Sermon – 1.12.20 – Opening the Heavens

Rev. Katie Callaway

Matthew 3:13-17

Baptism of the Lord

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3:13-17

This is the written word of the Lord. 

Thanks be to God. 

The first time I heard Celtic poet, Padriag O’Tauma’s poem Narrative Theology #2, I was running. Notice, I said was. 

It stopped me dead in my tracks. The language grasped my imagination. The rhythm enveloped me. There was something about his thick Irish accent almost singing the words: 

I used to need to know the end of every story.

But these days I only need the start to get me going. 

God is the crack where the story begins,
We are the crack where the story gets interesting.
We are the choice of where to begin
the person going out, the stranger coming in.
God is the fracture and the ache in your voice.
God is the story flavored with choice.
God is the pillar of salt full of pity
accusing God for the sulfur city
God is the woman who bleeds and who touches
We are the story of courage or blushes.
God is the story of whatever works.
God is the twist at the end and the quirks.
We are the start and we’re at the center.
We’re the characters, narrators, inventors. 
God is the bit that we can’t explain.
Maybe the healing.
Maybe the pain.
We are the bit that God can’t explain.
Maybe the harmony.
Maybe the strain.
God is the plot and we are the writers.
The story of winners, the story of fighters.
The story of love and the story of rupture.
The story of stories. The story without structure. 

Padriag O’Tauma, Narrative Theology #2

I’m not the best reciter of poetry, but when I hear this poem and so many others, the heavens are opened. 

I can’t explain it. Poetry does that to me. It gets into my being in a way that few other things in this world can. 

For me poetry opens the heavens. Whether it is the Celtic poetry of Padraig O’Tauma or the mystical imagination of Rumi. Whether it is the gritty, dirt under the fingernails poetry of Wendell Berry or the journeys of Mary Oliver. These poets, their words, nestle deep within my soul. They do something to me. 

They open the heavens. 

Celtic spirituality has a word for this: thin places. The Celts—the people who call Ireland home— have a sacramental and a mystical vision, meaning they see God in and through ordinary people and objects. They say, “What we hear, see, smell, taste, touch, all speaks of God.” A thin place is the place where the separation between heaven and earth becomes so thin that the eternal is palpable. It is as if the heavens are momentarily opened and you can just feel the presence of God. It is—I imagine—much like what Jesus experiences on the day of his baptism. 

Each of the Gospels has a little different take on this whirlwind of an event in Jesus’ life, with John’s Gospel being the most nondescript. During this year, our lectionary texts will take us through the Gospel of Matthew, so we get Matthew’s perspective on the Baptism of Jesus today. 

The four Gospels’ have several important elements in common: obviously, they have Jesus being baptized, they have John the Baptist—the locust eating, camel hair wearing, wilderness preacher, and they all give a nod to the Spirit coming to Jesus. In the three Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—we get some sort of affirmation from God about Jesus’ status as a beloved child of God.  Today we read that Matthew’s Gospel says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 

The unique part of Matthew’s Gospel is that there is a statement about John’s inadequacy coming from the mouth of John, himself. Upon writing this story down, the Gospel writers and early Christian theologians had a problem on their hands and John’s voiced discomfort with baptizing Jesus gives us a glimpse into this problem. John was offering a baptism of repentance in the wilderness. “You brood of vipers!” John says! “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” By insisting on John’s baptism, the writer sets us up to have to do some theological gymnastics: Why would Jesus need a baptism of repentance if he was born free from the grips of sin? Some theologians claim that even though Jesus was sinless, he wanted to experience all of the human experiences, but I don’t think that is an adequate response to Jesus seeking out this experience and insisting on John being the one to baptize him. 

The Greek word for repentance here is metanoia. John was offering a baptism of metanoia. Now, the King James Version—a favorite of Southern Baptists—was the first Bible translation to translate the word metanoia as repent and we have had our sights limited since then. But if you go back, many early schools of thought and traditions understood metanoia more holistically. 

