Baptism of Our Lord 2020

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 12, 2020
(Baptism of Our Lord, Year A)

When my kids were young, we spent a lot of time at the town pool in Briarcliff Manor, town poolNew York. It was centrally located, affordable, and during those summer months it turned into something of a town square. Everyone was there, from leather-skinned ladies still tanning with baby oil, to teenagers strutting around in hormone-driven packs, to middle-aged dads sucking in their guts, to throngs of young children playing Marco Polo in the shallow end. 

What I remember most about those years, besides being incredibly jealous of parents with older kids who could actually spend the day reading, was hanging out with the boys while they frolicked in the kiddie pool. Every jump, every attempt to blow bubbles, every time they reached down below the surface to retrieve a coin was accompanied by a “Hey, dad! Watch this!” or “Look at me!” The need for parental affirmation was just so blatant.

Those of you who are parents of young children, or who remember those days, know that the search for affirmation comes without any subtlety at all. Children want recognition for their accomplishments and they want it right now. Whether it’s the latest picture drawn at the kitchen table or those early bike rides without the training wheels or learning to play chopsticks on the piano, the action is immediately followed with an upward glance to make sure that you’re not only watching but approving. 

Of course, over time the search for affirmation gets more subtle. Eventually it evolves into that strange push/pull thing where they want the affirmation, but at the same time they don’t actually want to be in the same room with you. 

And, not to turn this into a glorified therapy session, but parental affirmation is something we still all crave at one level. The shadows of our mothers and fathers — biological or adopted, alive or dead — can loom large over our entire lives, in ways that are both life-giving and destructive. In ways that can impact the entire trajectory of our existence, vocationally and relationally and in so many of the choices we make.

At one level the baptism of Jesus is all about parental affirmation. Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan, the heavens open, the Spirit descends upon him like a dove, and God declares, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And, ultimately, isn’t that the parental affirmation we all seek? First as children and then later in more complex ways as adults. “With you I am well pleased.” That’s really all we want to hear. To know at the very core of our being that we are loved and cared for and that we matter.

Now, we don’t know much about Jesus’ childhood. Presumably he had those kiddie pool-type interactions with Mary and Joseph in his early years. Taking his first steps with a big grin on his face and looking up for affirmation; successfully manipulating a hammer in his father’s workshop; reading a line of Scripture for the first time. Those are all precious moments that were surely treasured by Jesus’ earthly parents and stored in the memory box of their minds. 

Yet part of our spiritual maturity is letting go of the expectations of others — whether peer or parent — and seeking the only thing that really matters in this life: divine affirmation. Through his baptism, Jesus takes on the mantle of Messiah. God affirms Jesus’ role in the unfolding plan of salvation, and he is sent forth to live into his identity not as the carpenter’s son but as the Son of God. And in that moment in the waters of the Jordan, Jesus also lets go of the earthly expectations and affirmation-seeking behavior that defines so much of the human condition. He submits to this baptism and he offers himself fully and forever to the service of his divine parent. 

“With you I am well pleased.” The amazing thing about these words of affirmation is that Jesus hasn’t done anything yet! His public ministry begins immediately after his baptism. Before his hair is even dry, Jesus is driven out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan, a testing of sorts, and then his whirlwind ministry begins. And yet God is already pleased with him. Not for what he’s done or what he will do, but simply for who he is as a creature wonderfully and lovingly made in God’s image. 

And I think this says much about God. Whatever we do or fail to do, God is well pleased with us. That’s the baseline. When it comes to God’s interaction with humanity, love is God’s default position. We’re so quick to build upon our own self-doubts that we often forget just how much God loves us simply for being our unique selves.

Yes, there are differences between Jesus’ baptism and our own. It’s harder to “die to sin” when you’re sinless. And there’s no voice from heaven anointing us as the Messiah. But there are parallels that link the baptism of our Lord to the baptism of you and me and Sienna. And that is the indelible affirmation of God’s love that never fades away. We may and do fail, we may and do make a mess of things. And yet God’s love for us is so perfect and so complete and so absolute, that it can never, ever be washed away

At his baptism, Jesus is affirmed as God’s Son. Not his friend or proxy or messenger, but as his very own substance. In the person of Jesus Christ, God’s very self has entered the world and this moment in the Jordan confirms the relationship. And it’s important to remember that we are all children of God. Children. That’s very deliberate terminology that makes us not just followers of Jesus but his siblings. There is a profound, intimate connection of relationship between us and our Lord, through baptism, that can never be undone. 

God looks upon us with the same love a parent gazes upon a child in a kiddie pool. But the baseline affirmation is without expectation or strings. That’s not to say that there isn’t a cost to discipleship. For Jesus, this divine affirmation is offered just as he begins his difficult mission of bringing salvation to the world. He’ll encounter hardship and skepticism, anger and hatred. It is not an easy path. And divine affirmation will be offered again in the story of the Transfiguration, just before Jesus heads to Jerusalem to set in motion the events leading to his crucifixion. In the presence of Peter, James, and John, God proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”

For all of us, this divine affirmation begins not in the waters of the kiddie pool, but through the waters of baptism. For Jesus, for me, for you. And today serves as a reminder that God’s loving affirmation is constant and unwavering and indelible. With you, God is well pleased.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2020


Baptism of Our Lord 2019

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 13, 2019 (Baptism of Our Lord, Year C)

“Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.” You may recognize these words as the first verse of an Advent hymn. It was written in 1744 by the prolific English hymn writer Charles Wesley and has been sung in the days leading up to Christmas for hundreds of years. We sang it here at St. John’s on the First Sunday of Advent, so just about six weeks ago. quote-come-thou-long-expected-jesus-born-to-set-thy-people-free-from-our-fears-and-sins-release-charles-wesley-79-85-55.jpg

Now, I know Advent is in the rear view mirror at this point. And so is Christmas for that matter. So it feels a bit out of order to speak of expectation — a theme we addressed throughout Advent — after the birth of Jesus. Our expectations have been fulfilled! It’s time to move on.

But this theme of expectation is strong along the banks of the Jordan River. The crowds had gathered in anticipation of their long expected Messiah. And we hear in Luke’s gospel that, “the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.” With the arrival of John, there was a glimmer of hope; that the one who was born to set his people free and release them from their fears and sins, this Messiah, had finally arrived.

He hadn’t, of course. Not quite yet, anyway. John tamps down those expectations that had the crowd all abuzz, by pointing the people away from himself and towards the one who was to come. The one who wouldn’t simply baptize with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire. That’s the role of the Forerunner; to proclaim the imminent arrival of the Messiah; to set expectations.

And one of the ways John does this is to shake up people’s expectations of what the Messiah would look like. The Messiah would not be made in the people’s image, but in God’s image. The Messiah would not conform to the people’s hopes and desires, but to God’s purposes. You don’t get to make your own Messiah, one that suits your own model or fits neatly into your own messianic box; you submit to the divine understanding of what it means to be a Savior.

So while many in the crowd hoped the Messiah would set their people free from the tyranny of Roman oppression, this Messiah was more concerned with setting people free from their “fears and sins,” as Wesley writes in his hymn. John the Baptist preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins as a way of preparing people for the arrival of Jesus. And this focus on repentance may have confused the crowds. It was the Romans who were in need of repentance! The oppressors needed to repent, not the oppressed! But, again, the expectations are being reset and reordered in real time.

It’s important to remember that repentance is not just about looking backward, a way of dwelling on the sins of the past. Rather, repentance looks forward, it envisions a new way of life. It involves a turning toward the future, a future dripping with hope and possibility and expectation and new life. And in this way, repentance is the perfect complement to the notion of expectation that held the crowd at such a fevered pitch. They both anticipate a realm where freedom from fear and sin is not just theoretical, but realized in relationship with God.

We are baptized into this hope, the hope of the Messiah whose birth we welcomed at Christmas; the hope of a new realm brought about by the arrival Jesus, but also brought about through our individual repentance along with a turning towards a future in which God rules our hearts. That’s the sense of expectation that John the Baptist invited the crowds into; the same sense of expectation with which we will, in a few moments, renew our own baptismal covenants; the same sense of expectation into which we baptize three children this morning.

Last week at our Confirmation Class, we looked at this passage about Jesus’ baptism. We often start with a brief Bible study. But before we did, I had everyone write down one negative word someone had said about them. An insult or a name they had been called. One that hurt or caused them shame or embarrassment. If you’ve spent any time on this earth, it’s not hard to come up with one. You can think back to the playground or middle school or recall a family member or former friend who blurted something out in the midst of an argument. It may be something said to your face or something you heard second hand or something someone wrote about you online. But I invite you to think of one right now. There’s no need to write it down, you can just hold it in your mind.  

I then told them I wanted to focus on one particular word in this passage: the word “beloved.” A word that means “one who is loved” but can also be translated as “worthy of love.” We see it here in the voice of God that comes down from heaven after Jesus emerges from the waters of baptism saying, “You are my son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” 

God says this to Jesus but he also says it to each one of you. You are God’s beloved daughter; you are God’s beloved son. With you, God is well pleased. It is so easy to forget this fact. Or to deny it. Or to feel that you are unworthy of God’s love. 

There are so many negative messages out there; on social media, in advertising, even New Year’s Resolutions, which are generally a good thing, but the underlying assumption in making them is that you aren’t good enough just as you are. That you are inherently flawed. Yes, from a theological perspective, this is true. We are all sinners; we are all in need of repentance, the same repentance preached by John the Baptist. But we are also made in God’s image, worthy of God’s love, the God who abounds in grace and forgiveness. 

Even though we are called upon to repent, to turn away from that which separates us from God, we are nonetheless beloved by God. This is perhaps a deep paradox of faith, counterintuitive on the surface of things; that we are beloved despite our imperfections. That even as we turn away from God, God leans in to love us even more deeply.

When we were done, I asked the Confirmands to take the card on which they had written, cross out the negative word, and write instead “beloved” across it. Because that’s what you are in God’s sight. Beloved. Worthy of God’s love. And I don’t want you to ever forget that.

In the second verse of Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, Wesley writes, “Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art; dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart. And that’s what stands at the center of our expectation: Jesus is indeed the “joy of every longing heart.”

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2019

Baptism of Our Lord 2018

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 7, 2018 (Baptism of Our Lord)

Not to bring up a potentially sore subject, but how are your New Year’s resolutions going? I mean, it’s been a week so I think this is a fair question. I’m not asking this to put anyone on the defensive. For all I know, your new vegan diet is working brilliantly and your six-pack abs have already caused a stir at the gym. Of course, if things aren’t going exactly according to plan, you’re not alone. Apparently only 8% of New Year’s resolutions stick. Which is why I pre-empted the whole thing by not making any.

But as I thought about this annual tradition of making and breaking resolutions, it 167baptireminded me a bit of the spiritual life. We fall away from our resolutions just as we fall away in our relationship with God. This doesn’t make us bad or weak. Rather, it binds us to the generations of saints and sinners who have come before us in the faith. People just like you and me whose faith has fallen short at one time or another.

Because we all go though periods of reengagement with our spiritual lives or renewed dedication to church attendance before falling away again. We get out of the habit or something happens in our lives that we can’t make sense of and we decide it’s just not worth it. That it’s easier to give up on God and drown out the still, small voice within our souls that gently invites us back into relationship.

And it’s easy enough to do. Just turn up the volume on your life: Avoid silence. Shun introspection. Over-schedule yourself. Stay online. Keep the TV on. That’s pretty much the formula.

The thing is, we follow a Lord who invites rather than compels. You don’t have to follow Jesus. No one can make you. Children may be forced to go to church but you aren’t. No one’s threatening to take away your phone if you don’t show up. Jesus so desires to lead you into joy and fullness of life. But he’s not going to yank you along like a petulant child. Jesus requests the pleasure of your company but he doesn’t insist upon it. That’s not his way.

Even John the Baptist in his loud, urgent, impossible-to-miss proclamation of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins was simply issuing an invitation on the banks of the Jordan River. He wasn’t grabbing people and forcibly dunking them; baptism isn’t some sort of water torture.

So what’s the point of baptism? Well, it initiates an indelible relationship with Jesus Christ, sealing us as Christ’s own forever with a mark that never fades away. And this permanence of divine relationship is the key. Again, we may fall away — we will fall away — in our relationship with God. But God never falls away from us. That’s the power and the promise of the baptismal waters through which we all emerge. That no matter what we do or fail to do, Jesus never forsakes us. God’s invitation is always extended.

And I think that’s the difference between breaking a New Year’s resolution and falling away from relationship with God. The guilt and sense of failure we put on ourselves when we give in to temptation and eat those bad carbs even after we resolved not to, is self-inflicted. In contrast, God doesn’t curse us when we stumble but offers a hand to lift us back up and make us whole. And it all begins with the relationship initiated at baptism, this sense that God never gives up on us.

The other difference is that we don’t need to wait until January to recommit to God. We can do that right now. Or tonight or tomorrow or next month or next year. Or any day in between. One of my favorite quotes from St. Benedict, the 6th century father of western monasticism, is “Even when we fail, always we begin again.” We will fail; we will fall. That’s not a question. But each stumble is an opportunity to begin again. To renew right relationship with God. And isn’t that an amazing and inspiring notion? That hand with which God offers to lift us up is always extended in invitation. Waiting for us to return. Patiently and eagerly yearning for us to follow him.

You know, I love that we have baptisms in early January each year. Just when we think we’ve seen the last of John the Baptist, this seminal figure of Advent who prepares the way for the arrival of Jesus and figures so prominently in our Christmas preparations, he returns to baptize Jesus. And there is something about new beginnings and baptisms that go together.

I have to admit, however, that I’m a little intimidated at the prospect of baptizing Arthur Van Niel this morning. Not because he’s Father Noah’s son. That’s the cool part. I love that. But I’m a bit intimidated because on Christmas Eve, Arthur played Jesus in the pageant. And who am I to baptize Jesus?

Actually the Baptist wondered the same thing. In Matthew’s account of our Lord’s baptism, John basically says to Jesus when he asks him to baptize him, “What are you nuts? You’re the one who’s supposed to baptize me!” Nonetheless the Baptist consents. And so will I. But you can understand John feeling completely unqualified to baptize the one whose sandal he was unworthy to untie. And yet Jesus still extends the invitation. He lovingly invites John to baptize him, to be in relationship with him. In the same way he invites relationship with you.

IMG_8646Making new Christians through baptism on the very day we celebrate Jesus’ baptism does remind us of the power of every baptism we do here at St. John’s. It it not a cute little rite of passage but a bold rite of commitment. We should all be a bit intimidated in the presence of the Holy Spirit coming down upon us through the waters of baptism. Or if not intimidated at least in awe of the power of divine relationship that takes place here. The permanent bond of this relationship that takes hold in these children and that we all renew in ourselves when we join in saying the baptismal covenant. We are witnesses to this; and how incredible is that?

