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Posted on Jan 8, 2017

One step at a time-sermon for 8 January 2017

One step at a time


Tintoretto, Baptism of Christ (detail) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

January 8, First Sunday after the Epiphany: Baptism of Our Lord

Psalm 29;
Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.


I was looking forward to hearing the bishop preach today, but as you undoubtedly have all heard, he came down quite ill while on a vacation to London and had to reschedule. {Update}

But this found me wondering what preach about, and then one morning as I sat in prayer Pastor Jack reminded me of a story.

Most of you have been introduced to Pastor Jack. He’s a truckstop preacher out west. He travels the highways and byways of middle America pastoring the destitute and the downtrodden, the diffident and the doubtful. He’s a trickster, and true believer…he’s part people that I’ve known, and part people that I’ve only heard about, and part an imagined and hoped for better angel of all our natures.

At any rate, Jack appeared to me in my prayer and reminded me of a baptism story—it’s also the story of how he became a truck stop preacher. See, that wasn’t what he set out to do. At first he was a regular pastor/priest/minister…whatever you want to call him, at a mainstream parish, in a medium sized town along the front range of the Rockies. He’d been there for several years, preaching, pastoring, bringing people to Jesus. But all that changed one Saturday morning when a man showed up with a two big boxes of bagels—“miracle bagels” Jack used to call them.

Jack didn’t recognize him as a regular member of the 12 step group that met at the church early on Saturday mornings, but he figured he must be part of that group, because just about the time they were ending their meeting, this guy appears in the door of Jack’s office with these boxes, saying, ‘These are leftovers. I figured you could use ‘em…you know…take ‘em somewhere or something.’ And gives Jack the boxes and then just disappears.

Well, Jack’s thinking, “what am I gonna do with this many bagels? They’ll be stale by tomorrow. I don’t want to take them home.” So, grumbling, he started to haul them out to the dumpster, but just as he’s getting ready to pitch them in, he hears a voice say, “Shelter.”

A new shelter had recently opened in town, hosting a fair number of migrant families he had heard, but he hadn’t been there. But he figured this was as good a time as any, so he put the bagels in the car and drove over.

When he got there there were no lights on. He walked up and knocked on the door, and…the way he tells it…”the door creaks open and this little hand reached out, grabbed the box and snatched it inside.”

It turned out there were several people there, mostly women and children, and the power had been out for almost 24 hours. And they were out of food. “They acted like those bagels were manna from heaven.”

Jack was convinced that God knew those bagels had to get to that shelter that morning, and so had choreographed this whole roundabout relay… “The Holy Spirit’s a heck of a dancer” he’d say.

But the “miracle bagels” were just the beginning of the day’s transformations.

While at the shelter someone told Jack about a sick relative over across the state line and would Jack please go see her.

Jack said, “Now I never do stuff like that, but, well, I agreed to go.” The visit was pleasant, but not terribly eventful. But on his way back, Jack was hungry and pulled into a truck stop to eat. And that’s where he met Mitch.

Mitch was a ranch hand and thought of himself as “a hard case.” In truth he was a poet at heart, but when he met Jack he was wrestling with both angels and demons.

So Jack falls into conversation with Mitch, as they’re sitting at the counter eating biscuits and gravy. Before long, Mitch finds out that Jack’s a preacher and says, “Come on. You don’t believe all that stuff, do ya?”

Jack says, “I sure do.” And proceeds to tell Mitch the story of the miracle bagels.

Mitch isn’t buying it, but he stays with it, hangs in, keeps asking questions…sometimes baiting Jack, sometimes really curious. And Jack finds that he’s talking about God, and Jesus and the Bible in ways he never has before. And then something happens.

Jack said, “I’m telling him about God’s love and forgiveness…and I’m trying to explain to him, like Paul does in Romans, that nothing can separate us from the love of God…and I see his eyes darken…and he stops me and says… “What about sin?”

Jack says, “I start telling him how Christ died for us while we were still sinners, and God doesn’t love us because we’re good, God loves us because God is good…God loves us even if we’re broken…maybe especially when we’re we’re broken.”

Mitch just stares at him. And finally says…”No. I’ve done too many bad things.”

Jack says. “Don’t matter, God loves you.”


Jack doesn’t say anything just looks at him with those liquid blue eyes of his, like two pools of clear water.

Mitch says, “No. You don’t know. I done a lot a stuff I shouldn’t’a done. God don’t love me. God can’t love me.”

Jack just looks at him and says, “Yes. God does love you.”

They started at each other a long time and then Mitch sat back and said…”well that’s the craziest thing I ever heard.”

It’s probably the craziest thing any of us will ever hear.

That God loves us even with, and maybe even because of, our weaknesses…our brokenness.

And what’s even crazier is that God uses weak, broken people like us to further God realm of justice and peace. And all we have to do is trust that love and act on it. act in faith.

Jack used to say: “None of us know where we’re going when we start this journey. But you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, following Jesus best you can…and you’ll end up alright.”

Those people Isaiah is writing to today can’t imagine what God is telling them…they’re still trapped under the boot of their imperial rulers…they’re miles away from their homeland…they’re imprisoned themselves and God tells them…you will bring the prisoners out…They’re still in the darkness of exile and God says “you will be a light to the nations.”

How? One step at a time. With God’s help.

Peter, a humble fisherman and faithful Jew, could not have imagined that he would be standing face to face with a Roman Centurion about to baptize him and his whole household…but there he stands.

How? Step by step.

Jack never figured that a box of bagels would take him on a journey that would reveal his true calling…as a truck stop preacher.

Growing up along the front range of Colorado, I could not have imagined that my journey would take me here…But it was four years ago this Sunday that I first stood among you as your priest and rector. I could never have anticipated the gifts and blessings I’ve received because I acted in faith and responded to God’s call and your call, and it is my deepest hope that you’ve all have likewise been blessed by acting in faith and calling and welcoming me and my family into this community. It is a profound joy to be ministering in community with you.

In just a few minutes it’ll be time to welcome Maxwell into the Christian community of faith through the sacrament of baptism. Baptism is an act of faith…it’s the first step into a larger world. Who knows where life will lead Maxwell? His parents and godparents…and his grandparents…all have hopes and dreams for him, but none of us knows for sure. None of us knows what this new year, or the next or the next will bring. But “if you just keep following Jesus you’ll end up alright.”

And so we will take that next step. We’ll do what we can do…we’ll do all that we can do.  We will act in faith. And pledge to support Maxwell, and his mom and dad, and one another in putting one foot in front of the other, day by day, and following Jesus. And we’ll do this because God loves us…as crazy as that may sound.

I said this was a baptism story, and it is…because it wasn’t just Jack’s journey that changed that day. Years later, Mitch stood looking into the ocean of Jack’s eyes, that now reflected a baptismal font. Mitch was nervous and just before he bent over the font to be baptized himself, he whispered, to Jack, “I’m not sure I can do this.” Jack put a big arm around him and said, “Sure you can, with God’s help, after all, it’s just the first step.”