Thursday, September 21, 2023

 I'm pleased to announce the publication of my book:

Published by Church Publishing and available through them or on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and

Foreword by The Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis.

Complete with Study Guide suitable for groups.

Church Publishing says

Christ himself lived in a time of immense social and political turmoil, as did his early followers. But can those early struggles provide guidance for God’s faithful in today's divided world? Episcopal priest and peace advocate Michael W. Hopkins proves that they can, tracing the origins of Christian responsibility all the way back to the indissoluble bond of baptism, drawing a clear line between those fraught early days and the turbulent present that Jesus commands Christians to engage in.

Called to Act peels back the historical and scriptural underpinnings of Christianity to exhume the social obligations inherited by all members of the kingdom of God. Through interpretation of Jesus’ words, works, and sacraments, modern day Christians can begin to reframe their fundamental outlook on and participation in the world, working as one to build communities of mutual care. Rather than allow differences of opinion or misguided attempts at neutrality to divorce Christians from the necessary work of political and community engagement, Hopkins provides compelling scriptural evidence for a new kingdom, united not by what has been left undone, but by what Christians are called to do for each other. 

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Sunday, September 10, 2023

With all Creation

 Sermon peached on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (observing Creation Season) at Church of the Redeemer, Addison:  Exodus 12:1-14.

          We continue this morning in our second of five weeks celebrating God’s creation and our responsibility as part of that creation.

           The readings began in the Book of Exodus with the institution story for the Jewish Passover.  We read this same story on Maundy Thursday, the day we celebrate Jesus’ gift to us of the Eucharist.

           In regard to God’s creation, the Passover story reminds us that God frequently uses the creation as a means of communicating with us.  This is, of course, true for us in the Eucharist, where common things of the earth—bread made from wheat and wine made from grapes—become the means by which Jesus shares the offering of his own body and blood for our redemption.

           But there is more of the creation in the Eucharist than the simple use of elements of it as symbols.  The creation is not just a subject in our celebration. The creation is an active participant.

           We are using Eucharistic Prayer D for the remaining four weeks of our celebration of creation.  One of the reasons I chose it is because the place of the creation in our celebration could not be clearer.

           Leading up to the Sanctus—the “Holy, holy, holy,” we pray:

 Fountain of life and source of all goodness, you made all things and fill them with your blessing; you created them to rejoice in the splendor of your radiance.

           What do these words teach us? They teach us not only that God made everything.  That assertion is important. The creation is God’s doing.  That answers the question of how? How is the creation made? God.

           But the prayer goes on to answer another question:  Why? Why does God create?  “You created them to rejoice in the splendor of your radiance.”

           The purpose of creation—every bit of it—is to praise God.  That does not mean that the purpose of all creation is to advance God’s ego needs.  No, to worship God is to be in relationship with God.  Worship is the exchange of love.  And the prayer teaches us that this exchange of love with the Creator is what all creation is made for.

           The prayer goes on:

 Countless throngs of angels stand before you to serve you night and day; and, beholding the glory of your presence, they offer you unceasing praise. Joining with them, and giving voice to every creature under heaven, we acclaim you, and glorify your Name, as we sing, “Holy, holy, holy …”

           Our job is not only to sing the praise of God for ourselves, but to give voice to every creature under heaven.  When we sing the “Holy, holy, holy,” we do not sing alone. We sing with all that God has made.

           And here let us be careful to note that we do not sing for all creation because it is too dumb to do so. No, creation, lives in praise of God all on its own, without our aid.  The part we play is to give that already praising creation the additional power of human language.

           Sing “Holy, holy, holy” and imagine as you are doing so, joining with “all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small” but also every blade of grass, and especially at this time of year imagine every luscious tomato and ear of corn.

           I am reminded of the reading from Pope Francis we had last week:  “Nature,” he said, “cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.”

