Text of the sermon preached on Epiphany 1C (January 10, 2016) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius’ Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
I have a priest friend of mine that tells this story about a family that she knows. It seems that a young boy had been home all day with his mother. As some young boys can tend to be, he had been a terror all day long. After each little incident, the mother responded by telling the young boy, “You just wait until your dad gets home.” Evening came and the dad got home from work. Not long after he arrived home, the mother began telling him about their son’s behavior. The dad looked at his son and before he could say anything the boy cried out, “You can’t touch me! I’ve been baptized!”
I wish that it was simply that easy, that clear, and that simple. I wish I could say to all of the sorrows and losses of my life, “You can’t touch me! I’ve been baptized!” I wish I could say to the changes and chances of life, “You can’t touch me! I’ve been baptized!” But, I’m fairly certain that that is not exactly how baptism seems to work.
Despite my baptism I have, like every one of you, suffered sorrows and losses of life, encountered difficulties and struggles, and have had to face the changes and chances of life that I really would have rather like to have avoided. And despite his baptism, that little boy in the story still went to time-out. Yet, there is a lot that we can learn from that young boy. He speaks a deep truth. He is absolutely right. He IS untouchable. At some level he knows that his existence, identity, and value are not limited to time and space — to the things he has done or left undone. He knows himself to be more than his biological existence. He knows himself as beloved. He knows the gift of baptism.
Baptism does not eliminate our difficulties, fix our problems, take away the pain, or change the circumstances of our lives. Instead, it changes us and offers us a way through those difficulties, sorrows, problems, and circumstances and ultimately, a way through death. Baptism transcends our biological existence and offers us a vision of life as it might be. Baptism offers us a new way of being — a way of being that is neither limited by nor suffers from our “createdness.” Through baptism we no longer live according to the biological laws of nature but by relationship with God, who through the Prophet Isaiah says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1).
That means that when we pass through the waters of sorrow and difficulty God is with us. The rivers that can drown will not overwhelm us. That means that when we walk through the fire of loss and ruination we are not burned. The flames that can destroy will not consume us. For he is the Lord our God, the Holy one of Israel, our Savior. (Isaiah 43:1-7)
To know this, to trust this, to experience this is the gift of baptism and baptism always takes place at the border of life as it is and life as it might be. That border is the river Jordan. Geographically, symbolically, and theologically the Jordan River is the border on which baptism happens. It is the border between the wilderness and the promised land. The border between life as survival and a life that is thriving. The border between sin and forgiveness. The border between the tomb and the womb. The border between death and life. We all stand on that border at multiple points in our lives. Some of you stand there now. Some of you experience that border as a place of loss, fear, and pain. For others it is a place of joy, hope, and healing. In reality, it is both at the same time.
The only reason we can stand at the border of baptism is because Jesus stood there first. We stand on the very same border on which his baptism took place.
Jesus’ baptism is for our sake and salvation. His baptism makes ours possible. The water of baptism does not sanctify Jesus. Instead, he sanctifies the water for our baptism. The water that once drowned is now sanctified water that gives life.
Ritually we are baptized only once. Yet throughout our life we return to the waters of baptism. Daily we return to the baptismal waters through living out our baptismal vows. In a few minutes we will renew our baptismal vows because today is a major feast day in the church, the Baptism of our Lord. But lets go ahead and look at those vows. In our baptismal vows:
We are called to confess our belief in God as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, because God first believed in and chose us.
We are called to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers because the Holy Spirit has descended upon and filled us.
We are called to persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we do fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord because the heavens have been opened to us and we have seen our true home.
We are called to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ because we have heard the voice from heaven declare us beloved children in whom he is well pleased.
We are called to seek and serve Christ in ALL persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. Striving for justice, peace, and dignity for every human being because that is how God has treated us and how could we do any less for another one of his children.
Sometimes our own body provides the waters of baptism — tears. St. Ephrem the Syrian spoke of our eyes as two baptismal fonts. Tears are the body’s own baptismal waters that cleanse, heal, and renew life. Other times the circumstances of life, things done and left undone by us and others, the ups and downs of living, push us back to the waters of baptism. We return in order to again be immersed into the open heavens, to be bathed by God’s breath, the Holy Spirit, and to let the name “beloved” wash over us.
We are all welcomed by God into the Kingdom. God’s grace is neither petty nor narrow. And neither is God’s love held in reserve until we perform the right rituals and achieve the required moral profile. I would hope that we can all experience that heaven is striving to insinuate itself into everything, into every place, into every relationship, into every life. Even hell cannot keep heaven out forever.
Here is a key about baptism. Baptism is not principally about what we do. God initiates an eternal relationship with us in baptism. Baptism’s waters communicate to us sensually what God is doing spiritually and invisibly.
God saturates us with God’s own presence.
We may not look any different in the moment, but the Holy Spirit’s abiding presence initiates an eternal and infinite transformation of our very being. God infuses us with holiness. Like fruit infused with spirits, our outward appearance remains recognizable. But like that fruit, our inner texture and our essence are being gradually transformed.
In baptism — as in every sacrament — we glimpse in the sensuous fabric of creation what God is always and already up to in the invisible depths of our existence. God is remaking us. God’s love is saving us. Gradually.
There was a deep truth when that little boy said, “You can’t touch me! I’ve been baptized!” Do you believe that? Can you say it for yourself and claim it for yourself? We are gradually changed through our baptisms. “You can’t touch me. I’ve been baptized!” Say it. Go ahead and say it. “You can’t touch me. I’ve been baptized!” Now go and live it.