Today, I’m going to talk about the concept of righteousness. The word “righteousness” is tricky because we almost never hear it decoupled from the word “self.” We all know it’s not a good thing to be self-righteous. It is, however, good to be righteous. But self-righteousness has such a monopoly on the concept of righteousness that we never take the time to understand what righteousness really is. So that’s what we’re going to do this morning. And we’re going there because of an odd exchange between Jesus and John the Baptist in today’s Gospel reading.
Sermon for Sunday, January 12, 2014 || Epiphany 1A || Matthew 3:13-17
Before I get into the meat of this sermon, I hope you will indulge me with a moment of personal privilege. This is my final sermon at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. We’ll still be together next Sunday morning, but I won’t be standing in front of you following the Gospel reading like I am now – on the record, as it were. From the bottom of my heart, please allow me to express my deepest gratitude to you for the last four years. They have been the best four years of my life, in no small part because of your welcome of Leah and me into your midst, your love and partnership, and your fervent desire to serve God here and beyond those doors. May you continue to shine with the light of God’s love, to bear witness to God’s healing power, and to welcome every soul who walks across that threshold. With every fiber of my being, I say, “Thank you.”
Since this is my last sermon, it seems only fitting that today I’ll be talking about a beginning. In a few minutes, we will reorient our worship to the south side of the church. We will stand around that behemoth stone basin over there. (As an aside, I have no idea how our font didn’t sink the ship that carried if here from England all those centuries ago.) Anyway, we will stand around the stone basin, say prayers over the water, and baptize little Kaylee. But before we do, let’s have a quick session of Christianity 101: An Introduction to Baptism. It seems only fitting to do this on a day when we will witness a baptism and when we’ve just read about Jesus’ own baptism by John in the River Jordan.
So what’s really going on in baptism? The traditional understanding tells us that baptism serves as the initiatory rite of the church and marks the cleansing of our sins. Now neither of these definitions is wrong (let me be clear), but I think if we stop there we will be prone to misunderstanding. We need to dig a little deeper. Here’s one thing to remember about baptism, and this will be on the test (there’s no test): the sacrament of baptism affirms and celebrates a state of being that already exists. The action of baptizing doesn’t create anything new; rather, the sacrament marks our participation in something God is already doing.
Here’s what I mean. At the end of the baptism service, we will welcome Kaylee saying: “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” However, by virtue of Kaylee being born in the image and likeness of God, she is already a member of God’s family. She is already part of God’s household. Thus, her baptism is an affirmation and celebration of a state of being she already possesses. Today we will celebrate her membership in God’s family so that we can see the deep truth of God’s reality: that we are all members of that family.
Participating in this deep truth is what makes baptism one of the sacraments of the faith. If you’ve taken a confirmation class or CCD in the Roman Catholic Church, then you might remember the classic definition of a sacrament: An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Another way to put this is that sacraments are windows through which God gives us the gift of viewing the true and eternal reality of God’s movement in creation. Sacraments take ordinary, everyday things – water and bread, for example – and use them to reveal extraordinary holiness hidden in plain sight.
When we baptize Kaylee, the hidden will be revealed for a moment, and we will see the unconditional love of God embracing a soul who has never done a thing to earn that love. And we will learn once again that we can do nothing to earn it either. We can only respond to God’s unconditional love in our lives.
If Kaylee has done nothing to earn God’s love, then neither has she done anything to reject it, so you might be wondering why we baptize to cleanse sins, which you’ll recall was the second part of our traditional understanding of baptism. Once again, we are affirming and celebrating a state of being that already exists.
The word “baptism” sounds all fancy until you dig down to its roots. “Baptism” simply means “to wash.” If you were off to take a shower (and you happened to be a speaker of ancient Greek) you might use the verb from which we get the word “baptism.” When we bathe, we scrub away all the dirt and sweat and grime that accumulates during our day-to-day lives. We have to bathe regularly because we get dirty regularly. But we baptize only once because baptism is a celebration that our sins are forgiven – not just the ones we already committed but all of our sins past and future, everything that has, does, or will separate us from God. When we wash in the waters of baptism, we join God’s reality in progress, a reality in which nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love. The sacrament of baptism allows us to mark the beginning of our participation in this reality.
So if baptism is an affirmation and celebration of a state of being that already exists, you might be wondering if it asks anything of us at all. If we’re just jumping into a river that’s already flowing, what is our responsibility in all of this?
Well, the action of baptism takes place in a few seconds at the behemoth stone basin over there. We’ll pour a few ounces of blessed water on Kaylee’s forehead, say the words, and that will be that. But the baptismal life continues from that moment on. The baptismal life is a sacramental life, a life in which each baptized person becomes one of those windows into the true and eternal reality of God’s movement in creation. Thus baptism invites us into deeper commitment as followers of Jesus Christ, deeper relationship with God, and deeper resonance with the Holy Spirit’s presence.
When we reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant in a moment, we will promise with God’s help to commit ourselves once again to serve God in this world. We will remember that nothing separates us from God’s love, that we are all members of God’s great family, and that God invites us to live baptismal lives, committed to bearing witness to the true and deep reality of God’s presence in creation.
