Homily for the Baptism of the Lord

January 9, 2005

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Somewhat connected to Mt. 3:13-17)

When John the Baptists is confused at the idea of Jesus coming to him for baptism, Jesus replies, "Give in for now. We must do this if we would fulfill all righteousness." Give in for now.

God's word always comes to us where we are. And where are we, as individuals and was a human community? We are standing in the face of a staggering mystery.

How do we make sense of the tsunami?

We stand numb before it. All of the maps, and all of the numbers which continually grow, and all the images flood over us like the mighty wave itself rushing over all those people. And deep beneath that wave of details there is a more powerful movement. It is the upturning of the plates of our security, our sense of meaning in this world.

Who are we? What do our lives mean? And most importantly, where is God in all this?

There are, of course, those who have quick and clear answers. "God is punishing us." "Or God will bring good out of this evil, life out of death." "It's an old story in our universe, it's the way of nature, and life always comes back."

As I prayed over this incomprehensible happening, my mind returned to a local event in our city. You may recall the Beverly Hills Supper Club tragedy, when 165 people were choked or burned to death during a supper-club show. There were very few people in our city who had no connection, who didn't know someone who knew someone who was lost or who lost a loved one. You might have known some out celebrating or someone who worked in the kitchen or bussed tables or helped with the lighting or sound system.

The next day, a Sunday, they had moved the bodies into a large armory. And there was a pastoral response team there to support the grieving. A couple of ministers, a brother, a Catholic nun. Their difficult role was to accompany people one by one into the armory where they could view the corpses and possibly identify their loved ones.

A TV reporter interviewed the nun on the team. He asked her just what she say to these people. I have never forgotten her response. "This is not the time for pious words. It isn't the time for spiritual nosegays. It isn't the time for God talk. This is the time for simply holding someone's hand, for embracing them, for wiping away a tear." What a powerful message!

The book of Ecclesiastes, in that very famous scriptural quote, tells us that there is a time for everything under the sun. There is a time for being born and a time for dying, a time for loving and yes, even a time for hating. So I think we have to add that as there is a time for theologizing, there must be a time for not theologizing.

Perhaps we are called in this moment just to stand naked, in silence, before a mystery we can never name. Before a God who asks us to be creatures, not God.

And yet we look for meaning. We search out our rich tradition. Are there clues to be found there?

I believe our world is in a Job moment.

So last night I decided to sit down and just read the whole book of Job. You know, the book of Job is one we rarely encounter in the liturgy. Reading it is a powerful experience. There is high drama. We are confronted with what we might rightly call emotional violence.

Job is a faithful servant of the Lord, a good man. So when Satan comes before God he says, "Sure, he is faithful because he is rich, he has everything. Take it away and let's see how faithful he is." And God enters into the game; God places the bet on Job. In an instant Job's riches and family and health are taken away. He is afflicted with loathsome sores. And he goes into a deep depression.

Then three friends come to support him. At first they respond like the pastoral support team did. They sit in silence with him for a week.

But gradually they can't contain themselves. They have to compel him to declare his faith. They engage him in dialogue.

And Job is so convinced of his innocence he challenges God to a trial. He accuses God of injustice. This is not fair!

The three friends proceed to put before Job all the 'traditional' arguments of good religious people. Oh, God may allow the wicked to flourish for a time but eventually they will be destroyed and the just ones will flourish.

But Job will not be denied. He pushes his point all the more strongly. They finally tell him he is the sinner. He needs to repent and then God will bless him. It is a ferocious argument, back and forth.

They know the answer. They made me think of those TV preachers who revel in telling us that God is punishing our world for our sinfulness. As if our God would use innocent children as pawns in some obscene game of "you did this, so I am going to do that." This is not theology, it is blasphemy!

After the 'good people' have offered their answers, God finally steps in an addresses Job. Job had stood to question God, to make him answer. God says:

"I will question you, and you tell me the answers!

Where were you when I founded the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its size; do you know?

Who stretched out the measuring line for it?

Into what were its pedestals sunk,

and who laid t he cornerstone,

while the morning stars sang in chorus

and all the children of God shouted for joy?

And who shut within doors the sea,

when it burst forth from the womb;

when I made the clouds its garment

and thick darkness its swaddling bands?

When I set limits for it

and fastened the bar of its door,

And said: Thus far s hall you come but no farther,

and here shall your proud waves be stilled." (Job 38:1-12)

And God goes on in rich imagery for several paragraphs. You should read it sometime.

And finally Job responds:

"I know that you can do all things,

and that no purpose of yours can be hindered.

I have dealt with great things that I do not understand;

things too wonderful for me, which I cannot know.

I had heard of you by word of mouth,

but now my eye has seen you.

Therefore I disown what I have said,

and repent in dust and ashes." (42:1-6)

The interesting thing is that it is Job's speech that the Lord commends, while God rejects that of his pious friends: "You have not spoken rightly concerning me." Job is honest before God, even as he is rash. He ruthlessly peels every mask away and finally comes to acknowledge God as God. He has no answer to his question. There is no resolution. But he has touched the living God.

At his baptism, when John protests that this is all wrong, tat he should be being baptized by Jesus, the Lord doesn't resolve his question. He doesn't explain why. He simply says that we must do what the Father wills.

We may not know how the tsunami could possibly fit into the plan of an all-loving God. That's not our place.

We may not be able to penetrate the mystery of God, but there are surely things we are meant to learn about ourselves and our place in this world.

First we must surely have a deeper sense of how fragile all life is. It can be lost in a fraction of a second. Surely we are meant to treasure the gift of the present moment; the only opportunity we have to fulfill our role in the coming of the Father's Kingdom.

And then, that we are all one. It is all connected, a single interwoven web of life on this planet. 100 years ago a tsunami might have struck 'those people' and destroyed thousands and we wouldn't even have known of it. Today, with modern communications it is in our living rooms and we can't escape it or hide from it. We are in solidarity whether we choose it or not. We learned we were one city, with the Beverly Hills fire. At 9/11 we learned it as a nation. The tsunami is making us confront the reality as a whole planet. It makes no difference whether one is an Indonesian or a Sri Lankan or a Tanzanian or a Bengali, a Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Sikh. There is only one home, this earth, for all of us. Perhaps that is the truth that we are gradually being led to realize and appreciate. No event is private. It is all connected. How we live affects everyone else.

Yesterday a friend gave me a stimulating perspective on all this. She said she saw in it a great opportunity for our world, if we could only allow ourselves to see it. An opportunity?

And this was the sign she saw. You might have seen it on TV, although it was only shown briefly. The whole of Europe, everyone, from Spain to the Danube and from the boot of Italy to Scandinavia and the British islands -- everyone, in total silence. Not a sound across a whole continent. For three whole minutes. Standing in total solidarity with the peoples of the Indian Ocean. An incredible moment in human history, if you think about it. Someone had to organize that response, and all those people knew it was the right thing to do.

Perhaps the best thing we could do in the face of the tsunami is to join our own silence here in this church today to that great silence. To acknowledge that we are one people on this single planet.

But we do so as people of faith, in the presence of one who has come to share our human lot totally and now invites us to dine on the word of life.