I want to invite you into a time of visual meditation on the art piece River by John August Swanson. First a bit about Swanson as an artist:
His art reflected his strong heritage of storytelling, inherited from his Mexican mother and Swedish father. . . . He addressed human values, cultural roots, and the quest for self-discovery through visual images. These include Bible stories and celebrations, circuses, concerts, and operas. . . . His style was detailed, complex, and elaborate. It was influenced by the imagery of Islamic and medieval miniatures and Russian iconography, the color of Latin American folk art, and the tradition of Mexican muralists. . . . His hand-crafted serigraphs are printed in up to 89 colors of transparent and opaque inks, which overlap to create rich and detailed imagery.
You can view the piece online at https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/diglib-fulldisplay.pl?SID=20220111507531512&code=act&RC=58577&Row=37. One thing that strikes me about this visual narrative is that it depicts Jesus stepping into a river full of so much ordinary, daily activity. Debie Thomas says “The Messiah’s first public act is a declaration of solidarity. God is one of us. [His baptism] is an act of alignment. Of radical and humble joining. His first step is a step towards us.” Swanson’s art illustrates one short phrase in Luke’s account: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized.” Jesus was baptized along with everyone, as one of the crowd. His baptism happened amid the watering of crops and the drinking of livestock, the washing of clothes and filling of water jugs, the playing, praying, and swimming of children. At the moment of Jesus’ baptism, John was absent, having been arrested by Herod. So we’re not told who baptized Jesus. And maybe that’s the point. Not knowing who baptized Jesus emphasizes that baptism is a shared experience of the community, a radical and humble joining.
For our family, a highlight of the time between Christmas and New Year’s is getting to see family who live far from us—my brothers, sister-in-law, niece and nephew, and Felix the giant schnoodle. My sister-in-law, Sarah, is an avid runner. We had just arrived at my parents’ house and begun to settle in when Sarah mentioned she needed to get out for a run. “Because”, she continued, in a casual tone, “I’m almost done with my 365 days of running.” I was amazed to learn that she had run EVERY day for a whole year! This conversation got me reflecting on what it means to live with intentionality. Sarah’s commitment, I realized, was formative. This intention shaped her life in powerful ways—and would have done so even if she had missed a day here and there. So, maybe you’re not a runner, and maybe trying to keep up a daily habit isn’t your thing. The question is: what does intentionality look like for you? And how do your intentions form you, and influence the way you show up in the world? And how do you see yourself, through your baptismal covenant, belonging to a community that is intentional, a purposeful community, in the words of longtime First Church member Russ Hobbie.
Stepping into the river of God’s intentions is a beautiful, inspiring, and hopeful act. And yet, as John’s arrest by Herod reminds us, this stepping in is risky too. Jesus’ baptism is also his first step toward the cross. The choice to live in purposeful community, to live with Christ-like intention, will surely lead us deep into the heart of the world’s pain and conflict. Stepping into the baptismal river means we become related to all of creation. We can’t look away or look on from the sidelines. We are involved. We are an integral part of the flow. We know the sacredness of all beings – even those beings who oppose us. We cannot deny the personhood of anti-vaxxers or white supremacists. We cannot say the hunger of our neighbors is not our problem. We must grieve and groan with our endangered earth.
This week, I was struck by the stories of a couple of churches who are faithfully stepping into the muck and mud of our baptismal river. They are living with intention without becoming overwhelmed. Members of a predominantly white church, United parish in Brookline, MA, had become more and more uncomfortable with singing spirituals, especially after the murder of George Floyd. They realized the enslaved people who created the music were never paid for their art. So the church let their discomfort guide them toward a creative solution. They have begun collecting royalties. They take an offering each time they sing a spiritual, and those funds are given to a local non-profit that supports the development of black musicians.
Another congregation, All Saints Episcopal Church, in Pasadena, CA, has always had unsheltered folks camping on their grounds. At the beginning of the pandemic, however, the church was overwhelmed by a camp of 60 folks. The situation was chaotic and unsafe. The church didn’t abandon the community, but they did have to make hard decisions about their limits. They worked with community partners to make their inner courtyard a safe space for a dozen unsheltered neighbors at a time. Each resident on the grounds had a social worker. They provided services and support as well as a place to sleep. They installed lockers for storing belongings. They established a safety covenant which residents helped to enforce.
I also see our congregation practicing this sort of faithful intentionality—through our support for the community kitchen and the little pantry, in our reparations work, and in many other ways. Through baptism, we declare our intentions. We intend to follow Jesus. We intend to love, serve, and share. We intend to be God’s partners in liberating creation. And yet, our intentions are not enough. We need the Holy Spirit. And we need Jesus’ baptism of Spirit and fire. It’s true that Jesus’ own baptism was an expression of solidarity with us. And yet in this radical and humble joining, there was also a setting apart. When the Spirit-dove inhabited Jesus’ body, when God claimed Jesus as “beloved child.” Jesus was given a unique responsibility to represent God, to speak of God’s intentions and act with God’s authority.
Stepping into the river is a choice, and yet it’s also a moment of surrender. Giving ourselves to baptism, we join a current that is much deeper, swifter, and older than we are. We become one with the flow of creation, and God’s love for all. We are set free from the tyranny of our fears. And from Jesus, we learn the art of discernment. How and when to winnow and thresh, to separate wheat from chaff. We come to know what is valuable, and what is not, what we should keep and what we should release. Through it all, we are moved along by the strong current of God’s vision with the energy, the wisdom, and the peace that comes from beyond. Amen.