Monday, January 10, 2011

Epiphany I: Baptism of Christ

This is my final homily as rector of St Anne's (Warsaw, IN). The next time I preach on a Sunday may not be until March 20. So there will probably not be any new entries on this sermon blog until that time.

There’s so much going on today—so many layers of meaning in the 90 minutes or so that we spend in here, and then whatever time we spend next door afterward—that I hardly know where to begin. So I think I’ll begin with Jesus. That’s usually a pretty safe choice for a preacher, but I actually do think that, by starting with Jesus, I’ll be able to tie everything else together in a way that might make sense to most of us.
Today we celebrate the debut of Jesus as a public figure. He’s a mature adult, and has lived his entire life to this point in obscurity as a carpenter in a backwater Galilean village. We know nothing about what went on in his mind and heart. We know nothing about what led him to the behavior we read about in the gospels. But whatever it was, Jesus evidently came to the conclusion that he had a vocation, a calling, and that this vocation came from God.
So he traveled down from Galilee to the Judean wilderness and the banks of the Jordan River—approximately the same distance as from Warsaw to the Illinois state line, only he walked the whole way—he traveled to the banks of the Jordan River where one of his own relatives, John, is drawing crowds and calling them to repent of their sins and be baptized by him in the river. Jesus joins that crowd, and takes his place in line, and when his turn comes, presents himself to John for baptism.
The irony, of course, is that, of everyone there on that occasion, Jesus is the only one who, strictly speaking, didn’t need to be baptized. So what does it means that Jesus was, in fact, baptized by John? The best clue we have toward an answer to that question can be found in what Jesus did immediately following his post-baptismal “retreat” in the desert: He recruited followers. He wandered the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he walked through the towns and villages of the region, picking up disciples, saying to people, “Follow me.” And the last thing he ever said to those disciples that scripture records for us was a command that they continue in that activity: “Go into all the world and make disciples…”.
That has been the Church’s mission ever since—making disciples of Jesus. The fact that you and I are here in this place at this time is only because Jesus, acting though his Body, the Church, has called us to be here. He has said to each of us as surely as he said to Peter and Andrew and James and John, “Follow me.” And by submitting to the baptism of John, Jesus shows us how to do precisely that. The one who calls us into discipleship also shows us, by his own example, how to be a disciple. In his baptism, Jesus accepted a vocation, a calling, and he becomes the model for anyone accepting a vocation, anyone responding to a call.
One of the layers of meaning in what we’re doing today, of course, is that this is the final time I stand in this spot to break open the word of God, and the final time I stand at this altar to preside at the Holy Mysteries of Our Lord’s Body and Blood—as the Rector of this parish, at any rate; I do hope there will be occasions when I am invited back here in the future. This is true, of course—and I hope you have no doubt about this—not because I take any pleasure in leaving you, but because I am persuaded that I am accepting a vocation, a call from the Lord, to become the Bishop of Springfield. When I was still a young child, I heard the voice of Jesus saying, “Follow me.” And when I was in high school, I finally said back to him, “I will follow wherever you lead me.” And that is precisely what I have endeavored to do over the last forty-some odd years. When Brenda and I came to Warsaw three-and-a-half years ago, it was because Jesus called us here. As we take our leave from you now, it is because Jesus calls us to Springfield. As the Roman centurion said to Jesus, “I am a man under authority.” I go where my orders send me.
One of the other layers of meaning this morning is that we’re baptizing two little ones—Parker and Emerson. The Feast of the Baptism of Christ is one of the four occasions for which we “save up” baptismal candidates during the year, and I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to be baptizing on my last Sunday at St Anne’s. The vision of this quite wonderful font that we have here played a significant role in the discernment of my call to come to this parish, so this has just worked out so beautifully, as far as I’m concerned! As we bring these two precious children to the water, we do so with an awareness that we are, on their behalf, accepting a vocation, a divine calling. We are, on their behalf, saying Yes to Jesus, saying, “Yes, I will follow you wherever you lead.” It is an awareness of vocation that we will expect them to grow into as the years go by, and we are all promising to take a share in the responsibility of forming Parker and Emerson in that awareness. We welcome and receive them into the Body of Christ, and we will never stop inviting them to confess the faith of Christ crucified, to proclaim his resurrection, and to share with us in his eternal priesthood.
St Anne’s also has a vocation, also has a calling. It would be a huge mistake to think or feel that this parish is, from God’s point of view, simply “collateral damage” in the aftermath of my call to Springfield. I’ve personally always taken great comfort from the assurance given by St Paul in his letter to the Romans that “all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” The accent here is on “work together.” St Anne’s—both collectively and in its individual members—is called according to God’s purpose. There was a meaning and a purpose behind my call here in 2007. From the perspective of history, our time together, brief though it has been, will be known to mean something, to have served a worthy end that makes St Anne’s a sharper instrument in God’s tool kit. And my departure—at this time and for this purpose—will be seen to have meant something, to have served a worthy end. These meanings and these ends are not clear to us today, nor should we expect them to be. But in time, it will all become clear. The gift of faith that enables any of us to say Yes to God’s call assures us of that much.
So we bring Parker and Emerson to the font of new birth now. What a holy moment! What a Spirit-impregnated moment! God is about to act in their lives in a powerful way, a way that they cannot now understand, but, then, who among us can? For this moment at the font, the barrier between heaven and earth, between this world and world to come, between time and eternity—this barrier is breached. We catch a glimpse of the glory of God, and as we commend Parker and Emerson to the holy vocation that is being laid upon them, we reconnect with our own. We reconnect with Jesus looking into our souls and saying, “Follow me,” and with our response, “Yes, I will follow you wherever you lead.” And Jesus himself, standing in the waters of the Jordan River, looking into the soul of John the Baptist, is himself the model that we pattern our response after, the Master showing those who would follow him how to be a disciple.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Second Sunday after Christmas

 Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

In the Prayer Book office of Compline, which is a prayer service for the late evening, just before bedtime, is a collect that, at various times, has meant a great deal to me:
Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changeless.
We who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life. Indeed, if the life stories of those of us who are assembled in this room this morning were told, what a collection of “changes and chances” it would make! Before a casual and unplanned conversation with Bishop Little at General Convention in 2006, the only thing I new about Warsaw, Indiana was that it was on the road between Fort Wayne and Valparaiso and that a priest named Michael Basden once served here because I met him in a Wisconsin bar in 1992! And before another casual and unplanned conversation with Bishop Little about a year ago, it never occurred to me to take very seriously being elected bishop of anywhere, except perhaps the planet Pluto. 

