The Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord
A sermon delivered on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ
January 12, 2020
Text: Matthew 3:13-17
St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Evanston, IL
The Rev. Charles A. de Kay, Rector
Gracious God, help us to know your steadfast love for us that we may live as your children, your beloved children. Amen.
I’d like to try a new approach this morning: a spiritual/literary critical approach to our reflections.
Since the beginning of creation, as told in our sacred text, down through the ages, down to today, one of the most satisfying storylines, ringing true and tugging at our hearts, tells a story of a distant, absent, or abusive parent (usually but not always a father), and his or her child, and how they work out their distance, moving toward reconciliation. Setting the story in motion often, a catalyst involves a precipitating transformative experience for the child.
Think on it for just a moment: Adam and Eve in the Garden, and then their son Cain has a problematic experience with God, down through the ages, from King David and Absalom, from Homer’s Odysseus and Telemachus to Shakespeare’s King Lear and Cordelia, such stories fill the pages of the works of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Thomas Mann, Albert Camus, Doris Lessing, Philip Roth to J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, the writers behind Rebel without a Cause, pretty much every Star Wars movie, Stranger Things (think Hopper and Eleven), it even makes for prominent drama in the new season of the Netflix Lost In Space reboot, which Christina and I caught Friday night.
Everywhere, it seems, distant or estranged parents – usually fathers, but not always – are actively caught up in conflict with their kids – daughters and sons alike – and moving ultimately toward transformation and most often reconciliation. Sometimes they can find a way back, back to the arms that have been loving all along. Sometimes, as with Huck Finn, the break has been so severe and so damaging that reconciliation seems impossible, and Huck must search for new family.
The parent need not be evil or incapable of love, but may be intentionally creating distance to nurture growth in the child or the parent may be distracted, emotionally damaged, or simply in seeking to provide for physical needs misses the chance to attend to the emotional ones, to offer connection and comfort. The countless ways the characters are written and their motivations depicted only further point out how ubuitous we find this set up.
It has been said that art imitates life.
So, why is this story so prevalent? There are sociological and cultural answers: some fathers are distant and/or unhealthy. Certainly today, with high divorce rates, this makes sense, but that has not always been the case.
One might explain this using fundamental human psychology: As the story of human maturity is one that moves from utter dependence on parents of infancy and childhood – to an adolescent independence from all, especially parents – to completion in a mature, healthy sense of interdependence with all, including parents, such drama is all but certain to arise. I think we can agree that this line makes sense feels true.
But, what if it is only part of the answer? A scientist I know recently remined me that she sees no contradiction between science and theology, just as she finds no contradiction between science and philosophy or art or satire. Science is very good at dissecting and examining one aspect of truth, but because it asks a completely different questions, science has precious little to say about other aspects of truth. Moreover, scientific framework, tools and methodologies are ill-fitted to the exploration of every aspect of human experience. My scientist friend, she reads fiction voraciously, and comes to church regularly, because, she says these practices help her to see beyond the limits of science.
Hold this thought, we’ll circle back to it in a minute.
By now, you may well be asking yourself, what has any of this to do with our readings. Well, this week the question buzzing on a local preachers’ Facebook group was: Why was Jesus baptized? What need had he of repentance, reconciliation and restoration? In our Gospel text, Jesus acknowledges the problem and answers this question rather chimerically, “to fulfill all righteousness.” What does mean?
Well, if we understand righteousness as meaning “being in right relationship with God” which then requires one to be in right relationship – a loving or self-giving relationship – with all of God’s creation (including other people), how does Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan accomplish this and how is it accomplished in a global way suggested by the word “all”?
In the course of his short life of public ministry, Jesus set a pattern of life – and then said: if you would follow me, do as I have done. Early devotees, we learn in the Book of Acts, called the emerging faith not Christianity but simply “The Way.” As in, this is The Way to Live, The Way to God, The Way to Salvation, The Way to Heaven, including Heaven Here on Earth. Jesus did it, because we need to do it. To fulfill all righteousness?
In his very first address as Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church Michael Curry said:
God came among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to show us the Way. He came to show us the Way to life, the Way to love. He came to show us the Way beyond what often can be the nightmares of our own devisings and into the dream of God’s intending. That’s why, when Jesus called his first followers he did it with the simple words “Follow me.”
“Follow me,” he said, “and I will make you fish for people.”
Follow me and love will show you how to become more than you ever dreamed you could be. Follow me and I will help you change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends. Jesus came and started a movement and we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement.
Our wise leader is suggesting that to restore God’s dream from the nightmare it often is, Jesus calls out a primary instruction: follow me and do as I do. What was Jesus’ first act? He was baptized in the Jordan by John. If you wish to follow me, first be baptized, washed from all the sin, all the stuff of life that draws you away from God. I do this now in my time with John in the Jordan, so that you might do the same with someone in your time wherever you are and wherever there is water.
And, by the way, whenever you need God, Jesus later says, you should call out to “Abba,” “Father,” “Pappa,” “Daddy.”
Why did Jesus need to be baptized? So that we would be baptized, too. And, in so doing, whether as an infant, a child, a teen, or as an adult we would jumpstart the plotline of our own story of reconciliation with our beloved parent in heaven. This is the piece that the developmental psychology researchers will never tell us; it’s simply not in their domain of expertise or inquiry.
So, maybe the reason so many people find that they’ve tapped an emotional wellspring when confronted with a story of reconciliation between distant parent and child is that this story doesn’t just touch our psychological development or some piece of our social history, but perhaps actually touches on our very souls. Is it not all our stories of our sense of separation from God, which can feel like alienation from God, whom we then tend to personify only to imagine as distant, unconcerned, or even cruel?
Re-establishing our relationship with our original creator: that’s the heart of Baptism. It’s even better than reading a story like it or watching someone else’s version on the big screen or the small screen, and, really, isn’t it the most satisfying, life-giving story of all?
And, because we can have a tendency to forget, our spiritual practice at church is that we regularly return to this - our own seminal moment of restoration of relationship with God – whenever the church celebrates a Baptism, and at any of the four particularly auspicious Baptismal dates: Easter Vigil (at the center of our liturgical life, a holy celebration of resurrection, new life with God), Pentecost (the day the Holy Spirit breathed new life into disciples creating apostles and empowering the church to become the body of Christ), All Saints’ Day (a celebration of those whose very faith breathes and inspires new faith in us), and today, the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Why did Jesus insist on being Baptized? It was necessary, as is ever the case (when we take the time to look deeply), not for himself, not for Jesus’s own sake, but for ours. He did it, so that we might follow his brilliant, radiant example.
In the midst of deeply challenging times, in our corrupt and broken world, may we – with a clarity that rings from heaven – hear and truly, madly, deeply take to heart, God’s response to us, at our baptism, “This is my Child, my daughter, my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
 “A Word to the Church” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, November 2, 2015. Published at https://episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/presiding-bishop-michael-curry-jesus-movement-and-we-are-episcopal-church