The First Sunday after the Epiphany
Water – we can’t live without it. Basic survival skills teach that after air and shelter, water is the most important thing a human needs to survive.
Water is life-giving, cleansing, refreshing, and sustaining. We drink it. We bathe in it. We swim in it.
Water is beautiful. The still waters of a mountain lake reflecting the beauty of the nature around and above; the rushing roar of a waterfall; the lull of a babbling brook; the crash of ocean waves… all offer us awe-inspiring beauty.
Water is also destructive. It can wash away everything from a speck of dirt to an entire town. It can batter and break the sides of buildings and flood basements and foundations. As climate change happens in real time, we New Yorkers witnessed the destructive and fatal waters of Hurricane Ida just a few months ago.
Water can be dangerous. Maybe you’ve learned the hard way, like I did when I was a kid, never to stand with your back to the ocean.
Water is powerful. It is a force to be reckoned with.
And as Christians, this powerful element unites us. It makes us one family.
We come to the waters of baptism to be reborn, made anew, to emerge from these waters alive in a new way. We come to the waters of baptism because as followers of Jesus, we follow in his footsteps, even to the Jordan.
And today, Katherine, Jaxon, and Kane, with the support and love and prayers of their family and friends, will take those steps and be born anew as members of God’s family.
Christians for 2000 years have been born anew in the waters of baptism. As our first words of worship stated today, “there is one body and one spirit, one hope in God’s call to us, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of all.” We are united to every follower of Jesus in these waters, made one family, one body, in Christ.
The waters of baptism are miraculous in this way.
Baptism isn’t an eternal insurance policy or a ritual for institutional affiliation. We don’t get baptized to avoid hell or get our names on the books as a practicing Episcopalian. Baptism is entrance into the body of Christ; it is an awakening to a belonging, an adoption into the family of God and a radical new way of love.
The waters of baptism unite us not only to those we know, but those we will never meet. They connect us to a family that extends beyond this time and place. Baptism is more than membership, or even belonging; it brings with it a birthright, with both the responsibility and privilege that comes with a family name.
Water is powerful. The waters of baptism wash away our wandering lost selves, and like an ocean on a hot summer day, refresh all who gather in its waves.
In our baptismal vows, we say that we will strive for justice and peace, respect the dignity of every human being, love our neighbor as our selves. In our baptism, we are part of a community of people who are not only changed, but who are charged with changing the world. As members of God’s family, we bear the family name of Love. And because of our baptism, we are meant to live up to our family name.
But let’s be real for a moment. This Christian family isn’t a utopian kum-ba-ya feel-good round of hugs – whether that is this St. Michael’s family, the family of the Episcopal Church, or zooming out even more, the family of Christians of all stripes, everywhere. This Christian family is much more like the families we come from, the families we were born or adopted into: some people we love, some people we have to love, some people we will always struggle to love, and always at least one crazy drunk uncle. Members of this family are not just fellow Episcopalians, but Bible Belt Baptists, dreadlock- and Birkenstock-wearing hippies, Pentecostals speaking in tongues. Members of this family are a wide array of people who are very different from you; people who, like your racist uncle at the Thanksgiving table, sometimes make you scratch your head and wonder, “How on earth could I possibly be related to this these people?”
But water is powerful, and the waters of baptism are stronger than the dividing lines we create.
In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist is telling the expectant people about Jesus: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming;…His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” John is speaking to a crowd filled with expectation, who have burning questions about the Messiah and who it is who will save them.
We know what that’s like. We may not be waiting for a Messiah, but certainly we know the longing for a divine balancing of the scales – for the righteous to get their just reward and evildoers to get their just punishment. For the good to be distinguished from the bad, the wheat to be separated from the chaff. Even though we aren’t fire-and-brimstone Christians, we must admit there is some reassurance in hearing that the righteous and the unrighteous, the wheat and the chaff, don’t end up in the same place.
The difficult part of this Scripture is not hearing that Jesus will separate wheat from chaff, but that it is his business, and not ours, to do that separating. It is a very human impulse to both see and seek these distinctions in the world around us, who’s good and who’s not, who’s in and who’s out, who’s wheat and who’s chaff. But here’s the thing: wheat and chaff come from the same plant. The chaff is simply the hard shell around the grain that must be removed before the grain can be useful. The waters of baptism are not about marking who’s in and who’s out; the waters of baptism wash away the chaff around each of us so that we can grow as fruitful, useful members of God’s family of love – so that we can be the body of Christ.
Water is powerful. And the waters of baptism create a community that is powerful. Recently, I was talking with a friend who, until a few years ago, was a rather content atheist despite being a churchgoer her whole life. Church, for her, provided a cultural and social experience, but provided little spiritual value. A few years ago, her priest approached her and asked if she would teach Sunday School. Being a teacher by trade, and a helpful person by nature, she agreed. This began a process of learning and asking questions about church doctrine, theology, and biblical studies she had never thought about before. And I watched her faith in God grow slowly and strongly over time. But what was so striking in our conversation was what she said helped her become a person of faith: “It wasn’t all of the stuff I learned,” she said. “I mean, those things were interesting and helpful. But it was the community and how much they all believed in God, some of them despite devastating life circumstances, that made God real to me. I saw how they lived by faith, and I didn’t feel alone.” She saw the wheat in action. She experienced the baptized body of Christ.
Water is powerful, life-giving, sustaining, destructive, and necessary. The waters of baptism, too, are all of those things. Baptism creates a powerful community of not only changed people, but people charged with changing the world, one person at a time. In the waters of baptism, God washes away the chaff of what weighs us down and holds us back, and gives us new life as members of God’s great family of love. Born out of powerful waters, with the power to change the world. This is God’s family, the family of love. As our presiding bishop says: may we live into the loving, liberating, life-giving family name.