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

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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