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Today We Celebrate a Rite of Passage, Epiphany 1 (B) – 2009

January 11, 2009

Today we celebrate a rite of passage: the baptism of Jesus in the Jordon River, the river that held so much significance for generations of ancestors before him. Jesus was baptized by his cousin, John. It was a baptism of repentance, an act of humility and the receiving of a name – the death to the old and the creation of a new identity. The readings today help us connect and focus on baptisms, including our own baptisms.

The foundation for the gospel is laid in the creation story from Genesis, in which God creates the earth from a void where water, wind, and fire come together. Each of these elements have the power to both create and destroy, as we know; but God uses them for good through his Holy Spirit, and it is this Spirit that brings to completion the rite of baptism that bind us to God.

The Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music has put together a publication called Changes: Prayers and Services Honoring Rites of Passage. It provides us with a thorough description of the elements of rites by people from many cultures and religious traditions that recognize and effect change. Although the structure of the rites may differ, there are key elements or themes common to them, such as: naming the transition and its affect on the person and whole community; declaring what went before to include loss and grief, growth and letting go, gratitude, and the need for healing, courage and imagination; and proclamations of hope and willingness to discern a new call to create a rite.

And that is what happens to us when we are baptized. The Spirit or “wind” moves through the symbols of water, fire, and the community or “earth,” calling us by name to fulfill the Kingdom of God. We are called into the vocation of Christian life, but we must be willing to accept the name signifying our vocation and new life. When an infant is baptized, the child’s parents and sponsors offer the name and accept the vocation until the time when the baptized child is able to accept the call.

We are never really fully ready for the significant transitions of life, but thanks be to God, the power of the Holy Spirit comes in God’s time, not ours. Today’s gospel reading describes for us the experience witnessed by the community when Jesus was baptized.

Jesus had been named, and in his family’s tradition, he was presented and circumcised at an early age. The time for Jesus to accept his role as Messiah, to become fully human and begin to model the glorious impossibilities, came when the heavens were torn apart – tearing the social fabric that separated the rich and poor, the rigidness of law that separated rather than bringing together, and brought into focus the true Kingdom of God through God’s beloved. God revealed his true incarnation in Jesus on that day of the baptism.

From that point on, it was up to Jesus to live into his transformed identity. This is also true for each of us as baptized Christians.

A Native American Coyote story describes a poor man who had a dream or vision that there was a place where everything is perfect. You might say that this was heaven. He had been told that this place was visible to all who had accepted a life of humility and complete service to their community. The poor man felt very humble, especially since he had no real possessions, but he felt that he must set out on a journey away from his present life and community in search of this perfect place.

He set out the next day at dawn. He walked and walked the entire day, and when evening arrived, before he had found the perfect place, he set up camp, took out his meager meal of bread and a flask of water to satisfy his hunger and thirst. He gave thanks, ate the bread, drank the water, and then he removed his sandals and placed them facing in the direction he was headed so he could continue his journey the next day. Then went to sleep.

While the poor man slept that night, Coyote came and turned his shoes around so that they faced the direction from where the man had come that day. When the poor man awoke, he put on his shoes, and began to walk again. While he walked all day, he thought about this perfect place, this heavenly city. When it was nearly dark, he came to a place that looked strangely familiar. He walked down a street, turned a corner, and saw a somewhat familiar dwelling. He waited outside the dwelling until its inhabitants came out to greet him and invite him in. When they did, he entered and was given warm clothes and a warm meal that was so delicious he could not remember the last time he had eaten so well. He was received with such hospitality that he felt as though he was a member of a family he had known his whole life.

After much talk, singing, and praying, the whole household offered the poor man their best bedding. He thanked them and laid down to sleep thanking Creator God for the abundant blessings shared with him. He could not help but think that this was, indeed, a perfect place, a heavenly place. How could there be another more perfect?

This is what our journey into baptized life is like. Baptism is our glimpse into the Kingdom of God right here and right now. We frequently reaffirm our covenant relationship with God and one another, but at times we get lost and think that somehow we must go away from who we are in order to fulfill our call to be people of God. Once in a while we lose sight of what is right before us and we begin to focus our energy elsewhere, hoping that we will find that perfect place. We struggle with the challenge that the “perfect place” can only exist when we are living our promises and inviting everyone around us to share in that life as well.

We enter into this covenant. It is a contract in which each party has a responsibility to the other. We are baptized with the Holy Spirit and receive a new awareness, a new appreciation and comprehension of creation. We realize that we have a power that has always been there since the beginning of our existence as human beings. And that is the power to change tomorrow – to change reality from what it is to what it should be.

The creation story is not over. It is not finished. God is still creating and has declared us as co-creators, co-authors, of the next chapter. Tomorrow is up to you. What are you going to make of it? Will there be a voice from heaven saying, “You are my child, the beloved. With you I am well pleased”?

Here is a prayer by Jean McCallum from the book Read Mark and Pray:

Jesus, you are the one who rises from the water and the tomb to offer new life to all.
We offer our life as a sign of our worship.
Jesus, you are the one who agrees to be baptized to be at one with us.
We offer our baptism as a sign of being with you.
Jesus, you are the one for whom the heavens open to allow the Spirit to descend.
We offer our ready heart as a sign of our open life.
Jesus, you are the one who is the Son so well loved that God’s delight is in you.
We offer you our delight and joy as a sign of our everlasting love.

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Christopher Sikkema


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