A sermon preached for the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, Year B, 1/7/18; Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11. The second half was in large part modeled on a sermon preached by the Very Rev. Jeanne Finan at my ordination to the priesthood in 2012. I lifted the Parker Palmer story more-or-less wholesale from her text.
I speak to you in the name of the one, holy, and living God. Amen.
You may not have known what you were getting into the first time you walked through those doors. Maybe you came at the invitation of a friend, or because you attended a support group here during the week and you wondered what happened here on Sunday mornings. Maybe you were grieving, and you needed something bigger than yourself to hold your broken heart. Maybe you first showed up for a Thursday night study, or a Christmas service, or maybe one morning you just felt a holy longing that made you brave enough to walk through the doors of a church and into a roomful of strangers.
You may not have known what you were getting into the first time you walked through these doors. I know I didn’t! But here we all are—being church, being community, being family. Being the Body of Christ. And I’ll tell you something I’ve come to believe—none of us are here by mistake. We’re here by invitation. The Spirit is inviting and making and shaping and molding this community.
Only the Spirit would be crazy enough—or wise enough—to bring such a diverse assembly of people together. If any one of us was going to try to create a harmonious group, start a church from scratch and invite all the right people, it probably wouldn’t look like this. But how much better this is. And this isn’t the work of any one of us, this is the work of God.
With our oh-so-modern and rational minds, it may be hard for us these days to think of the Church as anything more than a human institution. A good, helpful, even beautiful institution, but a human one. But I’ve come to believe over the years that the Church, as Church teaching has always said, that the Church is made by God.
Yes, we have our Episcopal and Methodist and Roman Catholic institutions, which may be very human, but the Church, the real Church, which flows through all of these, is constituted by the Holy Spirit, is patterned and shaped by divine energy, and it has drawn all of us into its embrace. This ancient and sacred mystery the Church has been around longer than all of us, and it will continue long after we’re gone. But it unfolds itself here and now through us, through our human lives.
And it is a very real field of energy, through which God is working in the world to make Christ’s love known. And it expresses that love through sacraments that are channels of grace. And I've come to believe that these sacraments are also very real, and yes, very ordinary: bread, wine, water. Real because so humble and ordinary. They remind us that the Holy meets us right here, in the stuff of our actual lives, in our holy, humble, ordinary, messy, broken, real lives.
From the beginning, the formal rite of initiation into the life of the Church has been a pouring of water in the Name of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Lover, Beloved, and Love Overflowing. And this sacrament, it’s layered with meaning. It recalls the waters at the beginning of creation that we heard about in our reading from Genesis—and so it takes us back to the beginning. It’s a washing, a washing away of our sins, of our guilt, washing away everything that obscures our true nature, that we are beloved children of God. It’s a drowning, a dying: we are baptized into Christ’s death and raised into his resurrection. It’s a symbol that goes on unfolding in us for the rest of our lives.
Four people who didn’t know what they were getting into when they first walked through these doors, Tricia, Keith, Liam, and Pabla, will receive the sacrament of Holy Baptism this morning. After tiptoeing around in this energy field of the Church for a while, they’ve heard God’s invitation and they’ve said, “Yeah, yeah I want to be a part of this!”
And so the Church says, “Okay, let us baptize you then! Let us do to you what John did to Jesus at the start of his ministry.” And so while you may not be fully aware of this dimension of what’s happening today, today is an ordination. Today, we the Church ordain you as ministers of Christ. Every Christian is ordained for ministry in baptism, and every baptized Christian can perform the sacrament of baptism, not just clergy—although we’re usually privileged with the duty. Today you are ordained.
After the water has been poured on your heads, the whole gathered assembly of the faithful will say “share with us in Christ’s eternal priesthood.” Today you become partakers of that priesthood. And while some of us are set aside as ordained priests, our job is simply to reflect back the priesthood of all of you. To remind you that in baptism we are all made ministers of Christ’s reconciliation in and on behalf of the world.
And so as this is an ordination, I want to share with you a story that was shared with me at my ordination to the priesthood. This is a story from the life of Parker Palmer, a contemporary Quaker teacher. Parker Palmer was in his early forties when he decided to go on a program called Outward Bound. He thought that Outward Bound would be a good challenge. Well, he got what he was looking for in the middle of his ten days of the program.
He writes: “They backed me up to the edge of a cliff that was 110 feet off the ground. They tied a very thin rope to my waist, a frayed and stretchy rope, and then they told me to back down that cliff. To which I replied, ‘Well, what do I do? How do I do...’ to which the instructor, in typical Outward Bound fashion, said, “GO! Go, Parker, go!”
So he went. He jumped—backwards—and then he swung forward—and BOOM! He smacked right into the first rocky ledge. The instructor looked down at him and said, “I don’t think you’ve quite got it yet.”
Parker replied, “Right. Now what do I do?” The instructor told him, “The only way to do this is to lean back as far as you can, because you have to get your feet at right angles to the rock face so you’ll have pressure on them.”
Now he’s listening to the instructor and what he’s thinking is “This is crazy! That can’t be right. I’m hanging out here by a rope and she wants me to lean backwards?!” Parker was a grown man. An intelligent man. He knew better. He knew that the only way to get down that cliff was to hug it! Hug the mountain! Every cell of his body said “Hold on tight!” So again he tried—and BOOM! He smacked right into the rock again.
And he hears the voice from above saying, “I don’t believe you’ve got it yet.” And again, he asks, “What do I do?” And he hears the same instruction, “Lean back—lean way back and take the next step.”
And Parker Palmer finally did just that. He trusted. He leaned way, way, way back. He leaned so far back that all he could see was sky and clouds. And what do you know? His feet planted on the rock, and he began moving down the mountain.
Baptism is like leaning way, way back and trusting the journey that’s unfolding, trusting that this thing called the Church—that was here long before us and that will be here long after we’re gone—trusting that the Spirit’s at work in it, and that if we lean back, we’ll find ourselves held. That that stretchy, frayed rope we call the Church—that there’s more strength in it than we realize.
Tricia, Pabla, Keith, Liam—there are only a few moments left for you to still get out of this! We are about to baptize you—to ordain you as ministers in Christ’s Church who share with all of us in his eternal priesthood.
Now’s your chance to turn and run! But the truth is, it’s already too late. It was too late the moment you first walked through those doors, whether it was months ago or years ago. Because we don’t make the Church, and we don’t give out the invitations—the Spirit does. And you’re here this morning because God wants you here.
When you first walked through those doors, you may not have known what you were getting into—and maybe you still don’t! But that’s okay. All you need to do is just lean back into these waters. Thomas Merton once wrote: “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
If St. Paul could be Merton’s editor, I’m sure he would add “and love”: courage, faith, hope, and love. Baptism is an invitation to do the work of courage, faith, hope and love within the specificities of a real human community—filled with people that you might not have chosen, but that God has seen fit to bring together. And that is a good thing.
On this day of your baptism, we remember the baptism of Jesus, the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. We remember the day when he leaned back into the waters, saw nothing but sky and clouds, and heard God’s voice say, “You are my Beloved.” I’m not so sure he knew what he was getting into either. But he leaned back anyway, and thank God, because it’s why we’re all here today.
And so, you four, you’re standing at the edge of the cliff. GO! Go, Pabla, Keith, Liam, Tricia, go! Lean back, lean way, way back into the waters of baptism, and hear God say “You, you, you are my Beloved.”