Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Celebrating a Confession


Today is the feast of the Confession of Peter--the day when we remember that moment, captured in all three synoptic gospel accounts, when Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" and Peter replied, "You are the messiah, the Son of the living God." Without reading an entire gospel account in one sitting, it is hard to stress how remarkable this moment was. Up to this point, Jesus had been properly identified by the demons he had cast out, but no one else had recognized his full identity. No one had put the pieces all together. And, after this moment, which serves as a turning point for the gospel story, things happen with stunning speed. Although there are still plenty of chapters left in all of the gospel accounts, after this confession, Jesus' ministry is Jerusalem-bound.

But today I don't want to focus on the role that Peter's confession has in the arc of the gospel. Instead, I want to celebrate the act itself as distinct from the actor. You've heard the tragic, uncharitable-masking-as-loving saying, "Hate the sin, not the sinner?" Well, today, I want to focus on what it means to "celebrate the confession, not the confessor."

In our liturgical calendar, we remember lots of saints. These are the holy people of God who have been made holy by the saving, redeeming, transforming work of Jesus Christ. (We can debate a theology of sainthood later.) When we celebrate the feast of a saint, we typically remember her or his life, witness, and death all wrapped into one celebration. Many saints are commemorated on the anniversary of their death, but that remembrance usually expands beyond merely the moment of their martyrdom and touches on the witness of their entire life. Occasionally, however, we remember a particular event above and beyond the life of an individual. For example, in the Episcopal Church, we commemorate the consecration of Samuel Seabury, our first bishop. In that way, the church is specifically saying that it is not the life of Seabury that reminds us of God's saving work in Jesus Christ. Instead, it is the act of his consecration and, through it, our larger participation in the universal Church that we remember. Although Peter himself is a Saint that is remembered on the feast of Peter and Paul, today we step away from the person and celebrate the moment. And I think there are theological reasons to retain that focus.

After Peter's clear confession of Jesus' identity, Jesus responds, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven." Notice the content of that declaration. Peter is blessed--the mark of sainthood--but he is blessed because God the Father has revealed this truth to him. The action comes from the outside. The implication is that Peter could have spent all his energy focused on discerning this truth, but, without the inspiration of God himself, he could not have gotten to the realization. Sure, Peter is the vessel for this epiphany. His faithfulness--his openness to the working of the Spirit--plays a role in this, but, just as Jesus celebrates Peter as the vehicle for God's action, so, too, must we celebrate what God is doing in the lives of his saints and not what the saints are doing on their own. This is, after all, what it means to be a saint of God in the first place.

We are all saints. All of us who are reborn into the new, redeemed, transformed life that God has given us through his Son Jesus Christ and through the fellowship of the Holy Ghost are the holy ones of God. And what does that mean? Does it mean that each of us does incredible, miraculous things? Does it mean that we have supernatural, God-sent insights? Does it mean that all of us are willing and able to withstand torture or death for the sake of the gospel? Not necessarily. What it does mean, however, is that we, like Peter, are vessels for God's work. God has used, is using, and will continue to use us to bring his truth to the world. Like Peter, we have a confession to make--not merely a confession of our sin but also a confession of our confidence in God's forgiveness. We cannot make that confession on our own. God himself has revealed it to us. May we proclaim it boldly as his saints.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Invitation to Intimacy


St. Antony, Abbot in Egypt
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
 
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

In Mark 10:17-21, Jesus offers a profound and challenging invitation to a would-be disciple. A man runs up to Jesus, kneels before him, and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus replies with a summary of the Law: “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.’” Quickly in his mind, the man runs through Jesus’ checklist, crossing off each one of the obligations as having been fulfilled, and says, “Teacher, I have kept all of these since my youth.” But there was more to it than that. Something had brought this faithful man to Jesus in the first place. He knew that something was missing, and Jesus shows him that it was something big, something demanding, something terrible.

With love for the man in his heart, Jesus looks at him and says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Even before we get to those words, we know what comes next. Perhaps that is because we are familiar with the story, or perhaps it is because we recognize our own limitations and project them onto the man. Mark tells us that he “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Isn’t that our response, too? When confronted with the enormous cost of discipleship, whether financial or otherwise, aren’t we grieved? When we encounter any of the stories in which Jesus tells us to sell everything that we have and give it away or hate our mother and father and brother and sister or take up our cross or even give up our own life for the sake of the gospel, don’t we wish he would move on to something else? Isn’t the cost of discipleship always more than we are prepared to give?

Today, however, I hear a new voice within this familiar story. Today is the feast of St. Antony, who served as an abbot in Egypt in the fourth century, and I cannot help but notice that the gospel lesson appointed for his feast stops short of the man’s sorrowful reaction to Jesus’ demand that he sell all that he has and give it away to the poor. We know what comes next. We know that the man will not be able to fulfill what is being asked of him. But, today, we never get there. We stop with verse 21—with Jesus’ invitation to the man to take that next and essential step—and, because of that, I hear in this exchange new opportunity for me and my own faith.

When he was eighteen years old, Antony and his younger sister were orphaned, and they found themselves unexpectedly responsible for caring for their family’s large estate. Six months later, when he heard the story of the rich man and Jesus in Mark’s gospel account, Antony immediately gave all of their land to the villagers and sold most of his possessions, giving the proceeds to the poor. Still, for Antony, this was not enough. After further meditation, he decided to sell absolutely everything he owned, place his sister in a house for poor, unmarried women, and become an anchorite or solitary ascetic. He spent the next twenty years living alone in a cave, praying and meditating on God’s word, before emerging to found a primitive sort of monastery that was little more than a collection of individual cells for other solitary ascetics.[1]

Antony’s life was completely and totally dedicated to God. He was free from the burdens and distractions of money and relationships. He gave up not only his possessions but also his ties to family and virtually all interactions with the rest of the world. As far as was humanly possible, he sought to remove anything that might stand in the way of his relationship with God. He had heard Jesus call him to seek unencumbered intimacy with the Lord, and, rather than dwell on why that could not happen, he answered Jesus’ call and gave up all that he had in order to pursue that most important of relationships.

I do not know about you, but I am not prepared to sell all that I have and take a vow of poverty. I am not willing to leave my wife and children behind in order to pursue an unencumbered relationship with God. Partly that is because I have not heard Jesus call me to do those things, but, even if I had, I doubt my ability to answer that call. I am too deeply attached to the comforts that my wealth provides. I am too fond of the comfort that my family gives. But, today, as I hear Jesus inviting me to sell everything I have and follow him, I stop short of my inabilities and, instead, ask God to give me the strength and courage and resolve to do whatever it is that God is asking of me. Instead of saying, “No, that’s too hard,” I pray that God will help me eliminate everything that gets in the way of the pure, dedicated relationship with God that God is calling me to pursue. I know my flesh is weak, but I pray that God will make my spirit willing. As Jesus said to the disciples when they asked their master about this difficult teaching, “With mere mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27).
 
Perhaps God is calling you to sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor. Perhaps God is calling you to give up your life as you know it and dedicate yourself to God’s service in a new and radical way. Perhaps it’s something dramatic and huge, or maybe it’s something small and quiet, but I can guarantee that, whatever it is, God’s call will come as a challenge. Do not fall into the trap of dismissing God’s invitation because it seems too difficult. Yes, following Jesus is hard. Yes, being a disciple is costly. Indeed, it will cost you everything that you have. But don’t allow yourself to become paralyzed by the magnitude of that sacrifice. Instead, pray that God will give you the strength to say yes—one day at a time, one step at a time, one sacrifice at a time.


[1] Lesser Feasts and Fasts. Church Publishing: 2006, 130.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Smugness Revisited


Last week, when I read the gospel lesson for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (John 1:29-42), I chuckled to myself. I had preached the week before on Jesus' baptism in the River Jordan (Matthew 3:13-17), but that next Sunday's passage was basically the same story told in John's gospel account. It wasn't my week to preach, so I chuckled halfway sympathetically and halfway triumphantly at my colleague who now had to craft a sermon on something the congregation had already heard just a week earlier. Well, now he's laughing because we're back in Matthew for another round of the same thing all over again.

On the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, we will read Matthew 4:12-23, which, among other things, details Jesus' calling of Andrew and Simon as well as James and John. That, of course, was the second half of yesterday's gospel lesson. And this repeated repetition has me wondering: is there a reason why the lectionary authors are moving this slowly?

The overlaps are astounding:
  • Week One: Jesus' Baptism
  • Week Two: Jesus' Baptism Revisited + Calling of Andrew and Simon
  • Week Three: Calling of Andrew and Simon
It's as if we really, really need to hear about the beginning of Jesus' ministry. Forgive me if I'm ready to move past the first chapter. And, if I'm in a rush and the lectionary authors are forcing me to slow down, then I had better pay attention.

No, next week isn't another recap. It's the Beatitudes. So what is this week all about? Why are we being asked to linger here?

Did you notice the other connection with John the Baptist in this gospel lesson? After Jesus heard that John was arrested, he went back to Galilee and established a home in Capernaum. Matthew offers a bit about prophetic fulfillment--"Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali..."--but it's the bit after that that catches my eye today. "From that time, Jesus began to proclaim, 'Repent, for the kingdom has come near.'" Wait a minute! That's John the Baptist's line. Is Jesus picking up where John left off?

It seems that he has. And this is an opportunity for me to rethink the shape of Jesus' ministry. In Year C, Jesus spent all his time with outcasts and sinners. But implicit in all of those encounters was a call to repentance. Jesus meets these people for transformation. In Year A, we see Matthew draw that out more clearly. Really, we still haven't gotten anywhere. We're still stuck in the beginning of Jesus' ministry, but hearing him shape his ministry as a successor to John--one who calls the world to repent--is an invitation to see the good news of Jesus Christ as an opportunity to turn around and start over. This is rebirth. This is repentance.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Why Not Stay Put?


Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

In the days and weeks following Epiphany, we go back to the beginning and hear about how Jesus got his start in public ministry. On Sunday, it began with the baptism, and, in today's gospel lesson in the Two-Year Eucharistic Lectionary (Mark 1:29-39), we read about some of Jesus' early healings. The only miracle before this passage was the healing of a man with an unclean spirit, which, to the horror of the religious authorities, Jesus performed on the sabbath. As soon as they left the synagogue, Jesus and his disciples came to Simon's house, where Jesus performed his second miracle by raising Simon's mother-in-law from illness so that she could serve the guests in her house. Today, however, I want to focus on what happened next.

That evening, at sunset, when the sabbath was over, a great crowd gathered at the door of Simon's house in search of Jesus. "The whole city," Mark tells us, came with their sick and demon-possessed, looking for healing and exorcism. Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he cast out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they recognized who he really was.

Jesus, it seems, was a family practice doctor with some psychiatric training as well. Imagine being able to go to one physician for all of your needs. Can you imagine having an internist, dermatologist, gastroenterologist, orthopedist, obstetrician, gynecologist, urologist, ophthalmologist, otolaryngologist, psychologist, and psychiatrist all rolled into one? It today's medical culture, we bounce from one to another to another, getting each little part of us examined and treated. Perhaps in rural areas, there are still generalists who do a little bit of everything, but, even in the remotest parts of our country, individuals are sent driving to see a specialist when something serious crops up. Not with Jesus. Mark tells us that Jesus "cured many who were sick with various diseases" as well as "cast out many demons."

Naturally, the practice of medicine was quite different in first-century Palestine. There were no otolaryngologists to speak of, but there were a variety of healers. Some were better than others, and some were known for particular things. If you had bad eyesight, you might go to this miracle worker. If you had bad gout, you might go to another. Jesus, however, wasn't practicing a pseudo-scientific art that he had learned as an apprentice. Jesus was and is the Great Physician. He heals us as only God can heal us--by making us whole.

Still, a part of me is surprised that Jesus didn't just stay put. With gifts like his--the ability to address any physical or mental or spiritual malady--why wouldn't you set up shop in one place and let the crowd come to you? This is just the beginning of his ministry, and already the entire city of Capernaum had heard about his talents. They flocked to his door. If you build it, they will come. Let the people come to him. Why pack up and move an operation like that from one town to another, where, again and again, he would need to establish himself as a master of the healing arts?

Early the next morning, when the disciples found Jesus alone and in a quiet place, they asked him why he had snuck off. "Everyone is searching for you," they said to him. "Your work is not finished. There are more sick people who need healing. Things are going so well. You can't stop now." But Jesus looked at them and said, "Pack it up. We're moving on. Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." And Jesus went from one place to another throughout the region of Galilee, preaching in the synagogues and casting out demons.

Why not stay put? Because Jesus did not come only to heal the sick whom he met. He came to heal all sickness. Why not set up shop and let the people come to him? Because God's work in Jesus is to meet us where we are--not to wait for us to come and find him. Jesus could have stayed in one place and healed everyone who came to him each day, every day, for his whole life. As word spread of this amazing healer, people would have come from all over to find him. His work would never have been finished. There would always be more people in line hoping for his miraculous touch. But, likewise, that work would never have been complete.

Jesus is the Great Physician. He is our healer. But the healing that he gives us is not merely a cure to an earthly ailment. Yes, sometimes Jesus does give us a miraculous healing from cancer or some other disease. Today's gospel lesson of healing is not merely a means to an end. Jesus confronts physical illness as well as the spiritual disease of sin. Jesus addresses our very mortality. Jesus attacks evil itself. In Jesus, God comes down to earth to bring true and lasting healing to creation. He makes all things whole. And he does that by seeking out the broken, the lost, and the marginalized. He accomplishes his work by searching for the sick, the friendless, and the needy. He brings healing by confronting the institutions of sin like greed, centralization of power, and preference for the privileged that have imprisoned God's people for all of human history. He does not wait for us in our sickness to find him. He comes and finds us. He brings us healing.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Looking Through the Lens of Baptism


Forgive the repetition, but the gospel lesson for this Sunday (John 1:29-42) is a lot like last Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 3:13-17). All three synoptic gospel accounts portray the inauguration of Jesus' public ministry with his baptism by John in the Jordan River. As I mentioned in the pulpit, even John's gospel account, which doesn't follow the others very closely, begins, in a way, with the baptism. This week, we read not the narrative of the event itself but John the gospel-writer's interpretation of the event through the words of John the baptizer.

When John saw Jesus approaching, he declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" That's quite an identification--one that surely shocked his hearers. The next day, when John makes the same bold statement, two of his disciples understand that as an invitation to break their allegiance with the baptizer and follow Jesus. Who can blame them? Why would someone follow the forerunner when the real thing is at hand? Except perhaps at a tapas bar, why would someone go to a fancy restaurant and order a meal but never get past the first course?

The remarkable thing about this passage and John's identification of Jesus as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" is that it is grounded in that baptism. To justify this connection, John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."

That verb "testify" is telling. In the Greek, that word is "ἐμαρτύρησεν," which is a form of "μαρτυρέω," which means "bear witness" and from which we get the word "martyr." This is John's witness. This is his proclamation. He saw the Spirit descend. God's voice told him that the one to receive the Spirit in this manner is the one who will baptize with that same Spirit. John made the connection and proclaimed boldly, "this is the Son of God."

What do we see in baptism? Last week, I wrote a lot about recognizing God's work of righteousness in the person of Jesus because of that baptismal moment when the voice declared, "This is my Son, the Beloved." This week, I feel drawn to that baptismal lens again, but this time John the Evangelist through John the Baptist helps us go a step further. Instead of standing at the water's edge and hearing God declare that this Jesus is going to carry out God's work, we hear John declare that this Jesus is going to carry out God's work of taking away the sins of the world. That's quite a stretch, but it starts, again, in Jesus' baptism.

How might a preacher engage the theology of the remission of sins through the waters of baptism in a sermon on John 1:29-42? How might we recognize through Jesus' baptism, through John's interpretation of that baptism, and through our own baptism that Jesus is the one who washes us clean? That sounds like a heavy, rich, difficult, powerful sermon in the making. This week, it's not mine to make, but I look forward to what the Spirit says to us on Sunday.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Five-Part Faith


In my former parish, the youth group leads a Feast of Lights service of light on the Sunday evening closest to the Epiphany. Celebrated in many parishes, this service marks how the light of Christ entered the world and spread to Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the magi, John the Baptist, the twelve disciples, and so on. What makes the service particularly interesting to me is the transition from the biblical text to the Church's story as the light of the gospel spreads to the saints and martyrs of Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. Candles are lit for Robert Hunt, the chaplain who came over with the first successful English colony at Jamestown, and David Pendleton Oakerhater, the Cheyenne artist who was ordained a deacon and served as a missionary in Oklahoma. Eventually, the congregation's candles are lit, and we process out into the street to proclaim our commitment to the gospel's continuing propagation.

In a way, the spirit of that service is captured in the collect for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany. It is not only the prayer we will pray this week. It is also an image of the faith we proclaim. Like most collects, it has five parts, and each of them is a reflection of how the gospel transforms us and the world.

"Almighty God..." - The address identifies the one to whom we make our prayer, and, in this case, it is simply God the Almighty. Notice that we aren't praying to the "Father," even though the next phrase will acknowledge explicitly the Son. God is the source of light--not only God the Father but the triune God.

"...whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world..." - The acknowledgment is my favorite part of a collect as it provides the theological warrant for the prayer. This is the thing that we believe about God (or us or the world) that becomes the foundation for our request. This is a statement of why we are directing this prayer to God in the first place, and, in this case, we are praying to God because God's Son is the light of the world. We believe that in the Incarnation God brings God's light to creation most fully. Jesus is how we see God's light. He is the basis for our relationship with God.

