Between noon and three

…spare us in the youngest day when all are shaken awake, facts are facts, (and I shall know exactly what happened today between noon and three); that we too may come to the picnic with nothing to hide, join the dance as it moves in perichoresis, turns about the abiding tree. — W.H. Auden, "Compline"

Tag: Baptism

The Easter Vigil 2018

Collect: O God, who made this most holy night to shine with the glory of the Lord’s resurrection: Stir up in your Church that Spirit of adoption which is given to us in Baptism, that we, being renewed both in body and mind, may worship you in sincerity and truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: [Vigil Readings], Colossians 3:1-4, John 20:1-18

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Well, here we are. It’s been quite a journey over the last few days, not least for Brock, who was just baptized! We’re at the end of the Triduum, and you might expect a sermon that wraps up what I’ve said so far, and what we’ve all experienced; something which synthesizes the theme we’ve been exploring, that Holy Week is a “moment that does not pass away,” along with the events of Jesus’ last days.

And you’d be forgiven for thinking that, forgiven but ultimately disappointed: I have no last words for you tonight, only an assertion. The event we celebrate tonight, Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead, is an event which does away with last words altogether. Christ is risen from the dead, and there can be no more foregone conclusions. Christ is risen from the dead, and there is no sin so foul that has not been forgiven. Christ is risen from the dead, and there is no prison left standing that can keep us forever. Christ is risen from the dead, and to borrow the Recovery phrase, every today is the first day of the rest of our lives; every conversation is an opportunity to begin again, every person is a chance to learn and love afresh.

In school they tell kids to make a good beginning of their lives: “Study hard so you can get a good job and live a happy, fulfilled life.” In college they say the same thing: “This is the beginning, you are laying the foundation for what will come later.” When couples get married, they are sagely told, “This is just the beginning!” And when they have children they say the same thing, “This is only the beginning.” As human beings we love stories, and stories have beginnings and middles and ends. A dragon invades the kingdom. The noble hero goes out to slay it, and when the deed is done everyone lives happily ever after. With so many beginnings in our own stories, we might be forgiven for getting frustrated at times that we rarely get to the middle let alone to the end, while the happily-ever-after seems perpetually out of reach.

Tonight’s Easter Vigil, though, reveals that there is something deeply Christian about so many beginnings. When we reach the end of Jesus’ story, we find out, with an explosive surprise, that it was really just the beginning. The tomb was not the end; rather the resurrection was the beginning, and now Jesus is alive, risen from the dead, whose life continues in his Church both on earth and in heaven.

For that matter, the Vigil readings suggest the same thing: Israel’s captivity in Egypt was not the sad end of the story after all, but only the beginning, as they made their Exodus through the Red Sea to the Promised Land. The exile in Babylon so many centuries later was not the end either, only the beginning of the life of the people of God spread abroad throughout the whole earth. Or in baptism: we find our earthly lives, comparatively well ordered and planned, opening onto eternity, our own persons now the doorstep of heaven, inexhaustible in capacity for surprise, wonder, and love.

So many beginnings! What does that mean for our Christian life, then? Surely not that we just keep going in circles, starting over time after time. When do we get to the middle, and when can we enjoy the end?

The short answer is, those will come in time; the most we can do at the moment is make a good beginning. The most we can do tonight is to make a good celebration of our Lord’s resurrection from the dead, and of Brock’s baptism into his mystical Body. You’ll notice there is no Peace exchanged at the Liturgy tonight, and that’s to allow, for tonight only, our Eucharistic celebration to be the peace we both offer and receive; I invite you all to continue the celebration in Lion’s Hall afterwards at the reception which Betsy and Sterling have so graciously provided. The middle of the story will come in time, and the end too. But tonight we celebrate.

One of the stories that has moved me the most as a priest and a pastor, was one a man told me years ago. He had been married to his wife for some sixty years, and he was still very much in love with her. I said something like, “You must know her very well by now then!” He laughed and said, “Yes, I suppose I do. But you know, every day I still learn something new about her. You spend that long with someone and you think you’ve got them all figured out. But sometimes she comes up with something so completely out of left field that I wonder, who on earth is this person I’ve married? Over all these years I’ve had to realize again and again that I don’t have her all figured out. There’s more to her than I will ever know, and it’s just part of the fun to keep learning.”

This is the kind of beginning we continually make as Christians. The middle, and even the end, come and go; but it is the beginning that remains, as every day we continue to plumb the unknowable depths of God’s creative, redeeming love, and the echoing deeps of human persons made in that image.

Tonight, as we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord from the dead, we begin afresh the great rejoicing which Easter initiates. Let it be for us another beginning, but more than a repetition. Let it be for us that new beginning which will carry us through all our middles and all our ends, the new beginning that pushes right through death itself into the far undiscovered country on the other side of the tomb.

At the altar tonight, as we come to make our communions, may we catch a glimpse of the same joy which sustains all who have gone before us, and all who will follow after. United with them in the Paschal Mystery, let us render eternal praise and glad thanksgiving to the God of heaven: whose Son has harrowed hell, and made the earth new.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.

The Baptism of the Lord

This was my last sermon at St. Michael & St. George in St. Louis, before moving to Berkeley, California, to take up the post of Priest-in-Charge at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. It was the first Sunday after the Epiphany, always the Baptism of the Lord, and despite my best intentions I couldn’t help trying to collect a large number of themes into one sermon. Whether or not it was successful the congregation is better equipped than I to say, but here it is regardless.

Collect: Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan didst proclaim him thy beloved Son and anoint him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with thee and the same Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Readings: Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Well here we are, it’s January 7. The drummers drumming have packed up their kit. The lords a leaping, ladies dancing, and maids a milking have all had their fun; and the Three Wise Men have come and gone. Christmastide is over, and we begin this new season of the Church’s year with the same sudden shift as we begin it every year: Jesus no longer a baby but suddenly thirty years old, presenting himself to John the Baptist to be baptized and begin his ministry. Why is this the way it begins? Why does Jesus, without sin, get baptized?

