Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord, January 13, 2019 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Townsend Congregational Church, UCC, Townsend, MA

Baptism into the community of Creation

Isaiah 43:1-7 Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

I can’t think of a better day than today to speak about our call and power as Christians to care for God’s Creation. Today, as we always do on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism. It’s one of the few events in Jesus’ life that is recorded in all four Gospels. All the stories have the same basic shape: Jesus is plunged by John the Baptist into the waters of the Jordan River. When Jesus emerges from its depths, the heavens are opened, the Spirit of God descends on him as gently as a dove, and a voice says: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22).

We return to this story year after year because Jesus’s baptism is one of the basic stories that reveals who he is. It’s also the foundational story of our life in Christ. Most of us probably can’t remember our baptisms, and sometimes we forget how powerful our baptism was – and is. But tapping into the power of our baptism can give us the clarity and moral courage we need to live with integrity in these challenging times. I’ll say more about that, but first I want to say a few words about the ecological predicament in which we find ourselves.
Brevard Australian Zoo Animals, by Rusty Clark (creativecommons)
You probably remember that a couple of months ago, World Wildlife Fund released a major report showing that the number of animals around the world has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years. Human beings have wiped out 60% of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970. According to this new study, “the vast and growing consumption of food and resources by the global [human] population is destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which … society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.”  An executive at World Wildlife Fund commented: “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is…This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.” Maybe you read the recent article in the New York Times Magazine called “The Insect Apocalypse is Here.” It turns out that massive populations of insects have quietly gone missing, a fact with vast implications for global food systems and eco-systems. We are, in short, in the midst of the world’s sixth extinction event – “the sixth time in world history that a large number of species have disappeared in unusually rapid succession, caused this time not by asteroids or ice ages but by humans.” As species vanish and animal populations diminish, alarmed scientists are describing what they call a “biological annihilation.” Meanwhile, climate change caused by burning fossil fuels is raising temperatures, making heat waves more intense, spreading disease, causing crop failures, and stoking extreme storms, droughts and floods. The World Bank concluded that 143 million people could soon be displaced because of climate change.  2018 is on course to be named one of the four hottest years in recorded history, the other three being 2015, 2016, and 2017. A front-page article in Friday’s New York Times reviews a new study that shows that the oceans are also breaking records for heat and heating much more rapidly than many scientists had expected, with drastic effects on marine life, coral reefs, and sea-level rise. Yet although life on Earth is faltering and civilization could be at risk of collapse, the political and corporate powers-that-be relentlessly drive forward with business as usual, drilling for more oil, pushing to expand pipeline construction, cutting down forests, and generally acting as if the Earth were a private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale. Here’s what I want to say to you this morning: it was for such a time as this that we were baptized. In a perilous time, we need to take hold of the riches of our baptism. As baptized people we have everything we need to rise to the occasion and to act with compassion, courage, and strength.
Townsend Congregational Church, UCC
What riches do we receive in baptism? Let me name three. First, baptism gives us the power to live in love, to be rooted in love, to belong to a love that will never let us go. When we are baptized into Jesus Christ, we are baptized into the same compassion that led Jesus to step into the waters of the Jordan River and to be baptized by John. You know, Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. John the Baptist was preaching repentance from sin, but Jesus had no sin. He had nothing to repent, nothing to confess. He could have skipped the baptism and held himself apart from everyone else. He could have kept his distance and simply watched the masses of people crowding down to the river to confess their sins and receive forgiveness. And yet – he took the plunge. In an act of radical solidarity with all humankind, he stepped into the river and claimed the truth of interconnectedness. Jesus chose to identify with all human beings, to identify with you, to identify with me. And not just with human beings but with the whole of God’s Creation. As John the Baptist said, those who are baptized into Christ are baptized “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).  