A LECTIONARY SERMON FOR EPIPHANY ONE
"Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
Happy New Year! Christmas is over…all twelve days. We left our trees by the curb last week and they've probably been mulched by now. The ornaments and the crèche have been packed away for another year. The light is returning to the world, the days are again growing longer, and the Niners are again in the playoffs. Kickoff's in ten minutes. I'll keep this to nine.
We're embarked again on that season of new beginnings when all things are possible…even another game in Candlestick; of epiphanies when old truths are made clear; of a new year with new tasks – and some old ones – to be tackled.
New beginnings? New tasks? That's what today's readings are all about – the beginning of Christ's ministry and the renewal – in a few minutes – of ours.
Epiphanies? They're rare but powerful moments of insight…the "sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something" the dictionary tells us… the sort of sudden insight that often accompanies a scientific breakthrough. Witness old Archimedes, pondering the relation between mass and volume, and suddenly shouting "Eureka!" ("I've found it!"). They can be as simple as getting up from the breakfast table and realizing "Wow! I could have had a V-8!" Or they can be as profound as the recognition that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the predicted Son of Man, Isaiah's Servant upon whom the Spirit rests.
That is the Epiphany – with a capital 'E' – that we in the Western Church celebrate on January 6 when God was made manifest to the gentiles, the Magi from the East. In the Eastern Church, this Epiphany with a capital 'E' is marked on January 19 with the Baptism of Jesus, the event we celebrate today. Surely, we can understand why – why this too is an Epiphany - as we contemplate Matthew's Gospel of today – a story told in all its power in all four Gospels.
Talk about a breakthrough moment – the voice of our Creator God thundering through an opening in the clouds "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased," "the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on" Jesus. Talk about new beginnings, new tasks! When was the last time that a dove played a such key role in the Bible….? In Genesis, of course…that rainbow moment when the dove, an olive branch in its beak, returned to Noah on the Ark…when all was made new and fresh, when everything again seemed possible, when all was filled with promise.
But let me focus on the tasks – old and new – that Jesus and we are called to by the Baptism of the Spirit.
First, a word on Baptism – what it is and what it is not. Baptism is not the be-all and end-all – the end point - of our spiritual journey. It is not some born-again moment that allows us to check the "righteousness" box and punch our ticket to personal salvation with a one-time, solitary act of faith. That would be "cheap Grace" indeed. No, it is an undertaking, the acceptance of a commission, an entre into a community, the beginning of our spiritual journey. And, in community, we will find the strength, the tools, and the support to perform the work the Spirit is calling us to and, in doing that, "fulfill all righteousness" and find salvation…for ourselves and those around us. As I've said many times, salvation is not a momentary, nor a solitary endeavor. It is achieved over time and in community. As Joy Moore, associate dean for African-American church studies at Fuller warns, it is time for churches to stop counting "the number of [ individual] baptisms – rather than the transformation of the community – as the sign of success."
But that begs two questions: How do we define "community" and how do we gauge its transformation? The first is a question that Susan touched on last week in discussing our mission statement. We are, in our many families, nuclear communities. Coming together here we form a larger community, a parish we call Christ the Lord that belongs to a still larger community – the diocese – and, beyond that, the Church writ large. And, as Susan said, we are, as Episcopalians and Christians, citizens also of the community we call Pinole, of California, the United States, and, yes, the world. And, on our little blue planet spinning through the darkness of space, we are all God's people. Which brings us to the tasks we embark upon in Baptism.
In his exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel," Pope Francis put it this way:
"Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord's wounds at arm's length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people's lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people."
So how are we doing on that score…on transformation? Have we, as Joy Moore asked, "join[ed] the fellowship of a local congregation or the work of the Holy Spirit" – the work we're called to do after Baptism, the work Jesus was called to after his Baptism? Do we see Christ the Lord as a "niche" to "shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune" or rather the springboard, the vehicle, for "enter[ing] into other people's lives" and "experienc[ing] intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people?" Are we but a placid pool, insulated, isolated in our quiet corner of Contra Costa…or are we stirring the waters, sending out ever expanding, concentric waves to a wider sea of humanity…sharing the love of Christ with the world.
I arrived here five years ago. Many of you were here then. Many of you were not. Looking at the congregation from where I'm standing, it's clear that a physical transformation has taken place. It's clear, too, that a spiritual transformation has begun. We've begun to engage with the wider world, entering into the lives of others, and beginning to know the power of tenderness. Touching the "suffering flesh of others" in a Home Depot parking lot, in the Pinole Senior Village, at the West County Detention Center, or in the Tenderloin or just showing a willingness to know the "reality of other people's lives" further afield in places like Guatemala, Kenya, and Palestine, we've indeed begun the work of the Holy Spirit.
So, what remains before us? Like Jesus emerging from the Jordan and ourselves as we finish renewing our baptismal vows this morning – Everything! There is much to be done and we are in this together – Jesus and we, his people. Isaiah's lovely Servant Song is instructive in this regard. It speaks, in the first verses, of the Servant – the Messiah - who "will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth." It anticipates Jesus who demands John's Baptism as affirmation of him as that Servant and of the establishment of justice as his ministry. And, Isaiah tells us, "the coastlands wait for his teaching."
That, dear friends, is our part. Jesus did his part…unto death. It's now up to us…to spread the word and walk the talk. We have, in the last verses of Isaiah this morning, been commissioned as a community as "a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness."
My nine minutes are up. Deacons, I fear, don't get overtime or timeouts.
I hope, however, you'll take time out after the game to reflect on the rest of the season called life, on what it means to be a light in the darkness, and on the degree to which we really mean it when we promise to share Christ's love with the world as we charge out those doors.