A sermon preached on the celebration of the Baptism of Christ (year A) on January 12, 2020 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY. If you’d like to read the scripture from today, click here. If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.
The image on this week’s bulletin is a relief of the 3 magi, carved into the top of a column in the Autun Cathedral in central France in the 12th century by the artist Gilebertus.
The 3 magi are asleep, looking uncomfortable all squashed in one bed with their crowns on, and there is an angel tapping on the hand of one of them, who has, in response, opened one of his eyes. The other 2 remain asleep.
I’ve wondered about this image. What is the dream of the magi? Is it one that occurred before their trip to Bethlehem? Or, perhaps, it was after they got home from that journey.
Before they went, they had been preparing themselves to see something new, looking to the stars for guidance. And so they saw the star. And they followed it. And they met Love incarnate. And they bowed to it. And they were filled with the Light of Christ. Then they went home. But we never hear what happened next.
I wonder if this image might be after their journey, when they arrived home to life as it had been before with all the same things and all the same people.
Yes, they had an experience – one of those mountaintop moments of seeing God and seeing through God’s eyes. They journeyed far and they opened themselves to a new understanding.
But what happened afterwards? Did their lives change? Did they make a difference in the world around them?
Christmas is a time of meeting Love incarnate, a time when we remind ourselves of our truest nature – to be in service to one another, to offer acts of loving-kindness to each other. The Epiphany revelation is meant to acknowledge that this Love is for the whole world and inspire us to carry this light with us.
Because, we are born of Love, it is our birthright to be bearers of this light.
When we have those mountaintop moments, those epiphanies… then what? How do we remain awake to it? When the dishes still need to be done… when the sidewalk still needs to be shoveled… when the church budget still needs to be balanced… when homework still needs to be done… How do we live into our birthright to be bearers of this light when our lives remain the same?
When it’s easier to stay comfortable and maintain the status quo.
I’m a self-confessed comfort-seeker. I like having everything in easily-accessible places. I like eating carbohydrates – comfort food. I love soft yet supportive furniture and beautiful images and a remote in my hand so that I can just click the button instead of getting up to turn something on or off.
And my entire family can attest to this: I am the kind of person that finds it so easy to drift off back to sleep after I’ve woken up, that I’ve been known to hit my snooze button so many times that it eventually stops on its own. I know how easy it is for the magi to fall back asleep.
In the 13th century, the Islamic mystical poet Jalal al-Din Rumi (Rumi) wrote some of the world’s most beautiful poetry, used to this day by spiritual teachers in all religions. He wrote this:
The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep!
You must ask for what you really want. Don’t go back to sleep!
People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep!
It’s the dawn of the year, the space of beginning again. In the Christmas season, we were awoken to the presence of Love and we knelt at its feet. And our Epiphany realization is that the light of this star is for the whole world. What does that mean?
Do we know that it is we who are to carry this light? Do we know how precious we are? How important we are? How integral we are to what God is doing?
The Baptism of our Savior is always celebrated on the first Sunday after Epiphany, not because Jesus was baptized as a baby. He wouldn’t have been because he was Jewish and baptism wasn’t even a practice yet. We celebrate the Baptism on the first Sunday after the Epiphany because epiphanies are just epiphanies. They are just mountaintop experiences. And the magi fall asleep.
We say our Baptismal Vows immediately after the Epiphany to remind us, to keep us awake to the breezes at the dawn of this new place. Because it’s comfortable to return to life-as-normal. We all want to move on from “the holidays” in many ways and we do so, most of the time, without fully realize the enormity of what we’ve been given in the event of the Incarnation and the opportunity before us to really change the world in which we live.
We’re not always going to have mountaintop moments. But our vows, our promises we offer in the wake of this epiphany… these are what shape our lives and keep us awake.
Our vows contain 5 important questions for us:
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?
Worship and Pray: Being the first question, it’s also the primary one – will come and worship? Worship is not a performance, it requires our full participation because it is the most formative experience of being a Christian – listening to the lessons, singing the hymns, confessing our mistakes, forgiving ourselves and forgiving others so that when we come to the Table, we are truly participating in the reconciliation offered there every week.
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Forgive: Knowing that we are not perfect, will you do your best to refrain from ways that take us away from God? Judgment, gossip, self-involvement, avoidance, arrogance, anxiety… And, when you catch yourself in the act, will you forgive yourself? More importantly, will you forgive others… realizing that most of the time people are really doing the best that they can?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Proclaim: It’s usually the hardest one for Episcopalians. Because it’s a willingness to talk about our stories of faith and our walk with God. A commitment to live uncloseted. A willingness to feel uncomfortable on occasion, to go against the cynicism and skepticism of our society and dare to speak of joy.
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Love: This is the recognition that all creatures are children of God. All belong to God and, as such, we are called to loving care of them. Regardless of the laws we are subject to. This includes ourselves for we cannot love another if we have no idea how to love ourself.
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
Liberate: Can we recognize that love is inherently about liberation? Can we make decisions that help to liberate ourselves and others? Can we work to make that a reality, even if it means that we are inconvenienced?
Why are these our vows? Because this is how Jesus lived his life.
In the book of Acts, Paul tells us today how important Jesus’ ministry was, how life-giving it was. How he prayed and forgave and proclaimed and loved and sought liberation for all – how it is his ministry that makes his death and resurrection the central event in Christianity.
He says: You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ–he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. (Acts 10: 36-38)
There are always going to be reasons to grieve, things that bring hurt, situations that cause pain. This is truly unavoidable. But there is also always going to be God – here with us – Christ praying and listening for God’s wisdom, forgiving ourselves and one another, proclaiming God’s love to a world that doesn’t know it, loving people who may not “deserve” it, and doing what we can to liberate others from the oppression of the world.
Christ lives on through us, because Christ lives on through these vows.
It is not our mountaintop moments that save us. It is not the ah-ha moments, heart-opening… mind-bending… inspiring though they are, that offer us peace. It is our daily choices to follow these vows, to truly commit to a way of life that asks us to be uncomfortable.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta lived for 87 years. And for most of her life, she was a nun, taking her vows when she was 27 while in India. When she turned 40, she founded the Missionaries of Charity. Until she died in 1997, the world knew her as the epitome of self-giving love, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and caring for people who were dying from HIV/AIDS, leprosy, and tuberculosis. Amazing person who literally changed the world.
What the world didn’t know, until her letters were released in 2007, is that she lived most of her life in a spiritual darkness. No ah-ha moments. No epiphanies. No mountaintop experiences to shake her awake.
But even in that darkness, she didn’t fall asleep. What kept her going in the midst of her despair and doubt, were the vows she made.
Being a Christian is not meant to make us comfortable. When we’re comfortable, we fall asleep.
The vows we say can be just words that we say together. Or they could be something that you allow to shape your life. They could be transformational promises to live your life with a little less comfort, a little more commitment. It’s an internal decision – a choice that you make – to listen to the breezes at dawn, or to fall back asleep.
It’s the dawn of the year, the space of beginning again. We have been woken to the presence of Love and we have knelt at its feet. And we have realized that the light of this star is for the whole world.
Do you know how precious you are? How important you are? How integral you are to what God is doing right now?
It’s your turn to carry the light. Don’t fall asleep.