Sermon: Revelations and Rivers of Compassion

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[Sermon delivered on Sunday, January 10, 2016 (Epiphany 1 – Baptism of Our Lord at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church– Kansas City, MO by the Rev’d. Fr. Marcus G. Halley]

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Luke 3.21-22 (NRSV)

Grace and peace be unto you from G-d our Father, from Jesus Christ our Risen Lord and Reigning Savior, and from the Holy Spirit who empowers and enlivens our time together.

If you would allow me for a moment, I would like to set the stage a bit. In 1960 famed African American choreographer Alvin Ailey and the dance company that bears his name debuted a dance piece called Revelations that has been hailed as a cultural masterpiece. The individual movements of this choreographed piece trace the journey of African people brought to these shores in the clanging chains of slavery, yet possessing deep down, even before attempts were made to convert them, a faith in a G-d who would liberate them. But more than a depiction of African American liberation, Revelations transcends cultural lines because this artistic presentation found a way to speak to the deepest grief and greatest joy that is present in each of our lives. It is specific and yet it unifies.

At least as I have experienced it, Revelations seems to hinge on the second scene right in the middle that depicts a slave baptism called “Take Me to the Water.” It begins with a small contingent of slaves dressed in white leading two candidates to the river to be baptized. As the procession continues, the percussive, African drum-beat builds until suddenly another dancer is visible amidst the crowd, this one bearing a large white umbrella. Now, when I first saw this piece I had no clue who that person was. It wasn’t until I studied West African religious history in seminary that I came to understand that among the Asante, an Akan people of West Africa, the umbrella is symbol of divinity and royalty. The figure spinning and dancing feverishly around the procession is no ordinary visitor – she is the presence of the Holy Spirit herself, dancing, at one point even troubling, the transformative waters of baptism. As the climax of this scene builds, the two candidates are submerged under the water while a chorus sing:

King Jesus lit the candle by the waterside,
To see the little children, little children baptized.
Honor! Honor! Unto the dying lamb!

Suddenly the song changes. Something has happened. Something is different. The chorus begins to sing:

Wade in the water.
Wade in the water, children.
Wade in the water.
G-d’s a’gonna trouble the water.

As the song builds, the Holy Spirit initiates a dance with the newly baptized. Honor and Wade in the Water were coded Negro Spirituals. They were subversive language used to confuse slaveowners and overseers, and to obscure the hunger for freedom that the slave possessed. It was double-speak. To the untrained ear it about a religious ritual, but to the slave community these songs were invitations to freedom, to follow the river north to Free States where there was a chance they could be free. Those troubled waters were waters of belonging and transformation.

And it is this troubled, transformational water that will be poured into this font to baptize Caroline and Jack. They will be transformed by a Spirit who will dance in their midst, though they don’t even know it yet.

I mention Alvin Ailey’s Revelations because that’s how I envision Jesus’s baptism taking place in my sanctified imagination. This baptism that will take place today is connected to the Baptism of Our Lord in the Jordan River and to that of slaves in babbling creeks and raging rivers, rivers that also provided highways to freedom and liberation. In fact, this baptism is connected to every other baptism that has ever taken place because all water is connected. It all goes back to the primordial waters in the beginning – in Genesis.

If you look at Genesis carefully you will find that there are two things that G-d did not create – darkness and water. According to scripture, G-d merely ordered them – put them in their proper place. Genesis 1.1 says “in the beginning when G-d created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from G-d swept over the face of the waters.” At least the way the Hebrew Bible imagines it, water existed before G-d ever had the idea of Creation. It simply was. G-d sung the beauty of Creation out of a dark, watery chaos.

And that water, properly ordered, has nurtured humanity across millennia and continents. But, there have been times, most recently in southern Missouri, where we have witnessed the destructive capacity of water and are reminded how perilous our relationship with water really is. In small doses it can be life giving. Properly ordered it can be beautiful. Out of control it can be utterly devastating.

But insomuch as water connects humanity across time and space, and insomuch as the Church understands the water of baptism to the outward sign of the inward and spiritual grace of pardon, belonging, and renewal, we in this room who have been baptized into the death and life of Jesus Christ are connected to every single person who has ever been baptized – whether we like or not. That’s what it means to be baptized. Not only are we reborn by the Holy Spirit, but we are connected to an extended family that includes some of history’s greatest heroes and most infamous villains, all equally children of G-d. Baptism is, at its heart, a sacrament of compassion and radical connectivity to those whom we will never meet or whose experiences we will never know, but whose living is inextricably tied to our own. In Baptism we are made one – here and now.

