Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Second Sunday after the Epiphany – January 19, 2014
He’s back again. Weather-beaten, locus-eating John the Baptist—a character who jumps out of the Gospel in Advent and reappears in this season of Epiphany. In last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus sought John out at the River Jordan and asked to be baptized. Now it’s the very next day and John the Baptist makes an astonishing proclamation about his cousin Jesus: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Throughout scripture, lambs are symbols of gentleness. When John identifies Jesus as the “Lamb of God” he is giving us an image of the surprisingly gentle way that God deals with us, even in our shortcomings, our failures, and our sins. Jesus, in becoming one of us, by that incarnation, makes all flesh holy and good.
Another day passes in the text and we find John standing with two of his followers and pointing Jesus out to them. “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” Their curiosity is peaked by this exclamation and so they trail along after Jesus to see who this is. Then he asks the question that will change the course of their lives: “What are you looking for?”
I wonder. I wonder what they were looking for that day? Had they been looking for something for a long time, perhaps unaware of what that was. I wonder if they knew that something was missing in their humdrum lives and I wonder if that may have been a sense of belonging.
We humans need to belong. To one another, to our friends and families, to our culture and country, to our world, and to something greater and beyond our world. It’s in our DNA. Belonging is primal, fundamental to our sense of happiness and well-being. Research tells us that isolation and loneliness can harm a person’s subjective sense of well-being, as well as his or her intellectual achievement, immune function and health and that even a single instance of exclusion can undermine well-being, IQ test performance and self-control. Belonging is an essential part of living.
Let’s travel from first century Palestine, from the banks of the Jordan River just days after John baptized Jesus, to 21st century Norwalk and to the baptismal font in this church where last week we renewed our baptismal covenant together and where thousands of infants and adults have been baptized over the past 277 years since the founding of this congregation. Last Sunday, Mother Cindy introduced us to the three “B”s of Baptism: Believing, Belonging, Behaving. We recited promises about what we believe and how we hope to behave with God’s help.
I think at the heart of why we gather here and why we are willing to make those promises, is that we all want to and need to belong. We often say that this is a place where you can belong before you believe. We didn’t make that up. The ancient Celtic model of Christianity, the practice of those ancient people of Ireland, England, Scotland, and Whales, was based on the paradigm of engaging people in community and letting their believing evolve through that experience.
We want to know that there is some community that will take us in just as we are—warts and all, stretch our viewpoints, challenge our doubts, test our faith, pose important questions, comfort us in our sorrow, laugh with us in our joy, pray for us in our times of difficulty, and, generally keep us honest about who we are as a beloved daughter or son of God.
When we enter the doors on Sunday, we might even imagine Jesus standing before us: “Good morning. So what are you looking for?”
Our answers will illustrate the amazing and complex diversity of this congregation. There are those like Andrew and Peter who are here because someone has pointed them in this direction as they have been seeking an experience of a God who may have escaped them.
There are also those who are seeking a deeper understanding of just exactly an experience of God means for them. There are who are here because something led them through the doors one morning even if they cannot articulate exactly what that “something” was. Many have come here from another faith tradition, denomination, or parish because we were invited to “come to see—so we did…and we liked it…and we stayed.
Some years ago, I heard about an Episcopal parish that includes in its broad diversity a group that has one very unusual thing in common: they do not believe in God. That may seem strange, but for me it is evidence of a truly inclusive church and one that takes its mission seriously. What better place for agnostics and atheists to be, both for themselves and for the rest of us, than in a church where they may challenge the accepted theology merely by their presence, and teach us that the God of our understanding is much more astonishing and all-embracing than we might ever expect. Even for those who struggle to believe or simply can’t, belonging can be life-giving.
We know one thing for sure. We don’t have all the answers. Coming “to see” is a beginning, not an ending. Our “coming to see” journey unfolds and unfolds and we discover, from the very first steps, that God’s grace appears in all kinds of places, often the most unexpected. As, for example, in this account of a baptism in the Episcopal Church witnessed by a small town Southern Baptist college student. The concept of priests, vestments, liturgical rites and sacramental wine were all very unfamiliar to her.
“We began the ‘Presentation and Examination of the Candidates,’ she wrote in her story, “and the final question in the list was addressed to the congregation: ‘Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support Drew in his life in Christ?” We said we would.
You see, these Episcopalians knew something about Baptism that my Baptist church didn’t know. For these people, baptism was more than a symbol of one’s commitment to Christ. It was more than a technicality required to become a member of the church. It was a community promising to guide and support, and it was a community renewing its own commitment to Christ. It was a faithful family ignoring their own discomforts for the desire of one.
After the priest poured water on this young man’s head, he anointed him with blessed oil with the sign of the cross. ‘Drew, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.’
I watched,” the young woman said, “for the first time not an apathetic spectator at a baptism. I wasn’t an Episcopalian, but I don’t think the members of that church would have called themselves Episcopalians at that moment either. We were just a group of regular people, standing at the font, loving one another and loving our God.”
Yes, it is about believing and, more than that, behaving as if we believe, but first it is about belonging; belonging to God who loves and cares for us, belonging to a community that calls us “kinfolks,” belonging to one another as sisters and brothers in the household of God, belonging to an ancient, time-tested tradition that is sacred yet not perfect, embracing yet not limiting.
Do you know anyone who may need to break out of their isolation? Someone who needs more in life than their humdrum routine? To belong to something that can make a difference in their lives, even in the world? Someone who might be waiting to meet a group of regular but diverse people like us? Why not take a bold step. Tell them to come. Tell them to come and see!