Inquiring and Discerning Hearts

One of my all-time favorite sitcoms is the recent show, The Good Place; it’s a show that poses the question of what if the afterlife really was as simple as some Christian folks believe. What if all the good things you do add points to your after-life total and all the bad things you do take points away. In the show, the main four characters wake up in The Good Place to find out that they made it, they made the cut. And to avoid spoilers, I will vaguely describe one of my favorite scenes where the being helping get these humans acclimated to the afterlife is explaining how time works. On a tripod supported writing pad, he writes in a beautiful cursive the name Jeremy Bearimy, and he explains that while time on Earth goes in a straight line, in the afterlife it happens all at once and it just happens to look like the name Jeremy Bearimy in English cursive. All four humans are shocked, but it is Chidi, the most anxious of the group, who says, but what about the dot over the “i”, what is that? “Oh that? That’s Tuesdays and July, but also sometimes it’s never.” This, understandably, did not answer all the questions of the humans, in fact it created so many more.

       This scene came to mind this week because when we hear the story of Jesus’s baptism, it starts with focusing on the crowd surrounding John the Baptist. And Luke tells us that they were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts.  I can’t help but to imagine the crowd having similarly confused and overwhelmed reactions to John’s response when they begin to question whether he is the Messiah. John has spent time baptizing people, telling them to hold themselves to a higher standard, to share one of your coats if you have two, he is the one who told the tax collectors to not collect more than asked and soldiers to not extort or threaten people. It is no wonder that the people began to question if he was the one about whom the prophies spoke. Now, we know, and John tells the crowd in our gospel passage today, that no, he is not the Messiah, that he only prepares the way for the Lord, and that he will be unworthy to tie the thong on his sandal. It’s a Jeremy Bearimy, I hear John saying.

       I so deeply connect and identify with these people who were filled with expectation and were all questioning in their hearts. They thought that perhaps they had figured it out. They thought that because John was proclaiming deeply radical things like unfailing justice and compassion, that he is obviously the one. But no, John pulls a Jeremy Bearimy and says that the path that he has set out is in the right direction, but that no, it is not it, there is more to come. The Christ has yet to begin his work, and it all starts with his baptism.

       Today we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, and in past years it is the divine voice that has captured my imagination. This divine voice who begins and grounds Christ’s ministry in the very belovedness in which we share. The people are baptized, including Jesus, and the heavens open up, the Spirit descends, and God speaks a blessing upon Jesus. Usually, this message strikes me as a comforting balm and needed encouragement. This this week, this is not the part of the story of Christ’s baptism that captures my imagination, it is instead the people. It is the crowd, filled with expectation and questioning hearts. Perhaps this is the part that most captivates me because we had two baptisms in the Advent season, a true and delightful joy. Or maybe it’s because my favorite line in our baptismal service is the prayer that we pray over the newly baptized that they may have “inquiring and discerning hearts.” Or maybe it’s because in the wake of the tornado and rise in Omicron cases, expectations and questions are all that it feels like I have right now.

       Most days these expectations and questions just seem to fall short. It feels like I should have more answers, more solutions, more directions to go, but I just don’t. In many ways right now, it feels like someone just explained that the way the world works is just a Jeremy Bearimy, and all I can do is to hold these questions and expectations. Right now, John’s words that the people around him, even with all their expectations and questions, can’t fully imagine the path set before them by the Christ that is to come.

       It is Christ’s baptism that begins his ministry, and I cannot help but to imagine the ways in which, even with all that we know 2,000 years later, that we might hold similar expectations and questions in our hearts. On this day, as tender as I am feeling about the state of the world and our community, this feels overwhelming, but it also feels inexplicably comforting.

       When I talk to folks about baptism, one of the points that is most important to me is that baptism is just the beginning. Our baptism, just like the Lord’s baptism, is only the beginning of the work. Baptism is never a point on the straight line of time, it is the beginning of the Jeremy Bearimy of faith. The baptized life will have doubts and joys, it will have successes and perceived failures, and believe me when I say it will still have expectations and questions. There will be days were expectations and questions are all that it feels like we have, but my friends, just like when our Lord was baptized, we too have God’s belovedness poured out upon us to be able to walk this unknown path ahead that challenges our assumptions and expectations, one that provokes more questions and discernment than we can even predict. In good times and in bad, it is the gift of our baptism to have an inquiring and discerning heart; thanks be to God.

A sermon delivered to Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for the Baptism of Our Lord.

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