The Great Tears – a sermon

Today’s sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or read here.


One of the joys of my children getting older is that we can now watch shows that entertain across the generations.  Gone are the days of endless episodes of Curious George and Paw Patrol.  Now, in the evenings, we can all pile on the couch and watch something that everyone will enjoy.  One of our favorites over the past year has been Americas Got Talent.  The variety show format seems well suited for our wide-ranging tastes.  Musicians, dancers, stunt artists, you name it, on AGT someone who has tried to win a million dollars doing it.  My favorite performances of this past season were the street magicians.  There is just something amazing about close-up magic. The prestidigitation of the magician means that what you think you see isn’t really what you are seeing.  The thing you are paying attention to isn’t really the thing.

Mark’s take on the Baptism of our Lord recalled the street magicians I saw on Americas Got Talent because the thing isn’t really the thing.  Having just heard Mark’s introduction a few weeks ago, we’ve already heard five of the eight verses in today’s Gospel lesson.  We know about John appearing in the wilderness.  We’ve heard about the crowds who came seeking baptism for the forgiveness of their sins.  We can imagine John in a camel hair coat with a leather belt around his waist and a locust wing stuck in a bit of honey in his matted beard.  Mark spends five verses describing the baptism of John, but this story isn’t about John.

This story is really about the baptism of Jesus by John.  True to form, Mark is skimpy on the details.  We get none of John arguing with Jesus about whether or not he should be baptized, like we do in Matthew.  We hear nothing of Jesus’ personal prayer life like we do in Luke.  All we know is that Jesus came from Nazareth and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

It is a story about the baptism of Jesus, but it is also about a whole lot more.  The thing we should really be paying attention to comes next.  Sure, Jesus went into and out of the water, thousands of others had too.  What is remarkable is what happens immediately as Jesus comes up out of the water.  While Mark is directing our attention down here, the thing we really should be paying attention to is happening up there.  The heavens torn apart, the Spirit descending like a dove, and a voice from heaven declaring “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Mark is adept at hiding things in plain sight.  Despite beginning his Gospel by calling Jesus the Son of God, one of Mark’s key motifs is the Messianic Secret.  Again and again, Jesus commands his disciples and those whom he heals to not tell anyone what they have seen and heard.  Unlike in the other Gospels, in Mark, the words we all know well from Jesus’ baptism seem to be addressed only to Jesus, as if the crowd gathered at the river bank couldn’t see or hear what was unfolding.  As the reader, we get to see all the amazing details, even if they feel hidden among a bunch of superfluous content and sleight-of-hand.  Like the close-up magic of a street magician, however, if we pay careful attention to everything we are seeing and hearing, we can begin to understand what is really happening.  While our eyes are focused on the water, Mark’s deeper lesson is found in the great tearing of the heavens.

There are actually two great rips in Mark’s Gospel.  They bookend the ministry of Jesus.  The first, happens in our lesson for today, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  The second comes just as he breathes his last breath from the cross.  Both are significant, not just because of what is happening in the moment, but because of what they signify in Mark’s larger theological scheme.

In this first great tear, we see the veil between humanity and God being removed.  In taking on human flesh, Jesus forever altered the landscape of humanity and divinity.  It is in this moment that the heavens show fully what God has done in the Incarnation.  From here on out, there is no difference between the sacred and the profane.  God is not an aloof deity, up in the sky, watching us like a divine security guard.  In the Incarnation, God permanently opened the barrier between earth and heaven, and brought the fullness of the human experience into God’s self.

Not only do the heavens being torn in two break the barrier between the human and the divine, but by tying this story with the beginning of creation in Genesis 1, we see that our own baptisms, following the model of Jesus’ baptism, take us all the way back to that very first moment when God turned chaos into order.  In the Hebrew, the word translated in Genesis 1.2 as “the deep” is tehowm, and it means deeper than deep.  It is the abyss, the chaos in which fear and darkness and death reside.  Nothing can exist in the deep.  It is formless and void.  Into that overwhelming nothingness, God speaks creation into being.  From the depths of chaos, God brings order.

If that isn’t a metaphor for our lives in Christ, I don’t know what it.  In our baptisms, through heavens torn asunder, God pulls us out of the overwhelming chaos of the world and brings us into the order of the Kingdom of God.  Yes, we still live our lives on this plane, where there is still sadness, darkness, and death, but in baptism, we are also welcomed into the Kingdom, where God brings all things into joy, light, and life.  In the water of baptism, we are welcomed out of the chaos, having been brought into the light.