           To forget this union we are in with creation, which we celebrate when we sing, “Holy, holy, holy,” is a very dangerous thing. Brother Keith Nelson of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Episcopal monastic order, put this danger quite starkly as we just heard:

 When we violate, abuse, exploit, or even simply ignore non-human creatures, we are rejecting a core dimension of our humanity and of God’s calling for us. We are crucifying the earth. We are interrupting, speaking over, or bickering with God’s gentle language of love, in which each creature is like a syllable of the living Word.

           “We are crucifying the earth.”

           As I said, stark words. But important ones.  It is the exact opposite of what Eucharistic Prayer D says is our place in the creation:  to rule and to serve.  To crucify is not to rule; it is to abuse. And to crucify is not to serve, but to use, even to enslave.

           Perhaps it is best to leave today with that stark statement:  What is going on around us is that humankind—we—are crucifying the earth.

           So in our celebration of creation in our own day there must be a firm note of penitence, for what we have done and left undone in regard to God’s creation.  Our use and abuse must stop and we must learn to act differently.  How to act differently will be the question I will try to answer next week.

God Sees Every Thing

Sermon preached on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (observing Creation Season) at Church of the Redeemer, Addison.

Let us pray.

 Almighty God, who hast so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives:  So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

           This is the Collect for Labor from The Book of Common Prayer, and it is also a fitting prayer as we begin five weeks of celebrating God’s creation and the responsible part we play in it.  Here is the reality we are trying to come to grips with:  God has created life in a web and everything we do in that web affects all the web, and we are not talking solely about human interdependence.  Indeed, we are talking about the interdependence of all creation.

           In our day, when we speak of the common good, we speak not only of the common human good, but the good of all creation.  We are still learning to speak in this way, and, as a result, are still learning to act in this way.

           We have always said in the church that, as the great Anglican poet John Donne once wrote, “no man is an island.” We are not made to live life alone, and we are not made to live life in competition with one another. No, our vision is cooperation, not competition.

           What we have not always said in the church is that the cooperation to which we are called is not only with one another, on the plane of human existence.  We are called to cooperate in and with creation.

           We have rather thought that the creation is a gift for us to be used to advance our own lives.  We thought that God gave us the right to rule over the creation. Subdue it, bend it to our will.  It’s right there in the very beginning of the Bible.

           But we have for centuries abused the creation story, twisted it to our own benefit. I remember being taught at some young age that at the end of each day of creation God said, “This is good,” but when he made human beings, he said, “This is very good.”

           But that isn’t what the text says. It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to figure that our. At the end of the sixth day, the day on which all the animals and humankind were made, the text says,

 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.

           God saw everything he had made, and indeed it was very good.  That’s the biblical worldview that we must begin with if we are going to think and act rightly about the creation.  Each thing God makes is good. Only all together is it very good.

           And yes, God said to humankind to fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over all living things.  But what does it mean to “subdue” and have “dominion?”  The Hebrew word translated “subdue” does not mean have power over. It doesn’t mean subdue as in enslave. It means something more like “organize,” “create a pattern with.” The image I have here is of the conductor of an orchestra.

           That’s what it means that we are in the role of subduing, having dominion. We are the overseers of the great cooperation God has made.  There’s a balance that is expressed in the Eucharistic Prayer we will use during the rest of this Creation Season. Prayer D says:

 You formed us in your own image, giving the whole world into our care, so that, in obedience to you, our Creator, we might rule and serve all your creatures.

           “Rule and serve.” That’s the balance. I’m going to keep coming back to that phrase over the next several weeks. What does it mean to rule and to serve the creation.

           Pope Francis said, “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.”  It reminds me of something Richard Hooker said more than 400 years ago.  Hooker, the great theological mind of early Anglicanism, writing as if it were today and he could see the environmental disaster we are in.

 God hath created nothing simply for itself: but each thing in all things, and of every thing each part in the other hath such interest, that in the whole world nothing is found whereunto any thing created can say, “I need thee not.”

           Nothing, no one, can say to any other thing in the whole world, “I need thee not.”

           That’s a good place to start our reflection on the creation and our place in it.

           We do not have the power to say to anyone or anything, “I need thee not.”

