Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Baptism of Our Lord – January 13, 2013
There are three words that I want to focus on this morning: evaluations, recommendations and decisions. Let’s start with evaluations and recommendations – because I’ve been hearing a lot about these two things lately.
According to the girls I meet with on Thursday afternoon, tests have been taken recently; projects completed – or nearly so; papers have been graded and evaluations have been made. Those of us who are students – or can remember when we were – know the anxiety that bubbles up unannounced as deadlines approach and bluebooks are passed out. How will I do? Will my grades be better this semester? Have I learned anything at all? And if I have, will anyone take note?
Evaluation seems to be a part of almost everything we do – whether we go to the dentist, are handed a report card, step on the scale or look in the mirror. Bars have been set – by parents, teachers, friends, the media – and deep in our hearts, we seem to be evaluating ourselves based on the expectations set by those bars. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I guess – if the evaluations are based in some kind of truth, if they are real, fair, honest.
Once the evaluations have taken place, recommendations are usually close behind, whether they take the form of parent-teacher conferences, new dietary restrictions or the latest jingle from a cosmetic company. We’ve been evaluated and before we can take it all in, someone comes up with a suggestion about how to improve. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, if the recommendations fit the evaluation in terms of being based in truth – if they are real, fair and honest.
Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. With our mind’s eye we watch as Jesus follows the crowds to the river and waits his turn to be plunged under the water by John the Baptizer. Why, we may very well wonder, did Jesus join the motley crowd and subject himself to this rite? John’s baptism was, as you recall, a baptism of repentance – a rite based on evaluation.
John’s ministry was to help people see that things were not always perfect – that people made choices and engaged in behaviors that were not good for them or in the best interest of their community. John’s invitation was to get real, to be honest. John’s evaluation was fair and based in truth: human beings miss the mark and mess up regularly.
Whether or not one believes Jesus ever made any mistakes and needed to make some kind of confession is a question that I like to wonder about. Did he get in that line because he lost his temper once in a while, remembered how he ran off at an early age and hung out in the temple for three days while his parents frantically hunted for him? Did he ever forget something important or neglect to do something that should have been done?
Some scholars suggest that he got in that line to show that he was willing to associate with the masses – that he was the real deal – fully human along with the fully divine identity. Others suggest it was his way of identifying with his Jewish tradition – though, that, it seems to me, would mean he was just going through the motions, and I’m not so fond of that idea.
Anyway, he got in line and I like to think that he did it because he was honest about his human nature – that he, like the rest of the crowd, knew that John was right in his evaluation. Things and people get messed up.
So, that’s the evaluation. What’s the recommendation?
Well, John’s recommendation was repentance. To repent means to be sorry and then to change your ways.
Being sorry is the easy part, I think. It’s almost as if we’re hard-wired to be sorry – to feel badly when we become aware that we have hurt someone or done something to hurt ourselves. That feeling, as well as all the others we have – anger, sadness, fear – are gifts, I think. Gifts that tell us something is wrong and that we need to pay attention.
So half of repentance, the being sorry part, is usually already present. The other half, the harder half, is to change our ways. Change, as we all know is difficult.
Sometimes a change is demanded from the outside: curfews are set, limits on how much time we spend on the internet are made, homework or practicing the piano or being present at meetings or holding office hours are required from outside of ourselves.
While these things may be frustrating, they are not nearly as hard as making changes from the inside. Changing from the inside means being really honest with ourselves about our own attitudes and behaviors. It means being willing to take a long hard look at the way we are in the world – the words we use, the things we do – and the impact they have.
That’s where decision comes into play. Somehow we have to decide that others – and that we, ourselves – are worth the changes that are necessary. It may mean deciding to be kind when others are not, or deciding to be patient when it feels like we’re ready to explode. We may have to decide to put the bottle down or to be honest when spinning or exaggerating the facts would be more advantageous. We may have to decide to listen instead of always having the floor; or we may need to decide to stand up for what we know is right. We may need to be willing to follow when we’re used to leading or lead when we are used to following silently.
So, there are the three words for today – evaluation, recommendation, decision.
But I’ve left something important out. That’s the other meaning of recommendation. Recommendation can mean either advice or endorsement.
I have been speaking about recommendation as advice – advice on how we might change, turn things around, be better at living our lives as children of God. That’s the kind of recommendation we find in John’s practice of baptism – that is, until Jesus was the next in line. Then the game changed – and so did the recommendation. Instead of a recommendation for changed behavior, recommendation as endorsement occurred.
As Jesus waded out of the water, he got the biggest and best recommendation one could ever hope for: the voice of God saying, “You are my son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” And with that recommendation, that endorsement, Jesus went on to live even more fully into his life as the Christ.
On this feast day, people all over the world will be celebrating Holy Baptism. And so, it makes sense that we remember our own baptisms today.
In the sacrament of Holy Baptism, all three of our sermon-word ideas show up: evaluation, recommendation and decision.
The service begins with a recognition based on an evaluation that all is not as it should be as we renounce those things that draw us away from the love of God. In essence we admit that we concur with the evaluation that things have gotten messed up.
Then together we hear the recommendation to change – to live more fully into our lives as God’s children. That recommendation to change means that we will, with God’s help, live the kind of lives that reflect our true identity: continuing in prayer and worship, resisting evil and repenting when we have sinned, proclaiming in word and in example the Good news of God in Christ, seeking and serving Christ in all people – loving our neighbors as ourselves, striving for justice and peace while respecting the dignity of all people.
And finally, as holy oil is marked in the sign of the cross on our foreheads, we receive God’s recommendation – God’s endorsement: we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. God says to each of us – to every one of us – “You are my child. I love you. You make me very happy.”
That’s the good news – the best kind of endorsement any of us could ever receive.
And frankly I think that it is this good news, this endorsement, when it is heard and believed, that makes it possible to know what evaluations – of all those we are bombarded with and what recommendations for change we are bombarded with – are really based in truth, which ones are real, which are fair and honest.
May we hear God’s recommendation – God’s evaluation – again today: “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well-pleased,” and may that truth set us free to live as lights, like Jesus did, in all the dark places we encounter. Amen.