Sunday, January 13, 2008

Blessing Righteousness

Sermon delivered at Church of Our Saviour
Mill Valley, California
The First Sunday after Epiphany
The Baptism of Our Lord

January 13th, 2008

Audio will be posted soon.
Welcome to the other side of the holidays. Back into the thick of things we find ourselves, in the midst of a roaring storm last weekend (and I might add heroic efforts ranging from keeping vigil with the emergency generator to showing up and worshiping by candle light!) I’m actually a little sorry to have missed the great adventure here, but I was off with family in Texas seeing my brother married and starting off himself on a new great adventure.

Christmas to me seems like an age ago, how about you? It’s nestled somewhere between grand liturgies and harrowing hikes with a four-year-old through a vast concrete airport. Many of you are back at school, back at work, back to the usual routines with heightened pressures as the economy slows and the market tide rolls back for a time. Budgets have to be worked and re-worked, paperwork is looming as the tax forms arrive, jobs are starting to shift, which adds a whole new level of anxiety. Ballot instructions roll in for Super Tuesday, the airwaves are filled with pundits and politicians hard at it into the wee hours. The great Anglican mess rolls on with fresh news of the first inhibition of a schismatic bishop in a neighboring diocese, and half a world away, our sisters and brothers in uniform still risk their lives trying to bring order in troubled places. Back into the thick of things is the world and Church, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We must be nagged a bit as we are after every Christmas: did it really usher in a renewed righteousness in the world, or are we back where we were in late November, no better off with a Messiah than without one?

Regardless how we might answer that question, we are all agreed that we remain very much in a state of needing grace. We gather here this morning to seek blessing as we often do: a bit more grace, please, for our busy, sometimes harried lives, a breath of spiritual refreshment before plunging back into the work of tomorrow. We expect Christ’s arrival to mean our baptisms have finally “taken,” that we have a shot at breaking through the challenges of this life, a chance to at last relax and finally realize our longstanding hope that peace has finally come to our hearts, the Reign of God has at least arrived for us and our children.

In a way, so does John the Baptist in today’s Gospel.

It’s hard not to expect something a little bit more dramatic between John and Jesus at the River Jordan – something a little bit more dramatic than an esoteric conversation about the necessity of it all. In a curious way, we’ve been trying to get the two of them together for several weeks now. John’s conception is followed by a remarkable encounter between Mary and John’s mother, Elizabeth. John’s father, Zechariah, is struck dumb until the child is born. Jesus is born amidst the declarations of angels and the star and the magi appear. We have also sprung forward on occasion as decades later John appears at the Jordan River and foretells Christ’s coming, the light that the darkness cannot overcome, warning off those who expect an easy redemption with fiery words. We might capture a mental image of him now fully grown, wild-eyed, dressed in his odd animal skins, living on the edge.

In the snippet of the story we hear this morning, the two cousins, the teacher and disciple, must surely have met with something more than a simple discussion over who gets to do what in the River. Might the two have embraced like old friends, perhaps; might they have shed a tear as two spiritual firebrands compare notes about shaking up the towns and villages; perhaps they laugh about innocent childhoods lost to time and the challenges of mature adulthood with all of its risks of failure?

But no, Matthew only offers us the glimpse of a few brief words that remind us of what John sees in Jesus, and Jesus almost demands baptism “to fulfill all righteousness.” For us and for the earliest Christians a profound mystery is in the imperfect prophet baptizing the person we call the Son of God. John means it when he says he rather needs Jesus to baptize him. Like us, John recognizes that he’s the one who needs the grace.

But we are patiently reminded, as the Spirit waits to appear, that Christ’s Gospel reverses what we expect. For this is the Jesus who will wash his disciples’ feet and calm their quarrels with an admonition that the greatest will be the servant of all. This is the Jesus who will say strange things like the least is the greatest in the Kingdom of God, the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

This reversal of expectations is true even for John the Baptist, who has predicted the coming Messiah with a passion that rouses the crowds. His life is built around the hope of Christ’s appearing. But when Jesus emerges and utters his first words as a grown human being in the Gospel of Matthew, he upends the prophet’s world-view. As he will spend his ministry doing. To be clear, if Jesus were to suddenly appear here this morning, he might not seek to teach from the pulpit or administer communion. He might rather sit and listen among you. He might demand that we bless him.

And where would that leave us? Dumbstruck perhaps? Hesitant, for sure.

Fulfilling righteousness has little to do with our power to influence outcomes in our own lives or the lives of others, nor does it really have to do with acquiring some cosmic sense of our own failings. Most importantly, fulfilling righteousness may not have much to do at all with our craving God’s blessing. Instead, it has much more to do with the times when we seek out Christ in our midst and live into our deeper need to bless him in one another. Of setting aside our impatient desires long enough to allow God’s grace to act through us, to allow the action of the Spirit in our imperfect midst.

We cannot, through the vanity of our own efforts, grasp or attain righteousness. We can only bless righteousness, baptize it, fulfill it by serving the One who came to serve wherever we find him. It’s a potent message for us who strive continually to be better, to work to deserve God’s blessing. Like John standing at the River Jordan expecting Christ to winnow, burn the chaff, wash us with a spiritual fire, perfect us, we might be a little bit surprised at a Christ who says, “No, you baptize me. Bless me, you imperfect, beloved children of God. For only in this way will the righteous reign of God begin.”

So that is our task today as we move through our usual routine, renew our baptismal covenant, say the prayers, come forward to table and receive the cup and bread broken. We bless God in Christ and then risk repeating that action over and over again as we leave here to serve: to serve without being perfect or fully capable, or even fully equipped to handle the problems, challenges, and fears the world will bring us.

For our capabilities, busy-ness, resolve, politics, and problem-solving abilities are not at issue in today’s Gospel. Only God’s grace is. For righteousness fulfilled welcomes the Spirit, and perhaps when our clattering desires and impatient endeavors quiet for a moment, perhaps when we learn to bless Christ in our midst rather than anxiously await his blessing, the sky will open, the Spirit will descend, and we, too, will hear the voice of God proclaiming:

“This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

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