Sunday, July 30, 2023

The Great Pearl according to Paul

 Sermon preached on Sunday, July 30, 2023 at Church of the Redeemer, Addison, NY, the 9th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12A):  Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52; Romans 8:26-39

          Of the four short parables we just heard, I am most interested this morning in the search for the Great Pearl.

 The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

           It must have been some pearl, to sell everything he had—to risk it all—to possess it.  It is hyperbole, of course.  What smart business owner would do such a thing?  But Jesus’ parables frequently push us beyond a reasonable response.

           The kingdom, Jesus is saying, is worth everything. So we might ask just what is this great pearl in your life, in my life, that we would give everything to possess?

           St. Paul knows what it is. At the end of chapter eight he takes us through an examination of our life, our frequent perception of the purposes of God, and then the revelation of the real prize.

           He begins the passage we just heard, laying out what relationship with God looks like—how it works.  He’s not easy to follow, but here I think is the basic outline:

 Let’s be real, he says, we are weak. We don’t know how to pray. Sometimes all we can do in the face of life is sigh or even groan, a word he used previously in this chapter.

    II.            The good news is that the Spirit of God within every one of us, prays on our behalf. The Spirit turns our ignorance, our sighs, our groans into prayer.  We hear a groan; God hears what we need.

  III.            We believe that in the purposes of God all things work together for good. It is often not easy to see when we are in the midst of trouble or grief.  The trust that is required of us is enormous.

 IV.            But the bottom line, he says, is that whatever the circumstances of our life, we are called by God, we are justified by God, we are glorified by God.

That would have been a pretty good ending for this train of thought, but Paul knows he is being idealistic and that these promises raise all kinds of questions when we are in the midst of life.  So he lays those questions out:

 What are we to say about this? In other words, how can we know these things are true?

    II.            If God is for us, he asks, who is against us? It’s a rhetorical question, because we all experience in life at times—maybe even frequently—that there is plenty that is against us. Death is just the most obvious of those things.

  III.            The next questions gives a hint at where he is going. The God who made himself known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, will that God not give us everything he has promised?

 IV.            But doesn’t this God also judge? And is not that the great weight upon us all, the fear that we will be found short of the mark, unworthy, not good enough for God’s promises?

 Then Paul asks the real question. Who is to condemn? Who is it who will judge us? And if we’ve been paying attention reading this chapter of Romans, our ears will prickle at the word “condemn.” Where have we heard that word before.

 It was at the very beginning if the chapter, the rather outlandish declaration that “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  So who is to condemn us.  It is that same Christ Jesus, who dies for us, who was raised for us, who prays for us.  So he asks the question about who will condemn us in a different way:

 Who will separate us from the love of Christ?

           Will hardship separate us from God’s love? Will distress?—there’s plenty of that in life. Will persecution? Will nakedness, meaning will economic woes? Will poverty separate from God’s love?  Will danger? Will war?

           And to say to us, these are very real questions, it’s OK to have them, he quotes from Psalm 44, a real complaint to God. “For sake, God, we are being killed all day long, like sheep to be slaughtered.” Yes, indeed, that is what life feels like sometimes.

           But then comes the crescendo, what it all comes down to, the heart of everything that Paul believes, and, I believe, that Jesus taught.

           No, he says, when all seems lost we are “more than conquerors?” When all seems lost we actually win.

 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

           Just soak that in. Nothing, not even our own stuff. Nothing. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

           And there it is. The pearl of great price, the thing that we would give anything for, the absolute assurance of love. The love that made the universe is our, guaranteed.

           And the secret is that when we search for it, we find that it was already ours. The pearl of great price is not somewhere else for us to search heaven and earth to find it. It was in our possession all the time.

           Remember these astounding words from the baptismal rite:

 You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.

           We say those words not in wishful thinking. We say them because they are the truest things that can be said about us.

           No separation. None. The Pearl of Great Price: the steadfast love of God.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Ishmael's Siblings

 Sermon preached at Church of the Redeemer, Addison, NY, June 25, 2023, the 4th Sunday after Pentecost: Genesis 21:8-21

          It’s to the first reading I turn this morning, a very important piece of the Abraham and Sarah story from Genesis, although a part of the story with which we are not so familiar, the story of Hagar and Ishmael.

