Blessed be the Name of God!
As I thought of the First Sunday of Epiphany/Baptism of Jesus, I thought, how am I going to show this text in a new light? Many of us can remember sitting through Cecil B. DeMill’s movie rendition of this morning’s gospel of the Baptism of Jesus with all the Hollywood techniques and theatrics. I began to wade through all the common, yet varied interpretations of and for Jesus’ baptism.
I first remembered the baptism of Jesus as the “neon sign” of his recognized public ministry—the story of the Beloved Son identified by his Father in very tender and empowering words. I secondly remembered the text, which described and made public the particular awareness of Jesus’ own ministry—a particular understanding through which we each must Journey and come. And then I heard the baptism narrative come alive in a brand new way for me.
Several years ago, Bill and I received an invitation to an Art Opening. The invitation read as follows:
Come join us in an evening of
Color, music, beauty, and the good things of life.
If you like to see, bring your eyes,
If you like to sing, bring your voice,
If you are a musician, bring your instrument,
If you are honest, bring your truth,
If you like to laugh, bring your spirit,
If you like to dance, bring your shoes.
If you are a little sad maybe the colors and the laughter can help,
If you are moody and hopeless, you can stay at home.
Come join us in an evening of color, music, beauty,
And the good things of life.
I began to hear Baptism more as an open invitation to join in this life of color, music, beauty, and the good things of life in God. It was much like the invitation I read to the Art Opening—only this time it was open to all—even the moody and the hopeless! No one needs to stay at home or away! Come to the waters! Suddenly I yearned to touch the water again.
Touching the water and answering this wide-open invitation, puts us in the same neighborhood with Jesus. We go where he goes and we come to find he’s already been there before us! Jesus continually reveals his “disposition to go ahead of us”, always with the invitation to come along. Always with the “ah-ha” experience that he is already here and there!
This “ah-ha” experience is very clear in the Gospel of Philip, one of the early “gospels” that never made it into the canon of the New Testament. This unknown gospel of Philip provides a startling and compelling side of the Baptism of Jesus—one I had never heard, yet found utterly fascinating and worthy to be shared. The text states that after Jesus went into the water, he immediately came up out of the Jordan—laughing! Pretty amazing, huh? That’s right, Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, laughing!
I guess I expected this unknown Philip to embellish the traditional depictions of this morning’s familiar Gospel story—the heavens opening, the Spirit of God descending on Jesus and God declaring Jesus as the Beloved Son—all the tender and heartwarming facts we KNOW! But no, all the details are totally left out by Philip.
Then thinking on a more human note, I figured that Philip might have pictured Jesus coming out of the waters gasping for air, or sputtering, or choking, or rubbing he water out of his eyes. But, again no, the author makes it a point to leave out all of these kinds of reactions a well. In the end, it was clear that if the Gospel of Philip had made it into the canon of the New Testament, today’s gospel of the Baptism of Jesus would have been short and to the point, We would have heard me proclaim, simply, “Jesus rose up out of the baptismal waters, laughing”.
I thought it would be rewarding to learn how the Message, the Bible in contemporary language records this event. God’s voice says it all! “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” Now that is something to rise and laugh with joy about!!!
What does Jesus know that we don’t know? What does Jesus’ reaction of pure laughter teach us about these life giving, moving waters?
And wouldn’t it be wonderful for each of us to laugh when we wade and re-wade into the same healing waters and daily meet and re-meet Jesus already there??
Jill was trying to decide what she ought to do with her life. She thought about going to seminary and becoming a priest. To help her decide, It was suggested that she work for a time as an intern in a hospital chaplaincy program. One day a distraught and exhausted looking man approached Jill in the corridor. “I don’t know what I’m asking for,” he began, “but your name tag says ‘Chaplain’. We are not church people. But my father seems to need to talk with someone before he can die. Something’s holding him back. Please come and see what you can do for him”.
