Baptized for a Purpose

The Baptism of Jesus, tapestry at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles

A sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.

Most of my memories of childhood revolve around fixing things. My father has always been very handy and so pretty much every Saturday had some kind project attached to it. We fixed cars. We built a room on the house. We built patios and re-shingled roofs.

My help was always needed, but when I was small, it seemed like I was only there to fetch water, to wind up cords, to sweep up or to hold a flashlight.

But every once in a while, there were those particular occasions when I, and only I, was needed. Because my hands were small, I could reach a hard-to-get-to place. Because I was little, I could move under the crawlspace of a house and check on leaks or termites. Because I was small and lightweight, I could be hoisted up into a tree to jump on the limbs, creating a rainstorm of ripe, fat, pecans. Or pee-cans, as we called them.

Those times were wonderful, because as un-athletic, as awkward, as nerdy as I was— these were times when I was the hero. I was just what they needed and my help made everything better. Each one of us is needed. Each one of us has some gift, some skill, some way of thinking or speaking or looking at things, that God want us to share.

Today the Church celebrates the Sacrament of Baptism. We hear in the Gospel about how John baptizes people with water. He even baptizes Jesus. But he says that there will be another baptism, a baptism with the Holy Spirit, and the fire of the Holy Spirit will then be forever burning in us.

With Baptism, and through the remembrance and celebration of our baptismal vows, the Church promotes the gifts and the uniqueness of each person. It also encourages us as individuals spend some time begin honest with ourselves about our gifts, and then being the kind of people who are willing to share ourselves with the whole church.

When I think about those times when I was little – it took two things for my help to be used. First, my father and his friends needed to be willing to use me. They needed to be honest when they got to a place where they simply couldn’t do more, and they needed the help—in this case, they needed the help of someone who didn’t know a lot or have a lot to offer, but the little I had was exactly what they needed.

But the other side of that equation had to do with my own willingness to help. I might have seized the opportunity to say to them that since they didn’t seem to need my help very much all the other times I was there, then perhaps they didn’t really need me this time. I could sulk. I could savor their neediness for a little while. Or, I could simply offer what I could.

The Letter to the Ephesians (4:1-6) says that God’s “gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,” [and some software designers and some stockbrokers and some school teachers and some short-order cooks] “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”

When we give ourselves, when we welcome the involvement of others, then we become like those who as scripture puts it “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.”

Vocation – the way in which we allow God to develop our gifts and abilities for the building up of the church—is never easy. It’s never as clear-cut as we might think. Almost no one is “born” to do anything.

Frederick Buechner has suggested that true Christian vocation is “that place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.” It’s important to remember both sides of that—it does little to build up the body of Christ if I volunteer for a soup kitchen, but am miserable and resentful doing it. I might be meeting the one of the world’s deep needs, but my deep gladness is not being touched. By the same token, sometimes my own happiness, my own future, my own comfort becomes the motivating, but unless that’s in some way contributing to the building up of the Church, it’s not Christian vocation either.

Vocation is that place where my deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger. The church is where we can test those places of gladness and need, to try, to fail, to pray and talk with others, and eventually to find a balance that feels faithful.

The words heard earlier from Isaiah seem especially well-timed for us a few weeks into this new year. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
God is doing new things in the world. God is doing new things in the Church. God is doing new things in each one of us.

May we have faith to perceive the new things, may we have faith to help one another, and may we have faith to follow our Lord Jesus Christ.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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