Monday, January 11, 2016

Standing in Line at the Muddy River

Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY on the First Sunday after the Epiphany (the Baptism of Jesus), January 10, 2016:  Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.

          About three years ago I was watching a video with a confirmation class in which a very cool dude took us on a quick tour of Holy Land sites.  I’ve never been myself so I was quite interested also.

          The longest scene was at the supposed site of Jesus’ baptism.  The guide took us down some stairs to the water and walked right into it.  Before I could react, the teenagers let out with an “Eeeewww! Gross!”

          The water was very muddy.  Aside from that, it did not look like anything I had imagined or seen in movies.  It was muddy (and it apparently is muddy most of the time) and it was narrow.  It looked more like a deep spot in a creek.

          The consensus of the teenagers was that they would never be baptized in that water, and they were somewhat impressed that Jesus did.  “He must have wanted to get baptized pretty badly,” one of them said.

          He must have wanted to get baptized pretty badly.  Well, yes, and that instinct was not just about the water.  Jesus’ decision to be baptized by John in the muddy river was a significant decision, and marked a turning point in his life, dedicated to solidarity with the whole of humanity.

          Think of the people who had probably gathered there (and Luke seems to be telling us that there were a large number of people).  Who was there?  Probably not the very religious, or the political elite.  Both of them react negatively to John, and the political elite eventually removes his head.
          No, I think at that river were mostly people who had nowhere else to go.  They were sinners or the impure, or those labelled as sinners or impure, who had been cut off from mercy by all the regular channels.

          And Jesus, coming upon them and observing them, made a decision.  He got in line with them to take his turn.  He did not choose to stay aloof from this crowd of desperate, guilty, wounded, struggling people.  He got in line with them.

          I think we often hear the words said over Jesus—You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased—as an indication that God was pleased with how he had grown up and that he was now ready to deliver the message for his divine Father.  What if it was getting in line with the desperate that pleased God?

          Martin Smith, an Episcopal priest and one of my favorite writers, puts it this way:

God is well-pleased precisely in Jesus’ self-emptying assumption of our identity….In the muddy river Jesus was taking on the role of representing Humanity, of being its suffering Heart and Self before God….Can you feel and see yourself as part of that crowd of humanity in the muddy water…and experience the entry of Jesus into our condition, into our needs?  He chooses to plunge into it and make it his own.[1]

          Now we gather here as people who have also been baptized, although, I suspect, none of us in a muddy river.  In fact, most of us cannot remember our baptism at all.  But it is crucial that each of us develops what I would call “a baptismal memory,” not as in a photograph, but as in a spirituality, a way of being in relationship with God and with one another.

          Our spiritual baptismal memory is best formed by the experience of the baptism of other’s, and that is precisely why we only baptize publicly, when the whole mass of the parish is present.  We actually baptize individuals, but the rest of us have this baptismal memory of which I am speaking formed and re-formed.

          Most crucial are the words said to us in the Spirit after our baptism, just as those words spoken in the Spirit over Jesus were so crucial to him.  They are no exactly the same, but they may as well be.

          We say, as we anoint the newly baptized with holy oil, You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever. 

          These profound words echo what is happening in the story of Jesus’ own baptism.  They proclaim (and claim) Jesus’ solidarity with each and every one of us, for all time, no matter what.  The seal cannot be broken even if we think we have broken it.

          The instructions for Holy Baptism in The Book of Common Prayer are just as explicit:

Holy Baptism is full initiation into Christ’s Body the Church.  The bond which God establishes is indissoluble.[2]

          We are baptized into Christ, marked as Christ’s own for ever into an indissoluble bond.  This means also that we are joined with Christ’s solidarity with all of humanity.  Baptism is less about individual salvation than it is about universal solidarity with humankind, and not just the humankind of our choosing.  Former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold was fond of reminding us that

Baptism catches us up into solidarities not of our choosing.[3]

          Our baptismal memory is of us standing in line with the desperate, the suffering, those seeking understanding out of their sickness or grief, all those in need of mercy for the flaws all of us master over time.  We are all waiting with Christ in line for the muddy river, for in the muddy river is our peace, our hope, our joy, our life.

[1] Martin Smith, A Season for the Spirit (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1991), pp. 9-10.
[2] Prayer Book, p. 298.
[3] He was quoting former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.  I do not know the origin of the quote.

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