(Sermon for Sunday, December 8, 2013 || Advent 2A || Matthew 3:1-12)
About ten minutes into The Princess Bride (one of my favorite movies), we meet Vizzini, Fezzek, and Inigo, who kidnap Princess Buttercup and set sail across the sea to another country. Once there, the giant Fezzek scales the imposing Cliffs of Insanity with the other three strapped to him. All the while, the Man in Black has been chasing them, but Vizzini, the leader of the thieves, dismisses their pursuer, saying it would be “inconceivable” that anyone would have known they kidnapped the princess in the first place. And yet the Man in Black starts climbing the cliffs after them. “Inconceivable” says Vizzini again. So Vizzini cuts the rope, and the Man in Black hangs onto the rocks. “He didn’t fall? Inconceivable!” Vizzini says a final time. Then the Spanish blademaster Inigo looks at Vizzini and says one of the more quotable lines in a film full of quotable lines: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Well, friends, Inigo’s gentle rebuff finds a second target in a certain word that John the Baptist says three times in our Gospel reading for today. We also say this word every single week during our worship services. The word is “repent,” and I can hear Inigo saying to us what he says to Vizzini: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
See if this popular misunderstanding of repentance resonates with you. You’re walking toward Fenway Park for a game or you’re about to board the T at Government Center and you see a man standing before you wearing a sign. The sign is decoupaged with dire warnings about the end times, the largest of which says in big black letters on an orange background: “Repent! The end is near.” The man would be easier to dismiss if he were shouting at the top of his lungs on the street corner, because then he would be reduced to a silly caricature of himself. But this man’s solid, disconcerting silence makes you take him more seriously. I see him often when I’m in the city, and every time I do, I have to remind myself that I disagree with his sign’s version of repentance.
You see, the misunderstanding the sign promotes is that repentance is only relevant at the end, whichever end you might be thinking of – the end of life or the end of time. This misunderstanding reduces the act of repentance to a last minute bargain with God – a “Get out of jail free” card, if you manage to time your repentance at just the right moment. This misunderstanding is like repentance at gunpoint; it’s a “repent or else” threat that reduces the meaning of true repentance nearly to invisibility. Indeed, I would wager that when you hear the word “repent,” you have a negative visceral reaction because this misunderstanding runs rampant in popular culture and in certain very loud expressions of Christianity.
So let’s see if we can remove some of the negative reaction, because true repentance energizes our walks with God in ways few other spiritual concepts can. True repentance is concerned less about the future and more about the present. The word “repent” literally means “to turn around.” A recent translation of the Bible adds a layer of interpretation every time “repent” appears in the Gospel. “Change your hearts and lives” it reads instead. Change your hearts and lives. This is a good rendition of the original Greek because true repentance is both an active, kinetic force and a spiritual orientation.
When we repent, we reorient our lives in God’s direction. We bend toward God as a tree bends towards the sun, knowing that God is the source of our sustenance. Repentance begins with our acknowledgement that we live most of our lives facing the wrong direction: we ignore the need around us and we catch God’s glory only out of the corner of our eyes. Repentance helps us face head-on the need God yearns for us to notice. Repentance gives us the opportunity to rejoice in God’s glory, distraction free. When we participate in God’s work of changing our hearts and lives to resonate more fully with God’s movement, we discover the true meaning of repentance. True repentance is about turning to face God fully – with every facet of our lives – and to accept the truth that we can hide nothing from God, no matter how hard we try. When we repent, when we turn to face God fully, we discover new faculties for seeing and responding to God’s call in our lives, Christ’s presence in the lives of others, and the Holy Spirit’s surprising movement throughout all of creation.
Sure sounds like a different understanding of repentance than we’re used to, doesn’t it? Speaking of things we’re used to, let’s turn to the place in our worship in which we repent every week, and see if we can inject it with our better definition. You know that part I’m talking about? That’s right, the Confession of Sin:
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.
Repentance is right there at the center of the confession. We begin by stating how we have separated ourselves from God. Then we repent. And then we ask for the fruits of repentance: forgiveness, delight in God’s movement, and a closer walk in God’s ways. Notice how our better definition energizes our confession.
“We are truly sorry and we humbly turn to you, we humbly seek to change our hearts and lives.” When we turn to face God fully, we find the mercy and forgiveness that we usually catch only out of the corner of our eyes. When we turn to face God, we find God’s delight in us reflecting on us fully, granting us the ability to delight in God. When we turn, we find the life-affirming paths that lead us to walk in God’s ways. This is what our repentance accomplishes here and now. The future ramifications for our souls that the sign-wielding man touts are byproducts of how our repentance leads us to closer relationships with God in the present.
So why are we talking about repentance during the season of Advent? Because Advent is a time for noticing. Advent is a time for changing our hearts and lives so they resonate more fully with the promises of God. Advent is a time for turning around and seeing the glory of God here now and the glory that is coming. This glory was easy to miss on that night in Bethlehem, which we will celebrate in a few weeks. No one expected the messiah to come in the manner Jesus did. No one, that is, except for those who noticed, for those who turned to see the promise of God fulfilled: shepherds who looked up at the right time to catch the angels’ song, magi who saw a star and knew to follow it, and a loving couple who changed their hearts and lives to make room for the Christ child to enter their midst.