Me, Baptism Excited – a sermon

Back when I was in seminary, before anyone could even read a lesson in the chapel at VTS, they had to pass LTG4 – The Oral Interpretation of Scripture.  Somewhat un-affectionately referred to as “Read and Bleed,” this course was offered during the August term before my first year.  It was an hour a day for a week, and in it, we learned how to read the Bible out loud.  As you’ve learned over the past eighteen months, I’m not one to be overly animated in my tone, and so my experience in LTG4 was more bleed than it was read.  In my small group there was a former actor, a professional clown, and a man who grew up in the Black Baptist tradition, and so, comparatively, I was less expressive than a doorknob.  At one point, as my small group leader tried to coax me into a more excited interpretation of Matthew 22, I said to her, “I’m sorry, I’m trying, but this is me, wedding day excited.”  That expression has become something of a recurring joke for me over the years.  Never one to wear my emotions on my sleeve, I can be hard to read, which isn’t always helpful.  At times, when my expression doesn’t betray my joy or exuberance, I have to tell people, flat-out, that I am excited.

So, in case you can’t tell this morning, this is me baptism day excited.  I love baptisms, especially when those being baptized have asked for it to happen.  There is just something extra special about hearing someone take on faith for themselves, especially when it is a child who has been a part of this community for a while, who has grown in the faith thanks to the many role models they have seen here at Christ Church – staff members, Sunday school teachers, children’s church volunteers, and other members of the community.  As we prepare to formally welcome Zoë and Wyatt into the Body of Christ [at 10 o’clock] this morning, we do so with excitement and joy for what the future holds, both for them and for us.

One of the places where this excitement and joy really becomes clear is in the prayer that we pray after the baptism itself.  Despite my tendency away from emotional expression, this prayer catches me short every time I have the opportunity to pray it.  New to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, this particular post-baptismal prayer uses more modern language to ask God to impart upon the newly baptized the seven-fold gifts of the Holy Spirit, which have been prayed for since the prophet Isaiah roamed the earth nearly three-thousand years ago.  For Zoë and Wyatt, we will pray for wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and awe.

It is by sheer coincidence this week, as we baptize Wyatt and Zoë into the family of the Church, that our appointed epistle lesson is from the opening verses of the letter to the Ephesians.  These words of affirmation read, in many ways, like post-baptismal prayer.  One long, run-on sentence in the original Greek, these words flowed forth from their author’s pen as an excited, joy-filled, admonition for the faithful in Christ Jesus.  Unlike last week’s lesson from Second Corinthians, which Mother Becca rightly reminded us was written by a particular person, to a particular community, in response to a particular set of needs and never meant to be read as a universal letter containing comprehensive truth, the letter to the Ephesians, in its earliest form, never actually mentions the Ephesians.  This text seems to be the antithesis of the Corinthian letters, written for more general consumption by Christian congregations around the known world.  Its goal, it seems, isn’t to address particular issues in one church community, but rather, to encourage all the faithful to seek unity in Christ, empowered by the gift of the Holy Spirit that was promised to us by Jesus himself and bestowed upon every disciple at their baptism.

Through this ancient exclamation of praise, Paul reminds his audience of God’s great power to restore all things.  Despite the fact that Zoë and Wyatt have asked to come to baptism today, Paul reminds us all that we are, first, passive participants in God’s redeeming work.  That any of us comes to faith is only because of God’s invitation.  It is God’s will that all of creation might be returned into right relationship with God, and each time a new believer comes to faith, we rejoice, alongside God and the heavenly chorus, that another breech has been repaired by the grace of God whose will it is to gather up all things.

All of us, then, who claim to be disciples of Jesus, are called to claim our inheritance and to work alongside God toward the restoration of all people.  Empowered by the Holy Spirit and gifted with an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and, perhaps most importantly, the gift of joy and wonder, every follower of Jesus who has been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism is encouraged to claim their inheritance and baptismal identity by working with God to bring the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.

And so, even as we prepare to pray the postbaptismal prayer for Zoë and Wyatt, in our Collect of the Day, we pray that by God’s grace we might all know and understand the things we ought to do as a result of our adoption as beloved children of God, and not only that, but that God might give us the power to accomplish them.  Both of these prayers aren’t simply about a future looking hope that someday God might fix everything in the great by and by, but rather, they are calls to action for today, that right here and right now, we might respond to God’s amazing grace by rolling up our sleeves and getting to work.  Utilizing the gifts that we receive in our baptisms; our everyday lives are meant to be spent working toward the restoration and renewal of God’s good creation.