           This story is important because it is an example of how the biblical story allows for the complexities of life, and, even as it seems to give us a narrow way to live, there are these moments when it allows for a broader understanding of what it means to be faithful.

           Two weeks ago we were with Abram and Sarai as God called them to leave their home and travel to the land of Canaan, a foreign land.  It was a hard thing for God to ask of them, but it came with a promise:  In this foreign land I will make your descendants as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore, as many as the stars in the sky.  Your children will be a blessing to the whole world.  They trusted in that pro ise and they went.

           They went, but the years went by and the promise was not fulfilled. No children came to them. Yet God kept promising. Last week we heard of one of those occasions when the promise was renewed, when Abraham and Sarah were visited by three strangers, who brought with them the message:  you will bear children and they will be a blessing to the world. It was such an impossibility in their minds at that point that it caused Sarah to laugh.

           The unfulfilled promise was finally dealt with by Abraham and Sarah in their own way. They could not wait any longer for God to act, so they did.  Sarah gave her slave girl Hagar to Abraham so that he might have a child to be his heir. And, indeed, Ishmael was born.

           But then after yet another reiteration of the promise, Sarah becomes pregnant in her very old age and bears a son, Isaac, whose name means “laughter.” Finally here is the child of the promise.

           But what of Ishmael?  Sarah cannot bear any rivalry with Isaac, and so she demands that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. Abraham is deeply saddened by this request, but God intervenes. It is all right, God says, do what Sarah has asked of you. But do not worry about the boy. I will take care of him. He too will be the father of a great nation.

           Hagar and Ishmael’s part in the story could have simply ended there and we would not have thought anything of it, but the biblical writer wants us to know more, wants us to be sure about God’s care for this other child, the child not of the promise.  God fulfils his promise and the boy lives.

           This story has always been important to me, ever since I first became aware of it, which if I remember correctly was not until I was in seminary.  I was and am deeply attracted to Ishmael, the child not of the promise, the “inconvenient child,” if you will.

           Isaac represents normality, the way things are supposed to be, the way things work best maybe even the way God wants them to be.  But then there is Ishmael, the different one, the inconvenient one, the one born outside the norm, whose life is not typical and, therefore, perhaps not as highly valued. Ishmael is not the way things are supposed to be.

           And yet!  There is room in God’s heart for Ishmael.  There is room in God’s heart for the unusual, different, abnormal, inconvenient, not seemingly what was promised.  There’s room in God’s heart, that meant and means, for me.  And, truth to tell, for you.

           The Bible sets out a path to the promise of abundant life. God tells Abraham that Sarah is right. Indeed God will use Isaac—the child of the promise—to build his Israel. That is how life works, what we might call normal.

           But the Bible also, time and time again, provides an alternative, a path that does not appear to lead to the promise, but all things are possible for God. God can find a way whose lives do not follow the usual route. Those who are not obviously children of the promise, and yet are still children of love and care. The children of Hagar are also loved.

           And that is the good news for today. Whatever your life does or does not look like, you are loved and God will find a way for you.  And the church, if we are truly doing our job, will find a way also.  I am proof of that, brother of Ishmael, thanks be to God.

Saturday, June 10, 2023

The Social God

 Sermon preached on Trinity Sunday, June 4, 2023 at Church of the Redeemer, Addison, New York, in the Diocese of Rochester, my first Sunday as priest-in-residence.

          I am pleased to be with you today and to begin our ministry together, our relationship together.  I hope over the next few months to get to know each one of you, and for each one of you to get to know me.

           I will start by telling you what is at the heart of my understanding of why it is we gather, and what it is we have to say to the world around us in the Name of Jesus.

           I’ve used the word already:  relationship.  The good news is that God desires relationship with us. The good news is that we are capable of relationship with God. The good news is that we are called to be in relationship with one another. The good news is that we never need be alone.

