Category: Dialog

Blog posts, op eds, articles, and anything else that contributes to our evolving understanding of ministry in Higher Ed.

Epiphany 3: Call & Response

The Collect for Epiphany 3 asks for grace so that we may: answer the call of Jesus Christ, proclaim the Good News of his salvation, and perceive the glory of his marvelous works. So what is Jesus calling… Read More

Muddy Waters & the Meaning of Baptism

“Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him…”

I can’t say I blame him, John. To be honest, I would have prevented him, too. At least, I would have tried to. Have you seen the Jordan river? Dirty, muddy, gross, you can’t see two inches into it. As far as places to be baptized go, it’s not just that you could do a lot better; on the grounds of aesthetics only, you couldn’t do much worse. There’s this lovely place in the Texas Hill Country, outside of the tiny town of Leakey, Texas, a retreat center called Laity Lodge and the setting’s idyllic and there’s this deep pool of water that swells up as you hike along the Frio River. They call it Blue Hole because it’s, well, a hole filled with water. That’s blue. And the water is all greens and blues and perfectly clear, such that you can count every fish clear down to the bottom some thirty feet below. Surrounded by hills on both sides. Majestic birds soaring above to the soundtracks of the most beautiful movie themes from the 80s. That part’s not true. But the rest is true, and it would make for so much better baptismal photos for Jesus than the waters he ended up at.

My one trip to the Jordan, in 2014, the water was muddy, the way rivers get right after a storm, and apparently it’s always like that, situated on the edge of the desert, always carrying the cold and stirred up waters of storms from somewhere else. And instead of hills on both sides of the river were teenage soldiers with machine guns. And a dotted rope line in the water so you could tell which waters belonged to which guns. And they were smoking cigarettes, the soldiers were, and one of them offered a cigarette to a friend who didn’t smoke but said, “Hey, when the guy with the gun hands you a smoke, you take it.” 

And then, on the horizon, no majestic eagles here, but a caravan of tour buses, out of which poured thousands of people: pilgrims, migrants, other visitors from Ethiopia. Elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, so tight on the banks it was easy to get separated from one’s traveling party and lose one’s sense of safety and internal direction.

Hey Jesus, uh, maybe we could, I mean, there’s this quiet cabin, on the Frio. It’s beautiful. Maybe we could do this there – you don’t have to – Jesus nods his understanding, but doesn’t move from his intention. This is just fine for now, he tells John.

And sure, things were different when Jesus and John walked the earth, but they were different in a lot of the same ways. The Jordan river, back then, was still a political border, still marked the edge of the land of promise. The Jordan, back then, was still every bit a doorway to the desert, no less than now a collector of cold and stirred up waters from other places; the Jordan was every bit a part of Israel’s conflicted sense of what it was to be and to hope, caught somewhere between the promise of God and the rule of the Roman empire; at the time of Jesus’s baptism, the Jordan river was no less than now a river full of the muck of life, violence, individual and systemic broken dreams, hidden fears, disappointments, and failures. All the things people came to wash off there.  

Jesus, says John, are you sure? You’re not dirty the way the rest of us are dirty. It’s liable to get all on you. You don’t need a cleaning like this. Say, about that place on the Frio…

Christians through the centuries have sometimes thought about baptism, Jesus’s and our own, with an understandable preference for the clear waters of Blue Hole over the muddy waters of the Jordan. Baptism is supposed to clean you and separate you from all the mess of life, the thinking goes. So at one time in Christian history, people put off baptism until the moment of death, because they didn’t want to soil their souls after getting scrubbed up. They didn’t want to track the mud of their humanity through the halls of heaven. To its credit, this way of thinking about baptism and the life of faith is upfront and honest about how sordid and painful life can be. No rose colored glasses here. Consequently, though, the goal of faith sometimes became maintaining as much distance from the dirty parts as possible. Spiritual cleanliness is next to godliness. Or something like that. This way of engaging the life of faith scratched its head a bit when Jesus came and hung out with all the wrong people: sex workers, tax collectors, lepers, and worse. Standing at the banks of the river, John scratches his head, too. “Look, Jesus, I’m not sure you wanna get yourself mixed up in all this, maybe let’s steer clear of these waters.” But, and this is the important thing for us to see, getting mixed up in these waters is emphatically what baptism, for Jesus, is.

Theologian Katheriene Sonderegger writes that “(the) crushing suffocation of sin, the rage that sweeps over us like torrents, the weakness that undermines all resolve, the pitiful self-righteousness that cannot ignore how tinny it all sounds, the smallness and meanness, the icy darkness of cruelty: Christ has tasted all this in His baptism for us and for our sake.”

In Jesus, God meets us in the chaos of the waters. And it’s in and over these waters that the heavens open, the dove descends, and the voice speaks the surprise and Good News of New Creation: “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” the voice says. It turns out John was wrong, coming into the heart of the mess of us doesn’t undo the love of the Father, but the waters become the place of love’s revealing. 

