One of the things they don’t teach you in seminary is what to say in your first sermon. So in the absence of a better idea, let me tell you about my dogs.
Kathy and I moved here a week ago accompanied by our two terriers, Sandie and Tessie. Sandie is a champion cairn terrier, bred as a show dog and raised by a breeder friend of ours. Tessie is a Scotch terrier, purchased from a breeder in Ohio and raised from puppyhood by us. Sandie is a pure dog. He is focused on protecting the rectory territory and hunting critters who venture into his line of sight. Tessie is socialized to people—she has more IQ points than either Kathy or me, and is able to predict and interpret our every move.
Now here’s the embarrassing thing. Sandie, who was raised by others, is perfectly well-adjusted. Tessie, who was raised entirely inside our household, is as neurotic a dog as you’ll ever meet. That probably tells you all you need to know about the Hall family.
When I think about the uniqueness of Sandie and Tessie, I realize that as particular and precious as their own individuality is, it pales in comparison to that of human beings. Sandie and Tessie are complicated and unique, and they’re dogs! Imagine the depth and beauty of what God is up to in the fashioning of a person. We humans are made in God’s image, and as with snowflakes, no two of us are alike. Think of what that says about us. Think of what that says about God.
Today is the First Sunday after the Epiphany, also known as the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. It is a day on which we are asked to think together about Jesus’s baptism and our own. It is a day on which we are asked to renew our own baptismal vows. That you and I begin our new life and ministry with each other on this particular day is a sign of what God is doing in the here and now. It may be coincidence, or it may be more than that. But it’s not overstating it to say that everything I know and believe about the church and its mission is summarized and expressed in this day which celebrates both Jesus’s baptism and ours.
Here’s how Luke puts it in today’s Gospel:
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Luke 3. 21-22
As I understand today’s message, it comes at us in three ways: Jesus was baptized. You and I have been baptized. We are renewing our baptismal covenant today. Let me say three things about that.
First: Jesus was baptized. Generations of Christians have asked themselves why Jesus needed to submit to the baptism of John the Baptist. John preached a baptism for repentance and the remission of sins. As a sinless person, why would Jesus need to do something like that?
The answer, I think, is that Jesus understood baptism to be something beyond a ritual cleansing: he saw it as a commissioning, an “ordination” if you like, to ministry. Immediately after his baptism, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness and then emerged to live out his ministry: healing the sick, teaching in parables, casting out demons, gathering everyone at his table of abundance and welcome. Jesus got baptized not because he needed to be cleansed but because he wanted to show you and me what a Christian life looks like. A Christian life is one of wholeness, joy, service, compassion, forgiveness, love. The first thing we celebrate today is Jesus’s willingness to show us, through his own baptism, what this sacrament’s implications are for us. You and I will find life’s meaning, as Jesus did, in compassionate generosity toward each other and the world.
Second: you and I are baptized. In baptism, we get a name. “Name this child,” as it used to say in the older prayer books. The next big truth about Baptism is that it recognizes and blesses our own unique God-given individual identity. When the Spirit descends in the form of a dove, Jesus hears the voice say, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." This is the voice that each one of us should hear when our baptismal name is uttered. You are God’s beloved. God is well-pleased with you. Baptism is about mission and ministry; it is also about identity and worth. God has made you as you are and given you the gifts you have and it is good and pleasing to God for you to be you. Most of us go through life living out of a false self. Thomas Merton once defined salvation as the finding and accepting of our authentic self. In Baptism you are called not only to be generous and compassionate to others; you are called to be generous and compassionate to yourself. Your identity is a divine gift, and your life’s task is to accept it, to know it, to live into it and share your wisdom, questions, and insight with the rest of us.
And then there’s this third thing, the renewing of our Baptismal Covenant. A scholar I admire very much once said that the church is itself created by this sacrament of Baptism. In renewing our Baptismal Covenant, we are reaffirming this relationship we have with each other as the Body of Christ in the world. In this covenant relationship we have agreed that we will bring the fullness of our individual ministries and the fullness of our several unique identities into this parish community. I believe that God is doing something unique in you and in your life that God is not doing anywhere else. I believe that we can only become the people God calls us to be by making this place an open, loving, compassionate community where everyone feels accepted, valued, and loved exactly as they are. I believe that it is out of this experience of acceptance and love that we reach out to heal the pain and hurt that surrounds us in the world. At its best, a parish church is a community where all of our individual identities are brought into a gathered celebration of mission, uniqueness, and love. And the test of that will be whether we, our households, our community, our world are the better for our being here.
I hope it is apparent how deeply happy Kathy and I are to be back here. We began our married life here—we came to Birmingham and Bloomfield a week after our wedding in 1978. Our son Oliver was born here, and it was here that I began to develop skills and interests that have stayed with me my whole working life. Christ Church Cranbrook has long stood in my mind and heart as the image of what a parish church at its best can be. At the same time, I know that time has delivered a lot of blows to the Detroit area and that many people in this congregation are hurting personally and financially.
Jesus came on the historical scene at a time, like this one, of real economic privation. First century Palestine had many of the economic and social problems of twenty-first century Detroit. People were hungry, homeless, poor, and without a sense of their ability to control their own destinies. The conventional wisdom of Jesus’s day held that you get yourself through hard times by grasping onto and hoarding what is yours and hunkering down to protect yourself and what you have from others. Jesus upended everything by preaching the reverse. He said that when women and children and men opened their hearts and tables and houses to each other there would miraculously be enough to go around. As a sign of that he fed 5,000 people with five barley loaves and two fish.
You and I are together at a challenging and exciting moment in the history of this parish and the region we live in and serve. These are certainly hard times. But if we have learned anything from following Jesus, it is that the way through hard times lies not in selfishness but in generosity. You and I can get through anything if we do it together. Accepting everyone’s divine uniqueness, feeling the joys and pains of each other and the world are the ways toward both personal and social wholeness. This is a truth we learn over and over again by hearing the story of Jesus’s life and ministry as enacted in the Gospels. This is a truth we know because we have been given a name, a mission, and a community in our Baptism.
We come now to the renewal of our Baptismal Covenant and to the sacrament where we gather around that same table to which Jesus invited everyone—his companions, the hungry, the sick, the privileged, the outcast—to gather and share the abundance of God’s blessings. As you share this meal at Jesus’s table, remember who you are and to whom you belong. You are, as Jesus was, God’s beloved, a person endowed with unique, divine dignity, someone with whom God is now and will forever be well pleased. And you are a companion of Jesus, one who is invited to share the bread and wine as signs of God’s compassionate commitment to you and the world we all share. God’s promise is not that life won’t deal us hard blows. God’s promise is that we will survive those blows and indeed thrive to transcend them as we reach out in love and compassion to each other and the world. For that promise, and for the love which sustains it, we proceed in the Eucharist to give thanks. Amen.