Sermon for January 13, 2019 | The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Luke 3:13-15, 21-22
It is a challenge for me, and perhaps it is for you, to read or hear or watch the news these days: the government is shut down and federal employees wonder if they will be able to pay their rent or mortgage; the planet continues to warm while sea levels rise; racial tension continues to mark the soul of the nation; and the rate of child hunger grows in our city and region. Perhaps this is why one of my university colleagues told me recently that he no longer reads the paper, watches television, or looks for news updates on his cell phone: “There’s just too much pain to take in,” he said. On the other hand, one of my students suggested to me this past Friday that “if we all just prayed harder,” God would make things work out in the world. Now I ask you, are these our only options: withdrawal from the world or counting on God to intervene and “make things work out”? Will God do something miraculous or, as some believe, will God do nothing at all? I ask you: are these our only options?
Just twenty days ago, we celebrated the birth of Jesus; on this past Sunday, January 6, the feast of the Epiphany marked his revelation to strangers from another culture; and today we celebrate his baptism in the River Jordan. At first glance, you might think we are marking significant events in the life of Jesus from the distance of 2,000 years. Yet deep within the feasts of Christmas, Epiphany, and the Baptism what we mark, I say, is the profound Christian conviction that God who is spirit, God who is immortal and invisible, has become human; has become personal; has become one with your body and mine, with our joys and our tragedies; has become one with this world, with all its beauty and all its terrible mess; has become one with that very thing over which you and I seem to have little if any control and that is our frailty, our experience of loss, our mortality.
As today’s gospel notes, Jesus is marked in a public water washing – not marked, however, as the bestower of spectacular feats to dazzle the crowd – but rather washed in the waters of the earth as one of us, as one who engages the world as it is: a world filled with delight but also fraught with untold suffering. After all, what good is a god or a son of God, for that matter, who doesn’t recognize and remain with you and me in moments of doubt, anxiety, loss, and confusion? What good is a god who promises heaven but has little compunction to join you and me in striving for a greater measure of justice and peace in this world? Indeed, we might speak sweetly or piously about the baptism of Jesus but that water washing has a trajectory that leads him from the Jordan to a man convulsed with a disorderly spirit, to a thirsty and bedridden woman hot with fever, to a poor soul excluded by his townspeople because of his disease. It would seem that baptism is not an end in itself but rather an action, an action that leads one into a world where, yes, there is pain.
I wonder then: were Jesus baptized in the waters of the Puyallup, where would he be led? Would he make his way to the Lummi Indians who can no longer fish in the once pristine waters of the Puget Sound now polluted with run-off from petroleum refineries? Would we find him healing the waters surrounding Tacoma, waters still suffering with toxins embedded in slag from the Asarco Smelter? As the land grows hotter with climate change, would we find him advocating for the generous sharing of water with thirsty neighbors, rather than its privatization and sale at the highest price possible to the wealthiest who live in Washington, Oregon, or California?
In his autobiographical lament, De Profundis [Out of the depths], the Irish Anglican playwright, Oscar Wilde, wrote this: “The fact that God loves humanity shows that in the divine order of things it is written that eternal love is to be given to that which is eternally in need. Or if that phrase seems a bitter one to hear, that you just might be a person in need, let us say [this:] that everyone is worthy of love except he who thinks that he is. Love,” Wilde continues, “Love is a sacrament that should be received with open arms and with the words, Lord, I am not worthy to receive you but only say the word and I shall be healed.” It is of interest to me and I hope it is to you that Wilde penned these words while in prison, assigned to punishing manual labor, always parched, always thirsty for water, experiencing a degree of daily humiliation that would leave most people despondent and cynical. And yet he could write of God’s love in the midst of his own shameful diminishment. Love is a sacrament – an action – that should be received with open arms. And this, too: love is no love unless it is given away freely, unless it flows outward like a spring of fresh water to sustain life – life lived in the midst beauty and delight, life lived in the midst of loss and suffering, not one without the other. For what good is your love or mine, unless it can touch the pain of life and thereby offer it the hope of healing?