Homily for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
The Baptism of Our Lord
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
Every January for the past four years, I have packed my luggage full of books and belongings and set off for Berkeley, California for several weeks of on-campus intensive study. Since my January seminary term always coincides with Epiphany, the customs and traditions of the way in which we are Church together during this liturgical season have taken on a distinctly West Coast flair. For me, that has meant chanting Epiphany Evensong in my seminary chapel…including the year we used plentiful incense to cover up the lingering scent of the skunk who also decided to spend that January intersession with us. It also brings to mind the lovely receipt of Epiphany gifts of blessed chalk, a sack of freshly picked Meyer lemons and Epiphany king cake after attending high mass at the Episcopal Church of the Advent of Christ the King. I became accustomed to hearing read (or chanted) the Epiphany Proclamation of Easter…a diaconal privilege actually…sourced in the tradition of listing off the holy dates of the coming liturgical year, harkening back to a time before we were tethered to phone or even paper calendars and yet were called to be a people of common prayer. But, mixed into these memorable West Coast experiences, there is one particular Epiphany image that stands in my mind. You might even say, it is an icon for me of our life together in Christ.
This story is set in what is now my home-away-from-home parish, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Now, if you haven’t heard of St. Gregory’s before, I have to warn you that it is known for two things: the first is that the Sunday liturgy involves not one…but two…occasions at each service for holy movement, aka: liturgical dance. The second is the incredible 360 degree mural painted around the entire rotunda of the worship space depicting 90 Dancing Saints (and a few dancing animals, too) led by a 12 foot tall dancing Jesus. I know, it all sounds very out there for our Virginia sensibilities. I understand, because it also seemed like too much to me at first. Many of my seminary friends had made a pilgrimage to St. Gregory’s during our first summer on campus, but in spite of my curiosity, it felt like more than I could wrap my head around at that time. But, as these things happen when the Holy Spirit is in motion, I ended up taking a practical theology class taught by their rector, Paul Fromberg, and after writing a paper about my experiences of ministry with the food pantry at my home parish, he introduced me to Sara Miles, the founder and director of St. Gregory’s food pantry and author of several books about this ministry. I tried not to stammer like a fangirl, and that was easy with Sara’s down to earth demeanor. We soon made a plan that I’d come a few days early for my next term in January and spend some quality time with St. Gregory’s where I could be immersed in serving with this entirely different cultural context.
And so it was that the following January, on the Feast of the Epiphany, I flew to the West Coast a few days before my classes began for this baptism by immersion into the Food Pantry at St. Gregory’s. Early in the morning, I made my way from campus through the fog rolling across the San Francisco Bay, navigating the streets of an unfamiliar neighborhood until I reached the doors of this oddly situated cedar shingled church with its tall, windowed cupola rising up in the midst of industrial buildings and breweries. I rather gingerly pushed open the red front door, crowned with mosaic tiles depicting Madonna and child with the words “All that is prays to you” written in mission style lettering across the entry.
What happened when I opened that door is now emblazoned in my mind’s eye. I stepped from the street into the rotunda with its blazing colors of dancing saints illuminated by the morning sunlight suddenly cutting through the fog and radiating through the top windows of that tall cupola. The round communion table in the center of the rotunda was surrounded on all sides with huge piles of vibrant oranges, asian pears, kale, squash, bok choy, sweet potato…all the seasonal produce of the bay area pouring out like a holy feast. Volunteers were setting up in anticipation of the 400 or more people who would come to The Food Pantry that day to receive from this abundant outpouring of food, circling beneath those Dancing Saints with their grocery bags and wheeled carts in another sort of liturgical dance, nourishing their bodies and souls. I thought about Sara’s inspiration which she describes in her book, Take This Bread:
Because of how I’ve been welcomed and fed in the Eucharist, I see starting a food pantry at church not as an act of ‘outreach’ but one of gratitude. To feed others means acknowledging our own hunger and at the same time acknowledging the amazing abundance we’re fed with by God. At St. Gregory’s we do it now on Sundays, standing in a circle with the saints dancing bright above us. I believe we can do it one more time each week–gathered around the Table under those same icons, handing [food] to strangers, in memory of him.
Looking across that outpouring of abundance, with the far doors still open from the morning’s deliveries, I could see the outdoor Baptismal font filling with water flowing from tiny streams in the urban rock garden which also serves as columbarium. I also felt immersed, called, and known. The words I had read upon entering echoed in my mind:
All that is prays to you.
Soon, I was greeted by the staff and volunteers and quickly wrapped into the activity of the day. I distributed twelve cases filled with pears and at least as much love to a myriad of people who spoke more languages than I had ever heard in any one place and yet, we found a common ground with each other in this sacred, ordinary feast. Not only was I able to be a part of distributing holy food to holy people that Friday, but I was welcomed back that Sunday, the Baptism of our Lord, where I renewed my own baptism in that context, and helped serve holy food to holy people gathered around the communion table as well. My wandering heart had found a home away from home. I served and worshipped at St. Gregory’s the rest of my time at seminary, even though I admittedly still trip over my feet when I try to dance and sing!
I share this story with you today, back home here on this snowy morning in Virginia on this Sunday of the Baptism of Our Lord, because it reveals for me the essence of what we hear conveyed in today’s Gospel. Luke, who is generally known for his detail oriented descriptions offers us something different. He paints the Baptism of Jesus like an icon, opening our minds and hearts to see the holiness embedded in this simple image of a prayerful, human Jesus. Human time meets divine intention and Jesus is known, recognized and claimed as the beloved child of God. The voice of God the Father, the person of God the son, the physical embodiment of God the Holy Spirit present together are vividly conveyed in this holy moment. This image echoes the ancient promise of the prophet Isaiah, unfolding in sacred time:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
The gift of an icon is that it offers us a gateway to prayer. Like sacraments…the outward and visible signs of an inner and spiritual grace…icons are images which invite us to bring ourselves and our senses into a deeper knowledge of the presence of God. Or, in the words of the invitation over the entry point to St. Gregory’s: All that I am prays to you.
Whenever we stand at the waters of baptism, whether renewing our baptismal covenant or welcoming a newly beloved member of the Body of Christ, we are transported to our own baptism and to this icon of Jesus’ baptism where we encounter the Holy Trinity in all three persons. Like my own iconic moment entering the Food Pantry at St. Gregory’s, we become palpably aware that it isn’t a destination, but the beginning of a whole new chapter, the awakening and stirring in our souls to more deeply discern the ways in which our lives touch and weave together with all other lives, and the abundance of God’s love for God’s people becomes palpable, real, and lived out in our daily lives and our daily actions, whether we are handing our love and pears, advocating for justice and peace, proclaiming the good news or enfolding others in prayer. We become a people who live our baptism anew, revisiting the image indelibly etched upon us when we were redeemed by God, called by name, recognized and welcomed. In the words of Isaiah, in the words of God the Father to Jesus the Son and in the words given to us in the sacrament of Baptism: you are mine. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit at baptism and made Christ’s own forever. One holy, human family under God.
You are invited and welcomed to enter deeply into your own baptism again today, in word and in spirit. Don’t worry: liturgical dance will not be required! But, this icon of Jesus’ baptism does offer us a glimpse of the divine dance of the Holy Trinity at work in our lives. We are invited to recommit ourselves and re-enter this space of discerning, transforming prayer where we come to know who we are, because we are reminded of whose we are.
All that I am prays to you.