There are times in our life when we just need to feel like we’ve been made new. For me it was when I looked into the faces of orphans in Tijuana, Mexico and felt, at a bodily level, the itchy, dissociating comfort of my middle class upbringing. Another time came after I had ended a marginally supportive relationship and begun to explore new vocational callings, and this thing called ‘seminary’. Looking back I can see these moments aligned with a series of conversions—conversion to the poor, conversion to the life of the Holy Spirit; (and) most recently a conversion (back) to care for creation and the waters of my youth. Our baptismal journey is often a series of conversions, of significant encounters along the way, when something died making an opening for transformation, metanoia, to spark life anew.
Last summer I was going through some old family files when I happened across my baptism certificate from Rolling Bay Presbyterian Church (just across the water). I don’t remember the event myself, I must have been about three or four. But, there it was, proof of my initiation into the community of Christ. Had I known back in college that I had been baptized, I might not have chosen to get dunked while on my first short term mission trip to Tijuana. But my 18 year old self was feeling particularly overwhelmed by a desire for added assurance of grace. And so, I have been baptized into two waters: the Kitsap watershed (Bainbridge Island), and a reservoir somewhere south of San Diego and across the U.S. border (that may or may not still exist).
Have you noticed that it’s difficult to talk about death with others? It isn’t exactly a good lunch room conversation. Pastors and religious clerics learn over time—regardless of what books were read in seminary—how to conduct a “celebration of life” rather than a funeral. With the segregation/ outsourcing of aging and the infirm, it is quite possible to go through life without ever having the experience of sitting with someone as they die. Then those of us who are left behind are encouraged not to mourn because the individual is “in a better place.” Death is such a downer. But there’s a strange paradox at work: it is virtually impossible to ‘get on with life’ unless we go through the deathly experience. Even Jesus wept as he prepared to pray for his friend’s resurrection. Water and Spirit.
Baptism into Jesus Christ is one of the few places where death and birth sit together. Along with the scriptures and tradition, we say that to be baptized into Jesus Christ is to die with him and be raised into new life. In the Book of Common Prayer, the thanksgiving prayer over the waters states: “We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. Therefore in joyful obedience to your Son, we bring into his fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (BCP, Thanksgiving over the water, 306)
Traditions that perform baptism by submersion demonstrate a very potent symbol of death and subsequent resurrection into new life. Water has the potential to drown us, and to spark new life by filling our very cells with essential atoms and molecules necessary for growth. This is among the greatest mysteries of the cosmos.
The baptism of Jesus is a Trinitarian event. It is among the most explicit texts that highlights the three Persons of God, united in word and mission. Here we meet the Spirit of God, descending ‘as a dove’ to alight on Jesus of Nazareth. Here we encounter (through the text) the voice of YHWH, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” [cf. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3.17) “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1.11)] As Liturgical theologian, Gordon Lathrop, describes: at Jesus’ baptism, a hole opens in the heavens revealing God among us—the same God Who created the heavens and the earth, and Who promised Noah never again to flood the earth. Like Jacob’s ladder, there is a moment when earthly and divine realms meet. It is this God who is revealed through the person of Jesus, at the place where John baptized in the Jordan River. The revelation of the triune God is (in part) constituted by the waters of creation (flowing through the Jordan) and the fire of the Spirit. Water and Spirit uniting earth and heavens.
What is this water, and what is it about water that makes it the ultimate symbol for the baptism event? Perhaps the obvious relationship has to do with cleansing. Water is used for washing and we are proclaimed clean from sin after baptism. This connotation has been a potent one since the time of saint Augustine. As he recounts in the first book of the Confessions, he was very nearly baptized as a child only because he became deathly ill. It was delayed, however, because, if he survived, the likelihood of him committing various sins was inevitable (read: adolescent shenanigans). The thinking was that, why make his soul sparkle now when it will no doubt get tarnished soon enough? Indeed, questions of grace and purity haunt our church traditions still. Baptism is intended to be a one time grafting into the living vine, where Eucharist is the regular re-membering of the body of Christ, suggesting perhaps to our detriment that you can only get clean once. Thankfully, it is the Spirit that cleanses.
Water is constitutive of creation and re-creation. According to the Genesis account, waters emerged on the second and third days of creation, when God separated the waters of the sky from those below, and then from the waters below from the dry land. Noah’s flood is a kind of creation 2.0 / God’s second round for creation, where water is the chaos from which Noah, his family, and the pairs of animals must all emerge. For Martin Luther, the flood becomes archetypal for baptism, rather than creation’s first go-around. In this way, baptism is again seen as a purifying, cleansing event for humanity; one that is ongoing throughout our lifetimes.
But what about _this_ water, here in our font, poured out for each one who comes for baptism? Or the water in which I was baptized as a toddler? Does this water matter? How does it matter?
The waters in which we baptize issue from and return to the waters of the Salish Sea, which is home to all five Pacific salmon species, giant octopi, jellyfish, Dungeness crab, seals, sea lions, and our beloved southern resident orcas. This past summer, the world mourned when a calf born to J35 (Tahlequah) died. What captivated so many of us was the display of unabated grief as Tahlequah carried her calf for over two weeks, assisted on occasion by others in the pod. According to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, Tahlequah traversed over 1,000 miles of the Salish Sea in approximately 17 days, keeping her calf near the surface, taking turns with others in the pod, refusing to let it sink. As her mourning persisted it compelled us to follow after her, until we too let our grief surface, carry it around, and just be with it. Day after day Tahlequah raised her dead calf for our eyes to see and our hearts to be moved to conversion.
Before we think that the work of conversion is our own, let us recall the hole in the heavens at Jesus’ baptism. In each of the gospel accounts the Spirit descends, joining Jesus and (in Mark’s account) even propelling him into the wilderness. As John says, baptism of the Spirit is one of fire. If the waters of baptism immerse us into a locale, baptism in the Spirit sends us across a myriad of dividing lines. Bob Ekblad, a professor at the Seattle School and founding pastor of Tierra Nueva (Burlington, WA), describes baptism in terms of border crossings. In a chapter titled, “Living as Wetbacks” he maps out just how when we become immersed in baptismal waters we not only follow in God’s work for the Israelites crossing the waters to freedom; but we are united with any and all whom Jesus considers friends—the marginalized, the undocumented, the outcasts, the lost. His proposal is an inversion from tradition in that, rather than baptism functioning as a sign of being set apart for God, cleansed and purified; instead dying to Christ means joining the damned. “Distinctions…are leveled.” Going into the water makes us border crossers by drawing us into relationship with others we never would have imagined, just as we are drawn into the life of the triune God as children. Furthermore, to live as a child of God is to experience the life of the Spirit in a way that is renewing; to tap into God’s creative power through prayer, worship, community and the sacraments.
Throughout my life, I have repeatedly returned to my baptismal waters, the Salish Sea, with a growing sense that our stories are mingled—more than mingled, that I am drenched in these waters. In remembering my baptism, I remember the waters that were poured over me. I pray for healing for the watershed and all its inhabitants—humans, fowl, and invertebrates alike. I remember and pray for the orca, the salmon, and the communities that depend on fishing, the families who must follow the harvests. Baptism immerses us into communion with an entire watershed community even as it is a symbol of new life.
What if we were to begin speaking of baptism in Spirit and Water as baptism into the resurrection life of Jesus Christ and into our local waters? If we take seriously God’s incarnation breaking into a particular place at a particular time, and the life of the triune God breaking over us in the waters of baptism, then we are participating not only in the great dance of the Trinity, but also in the life of the world around us. We awaken to the deep communion of Spirit and Water—life of the risen Christ, and the ecology of fellow creatures. We are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, and also the tears of Tahlequah.
Happy 12th Day of Christmas! You may be so over Christmas by now that it seems weird to see decorations and to sing carols one last time, but for many parts of the Christian world, this is one of the biggest celebrations of the year. It kicks off the season after Epiphany when the light that came to birth in Bethlehem grows and shines in far off places as God’s mercy and justice spread throughout the nations. Some of the major feasts of the church year will happen during this season including the baptism of Jesus, when new Christians are baptized and others renew their vows. The light of Christ will glow at Jesus is transfigured on a mountain top and will spread as his first disciples are commissioned to go forth and share the good news.
Many of you weren’t at St. Luke’s on Christmas Eve as we gathered in the historic chapel to hear the Christmas story and sing our favorite carols. The first reading that evening was from an earlier part of Isaiah, chapter 9. It begins “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” In the middle of a dark, cold December night in Ballard, each of us held our handmade beeswax candles, made from our own bee hives and passed the light of Christ from person to person as we sang “Silent night, Holy Night.” The sanctuary glowed and that beautiful light was reflected on the faces of the diverse crowd who gathered from all over the neighborhood, the country and even the world to acknowledge and worship the Christ child.
And now it’s Epiphany, twelve days since Christmas and in the Gospel story at least a couple years after the birth of Jesus. The reading from the 60th chapter of Isaiah sounds a slightly different note. It begins with a command, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” The story has moved from the straw, piss and manure of the stable to the palaces of power in Jerusalem and a humble house in Bethlehem. The light from the star has drawn some of the most unique and unusual figures in the Gospel, the wise ones, the Magi from the East. They are the foreign others to whom God gives the sign of the star and through whom the true nature of the Christ child is revealed.
