A Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany

Sunday, January 9, 2022

By: Amelia McDaniel, Lay Associate for Christian Formation


I ran across a poem recently. Poems I particularly admire are written with an economy of words. The barest number of words can be used to evoke a universe of thoughts and feelings. I want to be clear I came to appreciate poetry later in life. Not long ago at all really. Maybe it’s because I have realized that I myself use way too many words that I have come to this appreciation.

This poem, by Maggie Smith, struck me when I saw it on New Year’s Day.

The rain is a broken piano, playing the same note over and over.
My five-year-old said that. Already she knows loving the world means loving the wobbles you can’t shim, the creaks you can’t oil silent – the jerry rigged parts, MacGyvered with twine and chewing gum.
Let me love the cold rain’s plinking. Let me love the world the way I love my young son, not only when he cups my face in his sticky hands, but when, roughhousing, he accidentally splits my lip.
Let me love the world like a mother. Let me be tender when it lets me down.
Let me listen to the rain’s one note and hear a beginner’s song.
Maggie Smith

There is so much I love about this poem. I understand the imagery because it is true for me too.

I particularly love her description of getting walloped by a child. I’ve had my own lip split open more than once by the ginormous head of a kid. Maybe you have too. It’s an out of body experience. Because your brain’s fight or flight mode is triggered when you receive a blow like that. And here you are holding this fragile creature who has effectively just punched you. All the tenderness and love you have for the little boxer you are holding in your arms meets with the rage you instinctively feel. It’s an odd sensation. Because love washes that adrenaline fueled rage away. Maybe not instantly, but pretty darn quickly. And you gaze at your own prize fighter with adoration with a sense of I love you no matter what.

As I read this poem, the beginner’s song the poet refers to, the song that plinks down steadily, in one note, that I heard is I love you, no matter what.

In today’s Old Testament reading, we meet up with the Israelites, stuck in exile in Babylon, and they are feeling particularly unloved. God speaks to them through the prophet Isaiah.

But now, says the Lord—
the one who created you, Jacob,
the one who formed you, Israel:
Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched
and flame won’t burn you.
3 I am the Lord your God,
the holy one of Israel, your savior.
Don’t fear,
I am with you. Common English Bible

Although I do not think comparing us, the people of this congregation today to the lot of the Exiles in Babylon, is exactly parallel I do think it is fair to say that there is plenty of anxiety and fear in our daily lives currently. I do think it is fair to say that this time we are currently living in does not ring with peace and unity.

The plinking one note beginner’s song of God’s unshakeable love for us is awfully hard to hear over the screaming pundits on tv or the people losing it on airplanes and checkout lines or sometimes the song is drowned out by our very own family members moving from conversation to angry diatribe at the dinner table.

I suppose none of what we are doing as a human race is surprising to God. God, who created us, knows exactly the breadth of and depth of both our ability to reflect love in this world and our ability to turn away from love. What is surprising is that God simply won’t give up on us.

We are here on the first Sunday of the season of Epiphany, the season of the revealing of Christ to the world. The time when we look to all the love in this Kingdom of God that is illumined through the life of Jesus. And always on this first Sunday of the season of Epiphany we remember the baptism of Jesus.

The solidarity with humanity as Jesus enters the Jordan River cannot be understated. Jesus, who took on a full human nature, goes down into the waters of baptism in complete union with us humans.

As Jesus comes up from the river God proclaims…This is my son, who I love. In whom I am well pleased. That was the beginner’s song that Jesus began his ministry with. This is my son, who I love.

This is what we believe God says to each of us as we come up from the waters of our own baptisms. You are mine. I love you. I love you no matter what.

But like the exiles in Babylon, I find that this truth of God’s love is often near impossible to believe, especially when I take a look around at how we are all doing these days. There is discord and overblown rhetoric everywhere. I realize that as much as I’d like to point my finger at others in the mess of today, if I am honest, I’m buckled up pretty tightly in the middle of it through my own actions and inactions. Unlike that strange mix of adrenaline and rage and love I know is possible, I find that I can be stuck in anger and frustration, forgetting that I am beloved along with all of creation.

Deep down we grow in kindness when our kindness is tested. That’s what Bishop Tutu said. Bishop Tutu, Book of Joy, p. 135 Lord knows that our kindness is being tested. But is our kindness as a people growing? Is our capacity for kindness expanding rather than contracting?
What if our broken piano song, our beginner’s song is just – I love you no matter what? What if we loved remembering how absolutely beloved we all are? What if instead of judging we become tender?

We know that living in God’s love doesn’t mean that everyone will come to a place of perfect peace. The excerpt left out in today’s gospel, verses 18-20, detail how John is locked up in prison. We know that John ends up killed for his faith, despite his commitment to the good news, despite the fact that he knew clearly the love that had been set forth in the world through Jesus.

Being beloved by God and living like that can deliver the same kind of wallop us on the chin as a toddler can. It’s brutally hard in many cases to live in a way that respects the dignity of every human being. But this impossibly difficult existence is exactly what Jesus allows himself to be baptized into. This is why God is so unbearably proud of him, pleased with him. And God gives us inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage to will and to persevere and a spirit to know and love so that when our days our difficult, we can continue to love as Christ loved.

I hope I keep listening for that broken piano song that I heard from Smith’s poem, I love you no matter what. I hope we all do. How to express that love, that’s where it gets difficult. Because we are called out of ourselves, out of the comfort of what we know and understand, into the lives of others. That’s where our kindness is tested. And I imagine that is where our opportunity to make God proud lies.

In the foreword to The Book of Joy, a book that is a conversation between Bishop Tutu and the Dali Lama, they write …Every day is a new opportunity to begin again. Every day is your birthday. Intro. Book of Joy p. x.

Every day is a new day to live into our baptism as well. Everyday is another chance to love tenderly, to listen for the beginner’s song of love, even when our lips get split open.