"...Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory..." The pleading is the actual request itself. This is what we are asking of God, and, in this case, we are asking that God's people (that's us), having had God's light shine on us through Word and Sacraments (more on that in a minute), may shine that light ourselves. I think it's interesting that we don't identify the recipients of this request as "we" but as "God's people." Of course that's us, but it's more than us. It's bigger than our parish, our tradition, our denomination. It's all of God's people. And this prayer assumes that those people have been illumined by the Word and Sacraments that we share and celebrate. This is study, reading, preaching, and proclamation. This is Baptism and the Lord's Supper. This prayer identifies the usual means by which God's people receive the light of the Incarnation through Word and Sacraments--the most basic two-fold piety of the Christian life. And the focus of our request is that we ourselves might therefore shine with the same brilliance as Christ himself. May God enable God's people, when fed by the Word and Sacraments, to reflect that light.

"...that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth..." My second favorite part of a collect is the aspiration--the "what are we asking this for?" part of the prayer. This is the "so that" part, which isn't found in all collects but, when it is, helps ground our prayer on an even larger foundation that the need we express. We're asking God to enable us to shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, but for what reason? So that that light might shine through us to the rest of the world until Christ is "known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth." This is evangelism. This is the sharing of the light of Christ. And, in this collect, it comes not from those who go to seminary and work as preachers. Nor does it come from those who dedicate their lives to serve as missionaries in far away places. That light is spread by the people of God who are immersed in God's Word and nourished by the Sacraments. This is the aspiration of the Christian life: to share the light of Christ with others.

"...through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever." The pleading wraps it up, but it is always worth remembering that we are not asking this prayer on our own but are pleading with God through God himself. God enables our prayers. We ask this through Christ. Our prayer is made to God through the channel/door/vehicle/relationship that we have in Christ. The image of the subject pleading before the powerful king is apt but only to a point. Because of Christ, our prayers are never brushed aside. They never fall on deaf ears. Through our baptism, we have been united with God through Christ, and our prayers are made to one who knows us and loves us as God's own.

This week, the lessons feel like a reflection of yesterday's lessons. We're back to another Servant Song in Isaiah. Jesus and John the Baptist are still talking about the baptism in the River Jordan. But this collect helps me remember that the light, which came to the world in the Incarnation, has come to us, and we are called to share it with the world. It does not shine only in the Incarnate One. We see it not only as Jesus emerges from the waters of baptism. It has come to us, and we must let our light shine so that others may see and know Christ as Lord.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

God's Work of Making All Things Right


January 8, 2017 – The 1st Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
 
This week, as I read today’s gospel lesson, I encountered a peculiar phrase that didn’t quite make sense to me. Jesus came to the River Jordan to be baptized by John, but John objected, saying, “I need to be baptized by you—not the other way around.” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” What does that mean—fulfill all righteousness? The funny thing is that I know what each of the words mean—“righteousness” means “the condition of being right in God’s eyes” and “fulfill” means “complete” or “finish”—but, when you put the words together in this particular context, I lose track of what they mean. Fulfill all righteousness. In what way does Jesus’ baptism fulfill all righteousness?

If you read my blog at all this week, you know that I found an answer to that question in an unlikely place. I hardly ever use The Message version of the Bible. Unlike most translations, including the NRSV, which we use in church on Sunday mornings, The Message is a paraphrase, which means that it often leaves behind the actual words and phrases of the biblical text, substituting idioms that, in the opinion of the author, are easier to understand in contemporary English. Because of that, the text that it gives us is highly readable but inevitably reflects the interpretive biases of the author to a greater extent than a word-for-word or thought-for-thought translation. But I was desperate to make sense of this phrase, and none of the standard translations gave me any help. But The Message broke it open in a way that felt like a light being switched on in a dark room.

In The Message, Matthew 3:15 reads, “But Jesus insisted. ‘Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.’ So John did it.” Instead of “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness,” it reads, “God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” If that isn’t clear and right, I don’t know what is.

For thousands of years, God had been in the business of making things right. He called Abraham and promised to make of him a great nation, through which the light of salvation would spread to all peoples. Through Moses, God set his people free from captivity in Egypt, gave them the Law, and brought them to the Promised Land. Over and over, God sent the prophets to remind God’s people to be faithful and to call them to repent when they weren’t and to bring them hope when they were surrounded by darkness. And, finally, God sent his Son into the world to bring all of that making-things-right together, and right there, on the banks of the Jordan River, in this moment of Jesus’ baptism, God was at long last making that righteousness a reality. It makes me wish that I had been there to see it and hear it. Then again, perhaps in a way I was, and so were you.

