This first Sunday after the Epiphany is always a celebration of our Lord’s baptism in the Jordon River; a moment that launches his public ministry. After an event-filled birth some thirty years earlier Jesus has grown up in relative obscurity. In the three years that follow his immersion Jesus will change the course of human history and even more than this, we Christians proclaim that Jesus has transformed cosmic reality.
Here is what the fourth century bishop Gregory of Nazianzus wrote about this moment:
John is baptizing when Jesus draws near… He comes to bury sinful humanity in the waters… He who is spirit and flesh comes to begin a new creation through Spirit and water.
The Baptist protests; Jesus insists. Then John says: “I ought to be baptized by you.” He is the lamp in the presence of the sun, the voice in the wilderness in the presence of the Word, the friend in the presence of the Bridegroom, the greatest born of woman in the presence of the firstborn of all creation, the one who leapt in his mother’s womb in the presence of him who is adored in the womb, the forerunner and future forerunner in the presence of him who has already come and is to come again.
Jesus rises from the waters; and a drowned world rises with him.
And the world Jesus lifts out of the water is a world infused with God’s love and God’s grace.
We are blessed on this day through baptism to welcome Payton Rowe into the Christian faith and life. It is her official introduction into the world of grace; a world she already senses through the love and affection of her family and friends and a world she will come to know more deeply as the years go by.
There is a wonderful poem by Denise Levertov titled The Avowal that describes the life of faith using two common images, a swimmer floating in water and a bird gliding in air:
As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace
God’s love and grace is not something we work for, it is something we acknowledge. We rest in it. We allow it to hold as we live and to lift us as we soar. Like all of us, Payton’s life continually will reflect the reality and presence of all-surrounding grace.
I am keenly aware that for Payton, as again for all of us, there will be a second baptism. She will provide the water for this one with her own tears. It will happen many times, but one of these moments will mark the end of her innocence by the rude and unwelcome awareness that this life holds challenge as well as grace. She will learn that pain, hurt, rejection, fear, anxiety, loss, and death are never far from us.
In time Payton will come to understand that the first baptism is more than enough to bear her through the second; that hope is greater than despair, healing more powerful than hurt, love overcomes all hate, faith conquers fear, and a light always shines in the darkness. This is the world that rises from the Jordon’s baptismal water with Jesus. It is the world we live in by faith: a world of grace and challenge.
These two realities were present in the life of our congregation over the past twelve months. At last year’s annual meeting, the wardens and Vestry highlighted our challenge: the 2012 operating budget was underfunded by nearly $40,000. We faced a financial crisis. Still, signs of grace were all around us. Nowhere was it more evident than in our growing membership, increased Sunday attendance, and lengthy prayer list for couples preparing for the birth of a child.
It is amazing how things can change. Through your generosity and a confluence of circumstances that probably won’t happen again, St. Paul’s ended the year with a $10,000 surplus. Grace, grace, grace! However, the year’s most significant challenge emerged where we least expected… in our membership. Good and faithful people have left St. Paul’s because of decisions made at the national and diocesan level. Membership is down. Attendance is down. There is a striking rise in the number of people who, by virtue of the criteria we have been using for several years, are now considered inactive.
My sense is that each person who is committed to St. Paul’s became even more committed in 2012. You did more, gave more, and attended more than ever before. We have a strong base and a good nucleus on which to build. We are down, but we are far from out.
I am grateful for the staff that serves us. Al, Amy, Miko, Juel, and now Holly are remarkably talented people who use their gifts in service to God to further the mission of this place. I am grateful to our Vestry, especially to Debbie Askew, Jim Gordon, and Marty Wilson whose service ends with today’s election. All three have done much for the parish: Altar Guild, education, property & finance, the Food Pantry, pony rides and float-towing – these are skills that will be hard to replace.
I particularly want to thank Jim Gordon for his quiet, effective leadership as Junior Warden a year ago and Senior Warden this past year. His commitment, dedication, and unfailing presence (along with Elizabeth) has been a sure sign of God’s grace in our midst. I speak for the entire Vestry when I express my gratitude to Terry Mottley for accepting the position of Treasurer in mid-year. He has put in an enormous amount of time and effort to get us caught up. I am grateful for the accuracy and attention he brings to this ministry.
Now in my sixth year, I continue to enjoy serving as your rector. My most rewarding moments over the past twelve months have come by being with you in times of grace and challenge. I think of the Waller’s 60th wedding anniversary in August and watching Madison Mottley ring the church bell the afternoon she learned that her mother had died. I rejoice in every one of the year’s seven baptisms. I was moved to be a part of the service where fourteen people were confirmed or received. At the candlelight, Christmas Eve Cantata I felt like I was in Levertov’s poem, floating and soaring in the midst of grace.
I know that I don’t know what 2013 has in store for the parish, only that there will be more than enough grace to meet our challenges. None of us knows specifically what life holds for Payton Rowe, but we do know two things about it. First, she will learn to float and soar in all-surrounding grace, even in the midst of life’s inevitable challenges. And second, each one of us will do all in our power to support her in this wonderful life of faith, which (if you recall from last week) is a journey without maps.