In addressing why churches are lukewarm in the early 1990s, process theologian John Cobb Jr,  claimed that churches have lost sight of true metanoia and focused in too much on this poor translation that suggest all we must do is repent. He said that we’ve responded to destructive actions and morally ambiguous teachings with simple regret spawned from our misunderstanding of the translation of metanoia as repent. We’ve focused too much on the element of regret when it comes to repentance and missed the larger element of transformation. Cobb says, “The Greek word metanoia emphasizes turning and going in a different direction. For real metanoia to occur, regret about the past can only be the prelude to deep transformation. If this occurs, then powerful convictions can form around the new understanding and pattern of action. Unfortunately,” Cobb goes on, “We remain in the intermediate state of regretting our past sins and ceasing to commit them without a convincing vision of who Christ is for us today and what Christ calls us to do and to be.” 

We can better understand the word metanoia not as regret for wrong actions, but as a “fundamental change in thinking and living.” (Boda and Smith, Repentance in Christian Theology). The Greek Orthodox Church teaches that metanoia is “a fundamental transformation of outlook, of a person’s vision of the world and of oneself, and a new way of loving others and God.” Isn’t that what we all need now and then? Even Jesus likely needed a change in thinking and living. And think about the transformation of this 30-year-old after this baptism.

The baptism John was calling people to was not to look back on their mistakes with contrition. It was rather to look forward to their future with hope. People flocked to the wilderness to hear John preach not because of some obligation to beat themselves up over past mistake. People flocked to the wilderness to hear this locust eating, camel hair wearing, Charismatic preacher because he instilled in them hope. Hope that they could be transformed. Hope that there was more going on than met the eye. Hope that religion wasn’t about regret, but rather about the transformation of the world. 

And that is what drew Jesus to the wilderness. That is what drew Jesus to John. He too hoped for transformation. He too hoped for a new way to love others and God. He too hoped for a new vision of the world and everyone in it where we didn’t live with regret, but rather with an eye toward the deep transformation of people and systems. 

And when Jesus went to the wilderness, he experienced the heavens open. It stopped him dead in his tracks. So he sought to be baptized by this man. Now, today, baptism has taken on the metaphor of a cleansing. Some refer to it as a cleansing of sin. But it is important not to let this sense of cleansing we have in the 21st century shade our reading of this event. Because at the time, if people wanted to be cleansed or ritually purified, there was a ritual for that and it was at the temple and overseen by a rabbi. This water that John plunged Jesus into was not about cleansing. 

It was reminiscent of the creation story in Genesis where the spirit hovered over the waters. It was reminiscent of the waters of the Sea of Reeds through which the Hebrew people had to pass in order to find freedom and identity after their escape from Egypt. It is reminiscent of the water that flowed from the rock when Moses struck it with his staff. Water in our Bibles is a symbol of identity formation. When someone passes through the water in the Bible, they are forever changed. Water is a symbol of a fundamental transformation. 

So when Jesus is plunged into the water, he is seeking a total transformation of outlook. And what does he receive? The heavens open. He hears a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved with whom I am well pleased.” In that moment, the veil between heaven and earth is so thin, it is palpable. And Jesus hears an affirmation that launches him into ministry. He hears an affirmation from God before he even does anything. Before any sermons. Before he heals anyone. Before he provides food for the hungry and rest for the weary. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” A thin place indeed. 

This affirmation launches his ministry. The water is the womb of his creative work and when Jesus emerges from it, he is birthed into a new existence. He is birthed into a new vision of the world and of himself, a new way of loving others and God. In this thin place, he receives  unconditional love and acceptance from God before he does a thing. This is the same unconditional love and acceptance that we receive and it the same unconditional love and acceptance we are called to give to others. 

Theologian Eric Peterson, the son of the late pastor Eugene Peterson, tells a story of going to a conference where the attendees went through the ancient process of the catechumenate. A Caechumen was a baptismal candidate and in the early days of Christianity, it was a three year process to be baptized, culminating on Easter Sunday. At this particular conference that Peterson attended, the three years of services were mimicked over several days. At the end of the conference, participants gathered at the baptistry to reflect on how their baptismal identity could be expressed. Peterson offered his take on his own identity, which was followed by the affirmation the assembly sang for every person: “Blessed by God, who chose you in Christ. Live in love as Christ loved us.” 