When Jesus came up from the water, he looked up into the sky and saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. Then, a voice from heaven proclaimed, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And so began the public life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth—son of Joseph the carpenter, rabbi, prophet, healer, rebel. Of course, there were other rabbis and prophets and healers and rebels back then. But this baptism showed the world that Jesus was different. As God’s beloved Son, Jesus didn’t just do godly work; he did God’s work. Welcoming outcasts, eating with sinners, touching lepers, proclaiming forgiveness of sins—this was all the fulfillment of God’s plan. But there’s more to it than that. Betrayed by one of his own disciples, arrested by the religious authorities, tried and convicted, tortured and executed—this was the means by which God’s work of making all things right would be accomplished. In that way, Jesus not only showed us the way the world is supposed to be. He made it the way that it’s supposed to be. By living and dying and rising again, Jesus established God’s all-things-right-ness, God’s righteousness. And it all got its start right here in the waters of baptism.

In all three synoptic gospel accounts—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—Jesus’ ministry is inaugurated by baptism in the River Jordan. Even John’s account, which doesn’t follow the others very closely, goes out of its way to mention Jesus’ baptism in the first chapter, right as his ministry is getting started. This moment, when Jesus comes out of the water and the Spirit comes down and the voice declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved,” this is the moment when God says to the world, “In my Son Jesus, I am finally making all things right. He is the one to show you the way that the world is supposed to be. He is the one to make it happen.” And, when we come up out of the waters of our own baptism, we, too, hear God say to us, “You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. You are now a part of my making all things right.”

Baptism is how each of us gets our own new start. It’s how God begins his ministry within each of us. Through Baptism, we are united with Jesus in his death and raised with him to new life. By uniting us with his Son, God makes all things right within us. The dog-eat-dog, to-each-his-own, I’ll-get-mine-you-get-yours mentality that is so strong within us and within the world washes away, and we discover instead our place in God’s economy of the-first-shall-be-last, the-weak-are-made-strong, the-poor-become-rich, the-dead-are-raised-to-new-life. Our biology is too strong for us to discover that other-worldly truth on our own. We need God’s help. We need him to enable us to start over on his terms. We need Jesus to make us new. We need Baptism.

But Baptism isn’t only about us. It’s about us and something bigger. It’s about accepting the call to take our place as a part of God’s work of making all things right. God’s righteousness may have been fulfilled in Jesus, but, when we look around, we see that that righteousness still needs to grow and spread because the world isn’t the way it is supposed to be. The world does not know the fullness of God’s making-all-thing-right love in Jesus Christ. And I’m not talking about taking the gospel to the deepest, darkest jungles on the planet. I mean establishing God’s justice right here in our own community where it still has not taken hold fully.

Jesus broke bread with sinners. Jesus brought good news to the poor. Jesus proclaimed release to the captives and freedom for the oppressed. When we look to Jesus, we see God’s vision for the way things are supposed to be. It is too small a thing for that justice to be reserved for those who have the inside track on religion. In Jesus’ baptism, God’s righteousness wasn’t being fulfilled for a select few. It was being fulfilled for all people. And, when you were baptized, you were made a part of that fulfillment. Because of Jesus, God has established his righteousness within you. It started with your Baptism, but it continues today. As a baptized child of God, God is calling you to work for his kingdom until that righteousness is made a reality across the globe, starting right here in our own hometown. Will you accept that call? Will you say yes to God’s righteousness?

There is no more appropriate day to be baptized than today. We don’t often do “altar calls” in the Episcopal Church, but today we’re going to do a “font call.” If you have never been baptized before and you feel God calling you to be a part of his centuries-old work of making all things right, which God brought to its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, now is the perfect moment for you to be baptized into this faith. Would anyone like to be baptized today? Nothing would give this congregation more joy than to stop right now and celebrate that new beginning with you.

Most of us have already been baptized, but that does not mean that we do not have a call to answer. In just a moment, all of us will have the opportunity to answer again God’s call to be a part of his work of righteousness by renewing the promises made at our baptism. Listen to the questions that are asked of you. Hear how they ask whether you are willing to be a part of what God is doing in the world through his son Jesus Christ. And if you are willing—if your answer is yes—then say it with your whole heart: “I will with God’s help.”