Homily for Sunday, January 8, 2017
The First Sunday After the Epiphany
The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Gregory Palamas, the 14th century Greek Orthodox bishop and theologian, held that the natural world, the Scriptures, and our inner life all illuminated and informed each other. That is, if we want to know about our inner life, study the Scriptures and nature. Or if we want to know about the natural world, look to the Scriptures and to ourselves. Or, if we would truly come to appreciate the Scriptures, we must first truly appreciate both the wonders of nature and the depths of our souls.
I want to begin this morning with a connection between the Scriptures and our souls… In a way, the story of Scripture is the story of lives. As was the world in Genesis chapter 1, we were created perfect. But by Genesis chapter 3 – within moments of our birth – sin entered our world, and we began to know the anxiety and fear that is part of human life. Then God gave us the Law, then God gave us the Psalms, then God called us back to himself through the prophets – which parallels what happens in our lives as we grow: we learn boundaries, we learn to make “music,” and we all experience a tugging in our hearts beckoning us into deeper relationship with God. Then in the Incarnation God came to dwell in us. Which feels really good, until it doesn’t, when we experience the Passion and crucifixion (which all of us do). Then in the epistles we process what it all means and engage in “church” until, finally, at the end of the Bible in Revelation, we come to the end of our life and enter the heavenly city Jerusalem.
There, that’s it – the Bible and our life in a nutshell!
Today’s Feast with its gospel is a key moment not only in the Scriptures, then, but in our lives. Just as Jesus at this point in the Gospels knew who he was and what he must do – “You are my Son, the Beloved” – so there comes a point, or points, in our lives when we realize who we are and what we must do. This realization may not be the final who-we-are and what-we-must-do – like I’m not sure Jesus realized now at his Baptism that his life would include dying on the cross – but he at least knew that he was “my Son, the Beloved.” and that after this revelation he couldn’t just go on “as is.”
Looking back at our lives, I wonder if we might recognize a moment when, in a flash, we had a clearer sense of who we are and what we needed to do. For me – and here is a nature-to-inner-self connection – seeing the Grand Canyon was a major life shift. We saw the Canyon on a cross-country trip as we were moving from California to seminary in Virginia, so our visit came at a natural break in our lives. But the experience of seeing something so wide-open, spacious and beautiful, left me knowing deep-down that life itself can be wide-open, spacious and beautiful. Not that life is without hardships – like the Grand Canyon, life can be a stern and forbidding place – but like the Canyon life can be wide-open and beautiful and full of wonder. Seeing the Canyon, I knew what I needed to do in response. I knew I needed to go on to seminary. I knew I needed to be with Ashley. I knew I needed to parent Shaw, and soon Olivia. It was almost as though, as I looked out over the Canyon, I was looking out over the next stage of my life, and that God was assuring me that life would hold things both extraordinarily beautiful and also forbidding, and that God was assuring me that God would go with me.
Baptism is essentially a “Grand Canyon” event that marks a transition from one stage of our life to another. (Here is a Scripture-to-nature connection…) Baptism tells us who we are, and what we are called to do in response. Not so much in words, but in the symbol. Imagine the River Jordan we heard about in today’s gospel lesson: how Jesus made his way slowly into the murky waters; how Jesus must have stumbled over the slippery rocks on riverbed; how Jesus’ and John’s eyes maybe locked as they met in the middle of the stream; how John took Jesus by the shoulders and thrust him under the water; how Jesus must have come up sputtering and gasping; how Jesus maybe made his way back to the shore, the same man yet not the same man, seeing the same world but not the same world; knowing how spacious and beautiful this world can be; knowing how God loved him and was pleased with him. Not that things were going to go easy for him – but God would nonetheless go with him.
Most of us were probably too young to remember our Baptism. And even if we were baptized as an adult, we may not remember everything. This morning, then, we will renew our Baptismal Vows. We will be reminded of who we are and what we need to do. We will be reminded that we as Christians are called to step into the murky waters of our “river.” We will be reminded that life will sometimes take us over hidden slippery “rocks.” We will be reminded that sometimes we will be in over our heads. And we will be reminded that no matter what happens He is with us, that we will make it back to the shore; and that we are beloved; that it is we with whom He is well-pleased. As a “Grand Canyon” moment, Baptism is an invitation into even fuller life.
The Grand Canyon took millions of years to form. Water, bit by bit, seeped into and ran through the ground, until the Canyon gradually became what the Canyon is today. Just like the Canyon – and here is a nature-Scripture-inner-self connection – the more we enter into the “river” of our Baptism, the deeper becomes our connection to Jesus. So when we do the quarterly Renewal of Vows – as we will do shortly – it is as though rains falls and covers the trees and the ground. When we cross ourselves with water from the font as we enter or exit the church, it is as though the rain soaks in, down to the roots of the grasses and then the trees. And each week as we receive Communion – the sacrament so closely connected to Baptism – it is as though the water trickles down to touch the many small stones, buried for years in the depths of our hearts.
I’m going to leave us with a poem that ostensibly talks about rain (nature), but is connected to today’s Gospel lesson and Baptism (Scripture) and is really about our inner life. Here is “Lingering in Happiness,” by Mary Oliver:
After rain after many days without rain,
It stays cool, private and cleansed, under the trees,
And the dampness there, married now to gravity,
Falls branch to branch, leaf to leaf, down to the ground
Where it will disappear – but not, of course, vanish
Except to our eyes. The roots of the oaks will have their share,
And the white threads of the grasses, and the cushion of moss;
A few drops, round as pearls, will enter the mole’s tunnel;
And soon so many small stones, buried for a thousand years,
Will feel themselves being touched.