Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sermon on the Baptism of Our Lord

Revised Common Lectionary Year A Readings:

Genesis 1: 1-5

Psalm 29

Acts 19: 1-7

Mark 1: 4-11

“Baptized in Dirty Water”- A Sermon preached on the Baptism of E.S.

I'm going to hazard a guess (I could be wrong...one never knows I suppose) that there are probably not that many people here at St. Mark's on-the-Campus who are, shall we say, avid country music fans. I've been here enjoying the musical talent at St. Mark's for about a year and a half now, but that's just my gut assumption. Like I said, I could be wrong.

And that's fine. I grew up in the South, and not being your normal Episcopal clergy personality type, I am known to listen to Country music on occasion.

In fact, I was redoing the floor in my basement over over several days during the Christmas break and had the radio on for background music. The channel happened to be on one of the Country music stations here in town. There was this one particular song by Toby Keith that I kept hearing snippets of as it came up on the Top 50 playlist every hour or so.

It was just a silly song really, as most mainstream Country music songs are these days. (Once Johnny Cash died, country music was just all downhill...but that's a separate issue not relevant to this sermon.)

In any event, this one particular song is about this girl who's apparently a preacher's daughter and who has gone off the rails and run off with some guy on a motorcycle. (It's a country music song...what do you expect? Handel's Messiah it ain't.)

But in one of those weird things that would only occur to a priest who is listening to country music while chiseling up floor tiles in his basement, one particular line of the song having to do with baptism believe it or not kept being repeated over and over kept catching my attention.

The line of the song is this:

Oh, me and God love her

She’s a rebel child and a preacher’s daughter

She was baptized in dirty water.

Like I said...it was just a silly concept from a country song on the radio, but that line, that concept really, of being baptized in dirty water caught my attention every time because the premise of the song, at least as I took the meaning of it, was that somehow the baptism in question “didn't take” or was itself polluted because the water itself was somehow tainted.

Again, just a silly line from a song, but something that got me to thinking about the services today. We are having a baptism at the 10:30 service, and of course we use water for baptism. And the themes of baptism and particularly the powerful theme and image of water run all through the readings this week in the lectionary readings.

We largely live in a culture where water itself is not really a thing to be feared. In some parts of the country, we worry about running out of it if there is a water shortage, but for the most part we take water largely for granted. Go to any faucet or drinking fountain or store in the city and you can obtain clean water by the gallon for little if any money. But this is a fairly recent and very Western phenomenon.

Case in point: I hold in my hand a copy of what is still the official Book of Common Prayer from the Church of England. It was originally published in the year 1662, shortly after the death of Oliver Cromwell, whose Puritan revolution had temporarily ended the monarchy and use of the BCP in the Church of England during the 1650s.

Near the back of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, there is a section which never made it into the American prayer books after the American Revolution and the beginning of what is now the Episcopal Church. But this section, which goes on for some pages, is entitled: “Forms of Prayer to be Used at Sea.”

One of the more colorful prayers reads as follows:

O Most powerful and glorious Lord God, at whose command the winds blow, and life up the waves of the sea thereof;: We thy creatures, but miserable sinners, do in this our great distress cry unto thee for help: Save, Lord, or else we shall perish.”1

This section goes on for some pages with prayers of this nature. The section was intended to be used by poor, seasick sailors in the rickety, wooden ships of the old British navy being tossed about by storms at sea: a sea made up of that same water from that “face of the deep” that “formless void” that the scripture reading from Genesis talks about today, water from which will eventually come life, but it is this same “dirty water” that makes up this unfathomable chaos that can also take away life at a moment's notice, as pre-modern mariners in the British Navy who used the 1662 BCP could attest to.

For some strange reason that I do not fully understand, the lectionary cuts off from the Gospel reading today the first three verses of the beginning chapter in Mark. It jumps in at verse 4. The 2nd and 3rd verses are a quote from Isaiah, but I think the lectionary misses the boat, so to speak, by omitting the first verse which opens the gospel. Mark starts with these words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Mark, if you remember was most likely the first gospel that was ever written. (Matthew, Luke, and John were written years if not decades later.)

The writer of Mark is particularly intentional in his ironic choice of words in the opening of his gospel, his good news. He uses the same word that opens the Old Testament: “In the beginning...” For we see that in Genesis as well as in Mark, in the beginning there was God, and God's first action both times involves water.

Likewise, we see water come into play in another creation story from the readings today. This time from the book of Acts (a book I don't believe we read nearly enough of in the Sunday lectionary readings) where Paul is visiting a place yet to hear of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

It is through water that the people in Ephesus enter the Kingdom of God and the Church begins its ministry, as it was through the same primordial water that God began His relationship with the world as well as the same water that signaled the beginning of Jesus' ministry as he began his mission to complete of revelation of God to His people.

But the good news for today is a reminder that in all these examples, whether the primordial “face of the deep”or the water from the River Jordan or the water probably retrieved by Paul from some well in ancient Ephesus, all this water was not purified, nor was it filtered or distilled;

Far from the sparklingly clear water we are accustomed to drinking or seeing in prepackaged bottles in the modern convenience stores, for all this water, the very water that God used to reveal Himself and create something new, was not something clean or perfect or controllable, but was, in fact, “dirty water.”

For even though we live in a time where we have the luxury of using nice clean, sanitary water in baptismal fonts, that same “dirty water,” that imperfect and chaotic substance that in great quantities can give life and take it away, is still the visible door through which we enter the Kingdom of God and it is the doorway to life itself.

This morning, let us remember our own baptism and rejoice with those would are being baptized today.

That same God that moved over the face of deep is moving still.

That same God that descended at the River Jordan and in Ephesus, is descending still.

That same God through baptism is taking those things that are not perfect, from dirty water to our very selves, and is still creating new beginnings, for He is that same God that delights in making all things new.

Or, in the same words from the Prayerbook (pg. 306) that the priest prays over the water in the font just prior to the baptism, let us pray:

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.
Therefore in joyful obedience to your Son, we bring into his
fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”


1  1662 Book of Common Prayer, pg. 539

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