Uncertainties, changes of plan, circumstances beyond our control—the very shape of our lives has been determined by such changes and chances. We all live, for example, with the nagging fear of sudden death—our own or that of somebody we love. Serious illness seems to be changing the  plans of a friend or neighbor or family member every time we turn around. The great change that none of us can halt, of course,  is that of aging, and we are brought up short by those moments when we are reminded that time indeed is marching on and taking us with it.  In our social environmnet, one of the great “chances” of life is the reliability of our employment.  Members of our own parish have faced unemployment over the past year, and others face the threat of it even now. Relationships change, sometimes gradually and sometimes suddenly. Old ones slip away and new ones are formed. 

The members of the holy family—Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—were certainly not exempt from the “changes and chances” of this life. Think about it: Joseph planned on marrying a nice hometown girl, who wouldn’t get pregnant until after the wedding, and raising a nice normal family in Nazareth. But angels kept talking to him in dreams, and it never worked out quite like he imagined. 

Changes and chances. 

Mary planned on making the trip up to Bethlehem with Joseph in order to be enrolled in the census that the emporer had ordered, and then returning to Nazareth in plenty of time to have her baby at home, attended by close members of her family.  Instead, labor pains came just as they were getting to Bethlehem. 

Changes and chances. 

Joseph planned on being able to find a hotel room when they got there, but discovered that the Motel 6, in this case, did not leave the light on for them, and that he should have gone online and made a reservation before he left home. 

Changes and chances. 

After the baby was born,  and they had done their civic duty,  Joseph planned on taking his family home to Nazareth to set up housekeeping, but, no—another dream and another angel, and it was off to Egypt to escape the sword of King Herod’s soldiers. 

Changes and chances. 

While living in Egypt, they reflected on what they’d been told about just who this child of theirs was, and they thought that maybe Bethlehem, with all of its royal and messianic associations in the scriptures, would not, after all, be a bad place to raise Jesus to adulthood.  But after Herod was dead, yet another dream carried the message that they were to go all the way back home to Nazareth. Of all the changes and chances of their lives, this is perhaps    one that Joseph and Mary were tempted to resist, for Jesus’s sake. “Jesus of Bethlehem” had a certain attractive ring to it. It sounded like the kind of messiah that would do his parents proud. But God apparently didn’t have in mind anything like “Jesus of Lake Tippy” or “Jesus of Stone Camp.” He was thinking more in terms of  “Jesus of Claypool” or “Jesus of Milford.” So it had to be Nazareth.  

Changes and chances. 

In each of these instances of change and chance, Mary and Joseph and Jesus were faced with uncertainty and fear. So much was completely out of their hands, out of their control. Yet, in each case, they behaved obediently. They acted not in fear, but in faith. And, in every instance, God also acted “in faith”; he kept faith with them. Mary said to the angel Gabriel, “Let it be to me according to your word” before knowing what Joseph’s reaction would be. Joseph went ahead and married a fiancĂ©e who was pregnant with a child not his own, not knowing the social consequences. In both instances, their acts of faithful obedience were rewarded. 

Perhaps this is what gave them the courage to face giving birth in a cold, dark, and smelly stable. And even there, the sustaining and redeeming presence of God was manifest in the shepherds who showed up unannounced with a tall tale about angelic choirs in the heavens, and later on in the foriegn astrologers with their exotic gifts and their story about a star that led them from distant lands in the east. And without that encouragement, perhaps they wouldn’t have been able to face the prospect of fleeing to Egypt and finding a place to live and a way to make a living, and for how long, God only knew.

Through their faith and obedience, the Holy Family eventually made it home, quite some time—years, probably—later than they planned when they set out to sign the emporer’s register in Bethlehem. They had experienced more than their share of changes and chances, and it is precisely in these changes and chances—not in spite of them, but in them—that the redeeming grace of God was revealed. At every step of the way, what looked like defeat was turned into victory, and the loving purpose of God was made clear. 

The same God who called the Holy Family to faithful obedience invites that response in us today. Our vocation, to be sure, may be more modest than that of the Holy Family.   We may not have angels speaking to us in dreams. But the life of faith to which we are called, the obedience to which we are called, is no less holy. Our lives are filled with changes and chances, and in each of these uncertainties lies an opportunity to respond in faith and obedience and witness God’s redeeming grace present and active in our midst. Do we dare to take these opportunities?  Do we dare to trust that the same God whose wisdom and power and redemptive purpose is revealed in the life of the Holy Family will reveal that same wisdom and power and redemptive purpose in the changes and chances of our lives too? 

My prayer for you—individually and as the community of St Anne’s—is that you will have that trust, and I hope your prayer for me is that I will have that trust, and that, even as God, acting through the changes and chances of our lives, has called us to labor in different sections of the vineyard after next Sunday, we will nonetheless, acting in faithful obedience,witness a mighty work of the Holy Spirit in our midst during 2011. Amen.