1 Epiphany: A little something about spiritual practice…

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The five promises of the Baptismal Covenant

  1. With God’s help, we will continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers.
  2. With God’s help, we will persevere in resisting evil, and, when we fall into sin, repent, and return to the Lord.
  3. With God’s help, we will proclaim by word and example the Good News of Christ.
  4. With God’s help, we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.
  5. With God’s help, we will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

I prefer to write poetic sermons,
at times even sacrificing the “So What?” at the end
for the joy of sharing and hearing it.
It is more fun and challenging
to ring the melody and notes from something like,
a descending dove
with a message that you are my beloved,
than it is to examine if it has any meaning for us.

This is not one of those poetic sermons.

An esoteric conversation with Michael Hartney
about Epiphany, the Magi, and
our Revised Common Lectionary
caused me to read about the evolution of Epiphany
from its absence before 361 CE
and its current use in both Eastern and Western

Having read these tomes of Church history
about the conflicts and controversies
that shaped the modern-day liturgical
observance of Epiphany,
I am left
with the same feeling
as I had when reading about such things
in seminary.
It is the same feeling
that the great lay theologian Verna Dosier
must have felt when she said to young Cam Miller,
after I had delivered
what I thought was a spanky, fresh sermon
at the College of Preachers.
She looked at me and said, “So what?”

Even though I am interested in history
there is something about the history of the Church
that leaves me cold, as in, “So what?”
I think it is because it is so rarely
about things that matter.

So much of church history
seems to me to be like the argument
between Sadducees, Pharisees
and scribes
about whose wife
will a widow be in heaven
because she has outlived five husbands.

First, like so much of church history,
it is an argument about something
we do not know and never will;
two, it is about nothing
that matters here on earth;
and three, it does nothing
to change the social
and economic status of the woman,
and instead preserves an unjust patriarchy.

The reason I mention all of this,
is because baptism itself
gets buried
and neutered in church history.

I mean, it is such a painful irony
that Jesus never looked under the table
to make sure those he was eating with
were circumcised or not,
yet the first thing the church did
was to turn baptism into circumcision —
you’re either in or your out.

Today, and I think all season of Epiphany,
is a wonderful time to focus on baptism —
our baptisms
and the relevancy of baptism to us.

Actually, even to make the claim
that baptism is relevant,
might seem startling these days.

Here is a little living history.
The Baptismal Covenant in the 1979
Book of Common Prayer
is the answer to “So what?”
To my mind, the five promises
of the Baptismal Covenant
that we will be sharing each week of Epiphany,

They put flesh on the bones
of our beliefs.
The covenant says, “this is what it looks like
to practice Christianity.”
It says, “we believe
the ‘So what?’ of our faith
is these five commitments
that will make us different.”
The Covenant asks, “this is what I do,
will you join me in doing it?”

The five promises of the Baptismal Covenant
are not an argument
about angels on the head of a pin,
or the nature of Jesus,
or three-in-one or one-in-three.
Instead, our covenant is a DEscription
of how to practice Christianity.
It is a DEscription
of the “So what?” of our practice.
It is a DEscription
of the plumb line we use
to measure how we are doing.

Unlike so much of Christianity yesterday and today,
it is not about espousing beliefs
and shoving them down other people’s throats.

It is descriptive not prescriptive.

Our covenant is not a PREscription
because The Episcopal Church
does not understand its authority
as prescriptive.
Any authority we have
rests in the integrity of our practice:
the distance between our five promises
and how we actually live our lives.

Scrubbing clean our soul or heart
from original sin
so that we can enter heaven,
is not what baptism is about.
If you want to know how baptism got
so terribly corrupted
and turned into a ticket out of hell,
then read some church history.
It is not a pretty story.

Rather, baptism is about how we practice Christianity.

For those of us who were baptized as infants,
it started with a promise from our parents
that we would be raised in the community of faith
so that we could come to understand
the Baptismal Covenant
and to learn the wisdom of Jesus.

But baptism became ours
when we were Confirmed,
or if not Confirmed,
when we embraced Christianity as our own
rather than a club we just grew up in.

If I can keep from getting distracted,
I am going to continuously bring us back
to the five promises throughout Epiphany,
using them as a meditative focus.
So to begin that,
please notice two things.

The first thing to note
is that our own congregational mission statement
is based upon and rooted in
one of those promises —
“to respect the dignity of every human being.”

And actually, so is the second sentence,
”and treat each person entering our doors
as if that person is Christ.”
That reflects the promise to “seek and serve Christ
in all persons…” — as opposed to only some persons.

And that mission statement wisely connects
all of this to both our personal lives
and our life together in community —
as if they are the same,
as if it is a practice
we are engaged in
no matter where we are.

Finally, I want to draw our focus
to the statement, “With God’s help…”
Without that caveat
these promises would be an arrogant
and soul-less list of test questions —
as in, are you good enough
or have you been successful enough.

”With God’s help…”
acknowledges that we are incapable
of a meaningful practice without God’s help.
We are dependent.
The covenant
is not the promise of a personal achievement
or New Year’s resolution
we fulfill or not.
It is not a Scout’s Promise
or Pledge of Allegiance,
or any other kind of loyalty oath
or standard of perfection.

”With God’s help…”
means that our spiritual practice,
from the very beginning,
is an act of surrender.
Just like the first step of Alcoholic’s Anonymous
that acknowledges powerlessness over alcohol,
”With God’s help…”
acknowledges our powerlessness
to engage in a meaningful spiritual practice
without openness to the presence of God in our midst.

So even before we begin the practice
of the Baptismal Covenant,
we acknowledge our powerlessness
and then welcome God’s help —
the first steps
in our spiritual path.

It is a tough and challenging place to begin:
acknowledging our dependence
and opening ourselves to God’s participation.

You and I have this spiritual practice,
or craft, as young Amanda Gordon calls it.
She may not have had the Baptismal Covenant
in mind when she wrote that poem, but it works:

“Every day we are learning
how to live with essence, not ease.
How to move with haste, never hate.
How to leave this pain that is beyond us,
behind us.
Just like a skill or any art,
We cannot possess hope without practicing it…”

We have a concrete and doable practice of hope
we call Christianity,
and it is described with five promises —
each with a powerful
and sometimes radical, “So what?”

More next time.