A Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany

I don’t know why exactly, but when we were kids, my sisters and I did something really rotten to our little brother. We told him that he had come to our family as a refugee from an Eastern European country. Why a refugee and why one from Eastern Europe? Who knows. But what that implied was that he wasn’t actually one of us, he wasn’t really a part of the family. Why did we do that? I have no idea. But we did. We were a pretty lively crew, the four of us, so maybe it was just a normal part of the general nonsense that regularly went on between us. Or maybe we thought it was just too ridiculous to be believed.

But it really struck a chord with my brother. For some reason, rather than just pushing back (which would have been the usual thing to do) he found himself wondering if maybe, just maybe, it was true. His memories couldn’t refute it because our memories only go so far back. Maybe he really was a refugee our family had taken in. Maybe he really wasn’t part of the family. It was pretty upsetting to him.

I didn’t exactly understand his reaction at the time. Why didn’t he just push back in the usual way? Maybe I didn’t understand his reaction then, but I do now. We had touched on a really tender place in us human beings without knowing it. It’s a basic need we all have to have, or our lives can go sideways. We all need to know that we belong, somewhere to someone.

I do want to say before moving on that there was hell to pay for this little prank we pulled on our brother. Our mother took care of that. But in a surprising way. But it also happened in the ways that it does for all of us, I’m afraid, where we’re on the receiving end of messages and actions that say you don’t belong. The world is called ‘the school of hard knocks’ for a reason. Who belongs at the cool table in the school cafeteria and who doesn’t. Who belongs in this neighborhood and who doesn’t. All of it. There’s a kind of great sorting of the wheat from the chaff that seems to be a part of human nature, or at least fallen human nature. Rich, poor, educated, uneducated, black, white, immigrant, native, believers, non-believers, and on and on, answering the question who belongs and who doesn’t.

Which on this day, the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, in one way or another is the situation Jesus wades right into the middle of, standing in the Jordan River. His cousin John is there thundering away at the miserable state of affairs of people who assume they belong to God, or assume that they don’t, or aren’t too sure. None of that matters to John. For John, the people are grass, sprouting with dew in the morning and gone by sunset.  He shouts that God is coming and you had better get it together and clean up your act as if your life depends on it, because it does. But then he spots Jesus making his way with the crowds of people by the water. He knows at once who he is. He says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” So why is he there with all the rest? John didn’t want to baptize Jesus. He isn’t worthy and besides, Jesus doesn’t need it. But Jesus won’t have it any other way. His place right beside us has nothing to do with being worthy or not. His baptism upends all of that because with his baptism he says, “Here I am, with all the rest, right where I belong.”

After Christmas time, our lost-and-found basket here at church is generally fully restocked. There are scarves and reader eyeglasses and car keys and gloves and other little thises and thats that wash ashore from the high tide of Christmas. I was looking through all those things the week after Christmas to see what was there. I saw a sporty pair of green and black gloves, the kind that don’t have fingertips. I picked them up and thought about the hands that fit into them and wondered if they would ever be reunited with the hands they belonged to. Which, from that thought, in my mind at least, was just one small step to bringing to mind the lost-and-found basket that Jesus puts himself into with us when he is baptized. John thinks all of us lost gloves can find our way back to the hands we belong to. Jesus knows better; sheep get lost and can’t find their way back. John thinks we need to clean up our act to save our own skin. Jesus says God will do the saving for us. Jesus finds the place our lost lives belong.

I told you there was hell to pay when my mother caught wind of what we’d done to my brother. She would have been perfectly within her rights to have gone John the Baptist on us, putting the axe to the roots as John said God is going to do. But that’s not what happened. What she did was go to the closet where there was a big box of pictures, stacks of black-and-white Polaroids back then. She picked through them, found the ones she was looking for, and then got my brother and they sat down at the kitchen table. And she told him a story, his story, using those pictures. A picture of her in the home stretch of her pregnancy just before he was born, him wrapped up in a blanket carried by our dad when he came home from the hospital, her sitting on the floor with him in her lap while our dog licked him, his first Christmas with the rest of us in front of the tree, between his sisters on a sled.  She said, “Trust me, I brought you into this world. You’re mine. You belong in this family. I’ll deal with your sisters and brother.”  That sealed it.

Isn’t baptism like that too? In the prayers over the water, we hear the story of God’s great saving deeds from the first day the Spirit blew over the face of the deep till that same Spirit rested on Jesus in the waters of the Jordan, and throughout the life he led to show us what it looks like to belong to God and to live like that. And what that looks like is a table around which are seated down-and-outers who suddenly feel like up-and- comers, and people you wouldn’t be caught dead with from the wrong side of the tracks and from the right side of the tracks and everyone in between. And because of the one breaking bread for us all to share, you see, we belong.

In just a few minutes, that same Spirit will be hovering over the water in that great baptismal font, and God will establish an indissoluble bond with Kate and Charles and Coleman and Brooke and Davis; they will receive the grace of heaven through the sacrament of baptism and be sealed as Christ’s own forever. And a place at the Lord’s Table will always be set for them. And for you. Because it is the Lord’s Table – the place we belong with him. Amen.

The Rev. David H. May