One of the great gifts of ordained ministry is the opportunity to engage in continuing education. In my almost 12 years as a priest, I’ve had the privilege of traveling around the country, learning from some of the leading voices in practical theology and liturgy. Of course, as many of you probably know from experience, continuing education opportunities can be intimidating at times, especially early in one’s career. I still remember vividly my first continuing education event way back in November of 2008. I had come across a conference put on by the United Methodist Church called “Worship in a Postmodern Accent” that just sounded really cool. I booked a flight to Oklahoma City, everyone’s favorite vacation spot, for a few days at some non-descript, airport-adjacent hotel. It really was a fantastic conference, filled with impactful alternative worship experiences, lectures by some of the most creative minds in worship planning, and good fellowship with people some whom I still have contact through social media. For all the good that weekend had to offer, I also still vividly remember the overwhelming feeling of inadequacy that threatened to swallow me whole.
In November of 2008, I had been a priest for half a minute. I was twenty-eight years old, and still not sure what this life of ordained ministry would really look like. There I was, mixing it up with some of most imaginative and talented people in their field, and I began to wonder, “Do I even belong? Not just here in Oklahoma, but in the priesthood.” It all came to a head on the second day, in one of the lower level meeting rooms, at three o’clock in the afternoon. Jonny Baker, then-head of the Fresh Expressions Office in the Church of England, had set up a labyrinth experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen. A dozen or so prayer stations had transformed a room with loud carpet and foldable walls into a sanctuary. There was a working television at one station, a sand box at another, and various light displays. It all led to the center where Jonny had somehow created a flowing river in this hotel ballroom. As I took in what was happening in that space, a little voice crept into my head and said, over and over again, “You’ll never be this creative. Give it up. Why waste your time?” Still, I plodded through the labyrinth because I had signed up for it and I’m a One on the Enneagram. In the middle, at the bank of the manmade river, we were supposed to write down our fears on a piece of paper, and I kid you not, fold it into an origami boat, to float down the river. This really happened. By that point, I knew my fear all too well. I was afraid I wasn’t enough. I was afraid that I would never be enough. Not just to create some crazy alternative worship service someday, but that I’d never be enough to be a good priest. I grabbed a pen from the bucket and began to write. A few letters in, the pen dried up. Of course, it did. I couldn’t even do that right. I looked down in exasperation at the pen in my hand and noticed that it wasn’t your typical gray Bic that you can buy a dime a dozen. It was a promotional pen, not for Saint Swithin’s by the Sea or the United Methodist Church, but it said, “God doesn’t call the equipped. God equips the called.” I thanked God for the moment of reassurance, tucked that dried up pen in my pocket, and have been mostly able to trust God to sustain my ministry ever since.
That experience came to mind this week as I read the story of Jesus’ baptism by John at the Jordan River. Last we heard, Jesus was a twelve-year-old boy who had stayed behind at the Temple in Jerusalem while his parents made their way back to Nazareth after the Passover Feast. Last we heard, Mother Becca was inviting us to think about how, during those three long days, Mary must have struggled with her own inadequacy in the call to be the Mother of God. Today, we’ve fast-forwarded 18 years. Jesus is now about thirty and at the Jordan River asking John for baptism. John knows he’s not adequate for the task at hand. He couldn’t even tie the thong of Jesus’ sandal. John shouldn’t baptize Jesus, Jesus should baptize John, but Jesus is resolute. John is more than enough for the job because this is the way to “fulfill all righteousness.” My friend Evan Garner spent a lot of time thinking about that phrase this week. It’s an odd turn of phrase in Greek and it is very difficult to capture the idiom in English translations. Righteousness is one of those fifty-cent church words that gets used a lot, but I’m not sure any of us really knows what it means. Joseph was described as righteous when he decided to dismiss Mary quietly after she was found to be pregnant out of wedlock. He was a rule follower, but more than that, he was compassionate. Righteousness was found in the delicate balance of doing what was allowable under God’s law, while also doing what was best for Mary; not taking it to the extreme. Having Mary stoned to death was also allowable under the law, but it would seem that was not the righteous or just option for Joseph. The Contemporary English Version, an authorized Biblical translation for use in the Episcopal Church translates the whole sentence as “For now this is how it should be, because we must do all that God wants us to do.” Evan argues, and I agree, that what Jesus is saying to John isn’t that this moment of baptism is the capstone in God’s work of redemption for the world, but rather, it was, in that moment, the right next step in God’s ongoing unveiling of the Kingdom on earth. That’s what the season of Epiphany is all about, glimpses into God’s plan for salvation, spotlights on the still ongoing work of restoring creation to wholeness.
As Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were torn in two, the Spirit descended like a dove, and a voice from heaven spoke, maybe only to Jesus, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Here too, the Greek is hard to bring into English. Well pleased isn’t a bad translation, but another possible rendering is “whom I have gladly chosen.” Jesus, the human manifestation of God the Son, had been chosen from before time and forever. We won’t hear the Temptation story for a couple of months, but in all three Synoptic Gospels, we are told that immediately following his baptism, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan. As a kind of pre-emptive encouragement, God affirms Jesus’ calling, names him as beloved, and reminds him that he has all he needs for what lies ahead.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember any voices from heaven at my baptism. Still, whether you were baptized at 6 months or 60 years, I firmly believe that in that moment, as water ran down your brow, God named you as a gladly chosen member of Body of Christ, heir to the Kingdom of Heaven, and co-worker in the ongoing work of fulfilling all righteousness. Through the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit and the specific spiritual gifts imparted upon each of us in baptism every one of us has been equipped for ministry. With God’s help, none of us is inadequate for the task at hand, whether that task is building chairs for a new Sunday school classroom, leading a book study, packing sack lunches, or sharing the Good News of God’s work in your life. God is still at work in the world, fulfilling all righteousness, and invites each of us to take our part in it. When you feel overwhelmed. When you feel like you aren’t enough. Just remember, you, like Jesus, are loved by God, you were gladly chosen for the task at hand, and you are specifically equipped for ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit. God doesn’t call the equipped. God equips the called for the salvation of the whole world. Amen.