Sunday, January 13, 2008

The First Sunday after the Epiphany, The Baptism of Our Lord, January 13, 2008

The First Sunday after the Epiphany

The Baptism of Our Lord

Year A

January 13, 2008

Isaiah 42:1-9 Psalm 29

Acts 10:34-43 St. Matthew 3:13-17

I think that humans in general tend to be very partial people. We are partial to this and we are not partial to that. So the opening sentence of Peter from the reading found in Acts should be quite shocking. Well actually not so shocking that “God shows no partiality”, although I suppose that this will shock even some, but rather the extension of this message that as Christians we should not be showing partiality either.

This call of Peter is a cry to tear down boundaries, to not allow divisions, and to decry any distinctions that people in the church would put up in a foolish attempt to separate others from the love of God. The most damning thing about the sin of partiality is that it is a sin that many use for the purpose of excluding or judging others. It sets us (whoever the “us” happens to be at the moment) up as the “in” crowd over and against an “out” crowd. This puts us in what I fear is grave spiritual danger. The reason for this grave spiritual danger is that the moment we are in the “in” crowd, we are probably separated from Jesus.

Jesus had that annoying tendency to always be with the “out” crowd. You would think that merely being with Jesus would be enough to make it suddenly the “in” crowd, but the Gospels tell us that was not the case. Those in positions of religious power never saw the light. They always saw Jesus as hanging out with the wrong types of people, saying the wrong things, and doing the wrong things.

Jesus hung out with tax collectors, prostitutes, the unclean, and sinners of all kinds. My guess is that if Jesus were here today he would be hanging out with the same sort of people, those who are not in favor with general polite society. Jesus would be out there with the homeless, prostitutes, drug and alcohol abusers, gays, unwed mothers, welfare moms, and skid row bums. To be honest this is not the kind of people you generally see here at St. Peter’s. That should be a real challenge to each and every one of us. When I look at my own life honestly, I know it is a challenge to me. It calls on me to be willing to be uncomfortable for the sake of the Gospel.

Truth be told, our denomination has a spotty history in this regard. We have experienced moments of great openness to the grace of God and moments of great blindness to God’s light as well. While the Episcopal Church was on the front lines in issues of civil rights and women’s ordinations we also have a dark history at the same time with clergy both defending slavery and railing against women’s ordination. In fact, even today there are places in the Episcopal Church where females are rejected as clergy. So we still have a way to go even with respect to some issues that are not a concern in the least at St. Peter’s.

At St. Peter’s we have worked very hard to foster a sense of openness and welcome. As we are reminded every Sunday at the call to communion, all are welcome. Episcopal Church signs dot our nation with the same message of welcome. That is a powerful statement. It is the power of God to show no partiality. The challenge is for us to each be able to live into this truth in practice.

You see the fly in the ointment is that the church is populated by people like me and like you. Each one of us has our own personal issues of partiality to deal with. And because of the truth of this present evil in the reality of who makes up the church, many in the world feel unwelcome in our church. Some feel unwelcome because we make them feel this way. Others feel unwelcome because of their past experiences which may have nothing to do with us. Others feel unwelcome because of their assumptions, sometimes based on fact and sometimes based on fancy, as to how they would be accepted or rejected by the church. But no matter what the reason for feeling unwelcome, it is our call, our mission, and ministry from God to make sure that all feel welcomed, loved, honored, and appreciated by God and by us in their visit at St. Peter’s.

St. Peter’s has always prided itself on its welcoming reputation, a reputation that I think is very well deserved and well earned. But even so, we need to remain vigilant to make sure that everyone feels welcomed here. We need to go out of our way to show the love of Christ to every person in ways that are positive, powerful and life affirming. Sometimes this is a challenge to me and to all of us, but it is the work God has called us to do. This welcome can be as simple as helping a stranger through the Prayer Book or greeting them after the service or sitting with them at coffee hour. It can be as simple as telling them that you hope they will come back. Or it can be as hard as recognizing our blindness and hardness of heart when faced with those who we might consider “out” and don’t want a part of our “in” crowd. And then, through the power of the spirit within each of us overcoming that reaction.

The concept of “in” and “out” groups is very popular in society in general. It is a handy way of sorting people out. But it is also rather unchristian. One of the challenges we face as Christians is the idea of being “in” the world, but not “of” the world. In other words, we have to live in this world we find ourselves in, with all its faults and all its blessings. But as Christians we are called to be on guard against adopting those practices of the world which might be very common-place but at the same time also very unchristian.

In our collect for today, we remembered the baptism of Jesus and prayed that we might by given the grace from God to keep the covenant each of us has made at our Baptism. One of the things I found most powerful in the Episcopal Church is our baptismal covenant. It calls us to make promises to live out the love of God in the world around us in a very powerful way, something that is missing in many of the other protestant traditions. Bound up in this covenant is the idea of welcoming or hospitality.

The things I am speaking about today are not new or trendy. They are the bedrock of our faith from the very beginning. But they have now always and everywhere been done in our history.

Recognizing both that there are many churches in our community around us who would not welcome all, and taking seriously our response to God’s call to love and live out our love in action, it is important that we work to make sure that everyone knows that St. Peter’s is a place of welcome, safety and love. Some will not believe us and some will test us in our resolve, but we must remain true to the call of God in our community.

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