When you and I were baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, we were baptized into the fullness of this same love. In baptism, God’s love for you is manifest as the most true thing about you, as you are sealed by the Holy Spirit, marked as Christ’s own, and made one with, a part of, the Body of Christ, the same Christ who for love sought us in the raging torrents. Or, as Paul puts it, “He became sin who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God.” God’s beloved is what you are. The righteousness of God is what you are.

Now, the righteousness of God is pretty heady stuff, so before you get a big head about it and get to boasting over brunch, let’s get this clear: we are never more righteous than the one who is our righteousness. So we remind ourselves and each other that we inherit from Jesus a righteousness that doesn’t fear the dirt and dirty, one that doesn’t hides from the mess of human lives, others or our own. Instead, we emerge from the waters where he meets us as those committed to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving one another as Christ loved us, which is to say, even before we loved him. In other words, the two places where we discover, on the one hand, the fullness of God’s love for us and, on the other hand, the heart of naked humanity in all its grief and woundedness turn out to be one and the very same place. 

So, writes Rowan Williams, “Baptism takes us to where Jesus is. It takes us therefore into closer neighbourhood with a dark and fallen world, and it takes us into closer neighbourhood with others invited there. The baptized life is characterized by solidarity with those in need, and sharing with all others who believe. And it is characterized by a prayerfulness that courageously keeps going, even when things are difficult and unpromising and unrewarding, simply because you cannot stop the urge to pray. Something keeps coming alive in you; never mind the results.”

Holy Trinity knows a great deal, I think, about being present to others in this way, in the neighborhood. The work of the outreach committee is daily transforming our awareness of the needs of the larger community beyond these walls, embedding us in new relationships that are both challenging and delighting. Likewise, the youth of this church have become leaders of outreach by the steadfastness of their days at the Rock Ridge memory care unit and in their participation with local ministries like the Austin Street Shelter and Feed My Starving People. 

Baptism reminds us that these efforts and the many others like them are not to be confused with a cheap charity, are not the same as waking up one day to discover that you have a lot and some have a little and then giving to them out of your extra. Baptism calls us into a deeper solidarity, calls us into the waters of a broken humanity, with Jesus, where suffering meets the voice announcing new creation. Life in the mess and mud is just another way of saying, “Living our baptism.”

One day Jesus stumbled across a blind man. He put mud on the blind man’s eyes and healed him. Cleansed through dirt. How wonderfully odd. Even mud, it seems, has been made a part of the story of redemption. God has a history of healing the eyes of God’s people in and through the mess of ordinary life. Like Peter, who feared and then embraced the mud of Gentiles, or Francis, who feared and then kissed the mud of lepers, or Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day who sought out the mud of solidarity with the poor, we are likewise asked to trust that there is healing in the mud; that God would and has troubled the troubled waters; that that which we’d feared might be made a part of our salvation. That old ways of being, lives ordered by fear, the old order, have been upended. Because Christ is in the waters, we have nothing to fear. Because Christ is in the waters, we can go nowhere else. All things are being made new! There, in the waters, with all the wrong people, with all of the suffering, back behind the pretending – even there, and only there – God in Christ has made a home. 


Praying in My Sleep

The nighttime collects all the day’s incompletions. The fertile promise of quiet hours, kids in bed, Becomes seductive, the idea that things undone Might yet be done and not instead confessed.But only confession brings rest because …

Herods all the way down

First, a funny story. I misread the lectionary last week. You may know (or may not) that right after Christmas, the Episcopal Church goes a bit off-road, and insists on reading John 1, then does Matthew 2, or Luke 2 on Christmas 2. No other RCL church does this. I forgot (mea culpa) and so […]

Add a French Accent

My brother used to write copy for a vast video game empire run out of Montreal. One of his gigs was to write lines for people to read while they introduced the new games every year at the giant video game company convention, hosted by Famous Comedian Human. Despite not having any knowledge of gaming […]

On the virgin birth

Year A is not my favorite, because Matthew doesn’t talk about Mary enough. Instead, he detours into talking about Joseph, and his several dreams (and as Amy-Jill Levine points out, this should remind you of Genesis’ Joseph and HIS dreams. Because Matthew is all about re-enacting the Tanakh in a pretty on-the-nose way, once you […]

Expecting a sermon

This past Sunday, we had our Lessons and Carols at 10:30, which meant I didn’t preach at that service. Instead, the choir and the rest of the music program did the heavy lifting of expounding on the Scripture through music and song. It was lovely. (I know there’s been a recent kurfuffle on Twitter about […]

John the Baptist, Pastoral Care Genius

On my list of Things I Could Probably Give a TED Talk On, Even Though No One Would Want To Hear It, is the topic of how a shallow understanding of sin and repentance has damaged our society’s ability to fairly deal with wrongdoing. On the one hand, some people get vilified forever, on the […]

Sweet, warm embrace of the Apocalypse

Talking about the apocalypse fills me with joy like few other topics. This Sunday, however, we had a massive snow and ice storm. So the apocalypse was slightly more literal than I would have wished. Nevertheless, we persisted. Brave souls came out for both services, pitched in, and the Lord was praised. Here’s what I […]