Sunday, January 13, 2013

Living Sacraments

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
January 13, 2013

Year C: The First Sunday after the Epiphany – the Baptism of Our Lord
Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
(Acts 8:14-17)
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Living Sacraments
            Last Sunday was the Feast of the Epiphany when we remembered the manifestation of God’s glory to the mysterious wise men from the East. God’s glory appeared to the wise men not in the capital city of Jerusalem – not in King Herod’s palace – but in the form of a little child and his mother under a star in Bethlehem.
            As Lauren reminded us in her sermon last Sunday, the Feast of the Epiphany marks the beginning of the Epiphany season – a season when we remember a whole series of manifestations – a whole series of appearances – of God’s glory.
            And so here we are today, remembering Epiphany number two: the Baptism of Jesus.
            All four gospels tell us something about Jesus’ baptism, but they tell the story in somewhat different ways.
            Partly that’s because of different traditions that were circulating about Jesus in the years before the gospels were written down.
            Partly that’s because the four gospels have different theological interests.
            And partly it’s because of some early Christian discomfort with the fact that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
            And we can understand that discomfort.
            After all, remember that John preached a baptism of repentance – but, of course, Jesus had nothing to repent.
            And, it’s reasonable to assume that the baptizer – the one doing the dunking – has greater spiritual power and experience than the one being baptized, the one getting dunked.
            So all the gospels go to great lengths to make sure that we get that Jesus is far greater than John the Baptist!
            And we hear that very clearly in today’s lesson from Luke.
            According to Luke, John says to the crowd: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
            And then Luke goes even further to minimize John by completely removing him from the scene of Jesus’ baptism.
            You may have noticed there’s a gap in today’s lesson. The part that’s missing is about John’s arrest by Herod.
            Then, after getting John out of the way, Luke gets to what he really wants to tell us. Luke jumps ahead to when Jesus is praying after his baptism.
            Luke tells us “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”
            At his baptism, Jesus has an epiphany.
            At his baptism, Jesus – maybe for the first time – recognizes his special, unbreakable, indissoluble, bond with God.
            And right after his baptism, Jesus begins his work, begins his ministry of sharing God’s love with the whole world.
            I get the discomfort with John the Baptist, but I’m glad we know that Jesus was baptized.
            For us, of course, Baptism is the first sacrament. And at least some of you will remember the prayer book definition of sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
            In the outward and visible water we receive an inward and spiritual grace.
            In baptism we recognize our own special, unbreakable, indissoluble, bond with God.
            Which we forget about all the time. So, we are reminded of that unbreakable, indissoluble, bond every time we have a baptism – every time we gather at the font and welcome another new Christian into the fold.
            Every time there’s a baptism we’re reminded of our unbreakable, indissoluble bond with God – we’re reminded that there’s nothing we can do or not do that would make God stop loving us.
            And, though we might not want to hear it, every time there’s a baptism we also renew our Baptismal Covenant – we’re reminded that God expects a lot of us.
            Every time there’s a baptism we’re reminded that we’re expected to break bread together, to pray together.
            Every time there’s a baptism we’re reminded that God expects us to resist evil and, when we sin, to repent and turn back to God.
            Every time there’s a baptism we’re reminded that God expects us to proclaim the Good News by word and example.
            Every time there’s a baptism we’re reminded that God expects us to seek and serve Christ in every single person.
            Every time there’s a baptism we’re reminded that God expects us to respect the dignity of every human being.
            It’s a lot.
            Of course, we can only do any of this with God’s help.
            But,’s a lot.
            Even with God’s help, seeking and serving Christ in every person and loving our neighbor as our self is a lot.
            Life is hard enough. Even with God’s help, how can we do all this?
            And, I admit, I’m a big believer in doing stuff. Most of you have heard me preach over and over about the Food for Friends barrel, the soup kitchen, mission trips, and on and on.
            But all that doing can make us miss what’s most important.
            God knows, there’s plenty to do – but before and behind and beneath all that doing, what’s most important - all that’s really expected of us – all that God hopes for us - is openness to God’s love.
            At his baptism, Jesus was open to God.
            Because he was open to God, Jesus was able to hear and feel God’s love. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
            And, after his baptism, Jesus became an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace.
            After his baptism, Jesus became a living sacrament.
            Yes, Jesus shared God’s love by doing lots of things – by teaching and healing, by challenging and forgiving.
            But, you know, all of that doing is not what’s most special about Jesus.
            Jesus is special because when people met him they met God’s love.
            Think about the people closest to Jesus – Peter, Mary Magdalene, James and John, Mary and Martha.
            They didn’t become followers of Jesus because of all the amazing things he did.
            They became followers of Jesus because in and through him they felt God’s love in a way they had never felt it before.
            Because Jesus was supremely open to God – because Jesus is a living sacrament - people around him felt God’s love and then unleashed God’s love on the world.
            We Christians are meant to be outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.
            Most of the time we don’t do such a great job of being living sacraments because usually God’s love gets locked inside of us – chained by our fears and resentments and jealousies and guilt. God’s love gets locked inside of us – chained by all the usual human hang-ups.
            But, every once in a while, we read about or hear about people who are so open to God’s love that they really become living sacraments.
            And, if we’re really fortunate, we get to meet someone who is a living sacrament.
            That’s what Jack Harter was to me – and, I believe, to all of us.
            Jack couldn’t do anything, and yet, somehow, Jack was so open to God that through him God’s love was unleashed in all of us.
            In his brief life, free of all of our usual hang-ups, Jack offered all of us an epiphany – offered all of us a manifestation, an appearance, of God’s grace.
            In his brief life, Jack was an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
            In his brief life, Jack was a living sacrament.
            So, today as we remember Jesus’ baptism - Jesus’ own epiphany – and today as we mourn the loss of Jack, may we be open to God’s love. May we unlock our hearts to God’s love. May we unleash God’s love to the world.
            May we be living sacraments.