Anglicans still celebrate what is known as Epiphanytide. That was dropped from the Roman Catholic calendar during Vatican II and they call this “ordinary time.” Personally, I’m glad we didn’t drop the concept of Epiphanytide. Epiphany is also known as “the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles” and our readings have to do with how Jesus was revealed as Christ to more than just the Jews – he is the Christ for the whole world. The focus of this time of Epiphanytide is focused on the question, “Who is Jesus the Christ to us?” In Lent, we will turn the question around to ask, “Who am I to Jesus the Christ?” It’s like these two seasons are two sides of the same coin. Borrowing from our Orthodox friends, there are three key stories of the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles: the visit of the Magi which we heard last week, the baptism of Jesus who came from Nazareth in Galilee, and the miracle at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee (which we only hear in Year C of our lectionary). The baptism of Jesus and the wedding miracle mention Galilee. This region in Jesus’ day was called Galilee of the Gentiles and it was where the known Jewish world ended and the alien world of the Gentiles, the “Others,” began. It is a reminder that if we think the Jesus story is only for a small group, we are thinking far too small!
We hear that John is baptizing people in the Jordan River in repentance for sin and the people came confessing their sins. In essence, John was repurposing the mikvah ritual bath of purity and extending it to mean more than bodily cleansing – it was now even more of a spiritual cleansing. This raises a very thorny theological question. If Jesus, as scripture says, was “tempted in every way we are yet did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15), then why did Jesus come to John for a baptism of repentance for sin? Yeah … the “sinless one to Jordan came” … but why? Honestly, this is a mystery we can never know. Some have suggested he did it in solidarity with us as humans. Perhaps. But maybe he felt moved to do this for some other reason … maybe it was part of his discernment process. We do know he was driven into the wilderness for a time of testing immediately following his baptism and we hear there was a voice proclaiming him the Beloved Son. Thus begins the earthly ministry of Jesus to both Jews and Gentiles.
We continue this ritual of baptism in the Church and speak of it as the means by which we enter the life of Grace and by which we renounce the power of Sin. In the early Church, people took this whole washing away your sins literally and would wait until the very end of their lives to get baptized. The rationale was that if I was on my death bed and taking my last few breaths, you could baptize me because there was no way I could possibly sin after that! Thankfully, we don’t wait that long anymore. But, we do recognize that baptism doesn’t magically shield us from sinning. We will sin after our baptism because the power of Sin (capital “S”) is something which “clings closely” (Hebrews 12:1) and will cause our stumbling over and over again. The promise of baptism is that we will never sin it is that Sin doesn’t get the last word.
And this week, that is powerful news. It’s been a hard week for the Episcopal Church, for the Diocese of Maryland, for all of us. On Tuesday, on the Feast of Epiphany, Bishop Sutton and the diocesan staff met with all of us clergy to discuss the terrible tragedy of Tom Palermo’s death and the involvement of our bishop suffragan, Heather Cook, in that collision. I cannot call it an accident. An accident is unintentional and I have trouble speaking of drinking and driving as “accidental.” Drunk driving happens when people make choices to drink and drive regardless of whether they are addicted or not and people make bad choices all the time … but they are not accidents. On Friday, Heather Cook was charged with manslaughter, driving under the influence and texting while driving. Heather’s blood alcohol level at the time of the collision was .22 indicating severe intoxication. Her blood alcohol level at her first arrest for driving under the influence was .27. To give you some perspective, if those of us who are not alcoholic had that level of alcohol in our system, we would be unconscious and possibly dead. This high level of alcohol in Heather’s system speaks to years of heavy drinking to build up a tolerance to the drug. She is alcoholic. She has a disease. But, she also had choices about whether or not to face and treat her disease. We must have compassion on the illness, but we can ask hard questions about why she chose not to treat it.
Like many of you, I have lots of anger, hurt, embarrassment, shame, and frustration. This horrible situation has raised many questions about how she could have been elected bishop and why weren’t the tough questions asked about her sobriety and what kind of program of recovery she was working. These are questions we need to ask because not only did Heather fail us in concealing her alcoholism, we failed her by not asking the hard questions and hiding that under the blanket of being “forgiving” and “pastoral.” There is nothing pastoral about not holding people accountable. There is nothing pastoral about setting Heather up to fail because we wanted to be “nice.”
Yes, the power of Sin has reared its head in this issue. It sucked us all in. Heather’s baptism didn’t prevent her from drinking and driving and it didn’t prevent the death of Tom Palermo because of her choices. But what Heather’s baptism did do, and what ours does for us, is mark us as Christ’s own forever so that Sin will never, ever get the last word. God always gets the last word. Think about it – scripture even tells us that Sin isn’t the last word. Remember that young Pharisee named Saul? The one who was an accessory to the murder of Stephen? Yes, he was an accessory to murder! And yet, Sin didn’t get the last word … he became Paul and spread the message of the crucified and risen Christ to the whole known Roman world. What about Peter, the one who when the chips were down denied Jesus three times? Sin didn’t get the last word … and Jesus returned to him after the resurrection asking “do you love me?” And Thomas who said he would “never believe” in the resurrected Christ? Sin that cause his unbelief didn’t get the last word there either … Jesus returned and Thomas proclaimed him “My Lord and my God!” Even before Christ came, Sin didn’t get the last word … Moses who murdered an Egyptian went on to liberate God’s people from slavery. Over and over the scripture tells us that Sin isn’t the last word and God isn’t finished yet! And if that is true for Paul and Peter and Thomas, and Moses, then it is true for Heather Cook … and you … and me.