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The United Church of Jaffrey
January 13th, 2019
Ten Years Later, by David Whyte
Ten Years Later David Whyte
When the mind is clear
and the surface of the now still,
now swaying water
the rolling kayak,
I find myself near darkness,
paddling again to Yellow Island.
Every spring wildflowers
cover the grey rocks.
Every year the sea breeze
ruffles the cold and lovely pearls
hidden in the center of the flowers
as if remembering them
by touch alone.
A calm and lonely, trembling beauty
that frightened me in youth.
Now their loneliness
feels familiar, one small thing
I’ve learned these years,
how to be alone,
and at the edge of aloneness
how to be found by the world.
Innocence is what we allow
to be gifted back to us
once we’ve given ourselves away.
There is one world only,
the one to which we gave ourselves
utterly, and to which one day
we are blessed to return.
We have just heard Matthew’s telling of the story of Jesus Christ’s Baptism.
The way Matthew tells it, Baptism feels like a momentous event that occurred at a distinct moment in time, at a distinct place, and in the company of specific people.
It has all the qualities of something that might happen to you or me.
But then things get a little, shall we say, out of the ordinary.
…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.
Until this moment, the story was concerned with normal things.
Jesus and John had a conversation.
Even if their conversation involved unusually weighty matters, it is normal enough to have a conversation.
And then John baptized Jesus.
To be sure, the ritual of baptism is not something that happens every day – but still, it is something that we humans are at least reasonably familiar with – the idea of being involved in a religious exercise that marks a rite of passage.
We do this kind of thing.
Baptisms, Christenings, marriages, Bar mitzvahs, funerals.
We don’t do them often, but we certainly do have a cultural context for understanding them when they happen.
But this business of the sky opening up, and the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him…
We know what to do when we get up to the register down at the Hannaford’s and we know that after a touchdown, the kicker comes out to try for the extra point.
We know to say “hello” when we pick up the phone, and we know that there is a rule about traffic lights, that red means stop and green means go.
Since we encounter these conventions in our daily lives, we understand know what to do with them.
But this business of the sky opening up, and the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him… And a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased…”
We don’t really have a cultural framework to comfortably explain this kind of phenomenon.
It is outside our frame of reference.
And this quality of being “outside” our regular understanding is, I would suggest, a religious quality.
Things that we easily understand are tame. They obey our minds.
But things that do not obey our understanding of the world…
Things that do not obey our rational understanding of how “it’s supposed to be…”
These things, are religious.
They do not obey us.
They are beyond us.
Third Person Masculine
And there is something else about this story…
A very small detail that is very interesting.
Most of the story is told as if it is something happening to Jesus.
Jesus and John talk. Jesus gets baptized. The sky opens. A dove descends. A voice from heaven speaks.
The story is told like most stories are told. A person, in this case Jesus, is doing stuff, and then stuff happens to him.
But there is one small detail that may suggest another way of looking at the story.
Let’s listen again to that text. It says…
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
When we read this passage with emphasis on the personal pronouns, we see that there is, actually, nothing to indicate that anyone else other than Jesus himself was necessarily aware of this whole business of heavens opening and descending doves.
Sure, the heavens were open to him, and he saw the Spirit of god descending like a dove…
But did anyone else?
We don’t know.
So… this could have been a personal experience.
I’ve always thought that the Baptism was a momentous event that was witnessed by a multitude of people standing on the banks of the river Jordan, because the story is surrounded by passages in which John is exhorting the people. But if you read the gospel accounts carefully, the only two people who are definitely present at Jesus’ baptism are Jesus himself, and John.
And, as I have already pointed out, the pronouns are third person masculine, suggesting that the person doing the perceiving, is Jesus himself.
No one else is necessarily even aware of the heavens opening, the spirit descending like a dove, and the voice from heaven!
But… So what!
So what if we can’t be sure if anyone witnessed it besides Jesus?
What difference does that make?
Am I suggesting, by this, that maybe the whole thing didn’t happen?
Am I on some kind of atheist rant, proving that, Jesus, after all was nothing special because no one witnessed the baptism, and so maybe it was all a big scam?
You know me better than that!
My job, of course, is not to disprove the story of Jesus.
Its not to prove it either…
My job is to deepen our experience of the story.
And the thing that is remarkable about this reading of the baptism is that it shifts the emphasis of the story.
Now we do not read this story as hard-to-understand-religious turning point in human history.
Now we are free to read this story as a hard-to-understand-religious moment for Jesus.
It’s not something external that happened to Jesus.
It is now something personal. Something internal that happened in Jesus.
And this, I suggest to you, this morning, is a deeply meaningful reading of this passage.
We’re not talking about an immense shift on the history of the world.
We are talking about the turn of one great soul to God.
And when we talk like this, we can identify more readily with the experience of the baptism.
When I was 44 years old, my father died.
I have been thinking about this recently because, in some ways, my father’s death resembled Archie’s death.
The similarity was not in the cause of death. The similarity was in the timing.
A complication arose. He was taken to the Intensive Care Unit, and in three weeks, he was gone.
During that time, I wrote and wrote and wrote. As my father declined, and after his death, I was writing as if to save my life.
The following passage comes from my journal at that time:
I feel that I am walking barefoot in the aftermath of an earthquake. This is a seismic time in my life – everything feels shattered, it will take a long time to rebuild. The very foundations – the beliefs and assumptions that have defined my understanding until now are being altered. I am broken open. Any order that arises will have within it the germ of this disorder. This is hard lesson, a beautiful lesson, a mysterious one.
Death is like the heavens opening and the dove descending…
There is no easy way to frame it within our understanding.
Holding my dear father’s hand as he took his final breath, I was broken open to a new reality. This reality could not be tamed by the intellect. It could not be contained in a spreadsheet. All the explanations that had been sufficient to give me an understanding of the world, were now revealed to be utterly insufficient.
Something unknowable had worked its way into my body.
This was a hard-to-understand-religious moment.
I knew that nothing would be the same again.
And it was at this time that I turned to God.
Not a God of comfort.
But the God of mystery.
I saw this mystery from the within. It was a part of me now. A kind of exciting, unpredictable humility.
I started going to church.
At first it was just to help hold up my mother and make sure she didn’t slip on the ice…
But very soon it became more than that.
It was community. Solace. Reflection.
When my mother also died, church became a place of support. A place to find glimpses of that new mysterious part of me.
And then, I started preaching, and felt the call to become a minister.
I applied to, and was accepted to Yale Divinity School.
When I walked into the chapel, at Yale, the skies opened.
I experienced, for the first time in my life, worship that was full of joy!
The experience was radical, surprising. The vigorous participation, astonishing music and finely rendered, confident liturgical timing – it all nourished me in ways that were entirely new and exciting.
It was a revelation!
I felt like I could give myself away to the joy.
Broken open by pain, I was prepared to give myself to joy.
Broken open by pain, we are prepared to give ourselves away to joy.
And here, God finds us.