Weekly Preaching: January 7, 2018

January 2nd, 2018

If you are a lectionary preacher and a tracker of the Christian year, you wonder: should we mark Sunday, January 7 at Epiphany (or first after…)? Or as the Baptism of the Lord? Most likely, I will somewhere in my sermon mention that yesterday (Saturday the 6th) was Epiphany… but then my focus will be Mark 1:4-11. Below I have some cool stuff from The Life of Brian, Karl Barth, O Brother Where Art Thou and The Shack – but first:

* * *

We do a renewal of baptism on this Sunday each year — a lovely way to kick things off. I have to admit that when we did it the first time, I had much fear and trepidation as we didn’t really know what we were doing or how to do it. But it has become a big, meaningful thing. Here are my homilies, and then moving video of people renewing their baptismal vows (including overhead shots where you see the rippling in the water), from 2016 (at the seventeen minute mark) and 2017 (at the twenty-six minute mark).

I’m okay with the fact that very few who come forward to dip a finger in the water and touch it to forehead or lips could articulate the meaning in any coherent, sound manner. “Meaning” happens at many levels; in this case, it’s the tactile thing, the sensation, the impact of moving forward with a crowd of others who can’t be sure what it means but they all know they need something… and it’s somehow up there, at the altar, in the water.
When the magi appeared with gifts, did Joseph understand? Did the magi? Or even Mary, really? I try to read Mary's face in Rembrandt's "Adoration of the Magi." I am thinking that, when preaching in 2018, I will leave more room for mystery, for the unexplained and inexplicable. I'll preach more questions and trust in the power of movement and water and such rather than the compelling logic of my verbiage.
There's “meaning” in processing to the front. I’ve often quoted Dom Jeremy Driscoll:
“Monks are always having processings. Whenever we go from one place to another, we don’t just do it helter-skelter. We process into church; we process out. We process to a meal. We process to our cells…  I am glad for all this marching about. Of course, it could become too formal; we could make it over-serious, and then it would just be weird. But I experience it as an extra in my life, something in my day that I would not have were I not a monk. And so I am reminded again and again that I am not just vaguely moving through life. In my life I am inserted into the definitive procession of Christ. I am part of a huge story, a huge movement, a definitive exodus. I am going somewhere.”
Martin Sheen, the great actor and devout Catholic, told Krista Tippett (in his fabulous interview with her in On Being) how he felt about standing in line in worship: “How can we understand these great mysteries of the church? I don’t have a clue. I just stand in line and say Here I am, I’m with them, the community of faith. This explains the mystery, all the love. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed, just watching people in line. It’s the most profound thing. You just surrender yourself to it.”
* * *
First, the magi. So many corny options like “wise men still follow him.” I’m fond of Amahl & the Night Visitors, and various other pageant settings, although nobody sees them in early January. My mind drifts toward that hilarious scene in The Life of Brian where the magi show up at the wrong house — understandable, if their pointer is a star far up in the sky! There is a hilarity in Matthew 2 we easily miss: these guys are astrologers — a pseudo-science, a “fake religion” not just today but back in Bible times! And yet God uses their bogus discernment to lead them to the Christ child, while Herod and his henchmen, well-versed in Scripture, are left clueless. I think of that line in The Shack: Mack asks Jesus, “Do all roads lead to you?” He replies, “Not at all. Most roads don’t lead anywhere," and then adds “I will travel any road to find you.” Even bad, false religion? You have to love Matthew’s (and God’s) good humor here.
And just as The Shack begins with the murder of a young girl, the cutesy magi story segues into the brutal slaughter of innocent boys in and around Bethlehem. From the outset, proximity to Jesus is perilous — light years from the kind of piety that presumes God’s job is to keep us safe. It’s a cosmic battle that’s been launched, with the forces of evil already in knee-jerk, violent recoil to God’s incarnate invasion of what the evil one counted as his stronghold. The preacher is wise to understand and dare to articulate the larger theological stakes in this story (and in the long history of violent reprisals to the good even into our own day). Reni's "Massacre of the Innocents" captures a bit of the horror that we continue to experience too regularly in our world.
* * *
