The First Sunday after the Epiphany
The Very Reverend Torey Lightcap

 

Much as we try to tame and bend them to our will,
There is no one definitive human way of framing Scriptures.
If there were, I’m sure we’d have captured it by now
And simply keep trotting it out, week after week, millennium upon millennium.
That is why all sermons, if they pay attention to Scripture, in a way,
Are an invitation to fail faithfully:
There’s nothing anyone could say that would fully and finally capture and encapsulate
Every nuance of how the human family is to live as people loved by God.
This is because of three things:
God is real, we are alive, and the Scriptures — God’s Word — are active and moving.
God speaks into evolving circumstances, and we do our best to hear and integrate.
Any time you go to the Bible, if your eyes and heart are open, or even if they aren’t,
You may find yourself changed in some fundamental new way.
This is good, it’s nothing to be afraid of; it’s something to stand on;
It doesn’t mean you’re faithless;
It means that you’re faith-full, God is faithful,
And the Bible will always have something new to teach.

To those who listen to sermons , this will all be more than obvious.
To those who give sermons —
To those who make that weekly trek into the world of the Bible and back,
Looking to return with something inspired and helpful to say “for such a time as this” —
It is a helpful reminder: don’t stress perfection, just be faithful about the process,
And lean into the word. The Spirit will intercede.
Especially so, when there has been as much chaos and anxiety
As what we have experienced over the past several days.

I was, by turns, shocked, dismayed, and angry on Wednesday of this week,
When events turned violent and chaotic in our nation’s capital.
I have to think that you saw the news as well.
This morning I stand before you sensing a profound, collective brokenness and sadness in us.
From my own perspective as a human being and a member of our society,
I’m still processing feelings of trauma and grief. I will for a while, maybe a long time.
There are certain images from the day that keep coming up,
That I can’t get out of my head. My heart really aches for us.

And, I want you to know that it’s okay to feel this way .
What kind of pastor would I be if I told you to just suck it up ?
Which it seems to me is what a lot of conventional religion is doing these days,
And we have to say no to that. It’s not healthy.

In fact, a lot of Scriptures are simply an attempt to teach us how to lament :
How to weep and tear our clothes and fall on our faces before God;
How to take whatever we feel is broken and out of control, and submit it to God,
That both the circumstances and we ourselves may be transformed.

We do lament, then.
We bring this hurt and shame before God today,
And we admit that although someday we will see beyond it, for now it’s still quite painful.
We don’t even know quite what we are doing;
We just know this is too much to hold on to on our own.
And we listen, and wait, and pray, as individuals and as churches and as a people.
We just know that God is faithful.
And in the stillness of our hearts, in the quiet we hold together, there is a holy response..
Maybe not what we thought it should be, but still, an answer-back,
A clue, some leading, a new way to see.
Over time, we learn to trust this pattern, build from it.

Today part of the answer-back is to behold Christ baptised.

Have you ever wondered to yourself,
If Jesus was without sin, why would he have needed to be baptised?
Why go all the way out into the wilderness and subject himself to that ritual,
If he had no need of it?
You might think of it the other way ‘round —
That it was not Jesus who needed cleansing, remission of sins,
But rather it was this world he inhabited that needed cleansing.
There is a teaching in the Greek Orthodox tradition
Which says that when Christ descended into the waters of the Jordan,
Instead of being washed by it,
He washed those waters. Think of it.
He cleansed the river where he stood, and all of the Jordan,
And all rivers … and all water … and all creation.
Imagine a radiating, healing balm extended in every direction by his presence at his baptism.
Everything, cleansed and blessed.
In fact, there is one Greek Orthodox prayer over the blessing of baptismal waters
That I find terrifying and beautiful and true.
The priest addresses God while praying over the baptismal water, and says:
“We confess Your Grace; we proclaim Your beneficence; we do not hide Your Mercy;
You have set at liberty the generations of our nature;
You did hallow the virginal Womb by Your Birth;
All creation praises You, Who did manifest Yourself, for You were seen upon the earth,
And did sojourn with men.
You hallowed the streams of Jordan, sending down from the Heavens Your Holy Spirit,
And crushed the heads of dragons that lurked therein .
Do you yourself, O Loving King, be present now also
Through the descent of your Holy Spirit and hallow this water.
And give to it the Grace of Redemption, the Blessing of Jordan.
Make it a fountain of incorruption, a gift of sanctification, a loosing of sins,
A healing of sicknesses, a destruction of demons, unapproachable by hostile powers,
Filled with angelic might; and let them that take counsel together against Your creature
Flee there from, for I have called upon Your Name, O Lord,
Which is wonderful, and glorious, and terrible unto adversaries.”