As momentous as this is, the thing we are seeing still isn’t the thing.  The Messianic Secret won’t fully be revealed until the day of Jesus’ death.  The culmination of it all won’t come until the second great tear happens at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  As Jesus breathes his last, Mark tells us that the Temple curtain, that which divided the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple, was torn in two from top to bottom.  While the tearing of the heavens looks back upon the moment of Creation, this tearing open symbolizes our ability to enter fully into the nearer presence of God.  Getting from earth to heaven is impossible on this side of the River Styx, but with the symbolic dwelling place of God on earth made accessible to everyone through the death of Jesus, all of humanity can now find themselves in the holiness of God.  As this second great tearing happens, it is a Roman Centurion who is the first to fully understand what has happened.  In words that echo the words Jesus heard at his baptism, the Centurion proclaims, “Truly this was the Son of God.”

Through the Incarnation of Jesus, God became present to humanity.  Through the death of Jesus, humanity has been made present to God.  These two great tears that bookend the ministry of Jesus have forever changed the landscape of our relationship with God.  No longer is God some far off deity, but rather, God is fully available to humanity.  The fullness of God is opened to us through these two rips in the fabric of creation.  Despite all the hurry and all the secrets in Mark’s Gospel that might distract our attention, the thing that Mark’s story is really about is how God has entered fully into the messiness of human existence.  Through Christ, God has called us from the darkness of the abyss to the light of the Kingdom.  In our baptism, we enter with Christ into the chaos of the waters of creation one final time before we are brought into the light of God’s love.

As you came up out of the water at your baptism, you might not have seen the heavens torn in two.  Maybe you didn’t hear God call you his beloved.  You probably didn’t see the Spirit descending upon you like a dove.  Yet, I believe that these things occur at every baptism.  Each time someone commits their life to the Kingdom of God over and above the chaos of this world, a party erupts, and all of heaven rejoices.  So, in case you didn’t hear it the first time, here’s the thing: You are God’s child, beloved, and with you God is well pleased.  Amen.

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The chaos of baptism

The astute student of the Lectionary will note that the opening verse of Genesis 1 are appointed to go alongside Mark’s version of the Baptism of our Lord.  Being less astute this week than maybe some others, when I read the lessons yesterday morning, I scratched my head, thinking how odd a choice that was.  For the life of me, I couldn’t make sense of what the beginning of creation had to do with baptism.  Thankfully, I do not sermonate in a bubble, and as I read my go-to resources this morning, it all began to fall into place.  So, in case you are suffering from the dullness of a week away from the office, a late kick for the Sugar Bowl, and household pets going bonkers over the Super Moon, I offer you, dear reader, the connection I have made.

In her Lectionary column for the Christian Century, Kat Banakis, an Episcopal priest in Evanston, IL, turned my attention to a further ramification of the heavens being torn apart than I had seen yesterday.  “But by splitting the heavens,” she writes, “God is going back earlier, to the beginning when the earth was separated into day and night, form and void, heaven punching out into the firmament above and sea below, back to that originality – and laying claim to Jesus within that.  In the rite of baptism, the same elemental water touches us and initiates us into the tribe of people who believe in Jesus’ Messiahship.”  In the margins, I wrote “water as chaos.”

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All of a sudden it hit me.  Not a new insight, mind you, but an insight in a newly profound way, that our baptism, in the model of Jesus’ baptism, tie us all the way to that moment when God made chaos to be order.  In the Hebrew, the word translated in Genesis 1.2 as “the deep” is tehowm, and it means deeper than deep.  It is the abyss, the chaos in which fear and darkness and death exist.  Nothing can exist in the deep.  It is formless and void.  Into that overwhelming nothingness, God speaks creation into being.  From the depths of chaos, God brings order.

If that isn’t a metaphor for our lives in Christ, I don’t know what it.  In our baptisms, we are pulled out of the overwhelming nothingness of the world and brought into the order of the Kingdom of God.  Yes, we still live our lives on this plane, where the is still sadness, darkness, and death, but in baptism, we are also welcomed into holiness, where God’s will bring all things into joy, light, and life.  In the water of baptism, we enter into that place where the heavens have been rent asunder. We are welcomed out of the chaos, having been brought into the light.

Torn Apart

There are two great rips in Mark’s Gospel.  They bookend the ministry of Jesus.  The first, which we will hear about in Sunday’s lesson, occurs immediately (get used hearing that word) after Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan River.  The second comes just as Jesus breathes his last breath from the cross.  Both are significant, not just because of what is happening in the moment, but because of what they signify in Mark’s larger theological scheme.

As Jesus came up from the water, the heavens were torn apart, and the Spirit descended upon him like a dove.  Mark, who is notoriously skimpy on the details, tells us that through the heavens rent asunder, a voice came and declared “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  This is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and yet, before he does anything, we already know all we need to know about him.  Jesus is the Son of God, beloved of the Father, and his faithfulness even in coming to the moment is well pleasing.  What is even more significant in this moment is that in having the heavens torn apart, the veil between humanity and God has forever been removed.  In taking on human flesh, Jesus forever altered the landscape of humanity and divinity.  As Athanasius said it, “God became man so that man might become God.”  It is in this moment that the heavens show what God had done in the Incarnation.

As momentous as this is, another great tearing occurs at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  As he breathes his last, Mark tells us that the Temple Curtain, that which divided the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple, was torn in two from top to bottom.  While the heavens being torn open is representative of God’s willingness to become human, this tearing open symbolizes our ability to enter into the nearer presence of God.  Getting from earth to heaven is impossible on this side of the River Styx, but with the dwelling place of God on earth made accessible trough the death of Jesus, all of humanity can find themselves in the holiness of God.  This is, as anyone who has seen Raiders of the Lost Ark can attest, a dangerous thing, and yet God has made it so.

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Through the Incarnation of Jesus, God became present to humanity.  Through the death of Jesus, humanity can be made present with God.  These two great tears forever change the landscape of our relationship with God.  No longer does God seem like a far off deity, but rather, God is made fully available to humanity.  The fullness of God’s love, God’s grace, and yes, the dangerous stuff of God’s holiness, are open to us through these two rips in the fabric of creation.  Thanks be to God.

The trouble with Jesus’ baptism

The Baptism of Christ #2 by Daniel Bonnell

I have a love/hate relationship with the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord.  I love it because I love that Jesus, though he knew no sin, insisted on being baptized anyway.  I love that it was for him, like for all of us, a moment of communion with God and the reception of the Holy Spirit.  I hate that it is so unlike a baptism that anyone other than Jesus could ever have.  I hate that we have to preach it every year, on top of hearing the story of John the Baptist three, or even four, times in a year.

My real trouble with Jesus baptism is how unlike ours it is, but the reality is that this has less to do with Jesus and a whole lot to do with us and our ancestors in the Church.  It is the direct result of more than a thousand years of bad theology that has created a cultural norm of infant baptism.  Infant baptism is good, both of my girls were baptized at a young age.  It can even be pedagogical, as my friend and colleague Evan Garner noted yesterday, but the fact of the matter is that it should not be the norm.  The norm, as it was in the early Church and as it is now at least given lip-service to be in The Episcopal Church’s 1979 Prayer Book, is for older children or adults who are ready, willing, and able to take the vows of baptism for themselves.  The need to “get the baby done” as Louis Weil so eloquently puts it, in order to save them from the stain of original sin lest they die and end up in limbo, purgatory, or worse yet, hell, has robbed most Christians of the opportunity to be an actual part of their own baptisms, other than looking cute and cooing at the appropriate points, of course.

Very few Christians have had the opportunity to come up from the water, literally in the case of immersion (again the historic norm) or figuratively in the case of ye olde sprinkling (the prevailing cultural model in Episcopal Churches) to see the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending like a dove.  We’ve had the chance to remember God calling us “beloved” stolen from us by Augustine’s inability to keep it in his pants, and that’s a real shame.  As I’ve said before, I don’t believe baptism to be a salvific event, but I do think that an ontological change can occur in baptism through the gift of the Holy Spirit, if we’d only give neophytes the opportunity by getting over our own anxiety and bad theology and return to the norms of the Christian Church from the very beginning.

The whole sale revision of our baptismal theology that came with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is older than I am (by at least a few months), but I don’t see even the beginning states of a real trend away from infant baptism now 35 years later.  I hope it’ll change in my lifetime.  I hope others will have the chance to experience baptism like Jesus did. I hope that in due time, the Church can get over the trouble with Jesus’ baptism.

Formless and Void

I’ve linked to Rob Bell’s fabulously amazing video called “Everything is Spiritual” on this blog before, and I’m glad to do it again today, but things feel different now.  Bell is no longer the pastor of a congregation, having left Mars Hill Bible Church in 2012.  He is now living in California, doing spiritual weekend retreats, a Robcast, and hanging out with Oprah more than I’m comfortable with.  Like other pastors turned famous authors, Bell seems to have succumb to the pressure of his publishers to stay relevant and sales worthy, though I’ll readily admit he still has a strong voice and is certainly making a difference in the world.  I begrudge him partly because I’m jealous and partly because I can’t imagine being a priest outside of the context of a regular, ongoing community, but both of those are about me, not about Rob Bell.