Yes, the newly baptized will fall down in their relationship with God, just as we all do. No matter how much they or we resolve to stay the course of faith. But the good news of this day is that “even when we fail, always we begin again.” We can do this but only with the support of one another and only with God’s help. The true gift of baptism is the power of God’s love for us. And that never, ever fades away.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Baptism of Our Lord 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on January 8, 2017 (Baptism of Our Lord, Year A)

When I returned from my October pilgrimage to Jordan I vowed that I would not begin every subsequent sermon with the words, “Back when I was in Jordan…” I mean, let’s be honest. That would get pretty old, pretty quickly. And I’ve dutifully kept this promise. Even during Advent when I preached about the imprisonment of John the Baptist, I didn’t once mention that I’d been to the site of King Herod’s palace. Or that I’d seen with my very own eyes the caves that were used as prisons along the hillside leading up to the palace. I could have painted a vivid picture of that cave in all its isolated glory and talked about the amazing selfies I took among the palace ruins. But, for the sake of not coming across like a pompous, know-it-all preacher, I demonstrated heroic self restraint and kept my mouth shut.

Well, that ends this morning. Because, say it with me, “Back when I was in Jordan…” I 14589893_10210706753690840_204573456376960638_owent to the very site on the Jordan River where John baptized Jesus. And I had the great privilege of celebrating the Eucharist with a group of Episcopalians right along the banks where Jesus himself was baptized. And we renewed our baptismal covenants — as we will all do in a few moments — while actually standing in the river. It was a magnificent, profoundly moving, once-in-a-lifetime spiritual experience.

Now, because there are a lot of hymns and spirituals that describe the Jordan, I kind of felt as if I’d already been there before. We tend to sing them during Advent as John the Baptist engages his forerunner role pointing not to himself but to the one who is to come. We sing, “On Jordan’s bank the baptist’s cry announces that the Lord is nigh” and “What is the crying at Jordan?”

The most well-known song, though it’s not in our hymnal, is probably “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” — which, if you listen to all the verses, is less a children’s song and more a rip-roaring spiritual in which we hear that the Jordan River is both “deep and wide” and “chilly and cold.” Hallelujah. Well, I’m here to report to you, once and for all, that the Jordan River is neither deep nor wide, nor chilly, nor cold. So let’s just get that out of the way. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; but singing about a river that’s “tepid and narrow” just kind of loses something in translation. But the particulars of the river itself don’t really matter. Because what matters is that the place in question is holy ground. Something remarkable happened down by that riverside.

Now, the baptism we hear about this morning is…rather confusing. At one level, we rightly ask ourselves, why Jesus even needed to be baptized in the first place. If this ancient purification ritual is being offered by John as a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, why would one who lived among us yet without sin, need to be baptized at all? Perhaps it’s an expression of his solidarity with us; a connection between Jesus’ humanity and our humanity.

But I think this whole scene in Matthew’s gospel illuminates the question of Jesus’ identity. John had been pointing to the one who is to come, the Messiah, God’s anointed, the person whose sandal he is unfit to tie. And suddenly here he is, in the flesh. Asking John to baptize him! Well, this certainly threw John off his voice-of-one-crying-in-the-wilderness game. He wanted Jesus to baptize him. And in the natural order of things, that’s what we’d expect. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we would expect that the master would baptize the servant; just as at the Last Supper, we would expect that the servant would wash the feet of the master.

But even as Jesus is claiming his identity as God’s son, even as the heavens rip apart and we see the Holy Spirit descending upon him in the form of a dove and we hear the voice of God affirming Jesus as his beloved son, the hierarchical norms are flipped upside down. And the forerunner baptizes the Messiah; just as the Messiah will wash the feet of his disciples.

For us, too, baptism is about identity. Identity as God’s beloved children; identity as members of a faith community that seeks to follow Jesus in word and action; identity as Christ’s own not for a limited time only but forever. That’s what happens when we wade in the water of baptism, whether we’re baptized as an infant or as a child or as an adult. Our primary identity becomes one who is a beloved child of God.

You know, I returned from that 10-day trip to Jordan late on a Saturday night. And as I stumbled into church the next morning, tired, overwhelmed by the entire experience, and severely jet-lagged after a sleepless 12-hour flight from Jordan to New York, a three-hour layover at JFK, and a post-midnight cab ride from Logan, I admit I was just trying to get through Sunday morning without falling asleep at the altar. And I just assumed that after that spiritual high of celebrating the eucharist along the banks of the Jordan, doing the same thing here, more or less along the banks of Hingham Harbor, would be incredibly anticlimactic. In my mind, the words “celebrate the eucharist” were replaced with the more pedestrian “get through the eucharist.”

But standing at the altar was exactly the moment the Holy Spirit arrived to put me in my place. Once again. Because far from feeling anticlimactic, my experience at the Jordan with my fellow Episco-pilgrims only enhanced my experience at home. Just as the heavens opened up when Jesus was baptized with the Spirit descending like a dove, it did feel as if the heavens had opened up at the altar before which I stood.

Suddenly, I was celebrating the Eucharist not just with a church full of fellow spiritual travelers in Hingham but with Christians everywhere across the world, with the fullness of the communion of saints in heaven, with Jesus himself as the chief celebrant.

