A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Baptism of Jesus Sunday, January 10, 2016
Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22
John had built up quite a reputation in and around Judea. Many people headed out from the cities and villages to the Jordan River to hear him preach and to be baptized. Who knows what they were expecting when they got there. What they heard from John was “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance!”
It’s not exactly a welcome mat that John lays out before the crowd, is it? And he continues,
Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
When the crowds, who believe their identity as based in God’s covenant with Abraham is enough, grow confused and ask him what they should do, John responds,
‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
This is the context for our reading today about Jesus’ baptism – a reading that often becomes interpreted through the lens of personal affirmation – for Jesus and for us.
But if we read the whole story and not simply this snippet from the lectionary, we realize that the passage is not “all about Jesus’ specialness to God” or even about our special relationship to God as baptized in Christ. Indeed, it is not about being special at all. It’s about the community of faith treating others with compassion, fairness, truthfulness, and dignity.
And don’t miss that the two groups of people in the crowd who ask for specific instructions on repentance are tax collectors and soldiers – both despised by the Judean people for supporting the Roman occupation. And yet John reorients the crowd that is divided by social class, ethnicity, and allegiance toward one another. He admonishes them to concretely demonstrate care and regard for one another. In so doing he knits them into an unlikely community, an intentional community that defies social customs, family kinship, and even national belonging.
This is the baptism which Jesus sought from John for himself. And after doing so, that’s when a voice from heaven was heard to say, “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.”
This past week I was up at Stony Point for a Committee on Preparation for Ministry meeting and got talking with other pastors about what we’d be preaching on this Sunday. My college from Cornwall Presbyterian, Rev. Tricia Calahan, told me about Mario.
Mario was a homeless man who lived in the church’s shelter at the big-steeple church where she pastored. Mario had lived on the streets of New York City for half of his life. And when Tricia encountered him, he was celebrating his sixtieth birthday with friends at a church dinner. Several people claimed that there was no way that Mario was sixty. As the chorus of disbelief grew, Mario reached into his coat pocket, pulled out some documents and began rifling through them. Mario, like many homeless people, carried all his identity documents with him. “I’ll prove it,” he insisted, and with a flourish produced his birth certificate which was subsequently passed around in amazement. As people were clucking about him actually being sixty he added, “Want to see my baptismal certificate?” To the nodding crowd he slid out a piece of paper that documented how he had been baptized as a baby at an Episcopal Church on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He had kept it as one of his identity papers, a precious remembrance and a continuing testimony.
Mario, though he had no home for many years and wandered through many communities, knew the church to be his home. And that is the message of baptism. It is about home-making. It is about the home we make as followers of Christ for one another, it is about the home we make when we show compassion, justice and truthfulness toward other people, it is about the home we experience when we know that in this place we will be received and loved.
And this home-making; it is more than affirmation – it is about love for the whole person, love that helps you come up with money to secure an apartment not just says “you are loved” and sends you on your way. It’s about love that insists on black people being treated with dignity by law enforcement, not just affirms we are all “precious in God’s sight.” It’s about love that calls us to truthfulness and respect of others, and is alert for manipulation or coercion, so that we act with integrity. It’s about love that prays about hunger in our community and world and then gives food to our neighbors, sends Heifer animals to families around the world to provide sustainable food, and advocates for policy to prevent hunger. Home-making is not simply about mouthing words of affirmation. It’s about love that knows the difference between true love and abuse, which is about control, and helps this critical distinction be discerned not only by our congregation but by the wider world.
When I returned from visiting my father-in law in New Jersey following Christmas, I found a note had been slid under my office door.
The note began,
I don’t know if you remember me. I’m a formerly homeless woman and you helped my son and me several years ago when he needed books for school. And we’ve run into each other in town a few times. I’m doing better these days and my son and I have an apartment. I just wanted to say thank you for the church’s advocacy to end violence against women and girls. What I didn’t tell you before is that I’m a survivor of domestic violence and I wanted you to know that the church’s position is well known in the community and your church’s work to support abused women is very much appreciated.
During the Christmas season, we celebrated that God made a home with humankind. During this season of Epiphany, particularly on the occasion of Jesus’ baptism, we remember that through our baptism we are made into one family and we are invited to both discover and to make a home for others. A place of welcome. A place of safety. A place where we care for one another and the wider world. A place of justice. A place where love dwells.
 A version of this story was also published in Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 1. (WJKP, 2013).