In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The first Sunday of Epiphany is always the day when we remember Jesus’ baptism. It is also a day when new members of the faith are baptized and welcomed into the family of the church. This year, because of the COVID spike here in Washington we are not baptizing new members today, we will save that for a later date when there is less threat of infection. But for all of us who have already been baptized, today is the day when we reaffirm and reclaim the promises we made when we were baptized. It is a day to remember who we are and whose we are.

Sometimes I worry that for some of us baptism does not have the meaning that it used to or that it ought to. It is seen as a right of passage, as a social occasion to celebrate one’s
membership in the church. And while it is both of those things, baptism is also something much more profound – it is the moment when we are given a new identity and marked and claimed as Christ’s own forever.

When John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River it was a watershed moment in our Lord’s life. The gospels tell us that Jesus’ baptism marked the beginning of his ministry. Before that moment, Jesus was just another young man born and raised in Nazareth, the first-born son of two simple peasants. Yes, he was still the child the angel had promised Mary. He was indeed the promised one, but that promise was yet unfulfilled. But, after his baptism, something significant changed, and Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, became who he was meant to be. After his baptism, he gathered his disciples and went about preaching, teaching, healing the sick and sharing the news of God’s Kingdom.

When Jesus was baptized his identity was sealed forever. He heard the Lord’s voice proclaim him as his beloved Son. In our baptisms our identities are also sealed. We are no
longer just Randy, Dana, Jan, or Leonard – we are the children of God and members of the body of Christ. After his baptism, Jesus could no longer live an anonymous life. God claimed him and gave him a job to do, a ministry to fulfill. That ministry led to the cross. As baptized Christians we also have no anonymity, we are called to stand up in the world for the sake of love, for the sake of the Kingdom.

My friends, this past Thursday, January 6, we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, when the star of Bethlehem led the wisemen to the manger and revealed to them the Christ
child, the savior of the world. Unfortunately, January 6 was also the anniversary of a terrible day in our nation’s history, a day of violence, destruction, and desecration at the US Capitol. As I stand here this morning in the light of the Epiphany, reflecting on the meaning and importance of our baptisms, I can’t help but wonder what responsibility do we have as Christians to protect the health and welfare of our democracy?

Now please hear me out, this is not about partisanship, about republican or democrat, this is about something larger than party. I am concerned about our democracy itself, this marvelous experiment that started some 246 years ago. It is not a perfect system of government, far from it, but it is the finest form of government humankind has ever devised and I believe it deserves our best efforts as people of faith. In fact, I think the values of our faith are critical to the health and welfare of American democracy. George Washington thought as much when he wrote in his Farewell Address, “religion and morality” are the “firmest props of the duties of men and citizens” and are “indispensable supports” of “the . . . habits which lead to political prosperity.” He added, “[r]eason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

What is our civic role as baptized Christians during this time in the life of our country when we are so divided, when there is an increased strain on our democratic institutions, when some would undermine our democratic principles if it helped them to obtain and hold onto power? How can we help to be the glue that holds us all together?

I think the answer to these questions can be found in part in the renewal of our baptismal vows that we will all say together in just a few minutes. When that point in the liturgy
comes, Dana will, among other things, ask us, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

I think that is a pretty good list, a pretty good beginning for us to focus on as citizens of this democracy. To resist evil, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace, to respect the dignity of every human being – these are some of our essential tasks as Christians and they should also be some of our essential tasks as Americans.

My friends, as Christians we are supposed to shine the light of Christ in our sometimes very dark world. We are supposed to be the purveyor of values that are essential to our nation and to our society. Be a Democrat, be a Republican, be an Independent, we need them all. But be a Christian first, a Christian that stands up for the values of equality, freedom, justice, forgiveness, love, and humility.

Martin Luther King once wrote that, “The church must be reminded once again that [it] is not to be the master or the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state.” 1  I believe that is truer now than ever. We need to be the conscience that calls out lies and demands truth telling. We need to be the conscience that reminds people that it is just as important to listen as it is to speak. We need to be the conscience that points out the sin of the power hungry. We need to be the conscience that proclaims love of neighbor and love of God are more important than the will to power. We need to be the conscience that demands our elected leaders work together for the common good rather than their political status. We need to be the conscience that reminds people we are part of something larger than our political aspirations, part of something larger and more important than just “getting my way.”

When they look back on this time in our history 50 or 100 years from now what will they say when asked – where was the church in all of this? What did the church do when our democratic system was strained to near the breaking point? I hope they say that we stood up, we spoke the truth, we demanded justice, and with our very lives we shined the light of Christ’s redeeming and reconciling love when our country needed it the most.

On January 6th, standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry gave a brief speech. I leave you this morning with his words. “Democracy itself is a
shared ideal and value that we must uphold and labor to defend . . . that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth . . . We don’t think of it this way very often, but unselfish, sacrificial love for each other may well be the supreme value on which democracy depends. This is indeed a moment of both peril and promise. But if love is indeed the supreme law of God for life, as I believe it is, then God’s way of unselfish sacrificial love for each other could well be the key to life for our nation and the world itself. That way of love could well be the key to our truly becoming one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

May it be so. Amen.

1 Martin Luther King, “A Knock at Midnight,” June 11, 1967

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