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Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on January 8, 2006

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Epiphany I: The Baptism of Christ

Sermon preached by
The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler

January 8, 2006

Eudolpha Phillips was a witch - and she lived in my hometown. I realized this one day walking home from 3rd grade with some friends. We decided to walk atop the retaining wall surrounding her somewhat dilapidated ante-bellum house. She came out and chased us off with a broom - which made it all pretty clear. Shortly after that, a friend told me he'd looked in her basement window and was pretty sure he'd seen 100 dead Confederate soldiers which she used for her witch's brew. I kept my maternal grandmother who raised me informed of these developments. Having gone to school with Eudolpha Phillips, she tried to convince me otherwise, to no avail. I knew she was a witch.

A few months later, to my shock and horror, the witch not only appeared in church but sat in my pew. I sang and prayed as unobtrusively as possible to avoid being turned into a toad. Afterwards, as my grandmother and I walked to the car, I told my her how shocked I was that a witch would come to church. In exasperation my staunch Episcopal grandmother stopped, turned to me and said, "Liza, for the umpteenth time, I'm telling you she is not a witch. In fact, she was in our church because she's one of us." "She's an Episcopalian?" I asked, stunned. Looking right at me my grandmother said simply, "Imagine that." (I later learned that although Eudolpha Phillips came from a long line of Episcopalians, she had become pretty much a recluse and hadn't been to church for years. Apparently, my witch tales had reminded my grandmother of this who, of all things, had invited her back to church.) Eudolpha the Witch. She was one of us. Imagine that.

Today is the Feast of Christ's baptism and some people wonder why Christ was baptized. One reason was "for the same reason he is born in a manger, ate with prostitutes and tax collectors, cried and prayed, and died a painful, human death. [Even if it included standing knee deep in muddy water with a bunch of sinners]. ..Jesus came to be like us, so we could grow to be like him." (Susan Andrews, Lectionary Homiletics, January 2001, p. 7)

And our own baptism sets us on a path where we begin our journey of growth into Christ. Baptism does many things: it makes us a part of the Body of Christ and of one another. It brings us into a community where we're not only made aware of the power of sin and death, but of God's grace which saves us from the ultimate power of them both. But perhaps there is something else that happens in baptism that helps in our Christian growth. C.S. Lewis, referring to a writer who had greatly influenced him, once said "He baptized my imagination." I wonder if in baptism, our imagination is baptized, saturated with the love and grace of God which allows us, in grace-filled moments, to imagine the world as God intended it - and to act on that.

We think of imagination as something out of touch with reality: "it's just your imagination" we say. But as Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor has pointed out, imagination can shape our perceptions and even affect change in our lives. "Physicians use guided imagery to heal their patients... Elementary school teachers teach their students to close their eyes and imagine colorful numbers in the air; a yellow two plus a red three equaling a big orange five. ...When the children open their eyes and pick up their pencils, their sums add up. Again and again," says Taylor, "imagination turns out to be the place where our vision is formed and reformed, where human beings encounter an inner reality with power to transform the other realities of their lives..." (The Preaching Life, pp.44-46)

Through baptism, we are called into the life of Jesus Christ, One who imagined the world as God created it to be, lived in that reality and so changed the world. A man wasn't blind because God was punishing him or his parents for their sins. Rather, it was a condition which could allow the healing power of God's love in Christ to be made known. So God was no longer seen as a vengeful God nor was illness seen as a result of God's wrath. Rather, God was seen as a loving God whose will for us was healing and wholeness. Jesus didn't see Gentiles, women and tax collectors as outcasts but imagined them as God created them to be: as part of the human family, as part of God's family. And so people no longer saw one another as categories, lines were no longer drawn. Jesus saw things differently because he imagined things the way God had created them to be, and acting on that, changed reality.

As those baptized into Christ, we are called to do the same; we are called to participate in God's imagination; "...to see ourselves, our neighbors, and our world through God's eyes, full of possibility, full of promise, ready to be transformed." (Id. p. 50) We are called to see God as one who desires our healing and wholeness, called to see one another not as labels but as God's beloved child. And that changes the way we live in the world because it changes the way we see God and one another. It even changed the way I saw Eudolpha Phillips. I didn't walk on her retaining wall anymore, I didn't try to see in her basement - and I didn't worry about being turned into a toad. Though I wouldn't have articulated it in this way, I imagined her to be a beloved child of God, one of us - and that changed the way I saw and treated her.

A while ago I read about a Princeton seminary professor who was asked to speak to a high school youth group about Jesus' baptism. He explained how Jesus' baptism was a revelation of God's presence in Jesus. Without looking up, one of the teenagers said, "That ain't what it's about." Pleased that he had at least been listening enough to disagree, the professor asked him what he thought it was about. The young man said, "The story says the heavens were opened up and the Spirit of God came down, right?" "Right," said the professor. Finally looking up, the boy said "It means that God is let loose in the world. And that's dangerous."

The boy was right. In Christ, God was let loose in the world and it was dangerous. He healed on the Sabbath because he imagined humans more important than laws, he turned over tables because he imagined offering our hearts to God more central than offering sacrifices, he associated with outcasts because he imagined being a part of one another more important than drawing lines. He imagined the world differently and it was dangerous. It got him killed - but it also changed the world.

We believe that God's good news in Christ makes for a different world, a world as God imagines it can be. Today we renew our baptismal vows. In so doing, we affirm, among other things, that we are baptized into the Body of Christ and that calls us to see the world and one another in a new way. That is possible because, by God's grace, our imaginations are baptized, imaginations that can change our lives, the lives of others, and our world. Imaginations that can even help us to see that a witch may not be a witch at all - but one us - not only an Episcopalian but, far beyond that, a beloved child of God. Imagine that.

 

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2006 The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler
St Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, Buffalo, New York
Reprinted with permission