1 Epiphany: The Baptism of Jesus

1 Epiphany: January 11, 2015

Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

Sermon preached by the Rev. Canon Linda S. Taylor

Her hands were shaking, and her mouth trembled when she came to the front of the class to tell her story. Fe is a tiny woman—inches short of 5 feet and maybe 70 pounds soaking wet. Fe is Filipina, a member of an order of Roman Catholic nuns. She works in a retreat center in Manila, where she teaches seminarians and serves as spiritual director to people on retreat. Our paths crossed in a one-week preaching course at the Baptist seminary in Berkeley–16 years ago this January. She was there in that class because she wanted be more comfortable when she needed to stand up and speak in front of a group.

We began our speaking, that very first day, with our first assignment, which was to tell a story of our lives. Fe began her story about he life by telling us what it was like to wake up that morning. It was one of those days when we had a wonderful, blustery January storm. It had begun just at daybreak—which was 7 o’clock—and when she woke, she was surprised by the storm, and that led her to wonder and to think about all the other surprises that she’d had in her life, and especially the one that she told us about. She was wondering what God had in store—what kind of surprises God had in store for that day—and it drew her back into her past, and she decided that she would tell us about one of those surprises. Her story was about her experience—the surprises she had—during the coup that overthrew Marcos.

There was a call to the convent that night—late at night—and the superior of the convent took the call. She was told, “Keep your sisters inside. Don’t let them go out where it’s dangerous.” So she came back and gathered the sisters around her and told them about this call and about what was happening outside their doors. She said “We need to stay inside so that we can be safe. And Fe said, “That doesn’t feel right. Why should we be here while all our community is outside.” She suggested that that they should think about that and pray about that and sleep on it and let the Holy Spirit tell them what they needed to do. They all agreed, and the next morning, the superior called them together again, and she said, “Those who want to go outside may go outside. Those who want to remain inside may do so and will pray for those who go out.” So Fe went out into the streets, which were full of people—and soldiers—and tanks—Marcos’ army. And she and other women and children joined hands and stood as a living barricade on the streets to keep the tanks from coming deeper into the city. And they went to the tanks and they knocked on them and they said, “Little brothers, come out. We are your brothers and sisters. You cannot do this. Come out.” And they took them water and food and flowers, and some of those soldiers did abandon their tanks and came out to be with the people.

The tumult continued, and when at last it seemed certain that the coup would be successful, there was a lot of noise and talking in the streets. And there were loud speakers and microphones on almost every corner, and Fe noticed that whoever had control of the microphone was able to shift the rest of the people in whatever way they wanted. A young man was talking and he was calling for violence against Marcos, and Fe thought, “This does not feel right.” So, she waited, and as soon as that young man put down the microphone, she went to it and she picked it up, and she said, “Brothers and sisters, Marcos is a child of God also. We cannot call down violence upon him.” She spoke for a little longer. When she was through and put down the microphone, her knees were so shaky that she had to sit down. She said she couldn’t remember what else she had said that morning, but she remembered how the spirit of violence began to dissipate as she spoke.

After that night, people remained in the streets for a long time. There was a community that built up—a community taking care of each other. People who had food and water brought it. They took bed sheets and curtained off spaces for comfort stations. They took care of one another. Fe said she was seeing the Filipino people at their very finest during that time, as they cared for each other and came together in loving community.

Now, I’m sure, although Fe didn’t speak much about her life, I’m sure that when she made her vows—when she entered the order, that she never anticipated that she would be standing on a street corner holding a microphone in the middle of chaos. Because that’s what happens when we make promises. Whether it’s our baptismal covenant promises or our wedding promises or our ordination promises. We make our promises with deep hope that we’ll be able to live into the promises—that we’ll be able to live the lives we’ve just committed to. And at the same time as we do that, we know, deep down in our hearts, that there are going to be days when we don’t do it—when we don’t keep those promises that we’re making.

We’re baptized into the community. Our baptism by water is into community, and as John the Baptizer promised, we also have baptism by the Holy Spirit that brings us into the Body of Christ. And it’s a baptism of fire, and it comes to us again and again and again. This baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit burns away those things that keep us from being the people we are called to be. That baptism burns away the things that keep us from staying true to our promises: the pride, the need for approval from others, the fear—all of those things that get in our way. Sometimes our lack of compassion or consideration.   All of those things that kind of cling to us and that are so hard for us to put down. Christ and the Spirit bring the fire to take that away so that we can live into our baptismal promise—to trust in Christ’s love and grace —to proclaim the Gospel in word and example—to serve Christ in everyone we meet—and to respect all of creation. The community into which we’re baptized holds us as we do our work to try to live into our promises. Christ and the Holy Spirit are here with us, strengthening us to do that work.

As I listened to Fe that morning so many years ago, I heard an invitation that I’d like to share with you.   And that is, after you’ve stepped into the fire of that baptism and through the fire of that baptism—after you’ve spoken the truth that needs to be told—after you’ve fed the hungry and given water to the thirsty—after you’ve cared for those who have no one to care for them—after you’ve done the things you never thought you could do—after that, take a moment to listen. Listen for the words I know Fe heard on that evening in Manila. Listen for the voice I know you will hear. You are my child—the beloved. With you I am well pleased.