A sermon preached [remotely] by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Mass., on Epiphany 1 (The Baptism of our Lord)
10 January 2021: Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
Back to Basics
This past Wednesday, an event occurred in our nation that even four days later still remains hard to absorb, hard to believe, hard to understand. Yet, the truth of the matter is that a mob of President Trump’s supporters, incited by the President himself, assaulted the halls of Congress in an attempt to alter the nation’s election process. Trampling upon the Capital building, the very temple of our democracy, this group of domestic terrorists sought to place their own fearful, conspiratorial notions into play, overriding the Constitution and the laws of the land, not to mention the laws of rationality and common civic life.
People, fellow citizens of ours, were played – played by cynical, manipulative individuals whose sense of purpose is their own celebrity and the securing of the power to keep themselves at the controlling center. I will not use this worship time to detail what every honest citizen should already know, but I will use what happened on this past Wednesday, January 6th, as a lens so that folks who care about truth and justice and community – people like us at St. Philip’s – so that we may regroup, refocus, and help restore the integrity of what binds us together as a nation and as neighbors.
The lens that I will use comes through the ironic convergence of last Wednesday’s date. For on the Christian liturgical calendar, January 6th marks the closing of the Christmas season with the focused revealing of God’s Messiah to all peoples and nations. January 6th was the “day of the Epiphany, more formally referred to as the “Manifestation of our Lord to the Gentiles”.
January 6th speaks of “epiphany”, of manifestation, of the demonstration of what otherwise might be hidden, missed but what nonetheless needs to be seen. In specific spiritual terms, what needs to be seen is God’s Emmanuel, God’s Messiah and Christ in our midst. As the full embodiment of the God-life, Jesus dwells among us “full of grace and truth” that we might see what is really real, that we might know more fully what it means and what it takes to belong to God and, thereby, to be called God’s “beloved”.
Yet, there was another kind of “epiphany” offered last Wednesday. It too needs to be seen and recognized for what the day’s dark events revealed to us about the state of our national life and the state of our souls. The unthinkable insurrection that occurred last Wednesday bitterly revealed how desperately all of us need to take a gut check about what the sources of our standards and values are. For citizens of the United States, the Constitution is what “constitutes” and defines the nature of our national life. That the President of the United States and others continually sought to distort and ultimately dismiss this grounding document cannot stand because neither our national life nor our spiritual lives are a matter of a “do-it-yourself” project. In both cases, there are standards and values that transcend individual thoughts and feelings.
If there is to be anything of integrity about our lives, each of us must come to grips with and acknowledge the source of our standards and values. It will never do to take this moral assessment for granted or to take a pass on this work. Given this human requirement, it is painfully clear that too many view themselves as the source of their own standards and that they, therefore, feel entitled to do anything or say anything in order to keep themselves at the center and in power.
This is not only a crucial political question; it is also the essential religious and spiritual question of who or what is at the center for us.
So, what does January 6th reveal about how you and I answer the question of the standards of our lives? More specifically, what is a mature Christian understanding of January 6th, the Day of Epiphany? As followers of Jesus, what are we called to see … to see about God’s life in our midst? Moreover, how does such a vision of Emmanuel: God with us shape and direct the way we think and live?
The answer I offer lies in our baptismal vows. And on this day in the church’s life where we pay central, gospel attention to the event of our Lord’s baptism, I want briefly to note these promises and call our attention to what, indeed, constitutes our life as God’s people and what it looks like to be actual members of Christ’s Body, the church.
To this, I want to offer two items for us to focus on, and then, together, we will do something .The first item has to do with what it means to make a faithful promise and to “believe” in that promise. The other is to note in a summary fashion the content of our baptismal promises, understanding that this is what constitutes our job description as followers of Jesus.
First, in the service of truth, if we want to know where we stand in life, what the true status of our life’s integrity is, taking a look at the promises we have made is a crucial start. In these past few day, a lot has been said about promises – specifically promises in the form of an “oath of office”. In fact, the newly installed members of the Senate and House just made their promises last week and were dramatically and unexpectedly – and under threat — called upon to live-out their oaths, their promises just a few days later.It is as important as it is telling to note that in giving our promises, we are expressing the relationship between our faith and our belief.
Faith and belief are clearly related, but they are not the same thing. “Faith” means “trust”. Trust is the bare bones reality of all human life. While faith, trust is the indispensable element of any and all relationships, we are all familiar with the “leap” that faith requires. For there is no guarantee that our trust will not be violated, broken: hence the risk; but still if there is to be life at all, faith must be the foundation. But when it comes to what we believe, we are talking about an added level from faith.
Belief stems from experience and from learning what is truly trustworthy. And I find it particularly instructive that the word “belief” or “believe” means, “I give my heart to”. It is one important, unavoidable thing to trust, but is a further commitment to give our hearts to that which is being trusted.
In our Baptismal Covenant, we promise to give our hearts to God. Our baptismal covenants are an R.S.V.P. to God’s giving of the Holy One’s heart to us – in creation; in the life of his Son, Jesus; and in the Holy Spirit, the living love the Father and Son eternally share. In our baptismal vows, we say “thank you” to God for the life, love, and Communion of the God-life and, in turn, say “yes” to growing into and living in what we see in the Risen One.
For our parts, I can say that you and I are pretty fickle, when it comes to the giving of our hearts to God and to the God-life; but the nature of our God is love and life; and God’s love and life endure the heartbreak of our fickleness. For as we have heard yet again, our life in Christ is to share in being God’s “beloved”. Yes, this is a trust in us by God-in-Christ that clearly surpasses all our understanding but is, nonetheless, what God understands, what God knows, what God does, what God is. In Christ, we are given God’s promise that it is the Father’s will that we will grow and mature into what we see in Jesus, and, therefore, truly be God’s beloved, as we share this divine life.
Have we heard God calling you “beloved”? Have we forgotten who we are and Whose you are? Our baptismal vows stand as the source and standard for hearing this Good and life-saving news. Will we allow our lives to be rooted in this divine proclamation? Will we then take flight with wings of such love and life? God believes in us, has given and continues to give the divine heart to all those whom He has made. Does this make any difference to our hearts? to our minds?
My second focus zeroes in on the content of our promises to God, which turns out also to be promises to one another. In addition to “giving our hearts to” God as the Center and Source of all life, our baptismal vows also stand as our “yes” to all of God’s gifts by promising to share what we have been given and received. This is to say that the second aspect of our baptismal vows is quite literally expressed by verbs – by action. Specifically, we promise to express our “yes” to God and to God’s love by doing.We promise to “continue” in learning, in worship and prayer. We promise to “persevere” in opposing all that is destructive, especially in ourselves. We promise to “proclaim” in word and example the Good News that we all belong. We promise to “seek and serve” all those whom we meet because we all need to be found when lost and helped when in need. We promise to be just and respectful with all others because without expressing the dignity of belonging to God, life is just another expendable commodity, a throw-away toy.
We promised. And we will renew our promises again today — together. We promise God, and we promise one another. These defining vows require regular attention and renewal. Again, I ask: how are we doing with our promises? Where do they need reinforcement? These are important questions because they remind us of what matters at the deepest levels: namely, God is God; we are God’s beloved; and we are in this together.
Simple. Clear. Indelible. Epiphany! Not only with our lips but in our lives. It’s not about us. Our life is about who and what we are to God. And the Holy One has spoken: We are the beloved and are asked to act like we are the beloved.
Thanks be to God. Amen. Alleluia!