Jesus has barely learned to speak and his life is already on the line with the powerful and the entitled. Herod and the leaders in Jerusalem, just 9 miles down the road are shocked, afraid and concerned to hear through the Magi that a radically different king may be on the horizon. They plot to use these learned, curious, open foreigners to find the child so that they can destroy him. Even the hint of a threat to their power terrifies them and leads them to manipulation, falsehood and ultimately destruction as Herod orders the death of all male children under the age of two – the slaughter of the holy innocents. Mary and Joseph don’t get to linger in the glow of the candlelight. They are propelled as refugees, fleeing for their lives to a foreign country.
Those moments of peace, comfort and joy at the birth with the angels and shepherds seem to pass so quickly under the cruel reality of a world of inequality, war, disaster and dysfunction. Already in these days after our Christmas we have a government shutdown, more suffering on the streets of our city and the death of two of our beloved, long-time St. Luke’s members. The lights we kindled on Christmas Eve that were so full of hope and beauty now seem small in retrospect. The daily grind, the damp weather, the disappointments and depression of life all take their toll.
Yet, the light still shines. When you leaned into your neighbor to pass the light from your small candle to theirs, something amazing happened that changes everything. Light is doubled. Not only does your own candle not lose anything by sharing the light, but now there is a second flame. And then another and another. This light from the heart of God came into the world, not in power or riches or might but in our very frail humanity. This light of love was subjected to every force of evil and to death itself, but was never extinguished. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
And so the prophet can urge us on in these difficult times. “Arise, shine.” Let your light shine. This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. There’s truth and power in that simple song. It’s a song of a people whose light cannot be extinguished. It’s a song of hope and protest in the midst of overwhelming opposition. It’s a song that has been sung in prison and on marches. It’s the song they sung in Charlottesville when white supremacists tried to intimidate the clergy and supporters who held the line. It’s a song to rouse a people who know that good and truth and life and light cannot be overcome by hate, evil and lies. It’s a civil rights song. It’s a gospel song. It’s a song of hope.
My husband Bryon and I take an annual Christmas recovery trip to Vancouver BC where we try to watch as many movies as possible while we can. We choose those that are getting some buzz about possible awards. So we watched Green Book last week. I’m grateful for the film because it introduced me to an extraordinary person, Dr. Don Shirley. He was a musical genius and forged his own genre and interpretation when, because he was a black man in the twentieth century, he couldn’t make a living as a classical pianist.
Dr. Shirley was one of 4 sons of an Episcopal priest. All of his brothers also have doctorates. They accomplished this despite the fact that their mother died when they were young. Dr. Shirley had a long career touring and recording. One of his last recordings was his interpretation of the songs that fed and nurtured his soul. He titled the album, Home. He chose to include “This little light of mine,” which he described as a spiritual not for black people or white people but for all humanity. He was determined to shine in spite of how a world of white power tried to box him in and diminish his gifts and his unique being.
Sharing your flame does not diminish it. In fact, it’s just the opposite. As you let your light shine, you inspire others. You join the great chorus that sings the dream of God into reality. Our lights have been kindled by those who have gone before us, including now our dear Patty and Daphne who each possessed a particular radiance. They have passed the flame of Christ’s love and the power of the Holy Spirit to this generation so that we might shine as well.
And at that great day, when the powers of domination and the evils of discrimination, poverty and inequality are snuffed out and destroyed, what will remain is God’s community of peace and justice. It will be revealed to be stronger and more lasting than any oppressive, unjust or self-serving rule or rulers. The beloved community of God outlasts the evil empire.
It’s a new year. It’s the season of Epiphany. Let your light shine! Amen.
Location, location, location. We all know what that’s about. The value of your home depends on the neighborhood you’re located in. The success of your business is determined by where you’re positioned. And even in the church world, it’s considered a sure prediction of failure if your building isn’t on a visible thoroughfare.
Your perspective on life is shaped by where you are. I don’t know about you, but I’ve moved an awful lot. Up until recently I averaged one move for every year of my life. Most of my moves were hopeful – a new place, a new beginning, a new job. Some were exciting – moving to a foreign country, moving in with my new husband. Each move included a fair share of anxiety. How would I find my way in a new place? Would I find a community of people to be part of? Would I be safe and secure? Would I like my new life enough to make up for missing my old one?
There is an assumption that every move, every change will be a move up, a better opportunity, a more secure future. But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes we find ourselves in a strange and difficult location, with all we had relied on stripped away. Sometimes we find ourselves in a wilderness place.
That’s where we meet the great figure of Advent, John the Baptist… in the wilderness. He left the promise of his early life, his security in Galilee, his family and everything he possessed in order to respond to the call of God. John preached about radical transformation. He spoke of beginning a new life. His was the call of prophecy, which is less about predicting the future and more about being a conduit for truth and the word of God.
