I'm ready for the "push back" from those who will find this sermon "soft on sin" and want to know where's the part where we're saved by virtue of our baptism from our fallen nature as members of the wretched human race.
I'm remembering this morning a homily I heard last year on retreat with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Philadelphia from one of the Roman priests who came to preside in the convent chapel. He talked about his early days in ministry, doing missionary work in Guatemala and the deep friendship he developed with his Protestant roommate.He said they had MUCH in common as they worked among the poor of the city and they had lots of great conversations about theology, mission and ministry.
The one chasm they couldn't bridge, however, was the one between their different views on the nature of humanity. His roommate, the priest recounted, was convinced humans are inherently evil beings who can only accomplish good through our baptism into the Body of Christ. The priest, on the other hand, was convinced that humans are inherently good and that our baptism into the Body of Christ enables us to resist evil and participate with God in making the world a better place.
I was struck by how concisely he articulated what is arguably the greatest theological division we face ... and not only in the Episcopal Church/Anglican Communion. So many of the arguments about faith, sexuality, gender and mission come back, again and again, to what it means to be created in the image of God as human beings and what it means to be “saved” as Christians.
All that was part of the “back story” in writing this sermon … one I hoped would help the congregation contextualize both theologically and historically the sacrament we were all about to experience together.
January 13, 2008 ~ Epiphany 2A ~ All Saints Church, Pasadena
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The gospel appointed for this “Baptism of Our Lord” Sunday is a Gospel According to Matthew. We’ll get to that in a minute, but I want to start out this morning with a different gospel … a Gospel According to Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
It is a gospel message I hope the young people being baptized today will take to heart and make their own – and that the parents and sponsors of our baptismal babies will do the same for them. For as we work together as a community of faith – as the Body of Christ – to help these children grow into the full stature of Christ – it is a gospel they will need to hear over and over and over again in order to claim it as their own – in order to believe that they ARE beloved of God, that they ARE anointed by the Holy Spirit in order to make a difference in the world, that they ARE deeply and abundantly loved, treasured and valued because of who they ARE … not because of what they do or believe or will achieve or accomplish.
Our agenda today – as we witness and participate in this baptismal celebration – is to be those “balcony people” the rector talks about – the ones who say, particularly in the bleakest and most anxious of moments, “Go for it. You can do it. You can make it. You’re made from good stuff. Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken!” And when, in a few minutes, we are asked to answer the question, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” our chance to sign on to the balcony brigade is our answer: “We will” – an answer that makes this ritual of baptism a sacramental moment for ALL of us.
Jesus’ baptism was a sacramental moment for all who gathered on the banks of the Jordan that day as well -- and Matthew, the gospel writer, has his own agenda in telling the story the way he does. He wants to show his predominately Jewish audience how the story of Jesus is not just a story, but their story – and so he begins with a genealogy that puts Jesus squarely in the line of Abraham & Sarah and ends with Jesus, like his Hebrew ancestors before him, emerging from the water into the Promised Land on the banks of the Jordan.
In Matthew’s account of the baptismal moment, Jesus is anointed by John and the Holy Spirit as the new bearer of God's hope for the people, the new fulfillment of God's promise -- a promise which at the end of Matthew's Gospel we discover is not just about the people of Israel but "all nations" … a radical notion, indeed!
For in point of fact, Jesus’ coming out of the Jordan was a radical act -- an intensely political act. John first -- and then Jesus -- were setting themselves directly against those in Jerusalem who used their power to oppress God's people. And this “Baptism of Our Lord” we celebrate all these centuries later was a first step toward the showdown that would come between them.
And because this is one of the years when Lent comes about as early as it possibly can, we’ll very soon be hearing again the stories that leads to Jerusalem, to Golgotha and to the Resurrection – stories not of a violent march to the throne but a loving journey to the cross and beyond. But for today, we are at the Jordan River, where our focus is on God’s blessing and the anointing of Jesus as Beloved. That, Matthew says, is our story of promise. That, Jesus says, is our journey, too.
It is a journey that is not about making us feel more comfortable with the status quo of our lives, when so much of that status quo thrives on the backs of the poor. It is about challenging us to cast aside our own oppressive use of power and join Jesus on his journey of speaking truth to power, giving voice to the voiceless, being agents of change.**
I’ve been around this church a VERY long time – and I’ve seen a lot of change. I’ve seen enough to know that change is not only possible but attainable. I was baptized into a church where girls couldn’t grow up to be acolytes … much less deacons, priests or bishops. When, as a young mother, I served at my first Diocesan Convention as a delegate, my credential badge read “Mrs. Anthony Russell” … never mind that MR Anthony Russell’s participation in the mission and ministry of the Episcopal Church was to come on Christmas Eve and Easter Day.
My Aunt Gretchen, who died with a “Save the 1928 Prayer Book” bumper sticker on her car, was part of a Glendale parish that tried to – can you imagine such a thing? – leave the Episcopal Church over changes they couldn't handle: over the ordination of women. I could not in my wildest imagination – and I have a pretty wild imagination – have imagined that this church of my birth and baptism would change so much that in 2008 we would, under the leadership of a woman Presiding Bishop, be challenging the rest of the Anglican Communion to catch up with us as we continue to strive to fully include all the baptized in the Body of Christ.
We’re not quite there yet – but let’s not let the fact that we’re not quite there yet get in the way of celebrating all the changes that have brought us, as a community of faith, closer to the “full stature of Christ” as the Body of Christ in the world.
And I am convinced that a primary reason these changes that we celebrate this morning ARE changes we can celebrate this morning is that the sacrament we are about the celebrate – baptism – became the central organizing event in the theology, worship and work of the Episcopal Church with the adoption in 1976 of what some are still calling “The New Prayer Book” – a new prayer book with some very BIG changes.
For example, I remember when “good Episcopalians” would talk about “having the baby ‘done’” in scheduling the christening. And it was a “christening” … I didn’t hear so much about baptism growing up. I think it might have sounded, well, a little “Baptist.”
No, we “christened” our babies … and once they were “done” we went back home for a nice glass of sherry with the immediate family who had slipped in the side chapel for the sacramental moment that had no direct connection with the mission, ministry or witness of the church gathered on Sunday morning.
The “new prayer book” helped to change our theological focus – and my response to that change is “thanks be to God.” It was the shift to focusing on baptism that spawned the buttons we saw during the struggle for the ordination of women in the 70’s, “Ordain Women or Stop Baptizing Them.” And it is the centrality of our baptism that forms the foundation of our inclusion ministry today – it is the commitment to the ministry of ALL the baptized that sets us apart from some of our Anglican siblings.
I think it is, at least in part, my experience of that change that makes me hopeful we can actually make other changes – both in our church and in our nation – changes that cry out to be made at this time in our life together as Americans and as Episcopalians. It is my experience of that change that makes me both hopeful AND optimistic. Change and experience – they’re all the rage, aren’t they? Or at least they have been in the news of late – from places like … oh, Iowa and … New Hampshire.
Hear what our friend Jim Wallis has to say about that: “Even a candidate who runs on change, really wants it, and goes to Washington to make it, will confront a vast array of powerful forces which will do everything possible to prevent real change.” Which is why, Wallis says, “it will take a new spiritual revival to finally make serious social change really possible. Changing hearts and minds and forging a constituency who will demand nothing less than a new direction. Remember, President Lyndon Johnson didn't become a civil rights leader until Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks made him one. And that's what we need again now.”
That is EXACTLY what we need again now … and that is why what we do here this morning is so important. Not just important for Micah, Luke, William, Alexander, Nolan, Vanessa, Charlie and Nora who are being baptized today but for ALL who dare to take on the brave, audacious challenge of taking up the ministry of Jesus on earth – of BEING the Body of Christ in the world – of daring to, once again, say “I will” to the covenant questions asked at each and every baptismal occasion:
· Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
· Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
· Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
These promises – this covenant – is our job description, our strategic plan and our marching orders as Christians all rolled into one. It is what empowers us and sustains us to be part of that “spiritual revival” committed to making serious social change really possible.
I began this morning with a gospel according to Oscar Wilde and so I’ll end with a gospel from this side of the pond … a gospel according to Ed Bacon: Faith in action is called politics. Spirituality without action is fruitless and social action without spirituality is heartless.
Micah, Luke, William, Alexander, Nolan, Vanessa, Charlie and Nora – in a moment we will baptize you into the household of God, invite you to proclaim with us Christ’s resurrection and to share with us in Christ’s eternal priesthood. And we will invite you to join us in being agents of change – of working together to turn the human race into the human family – to join us by putting your faith into action as we go about the work of bringing heaven to earth -- God’s Kingdom come, God’s will be done -- as we strive to proclaim by word AND example the Good News of God in Christ Jesus.
There’s a hurting world out there in dire need of dramatic change. May the experience of this baptismal celebration empower each and every one of us to go out and be the church in the world -- to be agents of change on behalf of the Gospel of our Lord.
Oh – and remember: Be yourself. Because everyone else is already taken! Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Amen.
**Credit to Mike Kinman of EGR (Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation") for this connection between the spiritual and political implications of Matthew's baptismal account.