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Sermon January 10, 2010

Epiphany 1 The Baptism of our Lord January 10, 2010

Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3: 15-22

This morning’s lessons give us three powerful insights into the nature of our faith journey. In our lesson from the Hebrew scriptures, we hear the word of God spoken by the prophet we call the Second Isaiah. The people are in exile in Babylon. This has gone on for two or three generations. Some are losing hope. Some have given up their faith and melded into the surrounding culture. Others, the saving remnant, have taken the time to pray and to study the scriptures. Their faith has grown stronger. God speaks through Isaiah and tells them that they will return home, that God will guide them through every challenge–through the waters, through the rivers, through fire, through everything. And God tells them the most important thing–that God will be with them every step of the way, and God will protect them.

In our reading from the Book of Acts, just a few verses before this lesson, the apostles have appointed seven deacons to help them, and Stephen, one of those seven, has been stoned to death. It was a time when the new church was subject to persecution, a very dangerous time. Yet Philip, one of the first deacons, went into Samaria, preached the good news, and performed many healings. Many Samaritans flocked to the new faith. The apostles hear about this in Jerusalem. Peter and John go to Samaria. Obviously, this is very dangerous. They could be killed at any time. With great courage, they go to this land of Samaria, this land which is beyond the pale, this land whose people are despised. The Samaritans have been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. But when Peter and John lay their hands on these people, they receive the Holy Spirit. They are fully empowered to do their ministries. This new faith is for everyone, for all nations and all people.

In today’s gospel, once again we have a dramatic situation. John the Baptist has a powerful ministry. People are flocking to him for baptism, and folks are wondering whether he is the messiah. He makes it very clear that he is not. One is coming whose sandals I am not fit to untie, says John. Then, we learn that Herod the Tetrarch puts John into prison. At every turn, the new faith is in danger. But the text continues to tell us that after everyone had been baptized, Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit descends, and Jesus is identified as the Son of God. As theologian Beverly Gaventa states, “The inclusion of John’s arrest is important…for it recalls that the price paid by those who act at the behest of the Holy Spirit is often a high one.” (Texts for Preaching, Year C, p. 102).

The exiles are almost losing hope when the word comes, We’re going home! The messiah is coming. A new order is about to begin. The Church has just ordained seven deacons to serve the poor and needy, and one of them is killed. The persecution is increasing, yet Philip goes to the worst of the worst, Samaria, to share God’s love with the people and is received with great joy. As the persecution increases even more, the apostles discern that Peter and John are called to minister in Samaria, and the Holy Spirit moves mightily. Jesus receives the baptism of John and begins his formal ministry, and a cruel tyrant puts John in prison. John is eventually killed. Does any of this darkness and violence stop the new faith? No, it simply highlights how clearly, how courageously, how unfailingly, the light shines in the darkness.

By virtue of our baptisms, each of us has a ministry, and all of us have a ministry together. This year, like Philip, Peter, and John, we will be going into new territory. As we complete our tasks for Partners for Sacred Places, we will develop a deeper sense of our history, we will complete an assessment of our building, we will have a clear sense of the public value of our building, we will create a case statement which comprises our heritage, including our history of service to others far and near, our mission, and what we may need in order to carry out our mission.

This is going to take solid work, faith, hope, vision, prayer, and more faith. We will be called into a process of discernment, and this will involve getting expert help from Preservation Trust of Vermont and from Partners. Are we called to develop our undercroft? Are we called to design and build an addition, perhaps in the style of the horse barns? Are we called to leave things as they are? These are major decisions. Major decisions are scary. This is why I have tried to make it clear that the exiles and the new Christian Church faced some scary things, too.

We have received the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, and we have received the Holy Spirit. We have everything we need and all the gifts we need to carryout the ministry to which we are called. God is right here. God is with us, just as God was with them, every step of the way.

Baptism means that there is something new. “Behold, I am creating a new thing,” God says, “the former things have passed away.” Our Partners group is going to need to pray together, to work together, to envision together. We are going to need to steep ourselves in our diocesan mission statement—to pray the prayer of Christ, learn the mind of Christ, and do the deeds of Christ. I believe that we are now being called to let go of our preconceptions, if we had any, and to be open to new ways of seeing things, ways which I believe we will learn from our brothers and sisters from the Preservation Trust, from Partners, from our Ministry Support Team, and, most of all, from God. There may well be possibilities we have never thought of.

This is going to be a very important time. These are weighty decisions.

I believe that Grace Church is up to this process of discernment. Please remember, God is with you, God is giving you the gifts of faith, hope, and love. Pray for each other and pray for God’s guidance. But, most of all, please do what you do so well and with such grace—love God, and love each other. Remember, God is with us every step of the way.

Amen.

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