            A friend remarked that it was too bad that my first sermon in this new role had to fall on Trinity Sunday.  I said that actually it is perfect.

           It is sometimes said that this is the only Sunday when we celebrate a doctrine rather than a part of the story. That’s not true at all. The notion of God as Trinity came out of the early Christians’ experience of God. God as Trinity made sense of their story.

           Christianity from the very beginning was an intensely social religion. That is no surprise because Jesus was an intensely social person. The value of life in community shows up in all the writings of the early church. Part of the conversion to the message of Jesus was a profound acceptance that we are responsible for each other, that the common good among us is vitally important.

            Relationship was so critical to early Christian life, that it came to make sense that even God consisted of relationship. Their witness said that it is, in effect, too dangerous to say that God is only one.  The vision of monotheism is the right vision we say, but it is a dangerous vision.  It is dangerous because, left to itself, God too easily becomes distant lord, monarch, detached ruler.  It is a vision of a God who ultimately needs nothing and no one.

           That is not the God known by Jesus, and it is not our experience of God. The insight we bring to the tale is that God needs. God needs the world. God needs us. The very nature of God is community. Our God is not a monarchical God but a social God.

           The Trinity is more than a doctrine.  It reveals who we are and what we are called to do.  It means that we are called to community and society being created in God’s image.

          It is our nature, like God, to need, to need not to be alone.  And not just with whom already know and love.  We are called to co-create with God a world where no thing and no one is alone.

           This is part of “the dignity of every human being” that we pledge to uphold in our baptismal covenant.  We sometimes get this wrong in our culture.  We think that the dignity of every human being is to stand on his or her own two feet, being a “self-made” man or woman.

           No, we Christians say, the dignity of every human being is to stand among sisters and brothers and know herself or himself to be one with them, a fellow, equal child of God.  And it is our vision of the Trinity that leads us to proclaim this radical truth.

           Way back on Easter Day, we heard the risen Jesus say to the women who came to the tomb, “Do not be afraid.

          Now, it is perfectly reasonable for someone in this world of ours, in this county and village even, to respond, “Why not? Why shouldn’t I be afraid?”

           It is a legitimate question.  You only have to read the newspaper or watch the TV news to know that it is a perfectly rational question.  Do not be afraid, you say?  Why not?

           The Christian answer is the answer of the Trinity.  Why not be afraid? Because you are not alone.  That is what happens when we know we are not alone.  It makes it possible not to be afraid.  Because we are not alone.

           Then, of course, we must prove it with our actions.  We must prove it with those two essential things that are at the heart of the life of the Trinity and, therefore, must be at the heart of our life:  hospitality and generosity, the outward and visible signs of real, unconditional, love.

           This is the discipleship to which Jesus calls us this morning.  “Go and make disciples,” he says, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  Make disciples of the Trinity.  Make disciples of the social God, the God Jesus revealed to us whose very life is community.  Go and make disciples who will help me build a world where no one and no thing is afraid because no one and no thing is alone.

           Our belief in God as Trinity is not our belief in some antiquated doctrine.  It is our belief in the fundamental life of God, and the need of God to make a world where no one is alone.

Monday, February 06, 2023

The Meaning of Righteousness

 Sermon preached on February 5, 2023, the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY:  Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112, Matthew 5:13-20

Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

           What are we to make of this proclamation of Jesus?  It comes down to what the biblical witness means by righteousness.  What does it mean to be righteous?

           Luckily, both Isaiah and the psalmist give us clues.  Let’s start with Psalm 112.

           We might call Psalm 112 a “lifestyle psalm.”  It begins with a beatitude, “Happy [or Blessed] are they who fear the Lord.”

           That phrase—fear the Lord—is used frequently in the Old Testament.  It is often misunderstood.  “Fear of the Lord” doesn’t have anything to do with being afraid or living in terror. God does not want us to be intimidated by him.

           “Fear of the Lord” has to do with what the second half of that first verse says. Happy are they who “have great delight in God’s commandments.” “fear” and “delight” may sound like two very different things, but in the biblical way of thinking they are not.