You know what? The fire of God’s love keeps burning away all the chaff in “an unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17). Quickly or slowly it burns away everything in us that is not love, opening our eyes so that we come to see the world as God sees it: as precious, sacred, and filled with God’s presence. The divine love into which we were plunged in baptism extends not only to us, and not only to human beings, but also to every sparrow and whale, every earthworm and orca, every maple tree and mountain. So baptism into Christ isn’t about joining a club or belonging to a tribe. It isn’t about affiliating with people who look like us or think like us. Baptism into Christ is a radical act of humility and compassion that joins us to the One who identifies with every human being and with the whole community of Creation. It joins us to a love that will never let us go. Here’s a second gift of baptism: it puts our death behind us. In baptism, we are immersed in the waters of death. We have died in Christ; we have died with Christ. Our death has taken place. In a sense, it’s done. It’s over with. In baptism, we have died and been buried with Christ, and through the power of his resurrection, we are raised, here and now, to live with him. What this means is that we can acknowledge and face all this bad news without being overwhelmed by fear. The water that we splash on a child at the baptismal font may seem inconsequential, but it’s a sign that we have nothing to fear from the death of the body. In the early centuries of the Church, Christians were actually called “those who have no fear of death.” 1 To whatever extent we understand that through baptism, our death is behind us, we are set free from anguish and anxiety. We are set free to love without grasping, without possessiveness, without holding back.
Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas with Rev. Mark C. Brockmeier, Pastor, Townsend Congregational Church, UCC
And here is gift number three: baptized into a love that extends through all Creation, a love that insists that life and not death will have the last word, we rise up as healers and justice-seekers, as prophets and activists, as people unafraid to confront the powers-that-be. That’s what the early Church was known for. Remember the complaints that were lodged against the first followers of Jesus? They were charged with “turning the world upside down” and “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7). Sometimes we can spot Christians because they’re among the ones obeying a higher authority and refusing to settle for a killing status quo. And what better time than now to take hold of the prophetic power of our baptism, and to confront the forces that are unraveling life on Earth? I take heart from the 21 young people who, through a group called Our Children’s Trust, have taken the Federal government to court, arguing that U.S. government policies have fueled greenhouse gas emissions and have thereby “deprived a whole generation of American citizens of their constitutional rights to ‘a climate system capable of sustaining human life.’”  These young plaintiffs also allege that the federal government’s actions have violated the public trust, “since, they argue, the atmosphere must be considered a common resource to be protected for the well-being of all citizens.” That’s big-picture thinking and big-hearted commitment. You and I can follow suit and stand up for life in all kinds of ways. We can cut back strongly on our use of fossil fuels and switch our households to clean sources of energy.  Maybe we can fly less, drive less, and eat less meat. Shifting to a plant-based diet turns out to be one of the most climate-friendly things we can do. Maybe we can volunteer or send money to a local land trust to help save forests and farmland. If we went to college, we can push our alma mater to divest from fossil fuels. And we can also push for larger, systemic changes. Maybe we sign up with 350Mass. for a Better Future, the grassroots climate action group in Massachusetts, and lobby for policies that put a price on carbon and support renewable energy and “green” jobs. Fourteen new members of our state legislature have vowed to address climate change and transition to 100% renewable electricity by 2050. And bold legislators in Congress are proposing a Green New Deal that aims to tackle both economic inequality and climate change. If speaking inside the halls of power isn’t enough, then some of us will join the growing numbers of faith-filled people who bring our message to the streets, carry out peaceful civil disobedience, and put our bodies on the line. If ever there were a time to bear witness to our faith and to the power of our baptism, now would be the time. If ever there were a moment to hold fast to our vision of a world in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with all our fellow creatures, now would be the time. We who have been baptized – how will we live out our baptism in the year ahead? How is God calling you to tap into the power that is yours in Christ? _____________________________________________________________________________________________________   1. Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (first published in French as Sources, Paris: Editions Stock, 1982; first published in English, London: New City, 1993), p. 107.    
Sermon for the First Sunday After the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord, January 7, 2018 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at First Congregational Church, Great Barrington, MA Psalm 29 Acts 19:1-7 Mark 1:4-11

