Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
The Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Thoeni
January 13, 2019
When I was in college, upperclassmen in the Graphic Design program were assigned their own studio space. We were encouraged to decorate it according to our tastes. In fact, the first assignment of the Junior year was to design a self promotional poster that would be the center piece of the student’s space.
It was a quite interesting to see how others decided to capture their personalities and design sensibilities. I enjoyed surveying the spaces every now and then because over the months various new pieces of art, or decorations would be added. It was always well worth the stroll.
One piece of decoration I added to my space was a collage that I thought was interesting and rather amusing. It was of a quite ugly ventriloquist dummy with cryptic letters cut and pasted over the image that read, “When I hear the word culture I reach for my wallet.” To me it was a bit of a statement on the peculiar relationship art and commerce have with each other.
Over the years, as a priest, I have mused about that image because I wonder if many of us could say the same thing about stewardship. When we hear the word stewardship do we think about our wallets? I suspect we do. I do. I will also be frank with you. We are in the midst of our yearly stewardship campaign. Yes, I am asking for your donations. I am even asking for your generous donations. I ask this both as your rector and as someone who has chosen to support the mission and ministry of this fine parish with my own funds.
There, I’ve said it. I have asked for your financial support. Now let’s really talk stewardship. It is a great Sunday to do so because today is the feast of the Baptism of our Lord. Each year, on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we mark the event of Jesus’ Baptism by John in the River Jordan.
It is a pivotal Sunday because we take a significant leap in the story of Jesus’ life. We move directly from the stories of Jesus’ infancy to the moment when he begins his adult efforts and mission as the Messiah. It is one of four Sundays in the Church year that our Prayer Book names as particularly appropriate for Baptism. Our Prayer Book also notes that if there is no Baptism scheduled for one of the four Sundays the Renewal of Baptismal Vows may be used rather than the Nicene Creed. We will be renewing our vows directly after this sermon.
The Baptismal Covenant is the centerpiece of our prayer book. It appears in three separate places in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The framers of our prayer book wanted it to become central in the life of the Church. It is central to my ministry as a priest.
It gives me great joy that my first sermon after officially becoming your rector is focused on this important part of our lives together. It is so central to my understanding of our life together that my doctoral thesis was on what I call the five questions of holy obligation.
Take a look at the Baptismal Covenant in your bulletin for a moment. It begins with the question of whether you reaffirm your renunciation of evil and renew your commitment to Christ. Once you answer affirmatively you are asked a series of eight questions about what that commitment looks like. The first three questions are about belief. You are asked if you believe of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The answers to these questions are the Apostles’ Creed. But then come five other questions, the questions of holy obligation. Notice each question begins with the same two words: Will you.
At Baptism we are asked to vow that we will live accordingly to our beliefs. At Baptism we commit not just to a set of beliefs but to a life of ethical standards based on faith in Jesus Christ. These are questions that begin with us individually and steadily move further and further outward in their focus. These are questions of stewardship.
We will engage our faith together as the Body of Christ. We will seek repentance and forgiveness when needed. Will we share our faith. Will we be servants as was our Lord. Will we recognize the inherent worth of everyone.
All of these questions come with a cost. All come with a sacrifice. All expect us to live as Christ’s own. All of these questions give us ways to live into the words of St Teresa of Avila: “Christ has no body on earth now but yours.”
These are questions of stewardship. We have been given grace. We have been given lives to offer, strengths and abilities to share, and means to provide for the needs of the church and others. Yes, I am asking for your financial support of St Paul’s. Frankly, I expect it. But make no mistake, we are also called and expected to take this faith of ours seriously and live as Christ’s own forever.
Consider these vows we share in the Baptismal Covenant. Consider them deeply, seriously and faithfully because they are questions of stewardship; questions of how we will be stewards of all the grand gifts God has shared with us.