Sermon: An Exchange of Vows by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli

January 09, 2022

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC January 9, 2022, The Baptism of the Lord. “Shine On!” series.

Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Some of you may be familiar with the phrase “setting intention.” The core of Christian Centering Prayer (a meditative form of prayer) is to set your intention to be present to God. For those of you who practice yoga, you will know that as you begin, the invitation is often to “set your intention” for your practice that day. In other words, as you move through the practice, what do you want to work on? What do you want to hold in mind? What is your intention? For me the language and practice of “intention” has become so important in my life. I want to be intentional about my living, my choosing, my priority-setting, my loving.

In our United Methodist wedding liturgy, immediately following the welcome, is something called the “Declaration of Intention” in which the persons being married are asked to affirm things that sound like traditional marriage vows. It’s a part of the ceremony that often elicits questions during preparatory conversations with the couple. It’s not always clear why this shows up so early in the service. The backstory of this part of the ceremony is that it replaces the old “who gives this woman to be married” part—a practice grounded in patriarchal understandings of women as property, as persons without their own agency or voice. In our current service, those standing at the altar say right up front that no one is forcing them to get married and that they have chosen the person they’re marrying. That’s what those “vows” are all about. They are clearly stating their intention to freely enter into union with the person who stands beside them and to share the joys and sorrows of the relationship no matter what the future will hold.

The parents and families and the whole congregation are also asked to affirm their blessing and support—their intention for their own relationship with the couple.

Whether it’s in prayer, a spiritual practice, or entering the covenant of marriage, our intentions are what we want to try to do or to be. And the truth is that we never know how things will play out in an unknown future. But in these key moments of our lives, we set our faces toward the vision we seek, with as much clarity as we can muster, and then…we try.

Today is traditionally known as “Baptism of the Lord Sunday.” Many congregations, Foundry among them, include on this day an opportunity to reflect upon and participate in a reaffirmation of our baptismal covenant. For those of us who are baptized, it was either the intention of our parents when we were infants or our own intention as youth or adults to enter into the covenant of Baptism, into a more intentional relationship not only with God but with the people of God in the Body of Christ.

And today, on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, we stand at the banks of the Jordan River, that historically powerful place of crossing from the wilderness into the promised land, that flowing symbol of passage from one life into another and we witness Jesus baptized by John.

What was Jesus’ intention when he wandered into those waters? Why was Jesus Baptized? Luke doesn’t tell us. But in Matthew’s account (3:15) Jesus states his intention is “to fulfill all righteousness.” Whenever we receive the word “righteousness,” think: “right relationship.” Some will disagree with me on this, but I think Jesus could have avoided the river Jordan, that he could have chosen not to pass through those waters into the life for which he was created, that he could have avoided his responsibility to fulfill “right relationship” and, instead, used all his considerable mojo to live whatever life he wanted. But, as the one who shows us what perfect love is and does, he humbly offers himself to John’s hands.

In most Christian circles, we believe that Jesus came into the world as the Christ, as the very heart of God. His Baptism didn’t necessarily change him—it didn’t zap him into being the Christ. Rather, Jesus’ baptism was and is an affirmation and confirmation of his true identity, a revelation, a further epiphany for us that this one is our Lord, the one who shows us how to be truly and fully human in the image of God. Jesus’ intention was to live fully in his identity, to be in loving and just (“right”) relationship with God and others; and he chose to pass through the waters of the Jordan. As he emerged, Spirit descended upon him and led him into the wilderness for 40 days and nights where Jesus wrestled with the devilish voice, prayed, fasted, and prepared for his new, public life and ministry.

I was reading from the UM Book of Worship in preparation for today and was struck afresh by these words: “The Baptismal Covenant is God’s word to us, proclaiming our adoption by grace, and our word to God, promising our response of faith and love.” Through our Baptism, we are adopted by God and brought into the Christian part of God’s family, incorporated into God’s own life, enfolded into God’s love. This doesn’t mean that we are outside of God’s love prior to our Baptism—but rather, that at our Baptism, like Jesus, our truest identity is affirmed and confirmed, namely, that we are beloved children of God. This is God’s word to us: I am your God and you are my Beloved. More of God’s intention is clarified in Isaiah 43: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. …you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…

As you pass through the waters, as you affirm and reaffirm your covenant with God, you are invited to acknowledge and celebrate that you ARE a beloved child of God, a sibling of Jesus, part of the Beloved Clan. This truth invites a joyful response. It invites us to make our own declaration of intention for who we will try to be and what we will try to do in relationship with God, with the whole human family, and within the Christian family.

But just as in our understanding of marriage, God doesn’t force you to do anything. You are not coerced to respond. You have agency and voice. If you were baptized as an infant, that act was an affirmation of the truth of your belovedness and identity within God’s family. Those who brought you for Holy Baptism weren’t “speaking for you.” They affirmed their own faith and stated their intention to raise you so that you could know God and God’s love. You have a choice about your response every day after your Baptism. You can use your own mojo any way you choose. You can choose what kind of relationship you will have with God and with others. You choose your response to God, your intention.

As we gather on this day following the one year anniversary of the insurrection at our nation’s capital, I’m newly reminded how important it is for us to be clear both about our intention and the impact of our choices. I’m newly reminded how twisted versions of Christianity are woven into a long-standing, violent, white nationalist narrative and agenda in our country whose agents are rarely if ever truly held accountable for the harm inflicted. I’m reminded of the ways that the name of Jesus is coopted for the purpose of division when in truth Jesus’ witness modeled creation of community that crossed all boundaries and tore down dividing walls between people of all ages, nations, and races. I’m reminded of the stunning perversion of Jesus into one who marches with gun-toting bullies and supports self-serving greed.

Because scripture is clear that, while Jesus clearly had power, charisma, and wisdom he chose not to throw his weight around and lord over others (unrighteous relationship), but chose instead to humble himself, to enter into the same waters of Baptism that we share, to face the wilderness and its many temptations, to journey in community and solidarity with all in need, to welcome and raise to leadership those whom others rejected or ignored, to insist upon both personal spiritual devotion and public social justice, to care for both souls and bodies, and to persevere even unto death for the sake of love. Jesus reveals for us the perfected image of God in human form—and all of us, in all our various gender identities, orientations, skin colors, nationalities, religions, and abilities are made in the image of God.

Today I want to remind us that if we take them seriously, the ancient words of our Baptismal covenant provide powerful words of intention for us for the living of these and all our days. First, we acknowledge there is evil in the world and that we ourselves fall short of God’s vision and so we repent. We affirm the power and freedom we’re given to resist evil, injustice, and oppression and to do what is right. We believe and have come to know that Jesus is the one who can show us what right relationship looks like and so we put our trust in Jesus and seek to follow.

God’s word to us is love…forgiveness…freedom…power. What is your word of response to God? What will be your true intention? Your answer makes a difference. And God’s grace will be with you as you try.