It’s the question I find myself asking, though I think it reveals a weakness in me, and probably in western Christianity — “If he’s without sin, why does Jesus need to get baptized? Jesus is without sin; no, he doesn’t need to get baptized. Why do we place the burden of proof on God? Better to ask ourselves, “Why do we assume things happen only because they need to?” Why do we assume religion is about meeting needs in the first place — or for that matter that God is in the business of creating needs, only for him miraculously to fulfill?

No, need has nothing to do with it for Jesus, and it has nothing to do with it for us either. Religion is not about fixing our problems, spiritual or otherwise. Jesus goes to John to get baptized in order to begin his ministry on earth; and by stepping into the water, he is saying something very important about what his ministry is going to be, and what it will entail. It’s not about getting “the sin problem” fixed, it is about making a statement: why God created life in the first place, and what it is intended to be.

Jesus enters the water, and when he comes up the heavens break open, but first he enters the water. When God shows up in our lives, it’s usually when we’re in over our heads and we don’t quite know it. When I was a grad student living in London many years ago, that winter was bleak and dark, and I was feeling the weather in more ways than one. That Easter, unlooked for and inexplicably, somehow Jesus’ resurrection felt like it was mine too, and not just his; I had come out of the tomb and the world was fresh.

Water means a lot in the Bible and in the ancient world, it’s never just background information. Remember Genesis 1, which we just heard read: “In the beginning the earth was formless and void, and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the deep.” Water, the primeval element of chaos and disorder, over which the Voice first speaks, the first light of creation shines; water the source of Noah’s flood; the Red Sea through which Israel escapes Pharaoh; the Jordan which they cross to enter the promised land; water the moment of trial and the occasion of faith.

Jesus enters the water for his baptism, and enters all these moments simultaneously. Jesus enters the water for his baptism, and makes the domain of chaos and disorder the dwelling place of God. Jesus enters the water for his baptism, and defeats all the old powers, overthrows all the old fears, binds up all the old demons, sheds light on all the old darkness. And he does so as a human person like you and me. Wherever you and I find those darknesses in our hearts or our world, Jesus’ baptism puts him right there too, right there beside us.

This changes everything about the way we regard Jesus’ baptism, and our own, and for that matter the whole project of religion in our life and our world. It’s not about fixing anything, but about pointing to the single stupendous miracle that God is here with us making all things new: not in quiet and in peace, though they are his fruits; but in the work halls and the prisons and the sex trade, in depression and disability and disappointment; in disease and death, robbing them of their power and endowing their victims with his own eternal life and light.

I’m sure I’ve told you one of my favorite stories, about St. Seraphim of Sarov, a hermit who lived deep in the forest. One day a fierce bear set upon him, to eat him for lunch. But Seraphim spoke kindly to the bear, and invited him to his home instead. They became friends and were often seen walking and talking together in the woods. The story isn’t meant as a ridiculous break from reality, but as a lesson — that with God, dark and dangerous places are the first beachheads of grace, signposts of restored communion in the kingdom of God.

Yes, Jesus’ baptism offers a new vision for us and for the world. He comes up from the water and the heavens are opened. A voice proclaims, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased,” and a dove rests upon him. The vision is of a kind of world where this kind of thing happens, where our eyes are changed and we can see truly. Jesus will go to the cross to make the message complete, and rise from the grave to make the victory sure. Those who dare to follow, must dare to continue the work.

Because the work certainly goes on. Our part is to bear witness to the new life we have begun to see, to the possibility of new life in places we had thought dead or at least impossibly mundane. As Jesus entered the water, as he went to the cross and entered the tomb, so we go about our daily business: brushing teeth, driving cars, visiting mom, throwing a party, going to work — all the while aware that these are the moments God is breaking in creating new possibilities, new life beyond the immutable laws of Mondays, taxes, and parking tickets.

Why do you need any of this in your life? You don’t! It’s completely gratuitous. There is no reason that you or me or anyone needs this stuff in order to survive. But the vision Jesus offers is about so much more than what’s merely necessary. The vision is about putting us in touch with what’s truest and most lasting about the world and about God. The vision Jesus offers is of people healed by his touch, sins forgiven by his word, human life made holy just by his presence, and all creation brought to its completion by his sacrifice.

I remember a widow in Denver, whose husband of 70 years I buried. She didn’t come to church for a long time after the funeral, understandably so: it was something they’d done together for the better part of a century. Then, on Christmas Eve, I saw her at the rail and gave her communion for the first time in months. Afterwards she said to me, “You know, I didn’t come to church for so long because I thought I’d miss him here the most. But it’s strange, now I feel closer to him than I have in a long time.”

So what have I been driving at? At his baptism, Jesus enters the water of the Jordan, enters all the griefs and dark places of the world and of our hearts, and by his presence blesses it — water now the sign of forgiveness of sins and eternal life in him forever. By his presence Jesus turns the floods of death into the river of the heavenly city of God. You and I are charged to do likewise: wherever there is darkness to bless, not to curse, to enter and befriend it, because there we will find Jesus gone on ahead.

There’s a wonderful old story, maybe you’ve heard it: when Noah sends out the dove after the floods have destroyed the earth, it returns with an olive branch and then it doesn’t return at all. Where does it go, where is the solid perch it found to live? The story goes, it reappears today, here, at the Jordan River, making its home as it rests on Jesus. Whatever floods we’ve faced, whatever woes we may know, let you and I, with Noah’s dove, rest on Jesus in the midst of the water, and bear witness always to his eternal life.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.