January 10, 2021
Baptism of Jesus, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
Mark 1:4-11 + Baptism of Jesus + January 10, 2020
On Wednesday night, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, stepped to the podium after the day’s insurrection at the Capitol building to note that it was the Feast of Epiphany. I had not expected to hear about the day’s liturgical celebration in such a difficult moment in our nation’s grappling with white supremacy and its era of divisiveness and false, incendiary rhetoric. Yet, there was the good Catholic, framing the day’s event through the Christian story. The arrival of the magi to adore the newborn Christ, revealing a new way of being human, a new way that God would inhabit history, even while the deceitful tone of Herod’s voice can be heard in the background, planning a violent end to this new birth of hope. Pelosi said, “Let us pray that this instigation to violence will provide an epiphany for our country to heal.”
Did you notice that? She did an Epiphany thing. She subtly turned the tables; shifted the narrative. Rather than focusing on all that’s wrong with our country right now, she urged the congress to catch a glimpse of who we can be.
On New Year’s Eve, as the winter sun headed toward the horizon, ending the year 2020, we decided that we better get out for one last walk. About two blocks from our house, we passed a woman setting out ice lanterns on her front stairs. I jokingly asked if she was preparing for a big New Year’s Eve party, knowing that it wasn’t likely; maybe a few family members in her bubble. “No,” she said, “but I wanted to do something to celebrate the end of this year and the coming new year.”
She urged us to come past again on our way back so that we could see all the lanterns set out with their candles. As the wind started to pick up, we only made it one block before we turned around. As we passed her house again, she was still setting them up. “Here,” she said, “you take one.” And she handed us a frozen star, with its candle inside. So, there we were, at the hinge of a new year, holding a block of ice that contained fire, urged to head home, carrying this gift of light.
In the moment, it all seemed quite natural: a stranger hands you fire and ice and sends you on your way. It probably wasn’t five steps into the next block that we began to laugh at the wonder…and the sermon possibilities…of this gift. I mean, really, who hands you a gift on your late-afternoon walk. We did carry it home. It’s still sitting on our front steps; the last gift of 2020. I looked out the window on Wednesday night before going to bed. Still there; its battery light still burning.
It reminds me that every moment of our lives is enchanted with some kind of gift; that every walk in the neighborhood bears some wisdom and mystery that can teach us something; that each experience has the potential of peeling back a layer to see God’s presence. Mostly, we miss it, unless something interrupts us to make us see it.
Today, we hear the dramatic telling of Jesus’ baptism, that moment when the heavens opened, God spoke, the Spirit descended in a way that Jesus could see with own eyes, and he was touched with God’s deep delight and joy. I sometimes wonder, since each gospel storyteller embellishes and widens this story, what the real experience was like. When Jesus went to the wilderness to hear John’s preaching—his call to change directions, to do something different, to BE someone different—what was going on in Jesus’ brain. Was the baptism exactly like this telling of it: the heavens opening, the dove descending, the voice speaking? Or was that the way metaphor he needed to describe the experience tho few days later, maybe even five steps off the bank of the river–to capture what the experience meant to him? Apparently, it was an experience that changed him; an experience that made him know deep within himself that heaven was wide open, that the Spirit falls out of the sky like rain, or like a dove who needs someplace to alight; that the very wind whispers and swirls with the breath and the joy of God–God’s smiling and embracing delight of created, human life.
And when he told the story of his baptism to his friends, who were already sensing in him some wideness of heaven, some descending wisdom and grace, did the story become more and more true. So true, in fact, that the story became the way to describe the real experience of every baptism, everyone who comes to the water. Jesus baptism wasn’t unique. It bears the truth, the paradigm, of our own.
We’ll experience two baptism today. Anders Bjorn and Natalie Lucille were baptized on the day after Christmas, a day after we thought the heavens returned to their typical winter sky after the angels’ song, yet not 24 hours later the heavens are rent open again, song pours forth, the Spirit speaks its love to more beloved children of God. Baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, one God Mother of us All. Amen.
An then, having only just finished lighting candles in the darkness to sing Silent Night, we lit another, placed fire in their hands and told them to take it home with them: let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify God in heaven. Their little bodies now a lantern that burns with Christ; that burns with tomorrow’s hope; a fire that lights the way. Again, God’s presence in a baby.
Children of baptism, you carry fire; you bear light. The more we tell one another that story, the more it will become true. We’re slowly, telling by telling, seeing more clearly what has been real the whole time; what has been real from the beginning when God spoke over the waters to say “Let there be light.”
I have to tell you that when we were walking home with our lantern, we had to share it, because it was really cold, even in our gloved hands. It wasn’t the easiest to bear, this message for the new year, this alternative vision for human life, this light that had been gifted to us. It was a bit awkward on that journey home, carrying our new gift.
This is true, too, as we tell this story of water and promise, light and grace: This light is going to change us. Once you’ve been given the light—or once you understand that you carry the light–you can’t ever really walk back home in the same way, just like the magi who can’t face Herod’s way but have to return by “another road.” You can’t just start a New Year and do it like you did the last one. You can’t wait to speak your truth until its safe and expedient to do so, but when it upsets the power and poses some risk to your own status. You can’t just go to work without knowing you have light that must be shared. You can’t just decide what to do with your life without recognizing your responsibility to leave the world brighter. You can’t just keep doing the things that hide your own light from your friends or family or stranger. When you have light, you heal, and feed, and welcome, and break down the dividing walls of oppression and prejudice, and you’re lured into speaking joyful words that free imprisoned hearts and souls. You also discover that there aren’t really strangers in the world, only other magi with gifts of light to share.
All these things cut against the grain of the disenchanted world we’ve been taught to believe is the real one.
Friends, it’s awkward to carry this light. Perhaps you’ve heard the words of Marianne Williamson, often attributed to Nelson Mandela, who used this quote:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
So, for today, I’ll end by handing you a star, passing you the baton, the torch. Whether you came to the waters long ago, or were carried there by someone else, or are just toying with the impulse to come, I’m handing you fire and ice. I’m placing in your hands that very first moment of creation when light exploded into emptiness and a story began to be told. You have the power now to say, “Let there be light.” And there will be light. A first day. An Easter morning.
Maybe you didn’t expect to receive it today, or you think that you don’t deserve it, or even that you’re ready for it. Too bad. It’s yours now. It’s your gift. So take it home, set it out, and “let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”
 Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles”