Christ Church Episcopal

Hudson, New York

where all souls are cherished

Sermon:  Epiphany 1 Year A 2020 (Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ) [1]—January 12, 2020—The Rev. Eileen Weglarz—Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 42:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

One night some time ago, I was channel surfing the television, and I stumbled on the movie, Chariots of Fire, one of my all time favorites.  It came out in 1981, and went on to win four Academy Awards and an Oscar for “Best Picture of the Year.” The film is based on a true story about the Olympic Games of 1924.

The main character in the movie is a young man from Scotland named Eric Liddell. Eric is attending college in Edinburgh, preparing to be a Christian Missionary in China.  He is also preparing to represent Great Britain in the Olympics as a world-class sprinter who runs with joy and reckless abandon… and he does become an Olympic Champion.

When I stumbled onto the Chariots of Fire, I happened to hit it right at the beginning of one of my favorite scenes in the film.  Eric Liddell is standing on a beautiful Scottish hillside.  Liddell is visiting with his sister Jennie.  Off in the distance, you can see the skyline of Edinburgh, Scotland.  . I’ve been to Scotland, and it is a very beautiful country.  Eric and Jennie are talking about his future. Jennie reminds Eric about his call to be a missionary in China. 

She questions him about the time he is spending with all this running, as he prepares for the Olympics. Eric responds with one of the greatest “Quotable Quotes” in the history of film-making.  He says, “Jennie, I know God made me for China someday, but He also made me fast. I feel His pleasure when I run.”

Question: “When do you feel God’s pleasure?  “When is it that you do something that you just know makes God smile?” What is it that God made you to do, that when you do it, you just know it pleases God because you can feel His pleasure?  What are those special moments in life that are so sacred and powerful that you can feel God’s joyous presence and affirmation?

We are not the first to ask this question. For thousands of years, people have wondered about this question. The prophet, Micah, back in the 8th Century BC asked it like this:  What does God really want from us? What can we bring to Him that genuinely pleases Him? Does He want burnt offerings or fragrant ritual oils, or human sacrifices?  No!  Micah says: All God wants is for us – to do justice – to love mercy or kindness – and walk humbly with our God. That’s what pleases God, Micah tells us.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is ready to begin His ministry. He goes out to be baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. Understandably, John is reluctant to baptize Jesus. John doesn’t feel worth to do that.  John says: “You should be baptizing me.” But, Jesus convinces John to do it and as Jesus is baptized, a voice from heaven says these powerful words: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

In these words, we find and important clue for how we can feel God’s pleasure.  Become Christ-like! God is well pleased with us when we take on the spirit of Jesus.  I want to share three aspects of how we can feel God’s pleasure.

First:  We feel God’s pleasure when we forgive as Christ forgave.

This is one of the most dramatic messages of the Christian faith: You are forgiven!  Now, pass that forgiveness on to others. Live daily in the Christ-like spirit of forgiveness.  How can we (who have been forgiven so much because of Christ) not be forgiving toward others? Forgiveness was a dramatic theme in the teachings of Jesus Christ.

How many of you remember Pope John Paul II?  He did many great things, but to me without question, the greatest thing he ever did occurred on December 27, 1983, when he went to Rebibbia Prison to forgive the man who had tried to kill him.  The picture was on the cover of Time magazine January 9, 1984. In a bare, white-walled cell in Rome’s Rebibbia prison, Pope John Paul II tenderly held the hand that two years before had held a gun that was meant to assassinate him.

The photo was amazing. It showed

  • two men shaking hands and embracing,
  • two very different men from radically different worlds,
  • one man young… the other older,
  • one a Turkish Muslim… the other a Catholic Christian,
  • one in a resplendent white robe… the other in prison clothes,
  • one a beloved and respected world leader… the other a convicted criminal.

For twenty-one minutes, the Pope sat with his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca. The two talked softly.  The Pope had come to Agca’s prison cell to forgive him for the shooting.  At the end of the meeting, Agca either kissed the Pope’s ring… or pressed the Pope’s hand to his forehead… in a Muslim gesture of respect, indicating that reconciliation had happened.  

And, somewhere in heaven at that moment God was smiling, and I’m sure that at that moment, John Paul could feel God’s pleasure.

The caption on the Time magazine article read… “Does forgiveness have a place in an age of violence and vengeance?”  The answer to that question is indeed a resounding “Yes!  And that is the message John Paul was sending to the world--forgiveness is better than vengeance. He learned that from Jesus.

Today, more than ever, we need to forgive as Jesus forgave.  Instead we spend weary days and sleepless nights

  • brooding over our resentments,
  • calculating ways to get even,
  • seething over our grievances,
  • shackled by our silly pride,
  • stirring up others to our way of thinking,
  • unable and unwilling to forgive and forget 

And isn’t that tragic?  Because the truth is that revenge is never sweet; it ultimately becomes a sour stomach, a bitter memory, and a poisoned soul.