His father, Zechariah had predicted his important future role on the day John was born. Today we sang the Canticle of Zechariah where Zechariah speaks to John and tells him, “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way…”
And yet, for all his importance in terms of the coming Messiah, John was far removed from the places of power. If you listened carefully to the Gospel reading and all the foreign names and locations, you will have noticed that it opens with a listing of all the powerful people of the time and the areas and peoples they rule over. After a lengthy list of emperors, procurators, tetrarchs and high priests, we finally get to hear about John. While the rulers are centered in the cities and population centers, John is running around in the wilderness, where anyone who wants to hear what he has to say will have to travel miles to get to him. The wilderness doesn’t have a high walkability score!
It reminds me of when I go camping. At night the noises are completely different. When there are no streetlights, billboards or sky scrapers, the night sky is incredibly brilliant. And without the sound from cars and people, it almost seems as though you can hear the song of the stars. In the wilderness you are far away from business, commerce, politics, advertising and all the hustle bustle. Because of the remoteness of your location, you just might be able to listen to God and to your own life. Location makes a difference.
There are other places we might go to hear the word of God, to be confronted with those realities that are often hidden in plain sight. You will find one of our current day prophets crying out in the wilderness of Grays Harbor County where there is a homeless encampment alongside the river between Aberdeen and Hoquiam. The camp has been there for a long time on land that was private until the City of Aberdeen recently purchased it. Economic conditions in this former lumber and fishing town are some of the very worst in this state. Decades of suffering and poverty have combined to force people out of work, homes and security. They are camping in tents, improvised structures and broken down RV’s. The ground has turned to mud. They rely upon the community they have created and assistance from visitors, volunteers and others who care.
But now, those visits have been restricted by the City. The camp has been fenced off. It will soon be cleared and the people will have very few places left to go. Only outsiders with a City-issued permit can now enter the camp. This is the place where for the past 5 years, the Episcopal ministry, Chaplains on the Harbor has been providing comfort, food, pastoral care, and services. All of this is led by a Grays Harbor native, the Rev. Sarah Monroe. In her black and red plaid clergy shirt, she is well known and loved by those who live on the margins. She visits the encampments, she visits people in jail, and she conducts last rites and funerals for the many, many people who have died outside.
But she can no longer legally visit the camp by the river. Her application for a permit was denied, in part because she couldn’t provide a regular schedule for when she would be present. How can you schedule when someone needs an emergency ride to the doctor? How can you schedule a pastoral crisis? How do you know when you might be called upon for last rites?
Sarah has chosen to call the powerful to account. She and others who have been shut out from their friends, parishioners and family have filed a federal lawsuit. She is literally a voice crying out in the wilderness, calling for justice, asking for a change of hearts and minds. The message is “Repent. The Kingdom of God is near.”
John was located in the wilderness so that all who came to him could take stock of their own lives and repent of all that had taken them away from God, their true center. He was located outside of the centers of power so that he might speak a word of warning and rebuke to the powerful. Like any good prophet, he called his society to wake up from their sleep of comfort and pay attention to the signs of suffering all around them. A modern-day John must have written the following on a bathroom wall. “If you’re not out on the edge, you’re taking up too much room!”
John asked people to examine their lives and to prepare a way, a road, a highway for the Messiah to come in. Sometimes I visualize what that might look like, a smooth road, free from obstacles, level and flat. It sort of sounds like those moving sidewalks they have in big airports, but I don’t think that’s at all what the prophets have in mind. They know we will still have to walk every step of the way. The way is prepared by our repentance, our change of heart, our willingness to give up old ways and to embrace love, forgiveness, mercy and faithfulness. There will be suffering along this way and disruption. We will be led through a wilderness. This is not a passive preparation but one which will require that “long obedience in the same direction.”
That’s the way it is with the spiritual life. Jesus asks, “Where is your heart?” “What is at the center of your being?” “Where do you find your true home?” It’s a question of location. Are we in the comfortable middle, enjoying the fruits of the wealthiest civilization in history while many others suffer in poverty? Are we oriented towards superficial success and the noise and acclaim of power while the deeper life of the spirit withers away? Have our vices and habits taken over our own best true selves and robbed us of healthy and full lives? These are the questions of Advent.
When we enter the wilderness of soul examination, we do not do so alone. Jesus entered the wilderness with John and he comes to us in our wilderness places. He brings those from the margins into the center. And it is there in the wilderness that God speaks. “You are my beloved.” Jesus breaks open the gates and walks right through into the most difficult and desperate parts of life. He is not afraid of mess or shame. He doesn’t leave us alone or abandoned in our despair. You know his location. He pitches his tent right in the middle of our existence. He abides with us.
Advent provides the wilderness of quiet and reflection in the midst of the loud and busy secular holiday season. We are offered the opportunity to prepare the way of the Lord, to open our hearts to God and to one another in new ways and to trust that God will be our heart’s true home. Amen.
2 Advent, Year C (RCL)
Canticle 16 (Luke 1:68-79)