Now, I’m not sure what others experienced that morning in October, but that’s where my heart and mind and soul were. Transported from the place where Christianity began to the altar at which I serve with people I love who seek, with me, to follow Jesus in their own lives and in their own ways.

That’s the baptismal identity we share; an identity that flows straight out of the Jordan and into our collective souls. Sometimes it’s transcendent. Sometimes it feels rather pedestrian. But through it all, we stand secure in our identity as beloved children of God; baptized into indelible relationship with our Savior.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017

Baptism of our Lord 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 11, 2015 (Baptism of our Lord, Year B)

“Always we begin again” Our readings and liturgy are bursting with beginnings this morning. It’s hard to miss the first words of the first book of the Bible: “In the beginning.” And in Mark’s gospel we encounter Jesus for the first time in a book that begins starkly with the announcement “The beginning of the Good News.” Jesus’ public ministry begins after his baptism in the Jordan. We have a baptism this morning, the beginning of a person’s new life in Christ. We also come together at the beginning of January as we begin a new year.

The-BeginningThere’s always great energy and enthusiasm as something begins. Remember when you resolved to learn Italian and went out and bought books and CD-roms and started frequenting restaurants in Little Italy? That didn’t go so well but then you decided to get a juicer and start eating healthier and you bought lots of kale and pomegranates and any other so-called super foods you could get your hands on and, well, Twinkies are just so darn yummy. Not all beginnings end well. And yet…

“Always we begin again.” The beginning of our faith lives takes place at the baptismal font. Just as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry takes place through the waters of baptism at the River Jordan. You’ll recall that immediately following this seminal moment, he is driven out to be tempted in the wilderness. And it all begins.

And it is through baptism we die to sin and are reborn in Jesus Christ. It is the initiation rite, the entrance ritual into the tribe, into the Christian faith. When an infant is baptized, it is a sign to this community and to the whole world that this child will be raised in the faith. Here’s at St. John’s to start, but wherever a person goes, your baptism goes with you. It is a moveable feast; an indissoluble bond that never fades, even when we inevitably fall away and turn from God’s love.

“Always we begin again.” And when we renew our own baptismal covenants, as we will do in a few moments, as we do whenever we witness and by virtue of our presence participate, in a baptism, we are returning to the beginning. To where the relationship began; to the groundwater of our relationship with God. And we’re not just doing this to be polite or to make the family of the newly baptized feel supported. We are re-initiating and renewing the formative moment of our lives. We are beginning again.

“Always we begin again.” This wonderful and poignant phrase comes from the writings of St. Benedict, the 6th century monk and so-called father of western monasticism. Specifically, it comes from Benedict’s Rule, a guide for monks living in community that remains beloved for its simplicity and application to modern, non-monastic life.

Among the many gems is that phrase, “Always we begin again.” In other words we are always starting anew; every moment is a second chance; we are continually presented with opportunities for new beginnings. And that resonates, certainly in the context of the many beginnings we mark this morning.

“Always we begin again.” It’s a phrase that I, for one, return to often in my own spiritual life. Because I find this incredibly encouraging. Especially when I’m feeling beat down or frustrated or ready to give up. That chance to begin again is continually offered. Not occasionally or sometimes or with certain conditions but always. And I find tremendous freedom in this.

The fact is, we’re not perfect. Try as we might, we mess up, we make mistakes, we sin. Not because we’re horrible people but because we’re human. Faith holds us accountable but it also allows us to always begin again. That’s really what renewing our baptismal vows is all about. Allowing us to die again to the sin that clings to us and to be reborn in the Spirit. And we need to do this again and again and again.

Begin-Again“Always we begin again.” Perhaps this is the attraction to saying prayers in the morning, something people of faith have been doing for generations. We wake up every day with a clean slate teeming with opportunity. Praying in the morning is a way of putting the day into context and offering it to God. In an ideal world, we’d slip out of bed and fall directly onto our knees. But we don’t live in an ideal world. There are kids to rouse and coffee to brew and appointments to keep and a to-do list to attack and, well, some of our knees are a bit creaky.

But, still, the opportunity is offered. And perhaps, in this season of resolutions, this is as good a time as any to begin again. A lot of this is about finding what works for you at this particular phase of your life. It might be something as informal as praying in the shower each morning and envisioning the water that rains down upon you as God’s loving grace. Sometimes simple awareness of the divine presence in your life is enough. Or closing your eyes for a few minutes while commuting in on the train or boat and giving thanks (though I don’t recommend this method if you’re driving in bumper to bumper traffic on 93).

Or maybe you want to carve out some time for something a bit more structured — the Daily Devotions in the Prayer Book are perfect if you have a few minutes to spare at any time of the day (page 136). You can certainly do this online if you don’t want to lug a Prayer Book around. Or you could join me at church at 8:45 am for Morning Prayer — a service that takes about 10 minutes. Now that Anne’s gone, it’s usually just me and my coffee and you’re always welcome to stop by and pray with me. It’s quick, casual, I’ll show you how to do it, and I don’t bite. Or preach.