After the conference, Peterson hopped in his car to drive home and he reflects that about an hour into his drive home, he realized, “I think something may have happened to me back there.” 

In his book Wade in the Water, Peterson says, “Baptismal imagination is the awareness that something happened to me back there. The historical event of baptism spills into our present and overflows into our future, transporting us on the sacred stream of meaning and purpose.” 

The reflection “something happened to me back there,” is the recognition of a thin place. It is the recognition that the heavens opened. And whether your “back there” was 60 years ago or 6 months ago, the recognition that something happened back there occurs because it is in baptism that we experience the unconditional acceptance and affirmation of God in a tangible way. 

Now, let me be clear. Baptism is not a requirement to experience the unconditional acceptance and affirmation of God. In fact, God loves us and affirms us long before we could ever recognize it. But baptism is an opportunity to experience a thin place. It is an opportunity to experience an opening of the heavens. It is an opportunity to experience the unconditional acceptance and affirmation of God. 

Peterson says we—as Christ’s disciples—are to be like “God’s living poems,” saying, “Like good art, disciples do not merely look good; rather, their lives have agency and are generative exhibitors of the kingdom. Good art moves us. Good poetry inspires us. Those who are baptized into Christ are God’s living poems, artistic agents in the redemptive work of remaking the world.” 

God’s living poems of transformation. 

God’s living poems of transformation. 

Which brings us back to where we began: poetry has the ability to open the heavens for those who hear it, for those who are immersed in it. 

We are to be God’s living poems, opening the heavens for all who we encounter, giving them the same acceptance and affirmation that we have received from God. That is our calling. 

We can be God’s living poems when we open our arms to embrace the people society has marginalized. 

We can open the heavens for someone when we counter the hate-filled, divisive rhetoric in the world with the rhythmic affirmation: “You are beloved.” 

We can be God’s living poems when walk with open minds and hearts through the world, waiting for the veil between heaven and earth to dissolve so that the heavens are palpable. 

We can open the heavens for someone when we give them a safe place to be who they were created to be. 

Jason Reynolds is an African American poet who had dreams as a child to be a published author. Growing up in the Washington, D.C. area, he eventually ended up in college at the University of Maryland. Professors in his English courses gave him discouraging feedback and bad grades. Ultimately, he graduated with a B.A. in English and moved to New York. In New York, he got by working in retail and was unsuccessful in applying to graduate school. Eventually, he had to move home with his mother once again to make ends meet. 

During this time, he wrote a poetry collection called “For Everyone,” that captures this sense of affirmation and love we are called to offer people regardless of what they have or have not achieved in life. 

Throughout this collection of poetry, you get a sense of a fundamental transformation of outlook. The heavens opened for him. Eventually, he goes on to win multiple awards for his published work, including the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work. And as he relays his experience, the heavens are opened for all who read his poetry:

I know my dream
Is as real
As my hands
But I grip tight a short leash 
with insecurity 
Tied to the end
Wagging along 
Beside me.
If you’re like me,
You’ve struggled trying 
To stomp out
The flame of doubt
And fear,
The warmth and comfort
Always enticing
And familiar
though venomous
And life extinguishing.
I know people who
Have burned.
A burn so violent
It can’t be categorized
By any numbered degree.
Yet no matter how
Hard I’ve tried
To escape it,
To kill the deceptive heat
Dancing like a devil’s tongue,
To douse it with all
The will and faith
I can muster, 
I know 
A tiny ember
Always glows 
Beneath the brush. 
It whispers to me
Only when I step to 
The edge of excellence.
My toes clawing 
The cliff,
My mind already airborne.
It whispers to me
That I don’t have wings
That I don’t have shot
That I don’t have a clue
But to me,
I don’t have choice, 
So I jump anyway. 
If you are like me,
You jump anyway.

Jason Reynolds, For Everyone

Church, we have the opportunity to open the heavens for all who we encounter. We can invite them to jump anyway, in the words of Reynolds. 

Let’s begin with these transformational words: All are invited. All are welcome. All are beloved. All are called. Even you.