1 Epiphany 2020: Noticing Our Practice

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Jordan River where it empties into the Dead Sea

I have been preaching for forty years, I can’t believe it.
I realize that to some of you,
that’s nothing –
heck, Sabin’s got married
the year I was born!

But I was ordained a deacon in June, 1980
and then priested nine months later.
That is irrelevant to everything this morning
except that the First Sunday of Epiphany
may be one of those Sundays
I have never missed preaching.
One year I was in El Salvador
but even there I preached through a translator.

While the cast of characters
never changes in this story of Jesus’ baptism,
it remains endlessly interpretive
just like the whole of the bible
and our theological tradition.

There are stories that come up
in the lectionary cycle
that I just grit my teeth and get through,
but this one is so layered and interesting
that it feels like a good friend
I haven’t seen for a year.

But our understanding of stories changed,
as does our theology.
We do not believe today
what Christians in other times and other places believed.

Christianity is obviously an old religion –
not as old as Judaism, Buddhism or Hinduism
but older than Islam, Shinto or Mormonism.
Each century, and indeed, each culture
makes numerous contributions to a religion,
so that Christianity
is like a mountain
sculpted by time and events
that changes its shape  and texture and size.

We imagine, standing as we do
at a fixed moment in time,
that Christianity
has always been like it is today,
but that is as impossible
as Christianity 100 years from now
looking like it does today.

Just think about how much Christianity
must have changed
from what it was before Constantine
and when it became the religion of the Roman empire.
It went from being a decentralized,
and subversive movement,
that was a loosely associated
string of house churches and regional centers,
to becoming an institution –
with a bureaucracy and an emperor
who had the power to enforce conformity.
The 4thcentury was big
in the evolution of Christianity,
but so was the 20thcentury.

For one thing,
the 20thcentury began to apply
historical and literary analysis
to our interpretation of the Bible.

Think about this.
Prior to the 20thcentury
the Bible was read exclusively through the filter of doctrine.
All the things that the Church
already believed about Jesus
were assumed to be true
beforereading it.
For example, never mind that the Gospels are clear
that Jesus had brothers and sisters,
the doctrine said his mother, Mary, was a perpetual virgin,
and so that took precedence
over whatever the text actually said.

But in the 20thcentury,
archeology, anthropology,
and history
suddenly blossomed as sciences,
and it was inevitable
that the Bible came to be read
through their filters as well as –
sometimes even replacing the filter of doctrine.

To its credit,
Protestant theology often led the way:
great 20thcentury Christian scholars and theologians
began to ask the Bible
historical and archeological questions
instead of isolating single passages
that helped prove a point of doctrine
while ignoring or rationalizing all the rest.
So, in the first half of the 20thcentury
Christianity began to open its doors
and hear brand new things
from the very old Bible.
And the things they noticed in the Bible
did not always match up with previous doctrine.
For example,
it soon became clear
that John the Baptist
and Baptism
were treated very differently
in the earliest Gospel, Mark,
and the last Gospel, John.

With forty or fifty years between them,
and with totally different audiences,
it began to be noticed that Mark treated John the Baptist
and Baptism
much differently than the Gospel of John did –
and that Luke and Matthew
were also different
but created a kind of mid-way evolution
between Mark and John.

The power of doctrine dissipated
and suddenly we could see what was obvious all along,
if only we would place each Gospel
next to one another and read them.

In Mark, the story of Jesus’ baptism
clearly states that people came to John the Baptist
confessing their sins
and being baptized
as some kind of ritual cleansing in the Jordan River.
In Mark, John the Baptist
does not recognized Jesus,
nor does Mark make a clear connection
between “the one” who John the Baptist predicts,
and Jesus as being “that one.”

Rather, Mark describes a private religious experience.
Jesus comes up out of the water,
and HE sees the heavens torn apart.
He sees a dove descending.
He, Jesus, hears the voice of confirmation,
“You are my beloved.”

But we see in Matthew today,
as in Luke,
that this story evolved
over the fifteen or twenty years between them,
and Jesus’ private spiritual moment,
becomes a huge public miracle.
In Matthew, John the Baptist declares
that Jesus is “the one,”
and the CROWD sees the dove,
and the CROWD hears the voice.
There is no room left for doubt
that this was a miraculous event
that proved Jesus was “the one.”

Historians have discovered, however,
that the followers of John the Baptist
had their own religious movement
and it was focused on John, not Jesus.
The Baptist movement outlasted John
and in fact, still exists.
They are called, Mandaeans.
Until we invaded Iraq, they lived mostly
in that part of the world.

The John the Baptist movement
was probably bigger and stronger
than Jesus’ movement
when they both existed side-by-side
in real time, as we say today.

Biblical historians began to recognize
that this whole idea
that John the Baptist foresaw and proclaimed
Jesus as the Messiah,
was likely a bit of early Christian propaganda.

You see, in this baptism story
we have preserved a very gnarly issue
for those early Christians:
Jesus was baptized by John
and that could be seen as Jesus
being subordinate to John.
Surely John’s followers
used that inconvenient truth
to say that John was superior to Jesus.

Then, from the standpoint of doctrine,
there was another problem rising up from this story
like an arm sticking up from a grave.

