The Sunday Sermon: Epiphany 1, 1.10.21

The Rev.Cn. Jeff Martinhauk
Epiphany 1B, January 10, 2021
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
Gen 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11

In the beginning, the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the deep, says our text, and there were waters swirling about this dark, deep void.

It has been a week with some moments where it has felt like we, as a nation, have been standing on the brink of such a dark, deep void.  The images of rioters swarming our nation’s capital, breaking glass in those hallowed halls, turning the house of the people into a house of chaos, with blood spilled and lives lost– it felt like we were being pulled not towards the light but towards something formless, something dark, something at the bottom of a deep void.

People I’ve talked to in both political parties were shocked by the day’s events.  

The lies that fueled this action may have been started by political expediency, but many of us know people who genuinely believe that the election was rigged or a fraud.  I am certain that is not true.  But here we stand on the precipice of this void, those with one set of truths on one side, those with another set of beliefs on the other, and there seems no way across.

One of the impediments across that void is how we view freedom.  Some have come to view freedom as “the autonomous operation of the individual will”, “the absolute liberty of moral volition.”  Somehow freedom has come to mean I should be able to do whatever I want to and exercise an unlimited number of choices.  It has even come to mean that I should have the freedom to believe whatever truth I choose regardless of the facts.  This kind of excessive individualism without reality or morality, without concern for love of God or neighbor has never been what Christianity has said it means to be free.

But today we celebrate the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in just a moment we will renew our own baptismal vows.  It is in baptism that Paul tells us we are made free.  But if freedom does not mean having the maximum number of choices with the minimum number of restrictions, then what could it mean?

In the earliest days, Paul talked about how baptism makes us “freed from sin” (Rom 6:7 et al) and warns the Galatians not to use their freedom to be self-indulgent (Gal 5:13).  In fact, he says that the freedom bestowed in Christ through baptism is freedom from self-indulgence, freedom to love your neighbor as yourself.

In medieval baptismal liturgies, candidates for baptism would begin the service facing the back of the church, or west- the direction of darkness.  As the candidates were examined, using some of the arcane questions still in our prayer book today, they would spit and take a quarter turn.  So they would be asked, “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness?” and they would spit and turn a little and respond, “I renounce them” and so forth until after the last question they were facing the front of the church, facing east, the direction of light.  I love that liturgical action because it is a rejection of the void; a rejection of nothingness; a claiming of the light as the direction we want to face and head towards in baptism.

I hope you have gone online to get the bulletin so that you can read those baptismal vows out loud together in a few moments, even though we will not be able to hear each other.  Because baptism is not just about you and your relationship to Jesus but it is about your incorporation to the Body of Christ here and now, the Church, the physical presence of Christ that is here to do the work of loving in this world, right here and right now.  And we have work to do.

I noticed something else this past week.  There was something nascent there.  And it sounded like the freedom in Christ that we will reaffirm in a few moments.

Wednesday was a day where we also celebrated the Epiphany- a day of light shining brightly in the darkness.  I heard speeches from both Republicans and Democrats calling for one human family to unify in this nation, voices calling us to rehumanize each other as the antidote to the formless void that divides us:

Sen Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska said: They aren’t going to win. Don’t let them be your prophets. Instead, organize, persuade, but most importantly, love your neighbor. Visit the widower down the street who’s lonely and didn’t want to tell anybody that his wife died and he doesn’t have a lot of friends. Shovel somebody’s driveway. You can’t hate somebody who just shoveled your driveway. The heart of life is about community and neighborhood, and we’re supposed to be servant leaders. 

Senator Elect Raphael Warnock, a Democrat from Georgia said just a few hours earlier: Will we seek to destroy one another as enemies or heed the call towards the common good, building together what Dr. King called “the beloved community?”I know we can beat this pandemic with science and common sense. I know we can rebuild a fairer economy by respecting the dignity of work and the workers who do it. An economy that honors those whom we now call essential workers by paying them an essential wage, providing them essential benefits.I know we can move closer to justice with empathy and understanding, passion and purpose. 

And Senate Chaplain Barry Black prayed: 

Lord, you have helped us remember that we need to see in each other a common humanity that reflects your image. Use us to bring healing and unity to our hurting and divided nation and world.

And finally, our own Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, had this to say (this quote is long and runs through the end of the sermon):

Love, forgiving, and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones is not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back or turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness of the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse for a while. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring forth real healing. Superficial reconciliation only brings superficial healing.

This is the way of love that can heal our hurts, that can heal our land, that can help us to become one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all. So, I would ask you to do two things. I’m asking you to make a commitment, a renewed commitment, to live the way of love as Jesus has taught us and to do it by making a commitment to go out and bless somebody. Bless somebody you disagree with. Bless somebody you agree with. But to go out and bless somebody by helping somebody along the way. Go out and bless somebody by listening to their story and their life. To go out and be an instrument of God’s peace, an agent of God’s love.

And then I would ask you to pray. Pray for this nation but pray with some specificity. Pray that we may have the wisdom and the courage to love.

Sources Consulted:

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