In context, here are Benedict’s words about prayer: “It is for us to train our hearts to live in grace, to sacrifice our self-centered desires, to find the peace without want, without seeking it for ourselves; and even when we fail, always we begin again.” Amen.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

Baptism of Our Lord 2003

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on January 12, 2003. 
Based on Mark 1:7-11 (1 Epiphany, Year B).

“If Jesus was God’s son, why did he need to be baptized?” This is the sort of question that stops Sunday School teachers and priests dead in their tracks. Last year about this time I received a phone call from a panicked Sunday School teacher who was asked this very question. Fortunately the teacher did the smart thing – she told the child it was an excellent question and told him she’d discuss it the following week. In the meantime she started scrambling for the answer. 

And it is a great question. Why would the son of God need to be baptized? Surely it wasn’t to wash away sin or to enter into a deeper relationship with his Father. He was sinless, after all, and you can’t get much closer to someone than being of the same substance. But every year about this time we celebrate Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. We celebrate the fact that we share in this baptism with Jesus and we remember that baptism is the source of our own entrance into the Church.

But if we’re left wondering why Jesus needed to be baptized, imagine what must have been going through John the Baptist’s mind when Jesus approached him. In Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus, which we just heard, we don’t get any insights into the Baptist’s thoughts. John didn’t have to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandal, as he proclaims he is unworthy to do. Yet he does have to baptize him. So someone who barely feels worthy to be in Christ’s presence is nonetheless asked to baptize him.

Matthew’s gospel account of this story does shed some light on what the Baptist might have been feeling. We’re told that John tried to refuse Jesus’ request to be baptized by him. To paraphrase just a bit, John basically says ‘me baptize you? Are you crazy? You’re the one who should be baptizing me.’ But Jesus insists, speaking of the baptism as necessary “to fulfill all righteousness,” a reference pointing back to what the prophets foretold. In Mark, however, there’s no debate about the issue, John just does the baptism and Jesus moves immediately into the wilderness to be tested and tempted by satan. Jesus approaches and John obeys. And Jesus, too, submits to the will of his father, demonstrating an obedience that ultimately brought him to the cross.

But why would the son of God need to be baptized? The reality, as with so many questions of faith, is that there’s no “right” answer to the question. And it would certainly make my life, and any Sunday School teacher’s life, a lot easier if the answers were written down in some great reference book. But unfortunately or fortunately it’s just not that simple. 

I’ve always seen the baptism of Jesus as not so much for Jesus but for us. The drama of the heavens opening and the dove descending are a public affirmation of what both God and Jesus already knew: that Jesus was God’s son. This was a clear sign to those who observed the baptism, and to us as well, that God was doing something new. It was a sign that a new age had dawned. So, Jesus’ baptism was for us, and our own baptisms are for him. Jesus is God’s son and through baptism we become God’s adopted sons and daughters. Which is why we share in Christ’s baptism and why we can celebrate it as a community of faith.

Baptism is for us, as it was for Jesus, a transformative moment in our lives. Of course most of us don’t have the slightest memory of the moment that our relationship with God in Christ was fully initiated through baptism. That’s what happens when we’re baptized as infants. But more important than remembering the specific event is that we live into our baptismal covenants throughout our lives. Baptism is that unconditional moment of relationship with God that we spend the rest of our days trying to fully live into. And Jesus gives us the perfect example of what that looks like.

Armed with all sorts of research and ideas, that Sunday School teacher I mentioned marched confidently back into her class seven days later. She was all set to engage in a lengthy conversation about why it was, exactly, that Jesus needed to be baptized. Unfortunately the child couldn’t remember having asked the question in the first place and really wasn’t concerned with an answer. So, back to the lesson plan she went, grateful for her inquisitive children and the opportunity to reflect upon an intriguing and profound question of faith. 

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2003

Baptism of Our Lord 2004

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on January 11, 2004. 
Based on Luke 3:15-16, 21-22 (Epiphany 1, Year C).

Baptism in the Episcopal Church used to be a fairly private affair. Many of us who grew up in the Church were baptized at small ceremonies after church on Sunday or on a Saturday afternoon. Parents, godparents, and a small gathering of family and friends would assemble with the priest in an otherwise quiet church. The Baptismal font was often in some obscure corner of the church. At larger churches they were sometimes tucked into a side chapel. And this just highlighted the understated nature of a rite seen as something very personal between God and the person to be baptized, usually a newborn baby. 

Things have changed a bit over the years. With the prayer book revision of a quarter century ago, came a subtle but important change in the church’s theology regarding Baptism. No longer was it celebrated privately but within the context of the principal Sunday liturgy. Our Prayer Book is pretty clear on this issue when it states that “Holy Baptism is appropriately administered within the Eucharist as the chief service on a Sunday.” And with this change in attitude, Baptismal fonts started creeping out into more prominent places. Baptism was restored to its rightful place of honor as the Church’s primary rite of initiation. A sacrament binding all of us together – bishops, priest, deacons, and lay people. And the source of all ministry, both lay and ordained.

