Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Jan. 8, 2023

Posted by on Sun, Jan 8, 2023 in Epiphany, Feast Days, Sermons

The First Sunday after the Epiphany:
The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Jan. 8, 2023

O God, you prepared your disciples for the coming of the Spirit through the teaching of your Son Jesus Christ: Make the hearts and minds of [us,] your servants, ready to receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit, that [we] may be filled with the strength of his presence; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.        

For those about to be Baptized or to renew their Baptismal Covenant,
Book of Common Prayer, p. 819

Palimpsest is from a Greek word palimpsestus meaning scraped again, originally referred to the re-using of parchment or papyrus pages which had the first writing scraped and washed off and the new text written on it, often several times. The practice dates to the 4th and 5th centuries and often used to write or over-write scripture and other early texts. Scholars can still trace the words through layers of density, even when pages were scraped and rewritten. Move forward several hundred years— I learn my seminary friend Jo Beecher has palimpsest letters from her family. Hers is the Beecher family of our history pages; Lyman Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Ward Beecher, Catharine, John and Isabella Beecher Hooker, etc. Because paper was costly and in an attempt to keep the family connected and communicating, letters were written upon several times as they made their way through the mail from one family member to another. After the first letter writer sent it off, the second might write between the lines and upside down, a third or fourth would write perpendicular lines, or circling the pages margins, until ideas and thoughts and news from first writers were overlaid by the present ones, creating a complex layering from different times, and one which grew harder to read with each addition! Jo said their ‘palimpsest letters’ were among the family’s most treasured possessions.

What does this have to do with the baptism of Jesus? It’s part of how we too tell the story of the Son of God, how Jesus insisted that John baptize him even though he felt too lowly to do so, and how Matthew tells the story differently from Mark and Luke and John. This sharing of the stories and finding their patterns in our lives are something like these letters, and for the Beecher family brought them close even though far apart. Hold on to this idea and we’ll come back to it. 

In Matthew’s gospel today we hear Jesus goes to John at the Jordan River, just as “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan.” Jesus steps into the same water, likely now stirred and muddy, and is immersed, receiving the same baptism as the people he came to save. There’s nothing magical about baptism by immersion, the amount of water doesn’t matter, it symbolizes our transformation and adoption into Christ. The image of Jesus lunging into that water and coming up out of it is powerful, so much so that it’s the first thing we hear he chooses to do as the Messiah; he comes into the waters of that river as it moves, with John and those onlookers, with some who will become his disciples, and with us.  For them it was the Jordan, for us he is deep in the waters of life, sometimes rapid, turbulent and unpredictable, sometimes smooth, gentle, and welcoming, and today we will feel it flying through the air and landing on our faces and on those next to us. We had planned to baptize Edith ‘Teddy’ Hurt today, but some of her family (including her dad) have been sidelined by covid and so we will wait. Easter is a wonderful day for baptism! Instead today we will renew our own baptisms, share in the Spirit’s blessing of these holy waters, and immerse ourselves in this body of Christ.

To renew our baptisms is a time to remember how much it takes to live them. To reaffirm these promises isn’t a punishment or to prod us into feeling ashamed of missing the mark, its more like nurturing what we plant by that river. It’s making sure the roots are near enough to the water and can go deep enough to sustain life. In desert areas rivers like the Jordan are marked by borders of lush greens and sturdy trees which are fed and sustained by the river.

Ten and a half years ago I read about this church, this church. The words with which you described this faith community made me hope there was such a church, and I was pretty sure it was too good to be true. Never was I so glad to be wrong! I want to read a few lines from the last paragraph of Saint Michael’s 2012 parish profile.

A self-image that keeps coming up as we talk about our rector search is that of a river, whose current is vigorous and whose course has evolved through that ongoing flow. Existing banks currently guide the energy and enthusiasm, yet over time we expect tributary flows to erode the riverbed in interesting ways, and deposit nutrients which reshape our course and nourish new life.

We are still in that river, in the flow of it, part of it. We help each other who are not yet robust river-walkers or swimmers, we watch the beauty of the banks change and notice what is being nourished at water’s edge. Today we are invited into a time of spiritual refreshment, growth, renewal, friendship, curiosity, and deepening faith—a time of tending to the Deep Roots fed by the holy waters of St. Michael’s river and the holy waters of baptism.

Deep Roots is a time for us to gather with intention, by zoom or in person, with a few others (4-7 or so) much the way the early church did; to pray, to explore, to care for one another, and to be in Christian community. Before you tune out at the idea of ‘one more thing’ stop and hold off on the decision until after we’ve renewed our baptisms. Listen to what we promise to do and to strive for, what helps us, and if doing so could use a loving and joyful boost. 

The groups will meet together weekly for 90 minutes, and at the end of six sessions people can re-up for another time if they find it valuable. Each week a small booklet guides us to begin with prayer, then a brief scripture reading and reflection, sharing of our stories, and then a check out with prayer. (We are most appreciative for St. Mark’s Cathedral and Dean Thomason for sharing this, their ‘Radix’ program, with us!) There is no homework, no writing requirement, no expertise expected. You are enough. You are a child of God.

Now we circle back to those palimpsest letters, because today palimpsest refers not only to the physical written word, but also to intangible things which have a rich variety of layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface. That is part of the gift of Deep Roots; we each get to bring our stories, reflections, and news. As we layer them together, igniting new thoughts, sharing our journeys, we inform and inspire each other, and each group will be as unique and treasured as a family palimpsest letter. Some of you will be stirred to look ahead at a theme or reading, ponder a question, and others will come fresh to it each time—this too is part of what makes each group distinctive and remarkable. We’ll tell you more and answer questions after the Peace.

In preparation for his ministry Jesus stepped into the water with God’s people, joining with them in baptism. As people called by our baptisms into Christ’s way of life and ministry we too share in those waters, help each other, and nourish deep faith. We do this by sharing in the hurts and healing of each other, in the joys and celebrations, the prayers, the tedium and the triumphs. May our baptism be a reflection of Jesus’ baptism, he who immersed himself in the life of humanity, coming to love and to save us. May we humbly share in his way and stand together in the water of the Spirit. Amen

© 2023 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.