A sermon for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, February 3, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.
This was the conclusion of Jesus’ first sermon in his home town. A few minutes later,
“They were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”
This kind of thing happens in churches. I’ve been a priest 37 years, so I know. Jesus told the people some things that were true, and they liked them and admired him; then he pointed out some things that they weren’t expecting and which weren’t so comfortable… Where’s that cliff?
Even people who have committed to following Jesus can become deaf to his words and turn against the Spirit of Life. It’s not because he’s difficult to understand. He’s not. It’s because death is seductive—it’s easier to hold onto what makes us comfortable and to hate anything that interrupts our comfort. … But somehow on that day, Jesus slipped back out through the crowd, avoided their anger and went on to preach the Good News in other places. The very inclination of church people to be seduced by death is the reason that it is so important to pass on the Gospel of Jesus to our children. If we just allow ourselves to be seduced by what is comfortable, we’re all seduced by death, but if we listen to Jesus, he will heal and change us, and he’ll keep us from throwing him and the other children off the cliff.
This morning we are baptizing Maximus Xavier Emmanuel. Baptism is not just a vending machine where you get the right credential, it is entering into life together. Together, we are converted into the Truth, by being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ.
Let’s open up our prayer books to page 302 and the pages that follow. I want us all to go through this together, because this is serious business. We are all called, not only the godparents, but all Christians who take responsibility for being baptized into Christ—we are all called to support this child and his parents so that he can be brought up in the Christian faith and life. This means that we have to be the Church, and live our Christian life in our daily work and society, so that there will exist for Max and others who will be the Church of the 21st century, a Christian faith and life to grow up in. We are called to live in the Truth, and not give into the real forces of evil that exist in this world.
The rest of the baptismal service is about how we do that. We renounce the spiritual forces and evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. These aren’t demons like spooks in movies or on TV. Likening these evil powers to TV shows is one of the ways that we avoid living in the truth. Destructive spiritual powers exist in the real world and they are—what? They are the behavior of real human beings who are acting in their own self-interest and who, usually, are telling themselves they aren’t doing these things. That they’re not behaving with prejudice—even hatred—toward their neighbor because of the color of his skin, or where she went to school, or what country he was born in. These evil powers are greater than the individuals who think, do, or feel these things. The powers have a life of their own, they seduce individuals and create an environment where their evil seems normal or unavoidable. Other people are destroyed by that kind of behavior, and nobody takes responsibility for that kind of evil human creation. Christians are called on to renounce those things, to renounce hatred and racism, and prejudice; to renounce disrespecting others because of where they come from, or their education, or social status. Doing this is not simple, it’s not a matter of saying it one time and then forgetting it. Renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness is a lifetime affair—we discover the workings of those powers in our environment and in ourselves over and over throughout our lives.
If we are truthful, we recognize that we do not have the power to defeat those powers, even in our personal lives, let alone in the society around us, where we see manifestations every day in the news. Fascism and terrorism feed on one another, and neither our anger nor our fear can do anything but help them grow. The power that can defeat the forces of hatred, death and destruction is the grace of God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In him, God has the courage that we need to live honestly and with care for all God’s children.
If we continue on pages 304 and 305, this is the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, this is how we persevere in resisting evil, this is the Good News that we proclaim, this is how we seek and serve Christ in all persons and strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human person. Christ went through everything that we go through, that any one of us goes through. He died. Real death. He was, from beginning to end, a human being from God’s perspective, entirely human, entirely the incarnation of the love of God. His heart was filled with the truth, and he could see the forces of death and destruction—and he loved all those people, yes those who were allied with the forces of death against him—yet he took not those powers of wickedness into his heart. The word courage is derived from the word for heart—in Jesus, God has the courage for all of us, to live and to reject those forces of evil all around us, and have life. To celebrate and rejoice in that gift of life.
Baptism is not just a ceremony or an occasion for a party. Baptism is our life together in Christ. Maximus Xavier Emmanuel enters eternal life today. We know, as well as he soon will, that that life is not always smooth and not always easy. There are forces of evil abroad and sometimes they get close to us, just as they entered into Jesus’ home congregation on that day when he came preaching good news to the poor, good news for everyone. Renouncing and continually resisting the seductions of evil takes a community, a community that supports one another in seeing God’s mercy. Max and other children need this community to renounce that evil with them and for them—and whenever any of our children, as it says on the bottom of page 304, “whenever they fall into sin” we will support them as they “repent and return to the Lord?” Of course, that doesn’t just apply to little kids, or teenagers, or even young adults—whenever any of us gives into the seductions of selfishness, greed or spiritual sloth—we, as a community welcome back, we are ourselves welcomed back, as we return to the Lord. Never mind that sometimes we’ve looked to throwing somebody off a cliff, Jesus laughs at us and welcomes us back too.
St. Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, that had had some serious dissension and dark times, wrote the passage we heard this morning as the epistle. He’s talking about love—Christian love as it works when we live out our baptism.
It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, it believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. …we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end… Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. and now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.