Jill began to panic, she was not a priest! What could she do to help this dying man? She was led into a darkened room where a weary, emaciated figure lay upon the hospital bed. She touched his shoulder gently. He acknowledged her presence with a flutter of the eyelids. She asked if he wanted to have prayer with her. (always a good gambit) another flutter of the eyelids. She mumbled something . . . And when she finished he still seemed to be holding on to something, still there was something missing. She thought that she might bless him, then remembered, ”No wait. I’m not a priest yet. I’m not ordained.” Nevertheless, with this frail, tortured figure before her, she recalled long-ago experiences of putting her three small children to bed at night, saying a blessing and signing them with the cross.
“I can do that,” she said to herself, “Mothers do that.” With that blessing, she gave the elderly man a gentle kiss and left the room. Later the son found her. “Thank you lady”, he said. “He’s gone. I don’t know what you did, but thank you.”
Without thinking, Jill said,”I gave him permission to cross the street.” In that moment with a great big smile on her face, Jill realized that she had answered her baptismal call to minister in Jesus’ name. Mothers and fathers already know how to bless, and how to forgive. Jill decided eventually decided not to go to seminary. “I don’t need to be a priest to be a minister. I already am a minister, and Jesus goes before me.” Can you see Jesus and Jill and this dying gentleman rising up out of the baptismal waters, and can you see each of them laughing?!!
Leon had come time and again to the hospital. Long ago, his pastor introduced him to me as one of the true “saints of God”! I saw no opening of clouds and I heard no announcement with a deep mysterious voice. I just met a very devout, gentle man struggling in the later years of his life. Leon was committed to live out his baptismal life with the God he knew and loved. Hard decisions were at his doorstep every day. He had moved his wife of 65 years to an Alzheimer’s facility, for her care and safety. The decision was breaking his heart.
His greatest heartache was that he missed her so and that in her health condition he wonder if she missed him! Leon’s own health was fragile as well, having spent the last 4 months in a long term care facility after multiple surgeries. His breathing was very labored and difficult. He called for me from the ER. He wanted to talk about God and God working and being there in his life. He was not bent on his troubles, he was celebrating that God walked before him. Leon never mentioned his baptismal covenant or even the remembrance of those life giving, living waters. And yet, they made all the difference in his world. Leon knew nothing of this obscure gospel of Philip. And yet, at first sight, Leon was almost laughing with radiance. Leon told me about a card he received from a friend. That card read: Trials are not a test of our faith, they are an opportunity to receive God’s ever ready, ever present love! “In other words,” Leon clarified for me, as if telling me his secret, “I am not alone, in fact, I am never alone. Neither is my wife. God is already wherever we are going before either of us gets there. That’s my comfort. That’s my consolation. God is not testing us. Just now we are coming to see how much God really loves us!!” Leon was well into the living out of his earlier baptismal promises! Can you see Jesus, Jill and the elderly gentleman, Leon and his wife rising up our of the baptismal waters, and can you see each of them laughing??!!
Today we are celebrating our own earlier baptismal promises and our experiences with, and the power of, these life changing waters. Today we remind one another of the promises we keep, and of the life giving waters we share in our life together with God! We will speak them boldly claiming our reasons for laughter and love! To ourselves, to each other and to our world which so needs these promises and yet-to-come outcomes! A life long commitment to the life changing waters of baptism will make a big difference in our world! Touch the water or dip your toes again into the water and remember! Make your baptismal promises a defining and visible difference in your life! And we will find ourselves rising out of these waters, again and again, knowing our reasons for laughter and love!
I have tweaked the words of invitation for the Art Opening with which I began this sermon. (Please stand)
We, the gathered community
of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church
Strive to keep constant and vibrant
our renewal to the life giving waters of Baptism
The colors, the music, the beauty of God’s intentions for us,
And all the good things of our life together with God.
If we can to see, bring our eyes,
If we like to sing, bring our voice,
If we are a musician, bring our instrument,
If we are honest, bring our truth,
if we like to laugh, bring our spirit,
If we like to dance, bring our shoes.
If we are a little sad, maybe the colors and the laughter will help,
If we are moody and hopeless, come and touch the healing waters.
We rise up often with genuine laughter,
remembering the life giving waters of our Baptism
With all the colors, the music, the beauty of our imaginations,
We can make plainly visible to all,
and to everywhere we go
all the good things of our life together with God!
Blessed be the name of God!