Sermon

The First Sunday After the Epiphany – Year A – January 9, 2011 – The Rev. Peggy Tuttle

St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, Minnesota

Isaiah 42:1-9 – Psalm 29 – Acts 10:34-43 – Matthew3:13-17

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him; (Isaiah 42:1)

The voice of the LORD is upon the waters;

the God of glory thunders; *

the LORD is upon the mighty waters. (Psalm 29 Page 620, BCP)

That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit (Acts 10)

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:13-17

Today proclaims two great events in our liturgical calendar. It is the First Sunday After the Epiphany and the Commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus.

Google “Epiphany” and one answer you’ll get is this: It is the beginning of Mardi Gras. Yippee! New Orleans comes alive with parades down Canal Street with people shouting, “Throw me sumpen, mister!” as colorful beads, gold doubloons and candy fly through the air. These weekly celebrations continue until midnight on Fat Tuesday, a day known in the church calendar as Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.

Among Christian churches Epiphany means the commemoration of the coming of the Magi as the first manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.

Certainly these “sages from afar” had an epiphany when they found the Christ child and laid treasures of gold, frankincense and myrrh at his feet.

Epiphany is seeing someone for who they really are; even seeing one’s self as who you really are. I have had epiphanies in my life.

It appears to me that maybe John the Baptist had an epiphany when Jesus presented himself to be baptized by John. Even Jesus may have had an epiphany at his baptism. Baptism is an important step. In the Episcopal Church it means you are welcome to receive both the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Jesus. Baptism means full membership in the household of God.

Speaking of the house of God, Jesus said there are many rooms in God’s house. Having been brought up in the Southern Baptist room in God’s house, (a term used by a former Baptist minister who moved into the Episcopal room in God’s house, just as I have), I had the remarkable privilege of witnessing many baptisms by emersion. Having spent most of my early years in farming communities where in the summer time church services were frequently held outside, I witnessed baptisms in rivers. One in particular I will always recall is that of a young girl crippled with polio who was lifted from her wheelchair by two men as they carried her into the river to be baptized by emersion.

I was baptized in that manner, by emersion, not once, not twice, but three times. I know. Every Sunday I join you in saying that “we believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” But as a child in the Baptist church what I heard was the emphasis on sins and not forgiveness. The Baptist church is known for having altar calls prevailing on sinners to present themselves at the front of the church. Altar calls can be emotional and even demanding if presented by charismatic preachers. Walking down that aisle almost always resulted in baptism.

I clearly heard the voice of God calling me to be baptized for my sins the first time I walked down that aisle. What kinds of sins I imagined I had committed is beyond my memory. Whatever it was, I was determined to be baptized as I remember slipping out of the pew in front of my parents and practically running down the aisle to the pastor’s arms, sobbing great tears as I wanted so desperately to be saved. I was six! Pray tell, at this advanced age I can only guess what sins I imagined from my six years of life! Adultery certainly was not one of them! I didn’t even like our neighbor’s cattle so I didn’t want any of them. And what would I have done with his wife? It was an epiphany which resulted in my first baptism.

The second time will be a little more difficult for me to share as it is truly one of the rarely told childhood stories in my life. It took many years of therapy and a wonderful Methodist pastor to help me put this story into its proper context. I don’t often share personal stories but this one I shared a little with the folks at Bible study on Wednesday morning and for whatever reason I am moved to share it today with more detail. Perhaps yet another epiphany?

It was July 11th in Fort Worth. As you can imagine it was a warm afternoon. We had only one car and my mom had promised that my uncle, who lived with us, would take us to the drive-in movies to celebrate my birthday. I was outside with my 2 ½ year old brother when my dad came out, got in the car and drove off. Crestfallen I ran into the house in tears complaining about a broken promise when my mother turned to me and said, “Where is your brother?”

Left alone outside he had tried to cross the street, when a passing car hit him. He died later that night. Yes, I still weep when I remember this event but today this story lives in a safe room in my house of memories because I have had another epiphany. But we’re not there yet.

As an eleven year old child I believed with all my heart that I had caused his death. I was a sinner of the worst kind. There is no confession of sin in the Baptist church. There is only baptism. Or at least that’s what I heard. So, for the second time I asked, no begged, pleaded, to be baptized again because obviously the first time had not taken.

Now I have you wondering what in the world did I do to bring about the third and final baptism? Well, it was a simple trip to the Holy Land with kindred pilgrims from St. Martin’s by-the-Lake Episcopal Church. Years earlier Bishop Anderson, having laid hands on me, had received me into the Episcopal room of God’s house. My husband and I were standing at the edge of the River Jordan where many people were wading into the pool of water to be baptized. Although commercialized it is still the River Jordan and I felt compelled to rent the white robe and wade into the water to be baptized once again. The words came flooding back, “you are buried by baptism into Christ’s death and raised again to walk in newness of life.” And the words of today’s gospel were said, “And when Jesus had been baptized, he came up from the water, and the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.””

An epiphany! For Jesus at his baptism. Jesus now knows who he is and that he has pleased God in this simple act of baptism. At first, John would have prevented him. But Jesus persuades John by saying, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” This act fulfills the words we heard echoed in scripture from the Prophet Isaiah and then the Psalmist:

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,

I have taken you by the hand and kept you;

I have given you as a covenant to the people,

a light to the nations.

The voice of the LORD is upon the waters;
the God of glory thunders; *
the LORD is upon the mighty waters. (Psalm 29:3, Page 620, BCP)

Following the practice of early Christians, the Episcopal Church baptizes all ages and upon request will baptize by emersion. Infant baptism is most often our choice but that does not preclude the baptism of anyone at any age. With each baptism we reaffirm our baptismal covenant and we make a vow to support the one being baptized. If Epiphany is seeing someone for who they really are, at baptism we see ourselves marked as one of Christ’s own forever, belonging to the household of God.

Watch for those epiphanies as you observe God at work in the world about us. Each time you see Jesus in another person – that is an epiphany. Because if seeing someone for who they really are, well then, looking for and seeing Jesus in one another is “epiphanal.”

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