1 Epiphany: Really, no really

Attribution: José Manuel Suárez

We understand something about water this week
that perhaps we don’t often consider.

As is so often true,
nature opened our eyes.

An atmospheric river
in the heavens
moving across the continent,
a veiled vector
unleashed moisture for parched earth
and mayhem too.
Floods, mudslides,
snow storms,
Even as snow pack,
and reservoirs
were replenished
people died.

The serene nature of water
that gives life,
is also the raw magnitude
of torrent
that takes life.

On so many levels “water”
is the very essence of life.

It is from water
that life itself emerged
in the beginning of creation.

That broiling warm sea
of ooze and chaos
in which the first cells formed —
or as the book of Genesis imagined,
“the Spirit of God moved over the waters.”

It is in the vestiges of water
on distant planets like Mars
that we seek a record of past life.

So elemental to our survival
and such a threat.

The recent devastation
from the heavenly river
calls to mind primordial stories
like Noah and the Ark –
wherein some survive but so many are stolen.

Water becomes “The Deep”
in which mysterious darkness
shrouds dangers
we can hardly imagine.

Water becomes a wave of death
and a tide of destruction.

Even in baptism
water is an ambiguous symbol.

Our ancient traditional liturgical language reads:
“In it
we are buried with Christ…

By it
we share in Christ’s resurrection…
Through it
we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”
Water is life and death,
health and waste,
promise and destruction.

This double-sided nature of water
reminds us
that God is the same way: life and death.
An encounter with God,
like water,
always has two dimensions:

Life and Death…
Light and Fire…
Gift and Loss.
Without a doubt,
death is the last thing any of us seek
when we walk in the doors
of Trinity Place
or any other space we call sacred.
But to seek an encounter with God
always involves a death.
Life to be sure,
but always through a death.

Or as Maya Angelou writes,
…Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.
We are weaned from our timidity
in the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
and suddenly we see
that love costs all we are and will ever be.

Yet it is only love
which sets us free.”
To be touched by an angel
is to experience
the cost…of love.

To be baptized
and hear the words,
”you are mine, dear one”
is to be told
there is a cost
coming our way.

We drink water to live.
We bathe in water to be cleansed.
We drown in the water of baptism to be freed.

What is our baptism, really?

I’ll get to Jesus’ baptism in a moment
because it has a surprising punch line.
But what is this drowning in water
and emerging with a new breath of life?
In plain and simple, secular terms,
what is Baptism — really?

what is a wafer and a shot of wine, really?

What is the sign of the cross on the forehead
made with ordinary oil and unusual fragrance, really?

What is a blessing,
a prayer,
a candle lit in silence,
a stone in the the palm of the hand,
the blessing of vows?

What are these things, really?

They are the things for which there are no words…really.
Things that cannot be measured…not really.
They are the things that once spoken
seem silly…or unbelievable…or not quite right…not real even, really.

They are the outward
and the visible
for inward
and spiritual grace.

Not magic.
Not voodoo.
Not miracles, per say.

They are the physical signs we make —
the gauze wrapped around the Invisible Man
so we can see the outline
of what we wouldn’t otherwise see.

So baptism,
your baptism and mine,
is made visible by our choices —
by how we live
and how we love
and how we serve
and how we welcome…by
how we give
and how we forgive
and how we ask for forgiveness.
These things we do — or in some cases, do not do —
are the outward and visible signs
that point to our embrace of God, or not.

All baptism is, really,
is our acceptance of a relationship with God
and our efforts
to make that relationship visible.

One of the first things we heard
about Damar Hamlin, the Buffalo Bills Safety,
in the aftermath of his collapse in Cincinnati,
was his unusual and focused fidelity
to his family and to his community —
his neighborhood in a town near Pittsburgh.

It was an intense example
of someone’s love
made visible
in what he does
and how he lives.

I don’t know if Damar Hamilin is baptized or not
but he has made his relationship with God visible.

But all of us
have the capacity to make our lives
a sacrament.That is what baptism is:
an agreement
to make our lives a sacrament —
an outward
and visible sign
of an inward
and invisible reality…really.

Take away all the extra wrapping —
the doctrinal language
and the liturgical symbols
and the theological pronouncement
and the ridiculous claims about being saved
and going to heaven,
and that stuff…really —
and baptism
is simply our acceptance
of a relationship with God
and our efforts
to make that relationship visible.

That’s is, really.
God says to us, “You are mine, dear one”
and we accept that relationship
and try to make it visible, or not.
That is baptism — yours and mine — in a nutshell.

Now the story of Jesus’ baptism.

We know there are four different versions
of Jesus’ baptism.
Take your pick.

There is the earliest one in the Gospel, Mark,
and the last one in the Gospel of John.
With forty or fifty years between them,
and with totally different audiences,
we begin to notice that Mark treated
Jesus’ 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.

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 for moral cleansing.

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 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 as we see today in Matthew,
as in Luke,
the story evolved
over the distance of a decade or more.
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.”

So it is a bit of a game of telephone or Post Office,
where the story is whispered
ear to ear
and changes along the way.

But the most telling change
is when it finally gets to John’s Gospel
some forty or fifty years later.

Jesus isn’t even baptized in the Gospel of John.
Do you know why?
Because it would have been a scandal.

John the Baptist
gathered people in the wilderness of Judah
in the all-important Jordan River
to purify them.
He was a prophet
and his whole shtick
had to do with convincing people
that they had sinned
and God would not rescue them
from the Romans or anything else,
until they had “repented”
and were ritually purified.

He said that couldn’t happen at the Temple
because the Temple clergy were too corrupt.
They had to come out
into the wilderness — symbolic
of Moses with the people.
And had to be baptized — cleansed —
in the Jordan River, also symbolic
of Moses pointing the way over to the Promise Land.
So the scandal of Jesus being baptized,
for the author of John’s Gospel anyway,
was the Baptist purifying Jesus
for the repentance of his sins.

You see, in Mark, Matthew, and Luke
Jesus is baptized
for the repentance of his sins
and purified.
To people who knew Jesus when he was alive,
that would not seem like a remarkable thing.

To the next generation of Jesus followers,
like Mark,
it would not seem so strange that Jesus was
baptized for repentance of sin
and renewed in the Jordan River either.

Clearly Matthew and Luke
didn’t think anything weird about it.
But by the time you get to John’s generation,
to the people now called “Christian”
at the beginning of the 2nd Century
that did not sit right.

They would hear about Jesus being baptized
for the forgiveness of sins and be shocked!

John’s Gospel taught that Jesus was without sin…
Jesus was different than you and me…Jesus was in the beginning
with God, and the Word was God.
Eventually it would be said that Jesus was begotten not made
of one being with the Father —
human but without sin.

So the idea that Jesus was baptized
for repentance of sin was
a complete negation of that theological rumor
began by Paul and grown into a massive Church Doctrine by the 3rd Century:

Jesus did not sin
so how could be be baptized
for the forgiveness of sin?

So the theological punch line
for today’s story from Matthew
and the backstory
going on behind it,
is Jesus was human, and if human,
someone who knew how to sin
and knew how to seek forgiveness and redemption.
Just like us.
That version of Jesus
sits better with me than John’s
or the Creed’s version
but you can take your pick.

Let me end on another note.

Regardless of which Jesus
we prefer,
I would would like to leave us
with the thought of Damar Hamlin,
and about how baptism
is the way we wrap our relationship
with the gauze of
what we do
and how we love
and who we serve
in order to make visible
that we are God’s dear one.