A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on January 7, 2007.
Based on Luke 3:15-16, 21-22 (Epiphany 1, Year C).
Affirmation is nice. We all like to be affirmed in what we do. We prefer accolades to criticism; we like people to build us up rather than tear us down; we’d rather receive an acceptance letter than a rejection notice. It’s a pretty natural phenomenon – the human ego is a fragile thing. And affirmation helps pave over our innate insecurities.
But our desire for affirmation can go too far. “Affirm me!” has become kind of a new age mantra. We wouldn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings or suggest that what they’re doing somehow falls short. So as a society we tend to be long on affirmation and short on criticism. Which, when it comes to our faith lives, leads to a sort of “feel good” spirituality. ‘You affirm me, I’ll affirm you and we’ll all feel good.’ Which feels good but, of course, lacks any depth. As the football playoffs kick-off this weekend, I’ll call this the Anti-Lombardi model of spirituality. You can’t really picture Vince Lombardi calling over a receiver who just dropped a pass and giving him a hug.
But true affirmation isn’t just about feeling good. This morning we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan and what happens immediately after the pouring on of water, is divine affirmation. The Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove and we hear the voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Divine affirmation transcends feel good spirituality. Divine affirmation doesn’t translate into an easy life. Jesus was affirmed by God and then immediately sent into the wilderness to be tempted by satan. But it was precisely this affirmation from God that empowered him to withstand temptation and begin his public ministry. A ministry fraught with rejection and ultimately crucifixion.
I sometimes receive unsolicited letters or emails whenever I have articles published. Just before Christmas I wrote an editorial for The Journal News about the Briarcliff crèche controversy. And in the days that followed I got a couple of letters basically saying it was the best thing they’d ever read on the subject of the culture wars – they probably don’t get out much. But one anonymous letter was not so affirming. It called me among other things a “fool” and a “namby-pamby man of the cloth with no guts.” It was signed “A no-longer Episcopalian thanks to weak men of the cloth like you – wimp!”
I admit I prefer affirming letters (although I may frame this one). But affirmation and rejection and apathy are all part of what it means to live in this world. As much as human affirmation or rejection may bring us fleeting pleasure or pain, it is only affirmation from God that really matters. It is affirmation from God that defines us. And this is the affirmation Jesus experienced at his baptism. Jesus is marked and affirmed for all time. Nothing can separate him from his identity as God’s son; not apathy, not rejection, not crucifixion.
By virtue of our own baptisms we have been affirmed by the power of God; affirmed once and for all time. Immediately after this morning’s baptism I will mark the sign of the cross upon Nicholas’ head, anoint him with oil and say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Sealed and marked forever; that’s all the affirmation we need. Nice letters and compliments temporarily make us feel good but it’s the divine affirmation of baptism that sustains us through this journey of life and faith. We are marked not by human means but with the cross of Christ.
So, let God affirm you. Not in a “namby-pamby” give-me-a-hug kind of way. But in a way that allows you to know and experience God’s power and passionate love for you. You are God’s child, God’s beloved; with you God is well pleased.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2007