A sermon for the first Sunday after the Epiphany

I was only three weeks old when I was baptized, so naturally I don’t remember the event. It’s not surprising, although when you think about it, it’s kind of strange to have no real recollection of something so momentous, something that really set a course for my life. I have the pictures, I have a certificate, and that’s about it. But I look back on it and I know that a lot of my identity was formed in that moment, and you can see that in all of the details of that day. 

There’s a picture of me with my godparents. My godmother was my mother’s cousin. My mother was an only child, and so this cousin was the closest thing she had to a sister. My godmother had had a baby who was two months older than I am, and he was my buddy in the early years of our lives.

My godfather was my father’s uncle. He was someone who was known in our family for his humility and also for his personal holiness. He was very devout. He was really a good guy, and since my dad’s dad had died when he was a little boy, I think he was sort of a father figure to my father also. 

I look at the pictures, and I’m sleeping soundly, completely zonked. But I look at all of my relatives, and they’re so much younger than I remember them. My own parents are almost ten years younger than my kids are today, which is kind of a strange thought. But what I see in their youth is this sense of hope for the future. I know now how it all turned out, They had no idea, but they were so full of hope.

I was baptized in a long white gown that my father wore at his baptism, and I believe his sisters wore it, too. My son and daughter wore it, and my nephew also. I was put down to sleep in cradle my father and his sisters used, and my kids and my nephew, too.

There’s an account book that my mother kept at the time. She kept track of all their expenses. It says baptism, $5. I think maybe that was an offering to the church, I’m not sure. The next one is liquor and ginger ale, $4.50. And then after that is says food, $10. I think that probably was food for the week, not food for the party.

You can tell a lot about me in this little vignette. When I came into the world, I was born into a community, a community that was both horizontal and vertical. The horizontal community was my family and the people around us, and then there was also the vertical community of Christians and own my family down through time. 

There is a lot of hope in that moment. There’s a commitment to live in a certain way, to accept certain values and go forward with them. But one other detail I want to mention is that the person who baptized me was later dismissed from the ministry because of an accusation of sexual abuse. I mention that not to cast a sort of pall over the whole event, but rather as a reminder that I was born into a world that was broken, is broken, by sin. We hold the hope of rising above that in tension with the reality that sin and evil are still there.

So today, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, and I have to say first of all that it’s not the same baptism. There was pouring of water, but this was obviously not baptism into the Christian community. The baptism that John practiced was a baptism of repentance to prepare for the coming of the messiah, and the arrival of that messiah was to be a signal that the world was about to change. This would signal the beginning of a whole new world, the world as God would have it be. The world that Jesus himself would refer to as the kingdom of God. 

It was a world in which evil would be overcome, and love and peace and justice would prevail. But that hadn’t happened yet, and there was evil in the world, and there was sin in the world. It was a broken world. It was a world in which these people who flocked to John at the Jordan needed God in their lives. And when Jesus took this step of being baptized, it was a commitment for him to be part of that movement toward this new world. In fact, for him it was a commitment to lead everyone toward this new world. 

But the people who were being baptized, they were turning their lives around. They wanted to live the values of this new world, and so baptism was an act of hope and commitment. It was a way of saying—you know the saying, it’s actually from Eldridge Cleaver—”If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Right? It was a commitment to being part of the solution. It’s a commitment to hope, to a better world.

And you see a lot of identity, who Jesus was, just in this little vignette. First of all there’s the voice from heaven that says, “You are my Son, the beloved,” so we get a big clue when we read that part. But Jesus also is born into a community that’s both horizontal and vertical. The community of Israel that was living in expectation of God’s fulfillment of promises made down through time. The horizontal community of the people in his world, and especially those gathered at the Jordan. If you keep reading Luke, the next part is a genealogy that locates Jesus very firmly in this community.

There’s one other piece that’s important here, and we see it so clearly in Luke. Luke actually doesn’t describe the baptism. He doesn’t say, “Jesus stepped into the Jordan and John poured the water over him.” We really, from this account, have no idea how that part went. But where Luke picks up the story is Jesus at prayer. It’s after the baptism and Jesus is at prayer.

Now I always kind of found that surprising when I first noticed it. I mean who would have thought that Jesus needed to pray, right? But in Luke especially, but not only in Luke, we see Jesus praying every time that something big is about to happen. Like in this moment of baptism, the next thing that happens, if you keep reading in Luke, is that Jesus goes to the wilderness to be tempted, and when that ends, he begins His public ministry. He begins his ministry of preaching and teaching in Galilee.

So this commitment that he makes at this moment of baptism, it’s the beginning of something really big, and the way that he prepares for it is that he prays. Now we see him in other places in the Gospels in the synagogue, so we know that he must have prayed public prayer. We know he must have prayed some of the same things we pray here today. Some of the same psalms, the same words, and that’s important. But this moment of prayer in today’s Gospel isn’t like a moment in church. It’s a moment of personal prayer, and Luke never gives us the words. 

So that part is kind of left to our imaginations. We might think that some of it was just his conversation with the Father, and we might think that some of it was just that kind of sitting in silence, that awareness of God’s presence. Just listening—and those of you who practice that kind of praying, you know that you really do hear God talk to you. I don’t mean that you hear a voice in your head, but you do know what God is saying to you and you can sort of find your way in that guidance from those silent moments.

So here in these these two baptisms, mine and Jesus’, we can see some similarities and we see many ways that we are like Jesus, and we know that Jesus is always our model for how to live. How to live this life of hope and commitment. And the lesson that we take away from today’s Gospel is that prayer is a big part of it, and action is a big part of it. And neither of those two things can stand alone. If you’re an activist and you’re working all the time for justice and mercy, but you have no prayer life, it’s not the whole thing. It’s incomplete. And likewise if you pray, but your prayer doesn’t lead you to action, there’s something missing. There’s a constant cycle there, a cycle of action being informed by prayer, and of prayer flowing from action as you continue to have that relationship with God, as you continue to discern what it means to lead a good life.

So that, I think, is the lesson for today. Prayer and action.