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Epiphany I The Baptism of Our Lord January 1, 2017 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for January 8, 2017
The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to bring from the prison those who sit in darkness. See, says the Lord, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.
I first meet Roger, in the early 1990s, in a class I was leading at the university parish I served in Saint Louis. Roger was a non-traditional student, that is, he was older and had served as a Marine, having deployed to Kuwait during Operation Desert Shield. He had a double major in philosophy and theology, his experience of war and death having provoked in him the questions that can elude some if not many people: What meaning does this one life hold for me? What is my purpose in life? Will my life be of benefit to others or only to me? What will be my legacy once I am gone? Having been raised in a fundamentalist form of Christianity, Roger found it incredibly liberating to discover a Christian community that did not view doubt or questioning as an enemy of faith but rather as the means to become spiritually mature. Having experienced in his youth what he called “7-11 church music” – singing the same seven words a minimum of 11 times, over and over again – he was delighted to discover hymns and liturgical texts that playfully juxtaposed one image against another, texts that spoke of the God of love and peace rather than a merciless deity just waiting to condemn sinners. Roger was entranced by the beauty and solemnity of the liturgy, by its very formality – a formality that created a space in which any feeling, any experience, would be welcomed rather than the emotional manipulation of preachers who saw worship as a form of therapy for themselves or others.
He also bore in his memory and his conscience a number of wounds. He had not joined the Marines out of love for his country but rather to prove to his father and mother that he was a real man. He had buried his love of the musical and visual arts beneath the toughness of the elite fighter. He had experienced a string of failed sexual relationships with women as he suppressed what he had known since childhood to be his attraction to men. And, then, when he spoke this truth to his parents, he met with astonishment and scorn. His father told him he was no son and that he should never contaminate the family home with, and I quote, his “diseased life-style choices.” His mother wept angry tears at what she considered his duplicity, his deceit. “I know what it’s like to live in darkness,” he told the members of our class. “I know what it’s like to think that you’ve got no worth simply because of who you are.” “And I know the burden of trying to prove to others that I am a decent human being.”
Through a year-long reflection on what it might mean to enter a different form of Christianity, a form in which healing trumped condemnation, in which grace outwitted legalism, in which questions enlivened faith, this young student and troubled Marine came to the realization that he was called by God to let go of the scorn, the self-doubt, the voice of the judge within and move in a new direction, one that both excited him and made him nervous. And so it was that on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, surrounded by hundreds of worshippers, Roger was fully immersed in the baptismal font. He was plunged down and emerged three times and in his last rising from the water heard only this: the sustained applause and cheering of the people. As he was clothed in a white alb, the baptismal garment of all Christ’s people, and smeared with sacred chrism, the choir sang a glorious Alleluia as tears streamed down his scarred checks. If anyone could claim as his own, the words of a former slave trader – “I once was lost but now am found” – it was this young man, found by the God of mercy and new beginnings and endless second chances. Thus says God, I now declare new things.
With many of you, I was not baptized as an adult; I was baptized as an infant a few after my birth. I was baptized because my parents wanted me, at a young age, to be nurtured in the life of Jesus Christ, mediated through his Body, the church – rather, rather than being socialized into the values of the dominant culture, socialized into a toxic individualism that places me alone, you alone, at the center of the universe; rather than being socialized into materialism, the addictive power of wanting more and more; rather than being socialized into the arrogance of American exceptionalism. They brought me to the font so that I might, throughout my life, drink another water, a water shaped by the gospel of community, the gospel of equitable sharing, the gospel of humility and charity. Of course, I have no memory of that baptism. But then I have no memory of being born, no memory of being fed my mother’s milk so that I might live, no memory of being clothed by my parents, of being vaccinated to protect by young and vulnerable body – and yet for all these I have only gratitude because their decisions for me gave me life but more than that: they gave me strength, a strength rooted in the knowledge that God was and is for me, that God is for you regardless of the biased messages communicated within our culture. This is to say that the power of the past event continues to live within, a spring as it were, welling up within – for it is not you and I who act in the font but God and if it is God’s action in you and me, it will never be rescinded by God no matter how much we question, doubt, run away, misunderstand, mess up, screw up, blow up, blunder, curse, blaspheme, forget, deny. For here there is love and only love, the kind of love that is committed to the flourishing of you and me and all that God creates. There is only love. Amen.