Late at night during my college years, my friend and roommate, Hewitt, and I unraveled many of the world’s great mysteries. Somewhere between Chimes and East State streets, we developed durable and important strategies for everything from managing the undersized frontcourts of Dale Brown’s LSU basketball teams, to solving those oldest questions of existence: what is life? Who am I? Why are we here? What does it all mean? At some point in the deep evening or pre-dawn hours, our voices would raise, our hearts would quicken, and our Abita Turbodog would splash, as we uncovered what we believed to be inspired.
Of course, the next morning, waking to the hum of the window unit in my favorite apartment, I would lie in bed and try to remember the answers: I could remember the questions; I could remember the conversation; I could even remember where we sat or stood when we “got it;” but I could never quite reassemble the logic to work again. The solutions just wouldn’t fit the way they had only hours before. Our brilliance, like a boozy fog, had melted into the ether.
Blowing steam off our cups of coffee at the breakfast table the next day, we would lament to one another, “If only someone had recorded us. If only there had been a documentary film crew at The Bayou last night, civilization still might be saved.” So, age-predictably if not altogether wisely, we sought to recover what we believed had been lost: we would retrace our steps, we would sit in that very same booth, order that very same beer … but, even if our brilliance did return, our inspirations always proved equally ephemeral.
This morning’s lesson begins with “the people” of Galilee similarly seeking answers to life’s mysteries, though at the edge of the Jordan rather than at either a Baton Rouge or Nazarene pub.[i] Gathering at the riverside, the Evangelist notes that the crowd is “filled with expectation,” wondering whether John might be the messiah. We readers of Luke’s Gospel know better, having been present with Elizabeth and Zechariah when John’s birth was foretold, and having witnessed, too, John’s leap within his mother’s womb upon the pregnant Mary’s visit of her cousin. Therefore, while John has received nearly equal attention to this point in the Gospel, there has been no confusion regarding his and Jesus’ respective roles in the fulfillment of God’s purposes: John prepares the way for Jesus, this one who will follow him, baptizing “with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
The verses omitted in our lesson narrate the arrest and imprisonment of John, a two-verse story moving Jesus to the fore and pulling John into the background of the text. The narrative then resumes as we heard, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”[ii]
Can you imagine? Can you even dream of witnessing such an occasion, and, yet, the Evangelist does not tarry at the Jordan. No, following this morning’s appointment, Luke then announces the formal launch of Jesus’ ministry, matter-of-factly naming, “Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work …” and off goes the story.[iii]
As we recall these events on this first Sunday after the Epiphany, our memory of Jesus’ baptism realizes a special mode of liturgical remembrance that is more than a simple reading of the old story. In Christian worship, we refer to this mode of remembering as “anamnesis” … anamnesis … and we practice it every Sunday in our celebration of the Eucharist. William Crockett explains, “to make [such an anamnetic] memorial of an event is to ‘actualize’ it in the present … this does not destroy [its uniqueness as] an historical event that took place once for all in the past. [Rather,] To ‘actualize’ the past [in this way] opens new possibilities in the present” … to ‘actualize’ the past [in this way] opens new possibilities in the present.[iv] That is, we bring the past into our present, sharing in a spirit that is not bounded by time.
Fortunately for any nostalgic delusions I might contrive, the bar that incubated mine and my collegiate roommate’s philosophies burned down some years ago (it wasn’t us), and it’s been replaced by a fancy bakery that serves expensive cookies to undergraduates debauched enough to believe they can afford them. Therefore, the idea of me buying a “new” pair of vintage combat boots like those I wore 25 years ago, growing my thinned hair to my shoulders again, donning my old gold-loop earrings, and meeting Hewitt at one of those café tables bearing a few pitchers of Turbodog is a transparently terrible idea.
For the same reason, we do not stage “reenactments” of Jesus’ baptism, vesting in period dress and casting ourselves as one Gospel character or another. Instead, we honor the significance of Jesus’ baptism by baptizing, baptizing within the setting we more authentically find ourselves. Rather than attempting to conjure the past, we invest deeply in our present, and in such anamnetic celebrations of Holy Baptism, not only do we welcome these infants into this Resurrection community, but all of us pass through those waters again … and, like Jesus before, us, we hear the words of our God announced from a seat no lower than heaven itself: You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased. I choose you.
You will know that last Monday we announced the news that my season of ministry with you will conclude on February 15, and as I shared frankly with the Vestry during our emotional meeting last weekend, Missy, Michael, Ginna, and I are not quite ready to leave Good Shepherd. We have not wearied of loving and serving you, we do not feel unsupported or unappreciated here, and nothing repels us or compels us to go. Much to the contrary, I am so proud of what grand dreams we dared imagine together during these last ten years, and, in the company of God’s Spirit, that – impossibly – we have been able to achieve.
I give thanks for those moments when our voices raised, and our hearts quickened, and our Shiner (or, more appropriately, I suspect, our Taylor Tawny Port) splashed, and we uncovered holy truths about ourselves, about the world, and about the God who sends us. I give thanks for those moments when we “got it” and we “did it” and when we loved well. I give thanks!
As contradictory as it sounds when I say it aloud, I believe God is now calling us to something new because we are not ready to leave, and I am grateful for that, too. See, to wait until we wore out of one another before discerning if God might be hoping something different for us would be even worse than collegiate or baptismal reenactments – such spiritual lethargy would be like all of us huddling at the Jordan’s shore while Jesus went ahead to Galilee … like Hewitt and I still convening on Chimes Street for late-evening beers. What we at Good Shepherd have shared in this decade has been too extraordinary that we would blemish it either by retracing our steps over and over again, or by attempting to preserve it past its appointed time.
The very quality that that made those teenaged-days at The Bayou so precious was their ephemeral nature, and the same is true of our remarkable season together. Even our most treasured experiences necessarily melt into the ether – the very best ones lifting like incense into heaven – and while the experience of letting them go can be bittersweet, we best honor the holiness of those moments, by honoring the holiness of this moment, and the one that comes after it.
On Sunday, February 10 we will make room to look back in a fuller way, but, between now and then, we have some weeks left together … and we cannot make this a month-long goodbye! Everyone will weary with that, and, given the number of tears I’ve shed already, I think that might I die from it. No, we will honor our years together by doing what God is still calling us to on this day, in this moment: we’re going to baptize these babies, and we’re going to celebrate those mysteries. We are going to gather for our Annual Parish Meeting in just a couple of weeks, and we’re going to keep loving one another as God has loved us … believing that God is preparing us for a new season that will bless us again.
For this we pray in the name of the God who remembers and hopes,