January 15, 2023 — Lynne Markova

posted in: Sermons 0

Several years ago, one of my friends wanted to start a Bible Study for young adults – slightly older than the charming people we just saw and he asked me to help.  The way it was going to be set up was that, over the all-important snacks, which is a requirement for ministry, especially for that group; we were going to do an ancient practice known as Lectio Divina.  I see some nods, so many of you may have done this, too.  We would choose a passage from Scripture, usually from the Gospels and read it together, make a commitment together, and sometimes, make a commitment to action together.

It was a drop-in Bible Study, so we weren’t sure if we were actually going to get anybody.  It was a big experiment.  We didn’t get very many people right away, but, over time, we had a trickle, and then, eventually, we got some regulars who came.  One thing we really noticed was that when the Gospel changed, we always had to make space for that, because there was always a reaction.

It was especially pronounced when we heard from John as we just did today.

One night, a member was trying to explain his feelings about the Prologue and the voices we just heard, and he said, “When I read John, especially this reading, Jesus seems much more like a catalyst than an actual character.  He doesn’t even say anything until verse 38!  But all of these people are changing so much, just because he is there!”

I should add, this gentleman was a graduate student in chemistry.

Whenever I read this chapter, especially the verses we just heard, I remember these words.  Jesus’s very presence has an enormous impact on others just by being.

John the Baptist is one huge example of this.

In this Gospel, John the Baptist is very different than in the other three.  In those Gospels, he is a little more colorful, dramatic, dynamic.  He’s out there in the wilderness, with his odd diet choices and odder apparel, baptizing, preaching, and, especially, speaking truth to power, repeatedly.

In this Gospel, we see a different sign of John.  He is performing baptisms, but, somehow, he knows they are not quite complete, as we just heard in the Gospel reading.   He’s baptizing with water, but he knows someone else is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  In his baptism of Jesus, John realizes that Jesus is the one and his own ministry – John’s ministry – reaches its culmination.  His response to that is even more striking.

“Humble” and gracious” are not words that I have ever heard used to describe John the Baptist, but he is in this particular instance.  He acclaims Jesus as the Lamb of God, the Son of God.  He mentions his own unworthiness.  And when his disciples leave him to follow Jesus, he doesn’t try to stop them or even express disappointment.  If anything, he encourages them. 

What’s also really fascinating in this encounter how Jesus responds when John’s disciples approach him, when they ask him where he is staying.  He says, “Come and see.”

And they do.

All four of our readings today focus on the notion of hearing and responding to God’s call.  It is a central part of walking the Christian way.

I can’t claim to have had anything nearly as dramatic or interesting in my own life.  But it does remind me of an event that occurred several years ago.

The church I was attending at the time had had significant upheaval.  Following the departure of a previous priest, they had done extensive work and had recently called his successor.  Cautious optimism was starting to flower, but old hurts, suspicions, and mistrust still lingered. 

Perhaps some of you have been through something similar in your own faith life.

When I heard about the new priest, I wished him well and I was happy for the community, but I was quite firm that I was not going to get involved.  I had learned my lesson about church politics.  The church itself was quite large.  It would be easy enough to just quietly sit in my pew, to come and go on Sundays without getting drawn in.

What is that old saying?  God laughs when you make plans?

That lasted exactly two weeks.

On that third Sunday, our new priest preached one of the most outstanding and compassionate sermons that I had ever heard, even now.  Somehow, he managed to thread the needle between anxiety and defensiveness enough to name our issues as a community, to share his hopes and his optimism for our future, and to invite us, the community, to work with him to discern and build it together. 

I was so impressed with that sermon, I decided to discard my precious anonymity –  just that once – and tell him so.  As we talked after the service, he thanked me for my words and said, “Will you join me in this work?  I can’t do it alone.”

I wish I could tell you that, like Andrew and the other disciple, I said yes right away.  Instead, I think I probably looked horrified and murmured some kind an inane disclaimer.  It took months before I responded to his invitation, but, eventually, that led to several years of ministry and congregational leadership.

During that time, one of the most moving happenings was being part of the installation of an immersion baptismal font, like those Canon Britt talked about in her sermon last week.

Before then, our baptisms were held in a large terracotta planter, the kind you get at Swansons or Sky Nursery, near the entrance.  These were beautiful, moving services.  I especially enjoyed it we were baptizing babies.  I always used to make it a point to try to stand in the front when we gathered around the font, so I could see.  Our smallest members-to-be were wearing these adorable christening outfits.  It was delightful to  murmur soothingly when indignant howls or sobs broke forth, and to rejoice in our new members.

But when this new font came in, it added a whole new dimension to the sacrament.

The new font is a beautiful structure.   Water flows in it from end-to-end, spilling from a raised marble basin, into a rectangular bronze pool that catches the light in its waters.  It was designed so that all three baptismal types could be performed – aspersion, or sprinkling, the kind of baptism most often practiced in Episcopal churches; affusion, which I haven’t seen much in the Episcopal Church, but maybe some of you were baptized that way, where the person to be baptized stands or kneels in the font itself, while water is poured over them; or total immersion where the person can lay back into the waters.

The first time our new font was used was the following Easter Vigil, was also the first adult immersion baptism that I have ever witnessed.  It may even have been the first one in that church.

In the darkness, we gathered, holding our candles, around the new font, with our sister-to-be in Christ.  Together, we recited the Baptismal covenant and promised to support her in her life of faith.  Together, we waited as she climbed into the font and situated herself.  Together, we held our collective breaths with her, as she lay back into the water, allowing our priest to submerge her under its shimmering black surface. Together, we rejoiced as she emerged, dripping and radiant; and breathed in the scent of the rosemary chrism oil as it spilled lavishly over her hair, all over the floor.  Even now, I can remember her smile.

Before that evening, I would have said I understood that baptism was about new birth.  That night, I felt it.

And I wasn’t the only one.  For weeks afterwards, whenever Easter Vigil was mentioned, the immersion baptism was, too.  The response was an immediate smile, how moving it had been, how wonderful.

What a powerful way to begin a life in faith.  What a powerful witness to the transforming love of Christ.

Like Andrew and the other disciple in today’s Gospel reading, our new member followed Christ’s call to “come and see,” but the story – hers, his, and ours – doesn’t end there.

Although we don’t hear the words in today’s Gospel reading, invariably, the response to “come and see” is to “go and tell.”

We see it in John.  We see it in those first disciples.  We see it throughout the Gospels, in the history of the church.  We are all standing here, because our ancestors in faith came and saw and went and told.

Now, how we live into this is probably going to be different for everybody.  Some of us may feel called to serve on the Bishop’s Committee, to participate in worship events, or to share our hospitality with our guests through Edible Hope.  Or to participate in justice work, to participate in some of the events commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday tomorrow.  Others may be called to just be present with a friend or to join a prayer circle or pray at our prayer bench.

Whatever our unique way is that we express our calling, we are all united, because we have all been called by our one Lord, into one faith and one baptism.  And we are all sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own, forever. Amen.

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