And with this renewed understanding, Baptism was now celebrated as a communal rite. Private Baptism became a rarity. Yes, there is an individual connection between Christ and an individual that is affected at Baptism. That was never in question. An indissoluble bond is created between God and the person Baptized. But Baptism is best understood within the context of community. Which is why we renew our own baptismal covenants whenever someone is baptized on a Sunday morning. We remember our own unique relationship with the risen Christ but we also respond to him who called disciples into community rather than individuals into isolation.

If we go back and look at the Baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan, we’ll see that bringing Baptism back into the context of community is actually nothing new. Because as we just heard in this morning’s Gospel passage from Luke, this was about as public a Baptism as you could imagine. We have John the Baptist who’s a loud guy to begin with. There’s nothing quiet about anything he does. We’ve got people lined up and down the banks of the Jordan. We’ve got the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove. We’ve got God’s booming voice coming down from heaven very publicly affirming the divinity and ministry of Jesus. So, there’s nothing private about this Baptism. This isn’t some small side chapel at 2 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. This is the 10 am service on Easter Day!

So public Baptism isn’t some new-fangled liturgical innovation. This shift in theology is a return to the roots of our faith. It’s not change for the sake of change. And liturgical renewal at its best recaptures the meaning and understanding of ancient practices and rites. It brings us back to the core of our faith. The early Christians experienced Baptism as a communal event that took place at the sunrise vigil that began the Saturday night before Easter Sunday. They recounted the salvation story of the Christian faith, baptized the new initiates (who underwent up to three years of preparation), and then shared the first Eucharist of Easter as dawn burst forth on the horizon.

In a few moments, we will, as a community of faith, renew our own baptismal covenant. We will reaffirm the very roots of our faith. And we will do so publicly so that we will all become witnesses to these vows. And so that in our life together we will affirm our commitment to Jesus Christ and promise to uphold one another in faith and love. Baptism is a once-for-all-time action but living into that baptismal covenant is a lifelong journey. Which is why we can’t possibly do this on our own. We need the support of a community of fellow Christians to fully heed God’s call for us as individuals. 

How appropriate, then, that we welcome Kathy Corley into our midst on the day we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. Baptism is the foundation of our ministry. It is why you and I serve the risen Christ. All ministry flows out of the water of Baptism and so it is a remarkable place out of which to mark this new and exciting ministry among us.

I still occasionally get asked if I’ll do a private baptism and my answer is generally “no.” Because the rite makes much less sense when it’s disconnected from the worshiping community. Baptism is not simply a rite of passage. It’s a rite of power. And that power comes from the dynamic force of the Holy Spirit, the risen Christ, the living God, indelibly connecting with those who experience and live out this faith as a Christian community.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2004 

Baptism of Our Lord 2007

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

Baptism of Our Lord 2006

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on January 8, 2006. 
Based on Mark 1:7-11 (Baptism of Jesus, Year B).

The Baptist is back. Just when we thought we were done with his rambling Advent prophecies, just when we thought his job of preparing the way was fulfilled, he resurfaces. He’s back to baptize the one whose sandal he is unworthy to untie; the one who will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit. 

And this all seems rather quick. For weeks we wait and wait for the arrival of the Christ child. He finally arrives, he’s wrapped in swaddling clothes, it’s a silent and holy night, and then all of a sudden he’s grown up. All of a sudden he’s being baptized by John and stands on the verge of starting his public ministry. Part of this is due, of course, to the fact that we have so little information about the early years of Jesus. There’s that story of the young Jesus teaching in the Temple but that’s about it. But basically Jesus jumps from the manger to ministry. He’s on the fast-track. And this juxtaposition is a good reminder that Jesus doesn’t merely come to us as a cute, adorable, yet helpless baby. The point of the Christmas story is that God came into the world in human form. But it doesn’t end at the manger, of course, it ends on the cross. Jesus enters the world as an infant but he comes to us not as a baby but as our savior and our redeemer and our judge. 

This morning we hear the story of the baptism of Jesus. And marking this event does one important thing: it forces us to examine our own baptismal vows. The vows we made, or more likely, the vows made on our behalf when we were infants, are what made us members of the Church and marked us as Christ’s own forever. Our baptismal vows are living vows, not something we say once and then forget about. Your baptismal certificate may be old and dog-eared. It may be stuffed in a file somewhere, perhaps it’s gotten lost. But it doesn’t really matter. Because the real proof of your baptism is how you live your life in relationship with Jesus Christ. Your baptismal vows are what matter. And it’s why as a community we renew these vows every time there’s a baptism here. The well of these vows is deep. And so we must occasionally dip into them as a reminder of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. And so this morning, after the sermon, in place of the Nicene Creed we’ll renew our baptismal covenants.

And it is this covenant that is at the heart of the Christian faith. God is always faithful in this covenant. Always seeking us, always reaching out to us. The variable in this covenant is the human component. How will we go about living our lives keeping this covenant with God, this covenant initiated at baptism? That’s the critical question of the Christian faith. The divine relationship offered through baptism is always there. The question for us is how we respond to it. How we keep to the promises made at baptism. 