Scholars have often wrestled with why it was that Jesus was baptized. If, as the Church teaches, Jesus was perfect and without Original Sin, then he didn’t need a baptism of repentance. Well, in order to engage this question we must first understand that baptism isn’t a Christian invention. It has Jewish and pre-Jewish origins. Faithful Jews would ritually cleanse themselves before going to the Temple to worship. John’s baptism was different though. John the crazy revivalist preacher in the wilderness saw that the world was broken, but that G-d was about to rectify that. He preached a baptism of repentance to prepare the hearts of the people to receive the new manifestation of G-d. Sometimes, before you can receive the new, you have to lay aside the old.

It was into this baptism, this baptism of repentance and renewal, that Jesus was baptized. But what did Jesus have to repent for?

Nothing, and yet everything.

You see the Incarnation of G-d in Christ is central to Christian teaching because when the “Word became flesh” to dwell among us, the perfect loveliness of G-d entered the dreadful filthiness of our sin. In Jesus, G-d was no longer satisfied loving us from afar. In Jesus, G-d had decided to get up-close-and-personal, in order to open the way of salvation for all. Jesus, Emmanuel – G-d with us, is G-d with us in the flesh, in our brokenness, in our struggles, in our poverty of spirit. The “Word Made Flesh” is G-d willing to “hit the streets,” as one writer puts it, G-d willing to enter our living in order that we might be raised into the Divine Life of Christ.

Jesus being baptized was G-d saying “I’m down with the struggle. I’m here in the trenches with you.” This was a new concept of divinity. That’s why the people had to repent and prepare. The “Word made flesh” was indeed the “Word made FRESH.”

Jesus is G-d’s compassion – G-d’s willingness to suffer with us in order to save us. And when we are baptized, we are commissioned to follow in that same ministry, a ministry of compassion, of belonging and connection. We are called to enter spaces with which we aren’t familiar, to hear stories we’ve never heard, to open ourselves to experiences that aren’t our own in order that the love of G-d be made manifest among us. In a practical sense, we are called to sit across the table from someone we might not understand, someone with whom we might deeply disagree, and to hear their experience, not to argue or debate, but to engage in sacred listening.

Anytime I welcome a visitor to our parish, I invite them out for the 8th Sacrament – Coffee. I say it tongue-in-cheek, but there is some truth to that invitation. When people visit our church, I want to meet them and share with them how wonderful this place is, but more importantly, I want to hear them. I want to hear their stories, their experiences with G-d and his Church. I want to join them, both in their anxiety about searching for a new church home and in their joy when they have found one (even if it is not this one). I want to honor them enough to hear how angry they are with the Church, how religious people (sometimes with the best of intentions) have deeply hurt them, but how they still feel a calling to follow Jesus on this pilgrim road.

I extend the same invitation to each of you under the sound of my voice to join me in the sacrament of sacred listening over a cup of coffee. We might as well face it – I’m different, in case that is news to anyone in here. We’re all different and unique in a sense, but sometimes the way our society is set up, some of those differences are weighted more than others. At least, that’s my experience of it. Just a few decades ago I couldn’t wear this stole or be a priest in the Church because of who I love. A few decades before that I wouldn’t be allowed to drink from the same water fountain as many of you simply because of who I am. There is so much in our world that seeks to divide us along barriers of division and difference. Engaging difference of any kind can be frightening, especially if we are deeply afraid of hurting one another, especially when we afraid of stuttering or messing up our words, especially when we don’t even know where to begin the conversation. The dark, watery chaos of the unknown can paralyze us, and yet the light of G-d manifested in Jesus Christ illuminates our path by calling us to compassion – to seek to understand more than we are seek to be understood, to seek to console more than we seek to be consoled, an openness to being changed more than we hope to change someone else, in giving far more than we ever hope to receive.

That’s the way forward in Christ.

That’s the path that calls us along the transformative river of baptism, the river that makes glad the City of G-d, that runs through history connecting communities to one another and ultimately to G-d.

A River of Compassion – love that is willing to get down and dirty in order that we all might be saved.

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