Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Wading in the Waters*



In the measure of one short week, from the Second Sunday after Christmas Day to the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we have been catapulted from the birthplace of Jesus to the banks of the Jordan River; from the wise men bearing gifts to the sweltering throng wading into the muddy waters; from a new-born babe to the baptism of Jesus at the hands of John.

It all leaves me feeling breathless and not altogether prepared. Perhaps it’s because I was abroad in England for Christmas. It seems as if the tree was just put up, the lights strung, the decorations unveiled from their year-long captivity in the battered cardboard box where they had been stored away.

Perhaps I am reluctant to let go of Christmas because it is for me the most beloved liturgical season of the Church year. All the seasonal uproar that surrounds it aside, it is simple and direct. It is a season of contemplation and adoration. It speaks to the heart.

It reawakens in me that longing and desire—as I quoted the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams last week—for the sheer presence and accessibility of God, that bare fact of the child in the manger, the life in Galilee, the mystery laid open.

Perhaps because in a fifteenth century chapel in Cambridge, England—with my family by my side—I experienced that sheer presence anew and my heart is still laid open to the mystery. And being laid open, it is tender and vulnerable.

Yes, I am reluctant to let go of Christmas.

Yet, here we all are, at the muddy banks of the River Jordan, propelled over the thirty years or so that it took for Jesus to meet his destiny—and ours.

I said last week that it is my conviction that our most powerful moments are profoundly simple even prosaic, like that of the barefoot shepherds in the carol: our day’s work done, sharing our love, our hopes, ourselves, giving all to the child.

And this precisely because our lives are so complicated, we live so much in our heads and not in our hearts, trying to figure our lives out, get it right; in short, striving to be good, competent, fulfilled people.

It then it happens.

We lay that heavy burden down and we find ourselves welcomed and loved and embraced, wholly and completely, through no merit of our own, but by sheer gift.

Just that.

And when I’ve had that experience, it’s enough, and I’ve felt that if it were my time to depart this earth, so be it. I would go in peace.

I wonder if, in a sense, that was Jesus’ experience in the muddy waters, with that swarming mass of ordinary, struggling men and women swirling around him: the descent of the Spirit like a dove, the voice from heaven saying “You are my Son, the Beloved.”

But here’s the thing: Jesus was not at the end of his ministry but at its beginning. He was not at the conclusion of his life but at its commencement; and the life he would live would be for the life of the world, for all those women and men with whom he waded into the waters. 

Through the power of the Spirit, this Son of God was embraced by God’s unconditional love for the sake of all people everywhere. The same may be said of us as well: we are the sons and daughters of God, we are loved by God, and through the Spirit bestowed in baptism, the life we have been given is for the life of the world.

William Sloane Coffin, for many years chaplain of Yale University then senior minister at Riverside Church in New York City, once observed that Yale students were much taken by the Descartian assertion cogito, ergo sum—I think therefore I amwhereas, Coffin felt, it should be amo, ergo sum—I love therefore I am.

I love therefore I am, which is to say: the life we live is for the healing of the world. As with Jesus, baptism sets us on our journey. We have a calling to be heeded, a purpose to be realized, a destiny to be upheld.

At Christmas, the mystery was laid open. It is now ours to show forth for all to see. AMEN

* A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, Maine; First Sunday after the Epiphany; January 12, 2014 

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