As time went by,
those that followed the Jesus movement
began to claim that Jesus was perfect.
It was not enough for them that he was merely human.
In fact, to them, in order for him to be the Christ,
he had to be without sin.

Now that is a very big claim,
and it contradicts the very human Jesus
that appears in Mark –
the one that goes down to the Jordan River
confessing his sins.
That is what the crowds were doing remember,
coming down to the river
to confess their sins and be cleansed.

But the idea that Jesus submitted himself
to a baptism
“for the forgiveness of sins”
became such a scandal in early Christianity,
that the last gospel written
does not even record Jesus’ baptism.
We will hear next week from the Gospel of John,
and it simply does not say Jesus was baptized.
The Gospel of John also directly quotes John the Baptist
declaring Jesus is superior to him, and
leaving no doubt that Jesus is the Messiah.

So the Gospel of John makes clear
that Jesus was not baptized
for the forgiveness of sins or anything else,
and that John the Baptist
was merely the opening act for the main superstar, Jesus.

To summarize then,
historical, literary, and archeological analysis
of the Bible led us to realize
that Mark is not the same story
as Matthew,
which is not the same story as Luke,
which is not the same story as John.

The differences cannot be dismissed
as just a few stray details, because
these are four different manifestos
with four different views of Jesus.
The four gospels range from a grown man
who has a religious experience at his baptism,
to an eternal God, begotten not made.

Whether we choose to believe
all the doctrines about Jesus or not,
the 20thcentury opened the Gospels
and let the cat out of the bag.

Conservative Christianity
simply refused to accept the analysis –
putting hands over ears and eyes
and very loudly shouting down
anything that did not agree with its doctrine.
It is no coincidence that Fundamentalism and Pentecostalism
are products of the 20thcentury too.
They are a reaction against
historical, literary, archeological, and anthropological
analysis of the Bible.
So much of what we see and hear today
in terms of the conflicts within Christianity
are as a result of the 20thcentury’s
theological contributions to Biblical scholarship.

This division is splitting Christianity
across cultural and continental boundaries,
with the religion dividing-while-shrinking in the Global North,
and growing massively in the Global South.

Well, all of that is interesting,
but has little to do with our baptismal practice,
here in our little wine bar church
in this small slice of New York.

It is a new year, so let’s notice
what we practice together,
even if we always practice it imperfectly.

There is the Jesus we proclaim,
though I recognize there may be significant differences
and a many splendored variety of lenses
through which we see Jesus.
But our pal Jesus, the one we proclaim
and whose spiritual practice we raise up,
is not a Marvel comic book character.
Rather, he is one who failed and floundered
and likely engaged in what we call sin,
and who was vulnerable to what hurts us –
because he was human, just as we are human.
I think some version of that 20thcentury-bleeding-into-the-21stcentury Jesus,
is the Jesus we practice.

Then, we proclaim a Jesus who welcomed
all people to the table,
a Jesus who practiced a radical hospitality
that we are supposed to emulate.
That is a claim that Christianity
has not always been known for.

Another part of our practice
has to do with seeking God,
and the God we seek.
Rather than the cosmic critical parent
that judges our brokenness,
I think we practice the search for the God
who coos to us in the quietness of our hearts:
“You are my beloved,
with you I am well pleased.

Then there is the sharing of subversive wisdom,
which definitely is my practice.
Yet I have noticed more than a few of you
seem to also value that which undermines imperial orthodoxy
wherever it claims to be the keeper of exclusive truth.

The practice of using contemporary poetry and prose
is also interesting, because it suggests
that God whispers to us through moderns texts
just as easily as ancient ones.

We practice changing worship every season,
learning new prayers,
and new songs
or new words to old tunes.
Without a doubt we have different feelings
about this practice,
but it has become a Trinity Place practice.

We practice a spirit of authenticity in worship,
in which it is okay to cry,
say amen,
or laugh out loud.
It is a spirit that allows sitting or standing,
verbal participation
or simple presence –
a come as you are
and be as you need to be
kind of spirit.
It is all-at-once casual and ritualistic,
tradition-bound and innovative,
constant and changing.

We practice the sharing of our lives
and the unfolding our stories with one another
around the table.
It is a circle we try to make safe
with the honest acknowledgment of our common brokenness
and a willingness to give one another glimpses of ourselves.

We practice a hospitality
that understands eating together
is an act of spiritual intimacy.

We practice the awkward and painful art
of balancing precariously –
like the fiddler on the roof –
between today and tomorrow.
By which I mean, we practice surrender
because we have so much of our future
dictated by the courts.
It is a surrender required because we also
live as a spectacle in the court of public opinion.
The act of surrender
in times when control is far beyond
the edge of our reach,
is a core spiritual practice
in every tradition.
We practice it, not out of desire,
but out of necessity.

We practice all of that and more,
which is to say, these are ways
we practice our baptism with one another.
We practice it in many other ways
where we live our lives beyond this spiritual community,
but I dare say, how we practice it here,
helps, enables, and nurtures us
out there.

So, it is important to stop and notice what we do
now and again, and celebrate it
as well as noting any distance
between what we say we cherish
and what we actually practice.

The occasion of Jesus’ baptism
is a great moment in which to do that –
which is why we just did.