The Reverend William J. Eakins
The First Sunday of Lent, Year B
18 February, 2018
Grace Episcopal Church
At just about this time of year, in March of 1936, the city of Hartford was inundated by a great flood that none who experienced it have ever forgotten. Over a period of three days, the Connecticut River, swollen into a raging torrent by melting snow and a deluge of unusually warm rain, rose some 38 feet, surging over protective dikes. A large portion of the city was under water; in low-lying areas, houses and other buildings were flooded well beyond the level of the second floor. A resident of the neighborhood around Colt's Armory remembers it like this:
[I] never saw water look like that, just like the ocean, carrying along parts of houses, gasoline tanks, and driftwood. I thought the Colt dike would protect us. By six o'clock in the evening, the water started coming in my store. I sat up and watched it get stronger. At nine, the lights went out. I could hear the women and kids crying for help up and down the street, but no rescue boat came until four in the morning.
Given such devastating experiences, I wonder at the connection that early Christians saw between a flood and the sacrament of Christian initiation. First Peter says that the greatest flood of all time, the one that covered the whole earth in the time of Noah, gives us a hint of what baptism is like. Now baptism as we know it is hardly a flood. There is a gallon or so of tepid water poured into a basin. A teaspoon at a time, the priest scoops it up and pours it over the forehead of the baptized. The language of the baptismal liturgy speaks of the meaning of this gentle act as the washing away of sin. Yet Peter tells us that there is something far, far bigger, far, far more powerful happening in a baptism than we may realize. A water of washing? How about a flood, a flood that drowns, sweeps away a whole other existence and then carries us into a whole new life?
It is striking that both the great flood and Jesus' baptism mark the end of one life and the beginning of another. In Noah's case, the flood wiped away the world as it had been and when the waters of the deluge receded, Noah and his family and the animals left the ark to begin a new society. Jesus entered Jordan's stream as a carpenter from Nazareth and came up out of that water as "God's Son, the Beloved," the anointed one of God. At the Jordan, Jesus left behind not only his trade but his home and family. Henceforth Jesus would have no vocation but that of fulfilling God's will, no home but that which each day provided, no family but his disciples. Given the enormity of the change marked by his baptism, is it any wonder that Jesus had self-doubts? Isn't that a likely interpretation of the temptations Jesus experienced immediately afterwards?
Could it be that baptism for us as for Jesus, cuts our life in two? Our old life is left behind and we set forth following Jesus into a radically new, risky, and sometimes scary existence. Since that is just too frightening a proposition for most of us, we would much prefer to think of baptism as a gentle washing and not as an overwhelming flood. If so, then I hear today's Scripture calling us to wake up to a renewed sense of the power of God and the powerful change in us this God requires and makes possible.
"Why do people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless passengers on a tour of the Absolute?" asks writer Annie Dillard. She then continues,
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions around them. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of [divine] power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
It is all too true, isn't it? We prefer to trivialize and domesticate God and the demands God places upon us. We think that being a Christian is merely a matter of turning over a new leaf and trying a little harder. We shy away from those hard sayings of Jesus about giving up everything to follow him, about taking up a cross daily, about dying to our old selves to be raised to new life by God. If we look to the example of Jesus, the one we call Lord, we are confronted with the truth that what God requires is not a little tinkering with ourselves here and there, but a radical makeover. God is not about the business of tinkering but transformation.
A little over 150 years ago, some members of Trinity Church, Hartford, saw the need for a place of Christian worship where there was none in the growing area of Parkville. They got the ball rolling with a Sunday School held in a local schoolhouse. That Sunday School grew into a mission congregation which in 1868 erected the church in which we worship this morning. God know how lives have been changed by what has happened within these walls.
Where did those Grace Church pioneers get their vision of the exciting new venture to which God was calling them? What gave them the courage and generosity to make that vision a reality? I'll bet it had something to do with living out the faith and mission given them in their baptism. In baptism they had been marked with the sign of the cross and in the old Prayer Book words made "Christ's faithful soldiers and servants until their life's end." Christ's soldiers and servants... of course they would see the need to establish a place of Christian worship where there was none and were moved to do all in their power to make it happen.
To what mission might God be calling Grace Church today? To what daring enterprise might God be calling you personally to make the world a better, more Godly place? What changes in us might be necessary to respond to God's calling? That water that was poured upon us when we were baptized did more than we may yet have realized. Like that mighty flood that surged around Noah's ark ending the world as it was and carrying its occupants into the future, so our baptism is calling us to new life.
Maybe we should think of this church as in many ways like Noah's ark. Look up. Don't the ribs and arches of the wooden ceiling look very much like the hull of a large boat overturned over our heads? Well, if this church is the ark, then we should remember that there is a flood rising all about us. That flood is God's power calling us to change and be change agents for God. Though the waters be deep and strong, they are not to be feared because they are God's waters, there to lift us up and carry us to the new world that is to be.
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