No, this is not the beginning of a wedding. This is a Congregational Baptismal Love Letter.
As many of you know, it has become a tradition of sorts, for your rector and pastor to write a Baptismal Love Letter to those cute little babies who are presented by their parents and Godparents on the occasion of their baptism. I try to use the gospel passage for the day as a lens through which the newly baptized can make some sense of their Christian life and faith when it comes time for them to confirm for themselves the vows made for them.
Don’t blame me. Blame Ann Bennett. After my very first Baptismal Love Letter almost eight years ago, it was she who said, “That was lovely. Now you’re going to have to do that for all the babies.” I realized, much to my chagrin, that she was right. And, much to my surprised delight, I’ve been doing it joyfully ever since.
The liturgical calendar reminds us that today we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord. As part of that celebration, we renew our own Baptismal Vows. I thought it might be an appropriate if not an auspicious occasion to preach a Baptismal Love Letter to you. So, here goes.
I want to talk this morning, about this person of Jesus – the man of whom John the Baptist says he is “not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” He also says, “He will baptize you with the Holy Sprit and fire.”
After John baptizes his cousin Jesus – the man for whom he leapt in his mother’s womb when his pregnant Aunt Mary approached – we are told that the heavens opened up and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus “in bodily form, like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”
So, who is this Jesus, exactly? Why do we follow this Messiah? Is it just because we follow so many millions of people who have followed him over almost three millennia? Is it a simple matter of the sheer force of history which compels us to walk the path where others have trod? Where does this path lead us? What will we find at the end of our journey? What possible difference could it make – to our lives or to the rest of the world?
I can’t possibly answer all of those questions for you, my beloved, in the short time we have together this morning. But, I do want to begin to approach some of these questions as we celebrate the gift of our baptism in Jesus. It is, I believe, the best Christmas present we can unwrap and celebrate in this Christmastide, which we name as The Season of Epiphany.
Stephen Prothero has written a book which tells some of the ways we’ve answered some of the questions I’ve posed. It’s called “American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon.”
We’ve covered the spectrum with our answers, he says — from the second-person-of-the-Trinity Christ of the Creeds, to Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightened Sage shorn of miracles, resurrection, and divinity. From the amiable, countercultural hippie-cum-rock-superstar fostered by the “Jesus freaks” of the 1960s to the willowy “sweet savior” given us by Currier and Ives in the book store profiles and described by Dorothy Sayers as the “household pet of little old ladies and pale curates.”
Jack Spong calls him, simply, "This Hebrew Lord."
There are those who describe themselves as Christians who preach a gospel of exclusion – one has to walk or act or talk or pray or believe a certain way (read: THEIR way) if we want to be considered ‘real’ Christians. If you don’t do it their way, then you are cast into the outer darkness.
They call themselves “fundamentalists” because, they believe, they ‘own’ the fundamentals of the faith – or, in The Episcopal Church – ‘the faith first delivered to the fathers’. I don’t believe I need to say anything more about that for you to figure out just how I feel about ‘that’ kind of Christian.
Then, there are those who simply call themselves “believers”. Author Jeff Sharlet has written a book about one group of them called, “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.” It is, at once, a fascinating and terrifying book.
The Family insist they are ‘just a group of friends’, yet they funnel millions of dollars through tax-free corporations. They claim to disdain politics, but congressmen of both parties describe them as the most influential religious organization in Washington.
They say they are not Christians, but simply believers. Their goals is simple: “Jesus plus nothing.” Their method is backroom diplomacy. Their leader says that if you really want to understand the power of Jesus, you will study the lives of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.
It won’t be a surprise, therefore, to learn that “The Family” has come under careful scrutiny because of the recent proposed draconian laws in Uganda and Rwanda, and the laws recently passed in Burundi, which provide for capital punishment for LGBT people.
Sharlet has drawn a very clear line from the residents of The Family’s houses on C Street in Washington, DC and Ivanwald in Arlington, Virginia to the authorship of these heinous pieces of legislation in these African nations.
Then there are those of us – “the little people” – who understand ourselves to be Christians, who pay our taxes and mow our lawns and try to be fair and to do the right thing in our families and neighborhoods, our schools and places of employment; who come to church every Sunday (or, try, anyway), who just want an hour of peace, please. Just some familiar prayers and music, and place to tell our kids ‘the old, old story of Jesus and his love’.