           Biblical fear has to do with putting God first, holding God in reverence and awe, knowing that God is greater than me, and, therefore, I am accountable to God.

           The rest of Psalm 112 lays out what this lifestyle entails.  It drops the word “fear” and uses the term “righteous” or “righteousness.”  And what does the psalm tell us about righteousness:

 The righteous are merciful and full of compassion.

·       They are generous and just.

·       They trust God.

·       They have a certain stability about them.

·       They give freely to the poor.

           To be fair, the psalm also claims the righteous will be rich. It is not clear that the psalmist means the righteous will have loads of money.  It is clear that they will have a certain contentment about them, know that life is a gift, and are committed to share that gift with others.

           Righteousness in Psalm 112 has nothing to do with being sinless, which is how the word “righteous” first rings in our ears.  No, the righteous person knows they are in a community of responsibility. In other words, they seek to live out the commandment to love their neighbors.  They seek to make a difference for good.

           On to Isaiah 58. The context of this passage is the return from the exile in Babylon and the re-building of Jerusalem and indeed the entire society.  Questions were being asked about worship, perhaps even arguments occurring. Imagine fighting over worship!

           God speaks through the prophet what must have been an astounding word.  I don’t care about how you worship. I care about how your worship changes your life.

 Is this the fast that I choose [asks God]:

          to loose the bonds of injustice,

          to undo the thongs of the yoke,

          to let the oppressed go free,

          and to break every yoke?

           Here is how you practice righteousness, God says:  share your bread with those who do not have enough, find homes for those without them, clothe those who are naked.  It is a thoroughly social and economic message:  it is about bread, and clothing, and housing.

           If round about now, we (and I do mean we) feel some resistance to this text, that is actually a good thing.  It means God is getting our attention.  God does not want us to stop worshipping, but he doesn’t want our worship to end when we leave the building.  Worship begets righteousness or it is meaningless.

           To use words form the prophet Micah from last week, God expects our worship to result in our walking humbly with God, doing justice in God’s world and loving the way of neighborly kindness.

           So, what does Jesus mean by righteousness?  I believe he meant just what Isaiah said, and I partly say that because the latter part of Isaiah seems to have been a rich resource for Jesus in his understanding of both who God is and what God means for our life.

           To live a righteous life is to live in the covenant of loving God and loving neighbor, a covenant which seeks always the common good.

           Back to the word “fear.”  Too much we are taught, encouraged, not to love our neighbors but to fear them, and not to trust them, because their need may be their own fault, and their attempt to take from us what is ours.

           The Bible dares us to leave behind, to turn our backs on any fear we have of one another and instead fear only God, to take delight in God’s commandments and to seek to live a life that is part of the common good.

           It isn’t easy to make this turn. It is, in fact, hard to do so.  But if we want a fulfilling life, it is what we have to do.

Monday, January 09, 2023

Getting Into the River with Us

 Sermon preached at St. Thomas Church, Bath, NY on the First Sunday after the Epiphany (the Baptism of Jesus). January 8, 2023: Matthew 3:13-17

You can listen to the sermon here.

          Imagine with me that scene at the Jordan River.  The Jordan isn’t much bigger than the Cohocton, so you can imagine it. There’s this guy named John who has set up camp there. We’d probably call him a religious fanatic. I suppose many people of his day also thought of him that way.

           John spends his time telling people how awful they are—that they’re not right with God. They are destined for God’s wrath, he says, and he calls them things like “you brood of vipers.”

           Despite this message, people are attracted to John. Who knows why?  Is it just curiosity? He is certainly eccentric, even, perhaps, exotic.  Or is it because he’s telling people the truth?  Maybe.

           But maybe not just that. He’s telling people the harsh truth about their lives, but he’s also offering them a second chance.  You can turn your lives around, he says.  That’s what he means by the Greek word metanoia, which gets translated into English, “repent.”  And he’s giving them a way to act this out, by baptism.

           John didn’t invent baptism, as some Christians erroneously think. He was following a Jewish tradition of immersion in water as a ritual purification. It was called Tvilah and it had to take place in naturally moving water, called a mikveh, and it was repeatable.