I had the joy of spending this past week at All Saints, serving as a chaplain to the New Horizons Camp for 5th and 6th graders.  The theme for the summer at All Saints is “environments around the world,” and alongside seminarian Allision Caudill, we tried to help these young campers see that even at ten or eleven years of age, they too have a part to play in God’s ongoing work in the world.  The overarching narrative for our time together was the first creation story from Genesis 1.  Again and again, we reiterated that at the end of each day, God looked at what had been created and declared it good, but on the sixth day, as God looked over everything that had been made: the sun, moon, and stars; over the earth, its land and seas; over all the plants and every living creature that swims in the water and cattle and creeping things on the land; and ultimately over humankind, which God had made in God’s own image; when God saw everything working together in harmony, it wasn’t just that it was good, but rather, it was very good.  “Good good,” as the Hebrew says.

As baptized disciples of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we have been set free to work toward making creation “good good” again.  We are encouraged by God to use our gifts to build up the Kingdom of Heaven through acts of loving service, through caring for our neighbor, by treating everyone with respect, and sharing the Good News of God’s redeeming love with a world that desperately needs it.  That is what makes me so excited this morning.  This is me baptism day excited, as once again, we are all reminded of our place as co-workers in the Kingdom of God.  Later on, as we pray for Zoë and Wyatt to take their place in God’s work of redemption, embrace that prayer for you as well.  May each of us this day be encouraged and empowered by the new life of grace to claim our blessedness and build up the Kingdom of God.  Amen.

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Perplexing words we like to hear

As the calendar flipped over from June to July, the internet in my hotel room at General Convention quit working.  I’d been fighting with it for days, and ultimately decided it wasn’t worth the effort for a 256k connection that 16 year-old Steve on a dial-up modem in an AOL chat room would have scoffed at.  So I’ve been remiss in keeping up with my duties here at Draughting Theology as of late.  I apologize to my regular readers for my failure to maintain my usual pace, but I hope to get back in the habit again.

I missed blogging about several things at General Convention during my internet blackout, but what I feel saddest about was not getting to tell you how excited I am about the election of the Rt. Rev’d Michael Curry as the 27th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church.  In his Vision Statement (see page 11), Bishop Curry wrote these words about the future of our beloved Church:

At a deep level I am suggesting a church-wide spiritual revival of the Christian faith in the Episcopal way of being disciples of Jesus. While not the only player in this, I believe a significant role of the Presiding Bishop is to provide leadership, inspiration and encouragement for that revival. Obviously the Presiding Bishop has CEO (Chief Executive Officer) responsibilities that must be exercised clearly, collaboratively and effectively. But in this mission moment of the church’s life, the primary role of the Presiding Bishop must be CEO in another sense: Chief Evangelism Officer, to encourage, inspire and support us all to claim the calling of the Jesus movement.

In his first public sermon following his election, at the Closing Eucharist of the 78th General Convention, he preached a sermon based firmly on this vision.

We are all a part of the Jesus Movement, called to go and make disciples, and we are going to hear that call again and again and again over the next nine years.  At an event like General Convention, it is easy to get swept up in the energy of it all.  We cheer and applaud when Bishop Curry calls the impromptu mega-church to Go, but the reality that for most of us, the call to evangelism is downright scary work.  The words of Bishop Curry feel easy because he fervently believes them, he lives them, and he offers them in a medium that makes us feel like we can live them too, but as with any prophet, the words of Bishop Curry are perplexing, even if we like to hear them.  They are, in many ways, like the words of John the Baptist, whose arrest and death we hear about in Sunday’s Gospel lesson. They push us out of our comfort zone.  They invite us to see the world differently.  More importantly, they invite us to see ourselves differently.

As General Convention fades into the past and we prepare for the seating of the Presiding Bishop-elect on November 1, 2015, it is my prayer that a we will, over the next nine years, move beyond being enamored with the medium of Bishop Curry’s message and fall deeply in love with its content.  I pray that we will allow his words to perplex us, challenge us, and propel us into the world as evangelists; heralds of the Gospel; bringers of the Good News.  May we have the grace to follow our Chief Evangelist and Go!