Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Inauguration of Faith

A sermon for the First Sunday after Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, January 13, 2013.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 43:1-7Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, and  Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.

Right now, downtown, bands are playing, oaths are being said, and over-caffeinated members of the Presidential Inaugural Committee are desperately trying to manage one another as they rehearse next week’s Inauguration.  The official inauguration stores are open, and red, white and blue bunting is appearing all over.  

An inauguration, of any kind, even if it’s the second, is the official beginning.  Certain people are present. Formalities are followed. Tradition carries the day even as there is some newer, contemporary aspect included.

The idea of “inauguration” is rooted in the classical world, especially in ancient Rome whenever there were official state functions and augurs were present.  The augurs were priests, or soothsayers, or official diviners who read the future or the signs of the times, often by watching the flight of the birds.  They could, in that way, tell what “augured” well for the future.  Any official beginning in the Roman state included the augurs in attendance.  An inauguration, then as now, meant a mixture of tradition and pageantry, stateliness and hope, hope that the birds were telling the truth and hope that the gods were on the side of the new leader. 

The spirit of the inauguration outdoors coincides with a spirit of inauguration indoors (at church) as we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  At Christmas we celebrated the birth of a baby, the child of God who is God-in-the-flesh, Emmanuel, God-among-us and God with-us.  On Epiphany we proclaimed that this God of life is not only God-for-us, but God-for-all. 

And today, we remember the baptism of Jesus and our own baptism.  We remember how Jesus was baptized by John, not so much because Jesus needed to be made holy through baptism, but because, through baptism, Jesus is able to make us holy.  And we recall our own baptism, our own inauguration as Christians. 

But to remember our baptism is not just to play-act, or dig out old pictures, if we have them.  It’s not even just to light a baptismal candle, if we still have ours, it is to touch base with our baptism and allow that through our baptism, God saved us.  God saves us still, and God will always save us. 

The water that runs through us is water of redemption, water that has saved us.  Isaiah reminds people that it was the water made holy that saved them in crossing over from Egypt. And so, the water that saves us at baptism is connected to the water that saved the people of Israel.  It’s connected because God is in the middle of it all. 

The psalm reminds us of water’s power in creation—the power to create and refresh, but also the power to destroy and wash away.  “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters, the God of glory thunders.”  It breaks cedar trees.  It splits the flames of fire.  It strips the forest bare.  But it also gives strength to God’s people.  The voice of the Lord that moves upon the water gives us a blessing of peace.

It’s that blessing of peace and strength that the apostles are so eager to share in the reading from Acts.  As soon as Peter and John hear that people in Samaria are interested in the word of God, they go to visit.  They go to lay hands on them, to pray over them, and to share the Holy Spirit with them.  They go, in a sense, to play in the water with these new friends—to join in their new-found faith, and to teach their new friends how to swim in the deep water, to be baptized not only in the name of Jesus, but also with the power of the Holy Spirit—the Spirit that moves in community, that flies when spirit meets spirit, that grows whenever faith is shared.

If we were to think of baptism as jumping into the water, then we should view it NOT as one of those amazing divers who jumps from a high place, soars through the air downward, and cuts through the water in silence, without even so much as a ripple.  Instead, baptism is like going in “cannonball style.”  It’s about making a splash, about God’s displacing and disrupting the matter of the universe.  It’s about jumping in, making a difference, and sharing the water. 

In baptism we do jump in. Baptism is a change, it is a moving forward, a leaving behind. At the baptism of Jesus, God says, “You are my child, my Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  God says the same thing to each one of us at our baptism.  It’s our inauguration, our commissioning, our call to action on behalf of Christ.  We don’t need the augurs to read the flight of the birds.  We have the symbolic wings of the dove of the Holy Spirit to show us the way forward.  We’re called to get wet, to get involved, and to allow the power of God to have its effect upon us. Saint Paul understands baptism as dying and rising again.

He says, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6). We will not go from life to death and to new life without some effect, and at the very least, we will be getting wet.

In baptism we also make a difference. Like a stone that’s thrown into water and makes a ripple effect, the effect of our baptism will ripple throughout our lives and into the lives of others. It will naturally spill over. If you ever watch a group of kids at a swimming pool, you’ll notice that as soon as an adult looks away, the action becomes about who can make the biggest splash, the most dramatic jump into the water. Who can displace the most water? It’s all about being seen, about making one’s mark, about standing out. As Christians, we could use a little more of this childish instinct. Being baptized marks us as belonging to Christ—it makes us different, different in the way we make decisions, in the way we spend money, in the way we treat other people. As the children in the swimming pool know, there’s a big difference between splashing water in someone else’s face and in simply making a big splash oneself. We also know that difference and as Christians are called to be respectful to those of other faith or no faith, but it still make a splash with our own faith.

We get wet, we make a splash, and finally, our baptism carries with it the command as well as the courtesy of sharing water to others.  Every week there are some from this parish who participate in volunteer ministries around the city.  Some literally share water, and tea, and food.  Others sit on boards, help with fundraising, or haul food from one place to another.  In just a few weeks, our Endowment Board will meet to review applications for mission grants, grants that have enabled us to further the prayers we say and make them more tangible for people in need—for victims of the storm in New York and New Jersey, for tornado victims in the south, and for people in Honduras, South Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere.   In the streets of this city, in the farthest corners of the globe, many of you share your spirit and the spirit of Christ in you, as you work and travel and do research and offer guidance-- you give of yourselves for the bettering of God’s creation.  In sharing the OUR spirit, having been baptized with water and the spirit, we water to others.

The folks downtown are probably about finished with their rehearsal and next week will be the real thing.  As our country gets ready to celebrate the inauguration of a new presidential term, there are hopes and there are worries.  But as we watch the inauguration of one person and a new leadership, we also have the chance to re-commit ourselves to our individual and collective callings as people living in this particular country.  In a similar way, on this day the church calls the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, though we (ourselves) are not baptized again, we reaffirm our own baptismal covenant.  We re-commit ourselves. May the Spirit refresh us, commission us to do faithful ministry in the new year, and fill us with the very power of God. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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