           We’re told that crowds went out to John. They didn’t just wander by.  It is about twenty miles from Jerusalem to the Jordan.  No, they meant to be there.  So imagine a mass of people on the banks of the river, they quite possibly come from all sorts and conditions of people.

           Some of them probably thought they were basically good people. Others knew their life needed changing. Some of them carried the label unclean or sinner.  But John called them all sinners.  He neither cared about labels or about the degrees of sin that religious people tend to devise. They were all equally guilty before God as far as he was concerned.

           Now one day into this mass of people walks Jesus.  It is tempting to imagine a hush falling over the crowd, and their parting the way for this obviously holy person.  Don’t go there.  Imagine instead, that Jesus just gets in line.  Nobody knows who he is yet and he is perfectly content joining the crowd in its need, to be identified as one of them.

           We make a big deal about Jesus being without sin, and we don’t have any reason to doubt that was the truth about him.  But in a sense that doesn’t much matter, because Jesus chose to identify with all those John called sinners.

           And his identification with sinners did not stop at his baptism.  It was his lifestyle.  It was what he did, and it was controversial, especially among the religious leaders of his day. They ask his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matt 9:10-11). And they say about him, “Look! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (11:19).

           If he never sinned, he was certainly more comfortable among sinners than the religious of his day.  And it gave him a bad reputation, and eventually it was among the reasons they had him done away with.

           We have just gone through our annual celebration of Emmanuel, “God with us.”  And today, sort of at the tail end of that celebration, we get clear about just how radical an act that was and is—God with us.

           God with us in the needy, messy mass of us; God with us in the river; God with us struggling and often failing to be better people; God with us when we are feeling better than others; God with us when we are labeled sinner by others.

           A teenager in my first congregation, not long after my ordination—which will be 33 years ago on Tuesday—took me aside one Sunday morning, looking troubled.  A friend of hers, she said, had told her that her pastor was a sinner. She was embarrassed that she had not know what to say.

            I suggested she engage her friend on the topic again and when her friend delivered the judgment that her pastor was a sinner she reply, “Of course he is. Isn’t yours?”

           She did that.  “Not as bad as yours,” was the reply she got.

           I smiled when she told me that, and we had a talk about who Jesus kept company with.

           There are two different ways of understanding how and why we are saved.  Actually, there are many, but they basically fall into one of two categories.

           One is that our relationship with Jesus saves us from sin, and we are no longer sinners. Oh, we sin from time to time, and then we have to repent, but that moment when we first asked for forgiveness separates us from the mass of unrepentant sinners.  We are “the saved.”

           The second is that Jesus’ relationship with us saves us because he identifies with us in our sinfulness, in the brokenness and messiness of our lives, he loves us as we are, first, and then calls us to be more, and out of gratitude and a renewed sense of purpose that is what we do.

           But he does not call us to be better than other people.  That’s not a category with which he has any concern.  And he does not call us to separate ourselves from other people.  He himself steadfastly refused to do so even when it caused scandal.

          Jesus calls us to be more, calls us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, to find God in the neighbor, and not just our neighbors who have their acts together.  And he calls us to be committed to his cause—the God-given dignity of human beings, which means making peace and doing justice in our daily lives.

           You may recognize those callings to be part of our Baptismal Covenant, which we will re-affirm in a few moments.  They are not ways to be better than others.  They are ways to follow God into the messiness of human life and once there, be loved and love and love again.

           At Jesus’ baptism, we are told a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We might assume that God said those words because Jesus had lived an exemplary life, and came to the Jordan, at around thirty years of age unlike the rest of us, without sin.

           I do not think so.  What if God’s pleasure in his beloved Son was because he did what he did at that river—he chose to be identified with sinners, to be one of them, whether he deserved to be or not?

           John wanted Jesus to baptize him, as he recognized him as the sinless one.  Jesus’ reply amounts to this:  “No, John, this is the right thing to do.  The only way for me to help people to be righteous is to get into the river with them.”