Sermon for Baptism of the Lord, Year A, "Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Being Grounded," Matthew 3:1-17
Everyday Jesus Spirituality: The Discipline of Being Grounded
As I think most of you know, I just returned from a long-planned vacation to Florida, where my family and I visited Disney World and Universal Studios. We had a great time, and after a week of living in one house together, everyone in the family is still speaking to each other, so I count that as a win! Seriously, it was a wonderful trip. I was particularly proud of my mom. Not all of you know this, but she’s a bionic woman. She’s had rotator cuff surgery, and both knees replaced, and twice had her ankle fused, all remnants of her physically demanding nursing career. Before her surgeries, she was walking with a cane, and we feared she was headed for a wheelchair. Things were better after the surgeries, but she still wasn’t great with long-distances. When I first started planning our vacation, I assumed we’d have to rent her a scooter. I knew she’d never be able to do all that walking. But she’s worked so hard this year, and lost a significant amount of weight, and she walked all over those parks with ease. A scooter would have just slowed her down! But even though she can walk everywhere, some things are still challenging for her. She doesn’t do well on ground that isn’t level - inclines are very uncomfortable on her fused ankle. And she struggles with things that require a little extra balance. The people movers at universal were like an adventurous ride for her, and especially challenging were a couple rides where you’re standing on solid ground, and step onto a moving platform to get into the ride vehicle, but then when you get off, it looks like the part you’re standing on is the solid ground, and the part that’s really not moving at all looks like it is the part that’s in motion. Does that make sense? Everytime we got on one of those rides, she needed a little extra help finding the solid ground.
I’ve been thinking a lot about solid ground this week, about being grounded, sure of the earth beneath our feet. Have you ever been in an earthquake? The only earthquake I’ve ever felt was back in 2011, when an earthquake hit Washington, DC. You could feel it in Syracuse, very mildly. But I remember that I was in my office at my church in East Syracuse, and everything just started feeling weird. My first thought was not that I was experiencing an earthquake, but rather that I was ill. I got up and walked carefully down to the secretary’s office, where she was speaking with the custodian, and only when I realized that they’d felt it too did I realize that we’d felt an earthquake. This mild experience left me feeling very unsettled. The ground is not supposed to move beneath your feet. What do you do when the ground - something that is supposed to be solid and steady and supporting you when nothing else does - is moving? I can only imagine, then, what it feels like to endure a truly catastrophic earthquake. The people of Puerto Rico, still recovering from Hurricane Maria, have been dealing with a series of strong earthquakes this week. I can’t imagine the anxiety of wondering whether the ground will stay where it is supposed to, much less the literal and figurative upheaval of life again. Over and over, the ground is moving beneath their feet.
Aside from these devastating earthquakes, I think a lot in our world right now makes us feel ungrounded, like the world isn’t steady beneath our feet. We’ve been anxiously watching things unfold in our relationship with Iran - an assassination, the downing of a commercial airplane, and a lot of rhetoric that makes us fear war and violence. We have on our hearts Fort Drum soldiers deploying to the Middle East. We’re wading through the impeachment of the president. Wildfires of enormous magnitude are devastating the continent of Australia. And that doesn’t touch on any personal losses we’re experiencing, upheaval in our personal lives. We desperately need some solid ground on which to stand. How do we find it?
Today we’re starting a new sermon series, focusing on some creative spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are repeatable practices that we engage in that help us grow in our faith and stay close to God through the good times and the struggles of life. Traditional spiritual disciplines are things like prayer, reading the Bible, meditation, and fasting. But for the next several weeks, we’ll be exploring some less traditional spiritual disciplines. Peter Schurrman, author of an article in Reformed Worship magazine, the source for our sermon series, writes, “Spiritual disciplines … are not just about doing the right things. The Pharisees read their Bible and prayed every day, but it drove many of them deeper into pride and prejudice. Jesus called the Pharisees religious fibbers and spiritual graveyards. Spiritual disciplines are not defined by what you do, but by the desired goal of the activity, and the key desire for Christians is to become more like Jesus. Anything can be a spiritual discipline if it gets you to become more like Jesus. You could say that spiritual disciplines are defined by this Christian motive and intentional repetition.” (“Everyday Jesus Spirituality: Customized Spiritual Disciplines,” Reformed Worship, December 2108, 5.)
That’s what we want: to be more and more like Jesus. And to help us do that, become more like Jesus, we’re starting by exploring the discipline of being grounded. Schurrman writes, “Practicing being grounded means when worry creeps up on you or distractions call on you, you focus on God’s presence in the here and now. You listen and attend, neither dwelling in the past or rushing headlong into the future. Your vocation, your mission, is clear. Your mandate is the healing of the world.” (6) Being grounded means we keep our focus on God’s presence, right now, and that we draw strength from God’s presence. How do we do that?
Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, a day when we remember Jesus’ baptism by John, and a day when we also remember our own baptisms, or anticipate the time when we will be baptized. Our text from Matthew’s gospel begins with John the Baptist’s ministry, where he appears in the wilderness, preaching about the need for people to repent, to turn their hearts and lives back to God. Matthew tells us that John is embodying the words of the prophet Isaiah who wrote, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” In that passage from Isaiah, the prophet talks about the valleys being filled and the mountains being brought low in anticipating of the coming Messiah. The ground before the Messiah’s arrival seems awfully unsteady. Indeed, John’s message to the religious leaders who come to see him as he baptizes the crowds implies that they are not as grounded in their relationship with God as they like to think themselves. He tells them that they can’t just rely on the faith of their ancestors. They need faith - and repentance - of their own.
And then, Jesus comes to be baptized. John doesn’t understand why Jesus wants to be baptized, a sign of repentance, which Jesus doesn’t need in the same way we do. Jesus responds, “Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” His answer is a little confusing, isn’t it? But by being baptized along with us, Jesus joins in our human experience. He joins the community. He throws his lot in with ours. (see Chris Haslam’s notes: http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/apr01m.shtml) But it isn’t just for us, I don’t think. The baptism is for Jesus, too. It gets him grounded in preparation for the ministry that he’s about to begin. When Jesus is baptized, the heavens are opened to him, God’s Holy Spirit rests on him like a dove, and God’s voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” He can always come back to this reminder of his identity and task. When he’s tempted in the wilderness a chapter later, he can remember this grounding moment. When he’s transfigured on the mountain, joined by Elijah and Moses, words like this will come from God again. When he takes some time alone to pray, he can immerse himself in the truth of these words. When he’s wrestling with his impending death, and when he’s suffering on the cross, these words remind him of his commitment to God’s path. This moment, these words, this baptism, this affirmation from God comes before he preaches and heals and travels and calls disciples and dies and rises. This is where Jesus can get grounded. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Grounded in the truth of who he is.
What truth grounds us? How do we stay grounded? I really love dance. I took ballet and tap on and off as a child, although never regularly enough to become really good at it. But I loved every minute of it. My mom and I would see the Nutcracker every Christmas, and just as my niece did when my mom took her this year, I’d leave the theatre twirling and pointing my toes in the aisles. I still love to watch dance of any kind. It’s amazing what dancers can do. And all those spins - pirouettes and others turns - they can do so many in a row without falling over from dizziness. Impressive, isn’t it?
Well, dancers are able to spin like that because of a technique called spotting. A dancer focuses on a certain point on the horizon, and they keep their eyes on that mark as long as they possibly can while turning. They have to look away for a second, of course, but as soon as they make the turn, the first thing their eyes find is that spot again. And by coming back to that spot over and over, they can turn and turn and turn without losing their balance. It takes a lot of practice, of course. But it is one of the first things dancers learn to do when they’re ready to learn any kind of turns.
How do we stay grounded? I think being grounded is a bit like spotting for dancers. To stay grounded in our relationship with God, we make sure that no matter where else our attention needs to focus, our eyes are fixed on God as much as possible. God is that “spot” on the horizon that is the center of our equilibrium, the balance, the home to which we return again and again, and as quickly as possible. In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus starts heading relentlessly toward the place that will result in his death on a cross, Luke tells us that Jesus “sets his face to Jerusalem.” He’s got his focus, and it is ever on God and God’s hope for the world. Where is our face set? Let’s fix our sight on God, and keep it there.
How do we stay grounded? We do our part, and thankfully, God does God’s part. God’s part of us staying grounded is this: God loves us - adores us! God is well pleased with us, delighted in our very existence. We are God’s beloved children. And God tells us that over and over again, in a million different ways. God tells us that in the gift of Jesus to the world. God tells us that in the baptismal waters. God tells us that in the love we share between each other. God tells us that in the gifts of creation. God tells us that in the voice we hear deep in our souls, urging us toward our best selves. And God uses us to tell that to each other. God can use you to remind someone else that they are beloved. We can’t hear it enough. We can’t be too grounded in that knowledge. So make sure you let someone know who needs to hear it: God loves you. God thinks you’re great! God hopes for your best future.
Our part of staying grounded is making sure we remind ourselves of God’s message as often as possible, in as many ways as possible. Our part is making sure that whatever else turns our head, we fix our eyes back on God at the first possible opportunity. Our part is remembering our baptism, remembering our invitation to a life walking alongside Jesus, and being thankful for the promise of God’s love and grace. Some days, our world shakes us to the core, and we can’t seem to stay on our feet. Remember. Stay grounded in God. Come back to God again and again, and you’ll find the balance of deep faith, and unwavering love. Amen.