“The baptism of Jesus is an epiphany, a revelation of who Jesus is, but it is also an epiphany of who Jesus’ God is,” said the Rev. Mary Luti at the 9:15 a.m. Tuesday Ecumenical Service in the Amphitheater.
Her sermon title was “The Power of Humility: The One-Down God,” and the Scripture readings were Matthew 3:13-17, the baptism of Jesus, and John 13:1-9, the foot washing at the Last Supper.
John was amazed when Jesus asked to be baptized. Luti asked, why was he reluctant to do it?
“John was baptizing sinners, getting them ready for the arriving Messiah,” she said. “They would come down into the river and drown their sins, ready to greet the Messiah’s new day. Then John saw the new day in person, lined up with the sinners.”
John told Jesus he did not need washing. John said, “You are way too high to be baptized by someone so low. I am not worthy to untie your sandals.”
“If you watch ‘Downton Abbey,’ the situations are reversed,” Luti said. “You will see who God is, what God is like by the willingness of God’s son to be baptized. What kind of son goes one-down in the river of human sin and frailty?”
After Jesus was baptized, God called him “My son, the beloved one.”
“God was pleased because Jesus identifies with the nobodies, he refuses to pull rank,” Luti said. “This is a new way.”
God forbid we should stoop so low, Luti said to the congregation, “as all of us are climbing up to win the race, to be somebody. Everyone expects God to act like one and lord it over everyone, and we would like to do a little lording of our own. God is not above us or against us, but with us and for us.”
The story of the Last Supper echoes the drama in Jesus’ baptism. As John was reluctant to baptize Jesus, Peter was not going to allow Jesus to wash his feet.
“Not you Jesus, you can’t wash my feet, but if you do, wash my head and hands as well,” Peter said to Jesus. “It is not good, it is just improper.”
Jesus said to Peter, “If I don’t serve you, you will never know me. You will never discover the paradox of faith.”
Luti said in the movie, “The King and I,” no one’s head could be above the king’s. In one scene, Yul Brynner as the king enters the room, and Deborah Kerr as Anna bows her head. The king bows his, and she bows hers lower. The king stoops, and she bows lower. The king kneels, and she goes flat out on the floor.
“Imagine the reverse, that no one’s head is lower than the king’s,” Luti said. “The king goes one-down and ends up on the floor. That is Jesus and his God. John and Peter were mortified with Jesus and God on the floor. We have always preferred a one-up God. We have glorified nonsense and created mayhem. But God with us is unpretentious.”
The hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 extolls Jesus as one who emptied himself, who did not count equality with God as something to be exploited.
“We still pray to almighty God, even though there is no might in Jesus,” Luti said. “The divine trajectory is down into Earth, skin, the lowly people by society’s reckoning.”
A bottom-seeking God does not sit well, she said.
“That is why so many preachers are in love with the scorched-Earth, swashbuckling Christ of the second coming with an army of angels,” Luti said. “They were disappointed in the first coming, so they concentrated on the second.”
Luti shared the story of St. Francis who “fell hard for the one-down God.” He sold his own stuff and his father’s stuff, and when his father brought him to trial to disown him, Francis walked out of court naked.
“By disrobing, he relinquished power and a vast movement began,” Luti said. “Not everyone who goes down is naked and alone but there are millions of people whose lives have been rerouted by God’s humility.”
She continued, “Those gospel people who have found their own way down will assure you that they bless the day they found their path. Their comfortable lives itched like old clothes and they finally ran out of arguments with God.”
Luti described a “testy” conversation she had with a new parishioner. The parishioner insisted that the Maundy Thursday foot washing was old-fashioned, that “people’s feet don’t get dirty in this day and age, and foot washing is unhygienic and servile.” Luti said to her, “And your point is?”
“She surprised me and herself when she joined in the foot washing on Maundy Thursday, washing feet and having her feet washed,” Luti said. “She had gotten a pedicure that day. But she wept when she saw the oldest member of the congregation kneel and wash his wife’s feet.”
It was no small thing for her to dip her lacquered toe into the river with Jesus, Luti said.
“It was something to embrace,” she said. “Kneeling down is the beginner’s approach to paradox. To go downward is glory, to relinquish is joy. I wish something like that for all of us.”
The Rev. Virginia Carr presided. Clara Miller, a third-generation Chautauquan who studies at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and is an intern with the Chautauqua Institution Archives, read the Scripture. The Motet Choir sang “Come Thou Fount,” by Eric Nelson, for the introit and the anthem. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the choir. Thanks to the magic of Chautauqua and a few generous donors, there are braille worship books and hymnals for the sight-impaired to participate fully in morning worship. They are available at Gate 4, the Ralph C. Sheldon Gate. Ask any usher for assistance. The Mary E. and Samuel M. Hazlett Memorial Fund provides support for this week’s services.