The good news here is that whenever we act in accordance with the keeping of the baptismal covenant, God is well pleased. We may not see the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending upon us like a dove, but when we keep our baptismal covenant, God proclaims “with you I am well pleased.” God is well pleased with you. And even when we fall away, God’s hand is extended to bring us back. The potential for fruitful relationship with God is always there. Waiting for our reply and response. That’s the beauty of our own baptisms — the relationship with Jesus Christ is indelible. It can never be washed away. 

A Sunday school teacher once came to me in a panic about this story. She was telling the children in her class the story of Jesus’ baptism when one of them asked her, “Why did Jesus have to be baptized?” She fumbled around for an answer before settling on “We’ll talk about that next week.” It is a great question and one we can’t ignore. Certainly there are differences between Christ’s baptism and ours. Jesus didn’t need to be baptized to establish that bond with God. It was there from the beginning. Christ’s baptism wasn’t the source of his salvation as it is for us. But Jesus’ humble submission to John’s baptism is about love. It sets an example for us about loving obedience to God. But in both cases, Jesus’ and ours, the presence of the Holy Spirit is central. It is the Holy Spirit that unites our baptism with the baptism of Jesus. The Holy Spirit doesn’t descend upon us as a dove, but it does descend. It is what unites us to Jesus in baptism.

But it’s also appropriate that we mark this day so close to Christmas. The baptism of Jesus is the final affirmation that the Messiah, the Son of God has indeed entered the world. We have heard the prophecies, and seen the signs, but now we are given divine affirmation. This is indeed God’s son, the one in whom God is well pleased. The public ministry of Jesus may begin, the reign of justice, prophesied by Isaiah, may commence. And our own baptisms become the portal into an eternal relationship with Jesus Christ.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2006

Baptism of Our Lord 2005

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on January 9, 2005. 
Based on Matthew 3:13-17 (Baptism of Our Lord, Year A).

The Baptist consents. Going against everything he understands about the proper order of things, John the Baptist consents to Jesus’ request and baptizes him. It’s an amazing thing. The one whose thong he is unworthy to untie asks John to baptize him. After boldly proclaiming the imminent arrival of the messiah and preparing his way by offering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in the river Jordan, he finally comes face-to-face with the one who is to come. John had probably imagined this moment, visualizing how he’d act, what he’d say, what he’d do. Fall down on his knees, perhaps. Ask for the Christ’s blessing, maybe. But he probably imagined Jesus baptizing him, the messiah blessing the forerunner. A passing of the torch, of sorts. A recognition that John’s ministry was accomplished and now Jesus would take it from here. 

And so you can understand the confusion in this first encounter between these two men. You can hear it in Matthew’ account of this story: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?'” In other words, ‘What are you talking about, me baptizing you? This isn’t how things are supposed to go.’

“But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.” John submits to the will of Jesus. John consents and baptizes Jesus because he is obedient to the Messiah’s wish. He may not understand it, it may make absolutely no sense to him, but he consents. Which is, of course, the ultimate act of faith. “Thy will be done,” Jesus would later teach his disciples to pray. And in this dramatic moment of consent, John is living out this very command: Thy will be done. 

And what we see unfolding before our very eyes in this morning’s celebration of our Lord’s baptism, is the very model of discipleship. There are times in our lives when we must consent to God’s will no matter how absurd it seems. No matter how much our inner-most thoughts seem to contradict what we are being asked to do. 

In Matthew’s gospel, this is the first time we hear Jesus speak. And it’s no coincidence that his first utterance leads to a call to discipleship, for this is such an integral piece of his ministry. He calls his disciples to serve God and he calls them to serve others. And this often takes place in unexpected ways. The path of discipleship is not always clear, it is not without its challenges but it leads ultimately to, as Jesus puts it, “the fulfillment of all righteousness.” Which in this context simply means doing God’s will. When you and I genuinely do God’s will in our lives we are doing nothing less than fulfilling all righteousness. A powerful phrase, but it is within our God-given power to accomplish.

So we can understand John the Baptist’s confusion at this daunting request to baptize the Messiah. But at another level it makes perfect sense. While The Baptist is the Forerunner of the Christ, this request is a foreshadowing of what is to come in Jesus’ earthly ministry. It’s a great signal of what is to come: Jesus says “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first” and later “I have come not to be served but to serve” and soon enough, “the blind will see, the lame will walk, the deaf will hear, and the mute will speak.” There is a lot of reversal here – a reversal of roles, a reversal of fortunes. And so it makes sense that Jesus begins his ministry with a role reversal and asks John to baptize him.

Role reversal and discipleship. These two themes emerge with great clarity this morning. And if we look closer, there’s even more foreshadowing. Christ, like John, exemplifies discipleship in obedience to God. God desires his baptism and Jesus is obedient. And this obedience points ahead to the cross where Jesus says, “not my will, but yours be done.” Baptism and crucifixion are intimately linked — for it is in dying that we are born again. Or as our baptismal liturgy says about the water of baptism, “In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn of the Holy Spirit.”

John the Baptist consents. Jesus consents. And both light the way for consent in our own lives that God’s will be done.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2005