Think on it. Mark, and remember.
Christ, blessing us, cleansing us, in his baptism.

I recall, in Sioux City, a friend, an Orthodox priest,
Went down to the banks of the powerful, turbid, churning Missouri River,
Where he blessed the water.
I saw a picture of it in the paper.
I said, What were you doing?
He said, Blessing the Missouri River.
I said, What — the whole thing?
He said, Honestly, you have no idea.

In our own Catechism we teach that
“Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children
And makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.
That —
“The outward and visible sign in Baptism is water, in which the person is baptized
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
That —
“The inward and spiritual grace in Baptism is union with Christ in his death and resurrection,
Birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit.”

If I may be so bold, when I prayerfully wed these two ideas —
This belief in the whole creation being blessed,
Together with my own life folded in to Christ’s Body,
Union with him in his death and resurrection,
Forgiveness … community … new life —
When I see myself this way, I thank God for this vision,
And then I look up, and I see the same thing in you …
We are indissolubly linked to the one who constantly cleanses and blesses us.
A vision of union with God that the people of this land badly need to hear today.

And because of this union, I am bound to the promises I made at my own baptism,
Including the one where I said that yes, I would work
“To respect the dignity of every human being, and strive for peace and justice.”
And the one where I promised to love my neighbor as myself.
And the one where I said that Yes, I would persevere in resisting evil.

Because I — you — we — are so bound up with Christ,
It means that I — you — we have a basic responsibility.
We’re in this together.

“Resisting evil” means repudiating chaos and violence wherever we find it.
“Loving my neighbor as myself” means acting out of a sense of equality
And love and charity.
“Respecting the dignity of every human being” means being willing to be inconvenienced
For the sake of another
Out of the belief that they are just as much a child of God as I am.
This is a kind of costly charity that will not accept oppression of the other as justifiable.

In these days, the church must preach and live peace —
Not a, “Let’s all get along to avoid conflict” type of peace,
But the peace that comes from knowing that in the waters of the Jordan,
Christ has already blessed, sanctified, and hallowed all creation as being inherently good.
A peace that changes things to look like God’s vision for us.
If we believe this, it’s going to cost us something.
We’re going to have to buckle up at some point, or possibly several points,
And say, I stand for real peace because it’s what Jesus taught;
I choose to love my neighbor because it’s what Jesus chose;
And there is no room in God’s peaceful world for truly hateful speech and action.

Finally, we must pray for a cessation of hostility, a loosening of regard for the other.
A space where transformation and conversation might finally be possible,
Lest in our need to be right we might tear one another apart.
A place and a time, soon to come,
Where we might see the blessedness of creation that lives in every life,
Though it may be encrusted in generations of hateful programming
And systemic sin at every level.

I trust and believe these things.
I ask you to do the same.
Through baptism we have promised that we will make them so.
In Christ’s baptism we are blessed to enact them.

So do not trouble your hearts today.
We are the inheritors of a faith that can change this world.
It will not be easy or convenient.
But God is with us every step of the way.

Just as we are baptised in the name of the One-in-Three, so I have offered my heart to you today,
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.