Anyway, long preamble aside, this post isn’t about Rob Bell’s life choices, it is about the book of Genesis, which Bell opens up in a really neat way as his one hour and seventeen minute presentation/lecture/sermon begins in the video below.*

“The earth was formless and void… some translate it ‘wild and waste.'”

That’s where we find ourselves as the lessons open up on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, in a world that is formless and void; wild and waste.  The Spirit is hovering over the waters of chaos, and God is just about to act, simply by saying a word, the Word, but it hasn’t happened quite yet.  There is a tendency to rush to “let their be light.”  We want God to get to work fixing things so that they make sense to our human comprehension, but there is something quite beautiful about the Spirit of God hovering over the chaos.  I think, in times like these, in any times really, it would behoove us to pause, even if only for a moment and think about what it means that God was present, not just before it all, but in it all, especially in the mess and muck and wild and waste.  Think about what it means that God is present even in the chaos.

Just yesterday, an NAACP office was bombed in Colorado; a dozen people were killed in an orchestrated attack on a French satire newspaper; thousands of people were diagnosed with cancer; hundreds of women died in childbirth; and a child died of the totally preventable malaria every 30 seconds.  Some might say that the world is once again wild and waste, and they probably wouldn’t be wrong.  There is a tendency to rush toward the light, to ignore all the bad stuff and look only for God to speak a word, the Word, and make it all right, but there is something to be said, for all of us who live in the midst of chaos and void, for taking time to realize that God is present, even in the darkness.  Perhaps especially in the darkness.

In this Season of Epiphany, as we seek God in the light, I hope we’ll take just a moment to realize that many people live in deep darkness every day.  There is a (somewhat arrogant) tendency to insist that those people join us in the light, but as Christians, we have the opportunity to meet them in that darkness, knowing that God is there.  We aren’t called to stay there, mind you, for the Lord will speak a word, the Word, soon enough, and light will come and it will be good.  It might take a while for the spark to ignite.  In the meantime, we can join with the Spirit as one who is present, hovering over the chaos, offering a word of peace, of comfort, and most especially, of hope.


* You should totally take the time to watch it all. It is a beautiful example of Bell’s gifted storytelling and imaginative theology at work.

Thin Places

Modern day mystics, as well as plenty who wish they were, are fond of using the term “Thin Places” to speak about places on earth where it feels like the boundary between earth and heaven has faded away.  The term is often used to describe retreat experiences like those available on the Island of Iona, at Taize, or even at our own Beckwith Camp and Retreat Center.  I’m not a fan of the term, per se, but I understand its meaning.  There have been several places in my life where I’ve been aware of the boundary between heaven and earth has faded away: in the 1881 Immanuel Chapel at VTS, at my ordination at Saint Thomas’ Church in Lancaster, and standing behind the altar at Saint Paul’s in Foley; to name but a few examples.  The truth of the matter is that one need not travel to a far away place to experience a thin place, but rather, one simply needs to be open and receptive to the Spirit of God at work in the world.

This term, “Thin Places” came to mind this morning for a very different reason, however.  It came as I read the Propers for the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord in Year B.  Talk about a thin place, there seems to be little, if any, real meat in these lessons.  They beg for the preacher to thrown caution to the wind and dive headlong into a dense theological treatise on the Trinity (Gen 1:1-5), Baptism by the Spirit (Acts 19:1-7), or the role of John the Baptist (Mark 1:4-11).  I beg you, dear reader, please don’t try to make a Thin Place thick this week.  Instead, maybe you could engage the thin place, be open and receptive to the Spirit of God at work in you, and preach about that.

Sometimes the process of writing the sermon is the sermon itself.  Sometimes the prayerful study, the wrestling with the words, the agonized listening for God is the word our people need to hear the most.  The Collect for the First Sunday after the Epiphany has us asking for God’s help to “boldly confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”  Maybe more than any theological ruminations on the nature of baptism, our people need to hear what that looks like in real life: how confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior is about more than paying him lip service, but about every thing we do; how when we live our lives for Christ, everywhere we go becomes a Thin Place, an opportunity to bring heaven to earth; and most especially, about how unbelievably hard it is to live that way, unless we’re tapped into the Spirit and open to God’s grace and favor.

It is a tough preaching week, and thankfully I won’t have to do it, but I am praying for you, dear reader.  May your find your sermon prep to be a Thin Place, where the boundary between heaven and earth simply slips away.