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St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Amarillo, TX

"Repent!": Sermon for the First Sunday After the Epiphany, Year C

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

            What comes to mind as you hear the last part of the Gospel lesson for today? “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'”

            Personally, I think of The Nicene Creed, in which we proclaim our faith that Jesus Christ is “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” I also think of God's wonderful grace making us all children of God through Christ. As Paul states in Galatians, “God sent his Son that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”[i]

            I imagine many of us also think of a specific baptism – perhaps one right at the back of this Nave. Perhaps our own baptism, perhaps that of a family member or dear friend. What a joyous occasion! The priest anoints the person with oil and proclaims, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever.” And then we, as a congregation, join in with “We receive you into the household of God.”

            These images of joy and inclusion and God's love are important associations with the scene of Christ's baptism. However, if we back up and read the context of this passage, the images change pretty drastically. For me, they change to something kind of like this.

            In case you can't quite see and for those who might listen to this sermon from the website, Father Robert is marching around with a placard reading “Repent!” It'd be better if his beard were long and scraggly. Better yet if his robe were torn and dirty. And it probably would be best if he had a little drool dripping down and a crazed look in his eyes. But you get the idea.

            So, why does the context change the images that come to mind? Well, the earlier part of Luke chapter 3 tells us exactly what this baptism is. John's baptism, a baptism of repentance. When John explains this baptism, he starts with, “You brood of vipers!” It's serious business.

            So, here's the serious question that has been on my mind: Why does Jesus get baptized with a baptism of repentance?[ii] Repentance is often portrayed as changing our lifestyle from one of horrible sin to one of holiness. But Jesus is already holy. He's “true God from true God.” So, is it possible that this idea of repentance isn't quite on target?

            Let's look at John's response when the crowds ask him what they should do to bear fruits worthy of repentance. He does talk about sin for some people. The tax collectors and soldiers are known for using their position and power to cheat and intimidate others. They're told to stop being greedy. And to start treating people decently. And to learn to be content with what they can earn honestly.

            John also talks about some people who haven't done anything bad to others, but have ignored their needs. So, in order to repent, they need to share the necessities of life—clothing and food—if they have extra.

            So let's find a fuller understanding of repentance that helps make sense of Jesus repenting. Here's a good definition: “To repent means to turn to God and to see things in a new way.”[iii] That helps because this is clearly a turning point for Jesus. Up until now in Luke's Gospel, Jesus hasn't done much. In fact, his first 30 years are summarized this way: “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” Nice, but not exactly earth-shaking.

            After this baptism and his 40 days in the wilderness, there's no stopping Jesus. He is clearly on a mission from God. He's everywhere, interacting with people from all walks of life. And he's turning the world upside down, which is really right side up. What we'll notice as we continue to study Luke this year is that Jesus offers God's love to all, but the nature of that offer differs for different groups. Those in positions of status and power are challenged to learn how to stop hanging on to their status and power, to act in love toward those around them. Those on the margins of society—the sick, the poor, criminals, foreigners, people whose religion is considered suspect—all have a special place in Jesus' ministry. Their immediate needs are met, and they are invited into a loving relationship with God, a new experience for them.

            So, repentance sounds a lot like learning to love God and to love our neighbors, no matter what our differences from them may be. Jesus, the only Son of God, worked hard and prayed often to live that life.

            For us, who have God's spirit and have been adopted as children of God, repentance is a challenging journey. It's a journey of a lifetime. It's a journey we can't do alone. We need God and a community to help us.

            How are we doing here at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church with this journey of repentance, this turning toward the Way of Love, this life of extending God's love to everyone, especially those on the margins of society? Overall, my evaluation is that we are definitely on this journey of repentance. And we have farther to go.

            Let's look at three groups of people often on the margins of our society. Other groups are equally deserving of attention. I've chosen these three groups because I've had connections with them. So, how are we doing in showing God's love to them?

            The first group is people who are sick. Especially people who are aging and have long-term illnesses seem to become almost invisible in our society. As a hospice chaplain, I meet many people who were active members of a church for decades but haven't been able to attend for years. It's very sad to learn that sometimes they've had no contact from their church for all those years.

            Thank God that St. Andrew's has an active Eucharistic Visitation ministry. We now have 30 licensed Eucharistic Visitors, making 11 teams plus substitutes. Starting in February, at least two teams will be sent out every Sunday. Last year, this ministry served 28 different people, making 120 visits. In 2019, we want to reach more people and make over 200 visits. Won't you help? Even if it's not your ministry to make the visits, could you let the church office know who might want visits?

            The second group is immigrants. Earlier in my life, I taught English as a Second Language to adults, often to immigrants. These people I love are too often spoken of and treated as less than human. The ones I know were driven here by desperate circumstances. They are brave and generous and hard-working. I'm not a politician, and I don't know the political answer to our broken immigration system. But I do know that judging people without understanding their lives is not love. St. Andrew's has a small but important ministry of helping refugees adjust to our community. I hope more will join that ministry.

            The final group I want to discuss are people who do not have a home. My sister was homeless for more than one period of her life, and she was close to homelessness frequently. I know the pain that led her to that life. As I've gotten to know some folks without a home when they've visited St. Andrew's, I've seen similar types of pain and trauma. Frequently, they have given up on themselves and don't think they are worthy of love.

            Amarillo has many fine organizations working with folks in these desperate situations. I'm aware of members of St. Andrew's who have worked with Another Chance House, the Downtown Women's Center, the Panhandle Adult Rebuilding Center or PARC, Amarillo Housing First, and a key funding agency, The Interfaith Campaign for the Homeless. All of these groups make a significant difference. And the change starts when people are treated with respect and love. If they can start seeing themselves as beloved children of God, they can start believing change is possible and start working toward change.

            If you want to help this group of people at St. Andrew's, come to breakfast. You can befriend folks who come for some hot food and need a warm welcome. Once a month, we deliver sack lunches on Sunday. We need people to help pack them and help deliver them. You also might want to get connected with the Good Samaritan Ministry to learn about other opportunities. Another concrete way to help is through the Interfaith Campaign for the Homeless. During Lent, envelopes will be provided so that you can contribute. One suggestion is to contribute the amount you usually spend on drinks and snacks in a day for each of the 40 days of Lent. Or, how about contributing the amount you usually spend on all food in a day?

            If you find yourself moved to help minister to any of these groups, please let the church office know of your interest. You can fill out the tear-off portion of the Angel's Alert or send an email or other note. Someone will contact you to help you connect to the appropriate ministry.

            Not everyone has a ministry of working directly with those who are sick or recently arrived in this country or dealing with homelessness. Yet, with God's help, we all can move St. Andrew's along the Way of Love. Our Baptismal Covenant points the way.[iv] We all can respect the dignity of every human being. We all can seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. We all can continue in the prayers, especially praying for those in difficult situations and for those who minister to them.

            Our ability to show love to others, especially those on the margins of society, is made possible by the love that God showed to us through his Beloved Son, Jesus Christ. May we live into that love. Amen.

 

[i]     Galatians 4:4-6 (portions)

[ii]    Luke 3:15-17, 21-22, “Theological Perspective” by Carol Lakey Hess in Feasting on the Word Year C Vol 1 p. 236

[iii]   Speaking Christian by Marcus J. Borg p. 159

[iv]   The Book of Common Prayer pp. 304-305

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