This is why the Baptism of our Lord matters. Mark 1 depicts Jesus arriving on a hostile scene, being baptized, and then striding into a wilderness to do battle with beasts. Baptism isn’t this nice rite of passage featuring lovely gowns and photos for Facebook. A line is drawn in the sand (or a massive wave is stirred up in the water), a taking of sides in a cosmic battle. Alexander Schmemann reminds us of the historic act of exorcism in Baptism, and why it matters more than ever:
“The exorcisms mean this: to face evil, to acknowledge its reality, to know its power, and to proclaim the power of God to destroy it… The first act of the Christian life is a renunciation, a challenge. No one can be Christ’s until he has, first, faced evil, and then become ready to fight it. How far is this spirit from the way in which we often ‘sell’ Christianity today!”
In one way, we are baptized like Jesus. But in another way, we merely watch and are awed by what we could never manage. Karl Barth (in the skinny volume of Church Dogmatics, IV.4, published not long before he died) shrewdly suggested that
“Jesus was not being theatrical. When Jesus was baptized, he needed to be washed of sin — not his sin, but our sin. When faced by the sins of all others, he did not let these sins be theirs, but as the Son of His Father, ordained form all eternity to be the Brother of these fatal brethren, caused them to be His own sins. No one who came to the Jordan was as laden and afflicted as He.”
If you have a joyful, hopeful baptism story, it’s worth telling. I baptized a forty-five year-old man shortly before he died from pancreatic cancer. He was baptized in his home, as he’d grown progressively fragile and unable to move about. Three months earlier we’d started meeting, praying, sharing what Christianity was all about. When I reached out and applied water to his forehead, he bolted a bit and began to shake, and then weep. After a couple of minutes, he looked at me, smiled, and said “I feel lighter.”
I love the painting of Jesus’ baptism in the St. John’s Bible, which we might rent or buy for our bulletin cover on January 7. Of course, we have the unforgettable scene in O Brother, Where Art Thou, which is kooky but has the lovely “Down to the River to Pray” sung by Alison Krauss, which I hope my choir or a soloist will reprise. We have much water/Baptism music on the more classical side, including Aaron Copland’s “Shall We Gather at the River.” I plan to re-read Flannery O’Connor’s great short story, “The River” — another ominous, hauntingly tragic read of what it means to go down to the waters of baptism.
If you want illustrative material, it would be hard to top that very sorrowful moment in The Secret Life of Bees, which tells us about twin sisters who were “like one soul sharing two bodies. If April got a toothache, May’s gum would plump up red and swollen.” After April’s death, “it seemed like the world itself became May’s twin sister.” Any word of anyone suffering struck agony into May’s heart. All her family could do was to build a “wailing wall” in the back yard; May would write down the hurts of the world and people she knew on scraps of paper and press them into the wall. But over time she could bear it all no longer, and simply walked into the stream below their house and drowned — to the elegiac singing of “Song for Mia” by Lizz Wright. Moves me every time.
I’m not sure I would have preached on Mark 1 in such a way twenty years ago. But I think these sad moments of solidarity with those who suffer cut to the heart of what Mark’s Gospel is trying to tell us about Jesus’ opening salvo in his mission to defeat evil. The Old Testament for January 7 undergirds this line of thought. In creation, in the teeth of chaos (“without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep”), God let light come to be, and the waters of the firmament as well. There’s hope in the darkness, and in the pain. The Gospel begins there in the dark, when the earth and your soul are without form and void, in the brokenness, or not at all.
On the somewhat lighter side, I do plan to explore potential connections between the water of Baptism and all the water we encounter in our daily lives; this idea occupies a whole chapter in my book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week. One year on this very Sunday, we gave our people shower tags (which originated with Adam Hamilton at the Church of the Resurrection), so every shower or bath is a reminder of baptism and a prayer: “Lord, as I enter the water to bathe, I remember my baptism. Wash me by your grace, fill me with your Spirit, renew my soul. I pray that I might live as your child this day, and honor you in all that I do.” Any time we drink, or rinse our hands, or see a stream or clouds, can we think of the life-giving waters of Baptism? 

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.
comments powered by Disqus