The First Sunday after Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord
Watch the Sermon Here
I have a book that includes brief prayer forms throughout each day. I don’t use all the prayers regularly, I sort of dip in and out of them. Each prayer time has a specific ‘labor,’ a sort of theme for that time of day: early morning is Praise; evening is Forgiveness; bedtime is Trust; and so on. The midday labor is twofold: Renewal and Perseverance. I’ve found that particular theme to be deeply wise – by midday, all the aspirations of the morning tend to have evaporated into interruptions and discontent, but there is still so much of the day left to live. To stop at midday and pray for renewal and a fresh start feels hopeful, to reclaim the good intentions of the morning, rescue what’s left of the day. But as any professor teaching the class after lunchtime will tell you, afternoon isn’t always our freshest time. Good intentions give way to tiredness and discouragement – and so praying not just for renewal, but for perseverance is perhaps even more what I need, anyway, to finish my day well.
Well, it seems we are here together today at midday. I had hoped to preach today on renewal – the renewal of a new year, only 10 days in to a year we had all been longing to turn to in hopes of better times. And the renewal of new birth in baptism as we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord – even though the times being what they are, we don’t have an actual baptism today, but still. The promise of newness, new hope and the light returning, all of that is something I really needed this week.
But instead I find I need to preach on perseverance. Our new year is already tarnished. Nothing feels as new and hopeful as we were longing for, even a week ago. On Wednesday, the Feast of the Epiphany, we had a national epiphany that was no news at all – as far-right extremists followed the lead of the President in trying to overturn democracy by force; and as the police and national leaders enacted yet further craven acts of cowardice, we saw what we have been seeing for some time now, that our country is in crisis. Our deeply racist nation, systems structured to keep the unequal and oppressive status quo operating, even at the expense of a free democracy itself – all of that showed itself again this week. And somehow, seeing it unfold in the symbolic heart of democracy, the Capitol, struck at the core of many of us, upsetting us all over again. And I know so many of you are angry, and afraid – just as we have been for a long, long time now. And yet we must, we will, keep going on. There is more life to keep living.
In a few moments in honor of the feast today of Jesus’ baptism, we will renew our own baptismal vows, with the words of the covenant that we all say together at every baptism. These vows consist of affirming the basic statements of our faith, the words of the creed, and then answering ‘I will with God’s help’ to five questions about how we live out our faith in the world. The second of those questions begins, Will you persevere in resisting evil? And whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? With God’s help, we say, yes, I will.
Today, these days, are times when God puts particular emphasis on that word, persevere. Keep on, carry on, keep going. It’s never a onetime thing, living faithfully and resisting evil. Because you have to keep trying, to resist it, and resist it, and resist it again. All around you. Inside of you. Over and over again. Just as you have to persevere at every other one of the promises we make at baptism: to continue growing in faith with our community; to proclaim and share the good news of the gospel; to seek and serve Christ in every single person; to strive for justice and peace and the dignity of every one. To love your neighbor as yourself. None of those comes easily. Every one of them requires all of what we’ve got. And it’s only midday. There’s a long, long ways to go yet.
The great theologian Howard Thurman writes that the command to love our neighbor is the central ethic of the way of Jesus. ‘Every [person] is potentially every other [person’s] neighbor,’ he writes. ‘[We] must love [our] neighbor directly, clearly, permitting no barriers between…across the barriers of class, race, and condition.’ Whether that neighbor be one of our community or our enemy; whether they be for us or against us, they are our neighbor. All good, right? We’ve heard this before. But then Thurman makes it even tougher. To love our neighbor isn’t just a vague feeling of general goodwill for everyone. To love means to love each person, individually, as a beloved child of God – which means in Thurman’s words to ‘meet the other where he is and there treat him as if he were where he ought to be.’ To ‘believe the other into the fulfillment of their possibilities’.
But what we’d rather say is, I’ll love my neighbor once she shapes up. I’ll love my neighbor when he treats me right. I’ll love my neighbor when they respect what is sacred, when they themselves respect the dignity of other human beings, when they themselves are worthy of my respect. But Thurman’s take on the way of Jesus asks more than that. It is to love our neighbor now as if they already were the best selves God created them to be. To stand on the solid ground of God’s love for us, even as we are, and to love our neighbor with this same love. This, Thurman says, is the demand of Jesus upon the more privileged and the underprivileged alike. This is very, very hard to do.
What we saw this week has angered and dispirited so many of us. What we have seen for years now has stirred outrage after outrage. Some of us, the more privileged among us, have only had our eyes opened recently to the depth of inequality and evil in our world; some of us have always known it all too well. And yet all of us, all of us, are called with God’s help to persevere in resisting the evil around us and within us – to resist the evil of not loving as God would have us love. To resist the evil of not showing and sharing the good news that all of us are God’s beloved children, that the way of love is the only way, that love can bring every one of us into our fullest and best selves, into the world God created and is creating in us all today. This isn’t easy. But it’s the only way forward.
Those who have had COVID have told me that it takes a long time to recover from it. They talk of lingering exhaustion, trouble breathing, difficulty thinking clearly, aches and pains. Some with COVID find themselves returning to the hospital again and again, still unable to shake this disease. It takes a long time to get this virus out of our human systems.
And so it is too with our healing. This sickness of evil has a lingering effect in our souls, making it hard to breathe, tiring us, scrambling our brains. We don’t stop being racist in a day, or with one election. We don’t change systems overnight that have calcified over generations. We don’t easily remember how to love our neighbor, every neighbor, Samaritan, Jew, or Gentile, Black or white, Republican or Democrat – we don’t easily do that after so long a time of division and hatred. Healing takes time. We must persevere. Renewal will come. With God’s help, we can be our best selves. Not by stoking the outrage machine that has roiled us now for years. But by going deeper, praying longer, asking harder for God’s help as we seek to be and become and create the people God is calling us to be. It’s only midday, friends. We have a long time of living still to come. May God watch over your hearts and minds, over this country, over this precious world – that we all may be one, as Jesus prayed for us all.