A safe, warm harbor in the midst of the stormy seas of life. A place like that mythical bar in television land, “Cheers”, where everybody knows your name – because of the name of that nice, warm, fuzzy guy named Jesus – whom we don’t really know or whose mission we don’t understand, really, but who provides us with this Spiritual Gas Station, of sorts, where we can drive in and get a spiritual ‘fill up’ or a ‘top off’ before we drive away into the rest of our lives – as if they were two separate and distinct entities.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s so much more to it that that. Author Anthony Robinson reminds us that a classic 1970s study on the demise of railroads concluded that they went out of business because they thought the business they were in was railroads. It was not. The business they were in was transportation. Likewise, he says, churches may decline or die when they think the business they are in is church. It isn’t. The business they are in is God’s mission in the world.
Is it any wonder, given all these assaults on the Christian tradition together with the disintegration and misuse of the biblical foundation, that this Jesus, the Lord of the marginalized and forlorn, the one who is Beloved of God, may soon become the one the NY Times suggested may be “the man nobody knows in 21st century America.”
Clearly, we have, intentionally or not, painted Jesus into a corner and placed him in that well known trap that if you are everything for everyone, you will be someone that nobody really knows. Unless, of course, you set out on a journey to discover Him for yourself – not to impose that belief on others, but so that you know a little something about the man whose identity you profess to take on as part of your own and whose teachings you try to follow.
Which is why our Baptismal Covenant is so important. At the end of this sermon and in place of the Nicene Creed, we will be renewing our Baptismal Vows – the ones made for us as infants and the ones we took for ourselves at our Confirmation. I urge you to read them carefully. More importantly, listen to your self say them. There are some important clues there about the identity of Jesus and the nature and character of the man and his mission.
Listen to yourself, but here’s a little caveat: Don’t expect a repeat of this morning’s gospel scene. The heavens will not open up. There will be no dove come to descend upon you in bodily form. You will not hear God’s voice say to you, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Well, you might, but it will be with the ear of your heart.
Author Lawrence Wood tells the story of a medical doctor who was a friend of his who had an epiphany that changed his life. Wood says that the good doctor had fought against the idea of a personal God who intervened in human life. He sought refuge instead in music; Bach particularly appealed to him because of the mathematical precision of the fugues. Meanwhile, his life was falling apart. His first wife left him; he started drinking too much.
One day as he was driving, he pounded the steering wheel with his open palms and cried out, "God, if you're really there, you're going to have to say something! And you know what kind of man I am! No screwing around, now—no damn signs. You're going to have to talk my language!" Just then on the radio came "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring."
His friend sobbed, and laughed at what an idiotic but wonderful word this was to him. And just in case he might try to explain away the moment, saying that Bach was often played on that radio station (actually a nonclassical music station), the next song to come on was "The Girl from Ipanema."
Which is all to say that Jesus is, for me anyway, the holiest part of God which, by some wondrous unimaginable thing we call the ‘miracle of the Incarnation’ was sent to come among us and live as one of us. Not to save us FROM our humanity – or even those times of our inhumanity – but to save the best part of being human even while we are IN our humanity. Who does not want to diminish our humanity but to fulfill it – make it greater, better, truer to our authentic selves. To recapture the best of what we were created to be when we were in the Garden and reclaim Paradise for ourselves.
Ours is a ‘dusty Messiah,’ as author Katelyn Beaty describes, saying, “We call Jesus Lord because only the true God would stoop low enough to wander dusty Nazarene farms, eat broiled fish by the Sea of Galilee, and ascend the Temple Mount as one Jewish pilgrim among many—all to raise us up higher than the top of Mount Zion.”
This is the Jesus I proclaim in my life of faith, this ‘dusty Messiah’, this Hebrew Lord. This is the Jesus whose identity I take on in my baptism.
This is the Jesus who feeds me the Bread of Heaven and asks me to drink from the Cup of Salvation and then calls me out of my complacency and comfort into God’s mission to transform myself and the world to be, more and more, like God’s Realm, God’s kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.
As we renew our own Baptismal Vows, I hope that you discover or re-discover or uncover who Jesus is for you and what his mission is for us in the world – the unique mission God has for us in this Body of Christ we call ‘church’. Because that is our business – our only business – the reason we come to church. Not to be church. But to be God’s mission.
May the words of our Baptismal Vows contain for you an Epiphany – the gift of insight, knowledge and wisdom – much more than the fine Gold, Incense and Myrrh which the Three Kings Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar presented to the Infant Messiah – and discovered in their journey to follow a Star.
Not a Rock Star Jesus but the Rock who is the foundation of our lives of faith. The one who loves us and nourishes us and feeds us with his Body and Blood so that we may be strengthened to do God’s mission in the world.
The one who makes us worthy, in the words of our Eucharistic prayer, to stand before God and says to each of us in our Baptism of ‘the Holy Spirit and fire’: “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”