Baptism and the call to protect Earth

Our Gospel text this morning tells one of the foundational stories of Christian faith, the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the River Jordan.   Before I say one word more, I invite you to take your thumb and to trace the sign of the cross on your forehead. Are you with me? Let’s do it together, once or twice. Let’s make it a prayer, for with grateful hearts we recognize that this simple gesture recalls the fact that our forehead has been indelibly marked with the sign of the cross and that we were baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Whether that once-in-a-lifetime event took place many years ago, before conscious memory, when we were babies, or whether it took place more recently, in a ceremony that we remember – through our baptism we have been drawn into the divine life of God and marked as Christ’s own forever.

It’s clear that Jesus’ baptism was a decisive experience, a pivotal event that launched him into his public ministry. The story is told in all four Gospels, and it’s the very first story about Jesus that we hear in the earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark. In his baptism, Jesus consciously received the identity that had been his since before the beginning of time: he was, and had always been, the child of God, the beloved of God, and nothing and no one could take that love away. That’s what happens in our baptism, too: like Jesus, we, too, are forever claimed as God’s own. From that moment and for the rest of our lives, we are drawn into the life of God, caught up in an unbreakable relationship of love. Do you ever wonder who you are, who you really are, deep down? Today’s Gospel story gives the answer. Without doing a thing to deserve it or to earn it, you are the son, you are the daughter, you are the beloved of God – you are the one with whom God is well pleased. Wherever you go, whatever you do, wherever the Spirit sends you, the divine life is flowing through you, as close as your breath, as close as your heartbeat. You and I belong to Christ forever, and we are loved to the core. I don’t know about you, but I find this a deeply consoling truth to hold on to right now, when so many people feel stressed and scattered, anxious or depressed. We live in a turbulent time, and the world is rapidly changing. Sometimes it seems that everything is falling apart, so it’s easy to feel unmoored, ungrounded, and afraid. What a perfect moment to remind ourselves of our baptism and to touch in again to the deep truth that we are God’s beloved daughter or son, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Roman 8:35-39)! Here’s the thing: the love that embraced us in our baptism, the love that flows through us with our every breath – that love extends not only to individuals, not only to the baptized, and not only to human beings. The love of God embraces the whole Creation. Scripture tells us so (e.g. Gen. 1:31; Gen. 9:8-10, 15; Psalm 19:1; Psalm 24:1; John 3:16; Romans 1:20; Ephesians 1:10, Ephesians 4:9-10, Col. 1:19-20), and we glimpse this truth in our own experience. Anyone who has ever been amazed by the beauty of the world – anyone who has ever spent time studying the details of a single leaf, or gazing at a mountain, or looking at the stars on a frosty night knows what it’s like to feel a wave of wonder, humility, gratefulness and awe. The Creator of all-that-is is always disclosing God’s self to us in the natural world, always inviting us to slow down, look carefully, and greet our other-than-human kin.
Juniper berries encased in ice. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas
That’s what Jesus did, I think: he lived close to the Earth, and in the Gospels we often find him outdoors, praying in the desert, walking along a seashore, or climbing a mountain. Here he is in today’s story, plunging into a river! His parables and stories are rich with images of nature: sheep and seeds, lilies and sparrows, weeds and rocks. As I consider Jesus, it seems to me that he encountered every person and creature he met with eyes of discerning love. He saw the inherent sacredness of the created world because he saw with his sacred eyes. He knew that we belong to a living, sacred whole and that everything is lit up with God, because he himself was lit up with God. Jesus knew what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins proclaims: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” So when we see that living world being desecrated – when we see God’s good Earth being poisoned by toxins and pollutants, and laid waste by corporate greed – when we realize that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes and learn from scientists that a mass extinction event is now underway, a “biological annihilation”– when we understand that burning coal, gas, and oil is pushing the planet to break new records for heat, causing droughts, floods, and monster hurricanes, drowning cities, and accelerating wildfires – when we realize that, unless we change course fast, we will not leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world – then we are moved to take action. For we want to bear witness to the love of Jesus; we want to honor the glory of God’s Creation and to protect it from further harm.
Mourning doves. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas
I wish I could tell you, as some highly placed but misinformed politicians have recently claimed, that the bitter cold that has gripped North America and the hurricane-force winds that just blasted the East Coast are a sign that global warming is not real. In fact, researchers point out that climate change may well be related to these frigid temperatures: the Arctic is warming rapidly, and the jet stream that once functioned like a strong fence or lasso that held cold air firmly around the pole now seems to be giving way and growing weak. Some scientists compare it “to leaving a refrigerator door open, with cold air flooding the kitchen even as warm air enters the refrigerator.” In any case, except for Canada and the northern United States, just about every other part of the world is warmer than normal.   Last year was the second hottest on record for our planet as a whole, just behind a sweltering 2016, which crushed the record set the year before, which in turn crushed the record set the year before that. Sixteen of the seventeen hottest years have all been in this century. Thank God, there is a lot that we, as individuals, can do. Maybe we can plant a tree. Save a tree. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, and move to a plant-based diet. Get our home insulated and get LED lighting. Support local farms and land trusts. Fly less – and, if we must fly, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. You know the drill! Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. To do that, we’ll need to become politically engaged, to confront the powers-that-be, and to push our elected leaders to awaken from the fantasy that we can continue with business as usual. So some of us carry out peaceful, disciplined actions of civil disobedience to stop construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure and keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. Some of us join Citizens Climate Lobby and push for a national carbon tax, or support legislation right here in Massachusetts that would put a price on carbon. Those of us who are white and privileged listen to the voices of racial minorities, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and that they are the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive.
350Mass for a Better Future march against new pipelines
Here in the Berkshires you are fortunate to have a local node of 350Mass for a Better Future, the grassroots, climate action group that is working hard to build political will to stop new pipelines and move the Commonwealth to 100% clean energy. I hope you’ll sign up with 350Mass and check out a local meeting. Our state politicians see what’s needed, but they are not moving fast enough to stop the damage. We who have been baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ intend to bear witness to our God-given faith that life and not death will have the last word. We intend to become the people that God meant us to be: people who are faithful stewards of God’s Creation, people who are a blessing to Earth and all her communities. Jesus took risks to oppose the unjust authorities of his time, and we must do the same. Here on the first Sunday of the Epiphany we have a chance to make a radical new start. We have a chance to reclaim a covenant more powerful than any stack of New Year’s Resolutions. This morning we celebrate the baptism of Jesus and we affirm the power of our own baptism in His name. We are loved beyond measure by a divine love that will never let us go. Day by day, as long as we live, we have countless opportunities to bear witness to that love. Who knows what compassion will rise up from our renewed commitment, what new cherishing of our selves and each other, what fresh energy for justice seeking and peacemaking in this precious world entrusted to our care?
NOTE: On January 12, 2018, ClimateNexus posted an updated analysis of the relationship between the cold snap and climate change that does not mention changes in the jet stream: Strange Times for Chilly Temps: The type of extreme cold North Americans experienced in early January has become increasingly rare as the planet warms, a new analysis shows. An initial breakdown of January’s cold snap from World Weather Attribution finds such frosty temperatures are now 15 times rarer than they were a century ago, when cold waves were an average of 4 degrees F chillier. This winter’s extreme cold “wouldn’t have been that strange” 100 years ago, study co-author Gabriel Vecchi told the AP. “Things like this are becoming stranger.” (New York Times $, AP, Washington Post $, EartherMashable)