A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 9, 2011 (Baptism of Jesus, Year A)
I’ve always wanted to do a baptism outside. Like in a lake or a river. You know, the way Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan; as a public rite in the midst of God’s creation. When I was in New York, I almost did one on the banks of the Hudson River. Until I realized that with all the pollution it would have been less of a baptism and more of a walking on water.
This morning we hear Matthew’s version of Jesus’ baptism and the first thing that jumps out at us is that John didn’t want to do it. He’d been preaching about the coming Messiah and urging people to be baptized in order to repent and be cleansed of their sins. John’s role was to prepare people for Jesus’ impending arrival. And when Jesus shows up and asks to be baptized by John, John basically says, “What are you nuts? You’re the one who should be baptizing me!”
And you can understand his feelings of unworthiness. After all, here comes the one about whom John had been saying “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” With the unspoken addendum of “Let alone baptize him.” John knew his role and his calling: he was the Forerunner to the Christ, the one who was “not the light but testified to the light;” the one who must “decrease” so that Jesus could “increase.”
But Jesus persists and John, even without understanding why, relents. I imagine it’s hard to say “no” to the Messiah. And so, despite, his feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy for the task at hand, John lives up to his name and baptizes Jesus. And we hear that as he did so, the Spirit of the Lord anointed Jesus and his particular calling was affirmed by God with the words, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Yesterday at the Episcopal Cathedral in Boston, Anne was ordained a priest. And in a few moments she will celebrate the Eucharist for the very first time. This is a seminal moment in the life of any priest and it is a privilege for all of us to be able to share in this with her. But, if her experience is anything like mine and every other priest I’ve ever met, the moments leading up to the joy of celebration will be tinged with feelings of unworthiness. This occasionally rears its head throughout the long ordination process – what do you mean God is calling me, what do you mean God entrusts me with the pastoral care of God’s people; what do you mean God has faith in me to turn ordinary bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ?
And the same thing can be said of all of us who are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What do you mean I’m worthy to stand before God and receive his presence each week? What do you mean I am worthy of God’s unconditional love? What do you mean I’m worthy to be called to share my gifts within a particular ministry of this church?
All of which connects us to John the Baptist’s feelings of unworthiness. But it also leads to the resounding answer to the question: ‘You are God’s beloved and with you God is well pleased.’ Regardless of whether you occasionally feel otherwise, God deems you worthy. God invites you to ministry and service in his name and into divine relationship, not because you are perfect but because God loves you completely and intentionally. And so we are all called to open our hands to receive Christ not because we’re perfect but precisely because of our imperfections.
In this sense, baptism is a messy affair. It doesn’t perfect us but it does draw us into relationship with the risen Christ. It creates an indissoluble bond between our humanity and Christ’s divinity. So it doesn’t suddenly create the perfect little Christian – but it establishes once and for all the relationship that we spend the rest of our lives living into. Sometimes very well, sometimes not so well but the invitation and self-worth in God never fades away.
In light of the messiness of baptism, it’s hard not to notice that in some ways we’ve domesticated baptism over the years. Especially with the common practice of infant baptism, the temptation is to focus upon the cuteness of the baby rather than the powerful moment that is taking place. And don’t get me wrong – this morning we will be baptizing three very cute babies. But the danger occurs when baptism becomes a mere rite of passage rather than a rite of commitment. Getting the baby “done” can take precedence over the power of God’s Spirit working within us. But all you have to do is listen – really listen – to the words of the baptismal rite. They are powerful; they are jarring; they cut right to the core of our faith. There is talk of renouncing sin and evil and there is language affirming our acceptance of Jesus Christ as our Lord.
Some of you have commented that I don’t use a silver baptism shell when I do baptisms. That’s still a fairly common practice in many Episcopal churches. But I quite intentionally don’t use one because, again, baptism is a messy affair. There should be water splashing around! And the shell, to me, is just too precious. A symbol of trying to contain the Holy Spirit rather than unleashing it. In fact I like to warn people that the area immediately surrounding the baptismal font is a “splash zone.” Whenever we have baptisms you sit there at your own risk.
One of these days I’d still love to do a baptism outside. Maybe at the Hingham Bathing Beach; unless it’s hunting season. But whether baptism takes place in the ocean or in a small wooden baptismal font, the result is the same: the new Christian is marked as Christ’s own forever. And any feelings of unworthiness are washed away by the abiding presence of Jesus Christ.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2011