stones, I guided him to keep his basket in a special place in his room. I suggested that before he went to school, he could put a blessing stone in his pocket to remember the love and strength of God and family that is always with him.
Can you imagine what it would be like to have a keepsake from your baptism day to remind you of the immensity of love that surrounds you always?
Most of us need to be reminded that we are loved at least from time to time; and some of us need to be reminded a lot more than that. Right? When we forget that we are inherently lovable, we are more likely to make poor choices, to chase love in the wrong places and to lack the confidence to share our gifts with the world.
To know that there are people who care, who are the instruments of God’s love to us,
can be a touchstone, especially during turbulent times.
After I graduated from the University of Vermont, I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and began work at the St. Martin de Porres Shelter, an overnight shelter on Seattle’s skid road for 200 men over the age of 50. Most of them were late stage, chronic alcoholics. On my first Christmas Eve there, before we opened for the night, there was an unexpected knock on the door. One of the regular residents, a big, lumbering, unshaven man with puffy eyes asked if he could come in and talk. We sat down and David began to pour out his heart to me, “Here it is Christmas Eve and my daughters don’t even know where I am. What would they say if they could see me like this? I tried to be a good father. One Christmas, my youngest daughter asked me for a bicycle. I thought I was the best Dad in the world when I got her that bicycle. But, then my other daughter asked, “Daddy, where is my bicycle?” How could I have been so dumb? I didn’t make their lives easy. Now they don’t even know where I am. How can they possibly love me?”
As my 22 year old self sat and listened to David, I didn’t know where the words came from and surprised myself when I said, “David, your daughters love you. They will always love you. My father and I have not always had the easiest time. Like you, he made some mistakes. But we will always have a bond; just as I believe you and your daughters will always have a bond.”
By this point, we both were in tears. David thanked me for listening and sharing my own experience. He said that he was going to try and clean himself up. After that night, I never saw him again and have always hoped he found his way back home.
That encounter was not just a gift for David, though. It was an epiphany for me. I found myself saying to him what I needed to say to and hear from my Dad: You are loved.
And in that moment, I began to see my Dad not only as someone who had let me down, but as someone who was just another person trying to do the best he could.
At this juncture in our society, when religious and spiritual life is going through tectonic shifts; a time when many traditional congregations are shrinking and closing at alarming rates, our celebration of the baptism of Jesus is a clarion call for us as individuals and as church to keep our focus on what matters most: love.
Brian McLaren, a leading voice about the future of the church, in his book, “The Great Spiritual Migration” asks, “What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs, but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation (which is in other words – receiving the love of God) and expressed in compassion (in other words – being the love of God) … dedicated to beloved community for all?” Let me repeat this: “What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs, but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion dedicated to beloved community for all?”
This is our challenge and our opportunity as a church in the 21st century. So many people today are longing for a place where they can bring all of who they are to the table; and be seen, heard, accepted and loved just as they are. When we share our suffering, our challenges, our pain (as those gathered with John the Baptist to publicly confess their sins did); when we are vulnerable, our hearts open and grace is present. How can we be a church that uncovers grace and love in the muck, mire, and mess of the deepest waters of our lives?
The church in the 21st century will also thrive if we take spiritual practice seriously, creating regular opportunities to open ourselves more fully to God’s presence. How can we possibly be good news for the world at a time of such immense challenge unless our lives are firmly rooted and grounded in the love of God?
If we want to experience epiphany -to hear God’s voice and receive God’s spirit, we need to find ways to slow down, pause, and listen. Whether it be through contemplation, meditation, being in nature, lifting our voices in song, or other spiritual practices we are called to deepen our connection to God. As a self-proclaimed “Church of Connection,” how can we welcome epiphany through focusing on spiritual practice?
For a church in the 21st century to thrive, we must also see how the other great religious traditions of the world are also pathways of love. We must stop emphasizing how we are different from each and begin to embrace what we share. We are called to recognize the common pathway of the heart. At the end of the day, we are called to remember that all people share this one planet. It is essential that we focus on what unites us, not what divides us.
Just as Jesus’ baptism was not for his sake alone, neither is ours. The purpose of Jesus’ baptism is to equip him for ministry. It’s the purpose of ours, too. As church, we do not exist for our own sake, but for the sake of a world in need of our loving presence. Blessed by the waters of baptism, we can be confident when we reach out in service to others that God goes with us. Whether it’s to care for a seriously ill person; or protect the environment; or tend to the next generation; whatever the mission is that you are called to address – baptism offers the confidence that God will be present as you reach out in love. And we can be confident that as we venture beyond our comfort zones, perhaps beyond the beauty of this little village, we can discover even more about God and ourselves. I would fail you as your pastor if the only place we ever see each other is in this church or in this village.
Why do you come to church? Why do you participate in this community? Why do you strive to follow the teachings and example of Jesus? My hunch is that you and I are here because we want to experience Epiphany. We want to feel the Spirit and hear a message that speaks to our own lives. We come because we often forget and need to be reminded over and over again that we are God’s beloved. We come because we need the assurance that God is with us in the midst of the challenges of our daily lives. We come because there is nothing sweeter than the experience of feeling God’s grace and love. We come to be inspired to make the world a better place. And we we come because it makes a difference to be in community, to share our lives with others wherever we are on the spiritual journey.
Perhaps, in part, because our understanding of baptism has been so limited, our life of faith has not always been the radiant light in the world it could be. Rather than merely focusing on personal salvation, a set of beliefs or membership in an exclusive club, the baptism of Jesus calls us to do what he did – to meet people where they are, to stand with others who are in pain or need, to listen for God’s voice in our lives and in the world. We show others what it means to be Christian not merely by what we think or what we believe, but by what we do, by how we love.
Many people today say, “I don’t need to go to church to believe in God.” That’s true.
But to follow Jesus as threats of war persist, fires burn, and children feel unsafe even at school, we are called to live more fully from our baptisms. We are called to a loving way of life in community grounded in spiritual practice and reaching out in compassion. We are called to be one in love.