Jesus knew this… and so, He called for us to be bridge builders, to be peace-makers, to receive forgiveness from Him, and offer it to others.  This was a key theme of many of His parables. It was a dominant theme in the Sermon on the Mount. It was the major theme of His life.  

Second:  We feel God’s pleasure when we include others as Christ included all people.

Christ’s love is inclusive to all! He was constantly reaching out to the lowly, the lonely, and the outcast and bringing them into the circle of love. God wants us to be inclusive in the same way—in all areas.

Biblical scholar Fred Craddock told a story many years ago when he was much younger about how he used to go home to West Tennessee each year for Christmas.  The routine was pretty much the same.  He would go back to the town where he grew up stop by a restaurant to visit one of his old high school buddies named Buck. Buck was always glad to see him and he would give Fred a free cup of coffee and piece of pie.

But, one year Buck asked Fred to go with him to a different place for coffee. Fred thought it was strange to go to somebody else’s restaurant, but he sensed that Buck was pondering something deep and wanted to talk privately.  They sipped their coffee and then suddenly, Buck said to Fred: “The curtain has to come down.” The curtain Buck was referring to was the curtain in his restaurant that separated the blacks from the whites. 

Buck’s restaurant was like other buildings in the little town—a long shotgun building with a front entrance off the street and a back entrance off the alley behind the restaurant.  The white diners came in off the street and the black diners entered from the back alley. A curtain across the center of the building separated the blacks from the whites. It had always been that way, but now Buck was saying: “The curtain has to come down.”

The conversation between these two old friends goes like this.

“(Fred) said, ‘Good, bring it down.’

Buck said, ‘That’s easy for you to say… Come in here from out of state and tell me how to run my business.’

(Fred) said, ‘Okay, leave it up.’

Buck said, ‘I can’t leave it up.’

(Fred) said, ‘Then take it down.’

‘I can’t take it down!’  (Buck is obviously in turmoil.)  After a while, Buck said: ‘If I take that curtain down, I lose a lot of customers. If I leave that curtain up, I lose my soul.’” [2]

Let me ask you something

  • Can you relate to that story?
  • Do you have curtains in your life right now?
  • Curtains that separate and divide people or another person?
  • Curtains that shut people out?
  • Curtains that hurt and shun and exclude others?
  • Curtains that promote and perpetuate prejudice and discrimination?
  • Curtains that poison your soul?

Jesus came to show us in words and in actions how inclusive God’s love is and to remind us that there are “no curtains that separate” in God’s flock.  All are valued. All are cherished. All are treasured. All are wanted. All are welcomed. All are included.  That’s the way God is, and that’s the way God wants us to be… and when the curtains are taken down, somewhere in heaven, God is smiling.

Finally: We feel God’s pleasure when we love the way Christ loved.

Methodist minister, The Rev. Dr. James Moore tells the following story.

Last week, I flew to Ohio to preach at the 200th Birthday Celebration of Hopewell United Methodist Church near Columbus, Ohio, a church I served years ago when I was a seminary student.

When I got out to Bush Intercontinental Airport, checking the luggage, suddenly the attendant said in a bright, happy voice: “Oh, you are a Continental Selectee today!  So, you will need to go in to the main desk.”

I thought, “Wow! Continental Selectee! That probably means a free ticket or an upgrade to First Class or a special prize.”

At the main desk inside, it happened again. The young woman at the desk said cheerily: “Oh, you are a Continental Selectee today! Finally, I said, “Thank you! What does that mean?”

She said: “It means you have been selected to have your luggage thoroughly screened today… so take your luggage over there.” Oh, what joy to be a Continental Selectee!!

Moore shares this story in a sermon and sums it up: “Well, this morning, we are all St. Luke’s Selectees, because I want us to just take a moment to carefully screen our ‘Love Luggage’ today.  How are we doing as a church and as individual Christians in receiving the love of Christ into our hearts (and lives)… and then passing that love on to others?’

It is important that we be loving people!  It is crucial that we take seriously the command of Jesus to “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34-35)  This means that our love should be Christ-like—gracious, generous, seeking, sacrificial, and unconditional love.  

Prior to Jesus’ teaching, people were taught to love, but they were taught to love those who looked like them and dressed like them and talked like them and acted like them.  And they saw everybody else as enemies or adversaries or outcasts or sinners.  But then along comes Jesus, saying: No, no!  Your love circle is too small.  Love everyone, even those who are different from you! Love all as I have loved you.

It is vital and urgent that we be gracious, loving people. Because God made us Christians and when we (in the spirit of Christ) forgive others, and include others, and love others, that’s when we truly live into our own baptisms, and like Eric Liddell are blessed to feel God’s pleasure.


Sermon Resources:

1. James W. Moore, Collected Sermons, Christianglobe Networks, Inc.

2. Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, p.61, Chalice Press, St. Louis, Mo., 2001, edited by Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward.