More than enough

One of the great gifts of ordained ministry is the opportunity to engage in continuing education.  In my almost 12 years as a priest, I’ve had the privilege of traveling around the country, learning from some of the leading voices in practical theology and liturgy.  Of course, as many of you probably know from experience, continuing education opportunities can be intimidating at times, especially early in one’s career.  I still remember vividly my first continuing education event way back in November of 2008.  I had come across a conference put on by the United Methodist Church called “Worship in a Postmodern Accent” that just sounded really cool.  I booked a flight to Oklahoma City, everyone’s favorite vacation spot, for a few days at some non-descript, airport-adjacent hotel.  It really was a fantastic conference, filled with impactful alternative worship experiences, lectures by some of the most creative minds in worship planning, and good fellowship with people some whom I still have contact through social media.  For all the good that weekend had to offer, I also still vividly remember the overwhelming feeling of inadequacy that threatened to swallow me whole.

In November of 2008, I had been a priest for half a minute.  I was twenty-eight years old, and still not sure what this life of ordained ministry would really look like.  There I was, mixing it up with some of most imaginative and talented people in their field, and I began to wonder, “Do I even belong?  Not just here in Oklahoma, but in the priesthood.”  It all came to a head on the second day, in one of the lower level meeting rooms, at three o’clock in the afternoon.  Jonny Baker, then-head of the Fresh Expressions Office in the Church of England, had set up a labyrinth experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  A dozen or so prayer stations had transformed a room with loud carpet and foldable walls into a sanctuary.  There was a working television at one station, a sand box at another, and various light displays.  It all led to the center where Jonny had somehow created a flowing river in this hotel ballroom.  As I took in what was happening in that space, a little voice crept into my head and said, over and over again, “You’ll never be this creative.  Give it up.  Why waste your time?”  Still, I plodded through the labyrinth because I had signed up for it and I’m a One on the Enneagram.  In the middle, at the bank of the manmade river, we were supposed to write down our fears on a piece of paper, and I kid you not, fold it into an origami boat, to float down the river.  This really happened.  By that point, I knew my fear all too well.  I was afraid I wasn’t enough.  I was afraid that I would never be enough.  Not just to create some crazy alternative worship service someday, but that I’d never be enough to be a good priest.  I grabbed a pen from the bucket and began to write.  A few letters in, the pen dried up.  Of course, it did.  I couldn’t even do that right.  I looked down in exasperation at the pen in my hand and noticed that it wasn’t your typical gray Bic that you can buy a dime a dozen.  It was a promotional pen, not for Saint Swithin’s by the Sea or the United Methodist Church, but it said, “God doesn’t call the equipped.  God equips the called.”  I thanked God for the moment of reassurance, tucked that dried up pen in my pocket, and have been mostly able to trust God to sustain my ministry ever since.

That experience came to mind this week as I read the story of Jesus’ baptism by John at the Jordan River.  Last we heard, Jesus was a twelve-year-old boy who had stayed behind at the Temple in Jerusalem while his parents made their way back to Nazareth after the Passover Feast.  Last we heard, Mother Becca was inviting us to think about how, during those three long days, Mary must have struggled with her own inadequacy in the call to be the Mother of God.[1]  Today, we’ve fast-forwarded 18 years. Jesus is now about thirty and at the Jordan River asking John for baptism.  John knows he’s not adequate for the task at hand. He couldn’t even tie the thong of Jesus’ sandal.  John shouldn’t baptize Jesus, Jesus should baptize John, but Jesus is resolute.  John is more than enough for the job because this is the way to “fulfill all righteousness.”  My friend Evan Garner spent a lot of time thinking about that phrase this week.  It’s an odd turn of phrase in Greek and it is very difficult to capture the idiom in English translations.  Righteousness is one of those fifty-cent church words that gets used a lot, but I’m not sure any of us really knows what it means.  Joseph was described as righteous when he decided to dismiss Mary quietly after she was found to be pregnant out of wedlock.  He was a rule follower, but more than that, he was compassionate.  Righteousness was found in the delicate balance of doing what was allowable under God’s law, while also doing what was best for Mary; not taking it to the extreme.  Having Mary stoned to death was also allowable under the law, but it would seem that was not the righteous or just option for Joseph.  The Contemporary English Version, an authorized Biblical translation for use in the Episcopal Church translates the whole sentence as “For now this is how it should be, because we must do all that God wants us to do.”  Evan argues, and I agree, that what Jesus is saying to John isn’t that this moment of baptism is the capstone in God’s work of redemption for the world, but rather, it was, in that moment, the right next step in God’s ongoing unveiling of the Kingdom on earth.[2]  That’s what the season of Epiphany is all about, glimpses into God’s plan for salvation, spotlights on the still ongoing work of restoring creation to wholeness.

As Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were torn in two, the Spirit descended like a dove, and a voice from heaven spoke, maybe only to Jesus, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Here too, the Greek is hard to bring into English.  Well pleased isn’t a bad translation, but another possible rendering is “whom I have gladly chosen.”  Jesus, the human manifestation of God the Son, had been chosen from before time and forever.  We won’t hear the Temptation story for a couple of months, but in all three Synoptic Gospels, we are told that immediately following his baptism, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.  As a kind of pre-emptive encouragement, God affirms Jesus’ calling, names him as beloved, and reminds him that he has all he needs for what lies ahead.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember any voices from heaven at my baptism.  Still, whether you were baptized at 6 months or 60 years, I firmly believe that in that moment, as water ran down your brow, God named you as a gladly chosen member of Body of Christ, heir to the Kingdom of Heaven, and co-worker in the ongoing work of fulfilling all righteousness.  Through the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit and the specific spiritual gifts imparted upon each of us in baptism every one of us has been equipped for ministry. With God’s help, none of us is inadequate for the task at hand, whether that task is building chairs for a new Sunday school classroom, leading a book study, packing sack lunches, or sharing the Good News of God’s work in your life.  God is still at work in the world, fulfilling all righteousness, and invites each of us to take our part in it.  When you feel overwhelmed.  When you feel like you aren’t enough.  Just remember, you, like Jesus, are loved by God, you were gladly chosen for the task at hand, and you are specifically equipped for ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit.  God doesn’t call the equipped.  God equips the called for the salvation of the whole world.  Amen.

[1] https://beccakello.wordpress.com/2020/01/05/three-days-time/

[2] https://evandgarner.blogspot.com/2020/01/fulfill-all-righteousness.html

The Potential Energy of the Spirit

My high school physics teacher, Mr. Amidon, suffered from narcolepsy.  As a result, he would fall asleep at random times throughout the day.  Most often, he’d zonk out at his desk, but it wasn’t uncommon for him to fall asleep while writing notes on the board or even while showing us an experiment.  As high school students are wont to do, we took advantage of Mr. Amidon’s ailment and were very careful to not wake him up.  As a result, I don’t remember a whole lot of what I was supposed to learn in high school physics, which is probably why college physics was so difficult for me, which is probably part of why I’m a priest today and not an engineer like high school Steve had planned.  Anyway, one of the few memories I have of high school physics is the experiments we ran highlighting the differences and relationships between potential and kinetic energy.  The most obvious of these experiments were aided by gravity.  This higher we held a ball above the ground, the more potential energy is possessed.  As it dropped, that potential energy was converted to kinetic energy, and then it bounced upward, returning kinetic energy back into potential while losing some of its overall energy to friction and ball deformation.  This process repeats until all the potential energy gets transferred through friction and deformation and you are left with the ball at rest on the ground.

cooperativeliquidanemonecrab-size_restricted

While Mr. Amidon’s class sticks with me because of the narcolepsy, the power of potential energy has stuck with me over years.  It came back to me this week as I prayed for Mila Veletanlic and Thomas Stiles, whom we will baptize this morning.  As I thought about Mr. Amidon, I came to realize that, the baptismal service, especially on All Saints’ Sunday, and especially when we’re baptizing little ones, is where the potential energy of the Holy Spirit is the most obviously apparent.  This day is set aside to remember all the saints, not just those who are considered hall of famers, who carry a capital S Saint in front of their names like Saint Paul or Saint Mary Magdalene.  On All Saints’ Sunday, we remember everyone who has ever been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and give thanks to God for the work that the Holy Spirit has done through them – the way in which the potential energy of their baptism was lived out in the kinetic energy of the faith.

Toward the tail end of the baptismal liturgy, Mother Becca will say a prayer for Mila and Thomas that, while new to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, restores to the baptismal liturgy a part of our ancient past, asking God to bestow upon these two children, both just infants, the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, sound judgment, endurance, knowledge, reverence, and wonder.
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy
Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the
forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of
grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them
an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to
persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy
and wonder in all your works. Amen.
It will be quite a while before these two will be called upon to utilize their gifts, but today we celebrate their saintly potential to live lives of faithfulness to the honor and glory of God.

In Christ Church 101, we spend one of our class sessions talking about the Gift of the Spirit.  According to Saint Paul, the charisms given in baptism are particular gifts that each of us are given for the upbuilding of the Church.  Some are called to be apostles, some teachers, some evangelists, some intercessors, and on and on.  In baptism, the Holy Spirit bestows upon each of us unique and special gifts, but to all of us, these seven are given.

The restoration of the prayer for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit brings back to our awareness the potential energy that God imparts upon each us in baptism.  This potential energy is most apparent on All Saints’ Sunday, as the sevenfold gifts are easily tied directly to each of the Beatitudes that we hear in Matthew’.  It was Saint Augustine of Hippo, a fifth century theologian, who first found in the Beatitudes each of the seven gifts.[1]  To Augustine, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” brings to mind the gift of wonder.  It is our poverty in spirit that allows us to find amazement in the richness of God’s grace and mercy.  For Augustine, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” was a call to knowledge.  In this case, mourning wasn’t about the death of a loved one, but the result of our coming to know our own sinfulness.  We rightly grieve the role that we have played in our broken relationships with God and with our neighbors.  “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” corresponds to the gift of reverence as we can only show deep respect and honor toward Almighty God when we are not puffing ourselves up or putting ourselves in the place of God by judging our neighbors.  Those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” are blessed with the gift of endurance as they work tirelessly to bring about that which they desire.  By enduring in good works, they will one day find satisfaction for their hunger and thirst.  Good judgment is the gift of those who are merciful as, in deep awareness of God’s forgiveness, they choose to forgive; in knowing fully God’s love for them, they show love for their neighbors.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” infers those who have been gifted with understanding.  Even though no human eye can see God, those who have experienced God in their hearts can truly understand what it means to follow the way of God’s love.  Finally, those called to be peacemakers are living into the gift of wisdom; setting aside passion and rebellion, they seek only the peace that passes all understanding.

None of us knows how these two young children will live out their giftedness.  Even as mature adults, many of us who have been baptized into the faith might not be quite sure how we live out this kind of giftedness, but we can all rest in the knowledge that it is only with God’s help that we are able to claim the blessing that is the exercising of our baptismal gifts of wisdom, understanding, sound judgment, endurance, knowledge, reverence, and wonder.  It is only with God’s help that any of us is able to turn the potential energy of the Holy Spirit into the kinetic energy of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.  As you pray for Mila and Thomas today, pray also for your neighbor in the pew, for your clergy, and for yourselves, that none of us might fall asleep, but rather, that the potential energy of the Holy Spirit in each of us might be put to good work in order to bless the whole world.  Amen.

[1] http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/16011.htm (Chapter 4, Section 11).  Accessed 11/2/19

The Reconciling Work of Baptism

A man was once rescued off a desert island after 20 years all alone.  As the rescuers came ashore, he ran out to meet them, so very excited to see another human being for the first time in two decades.  “Come, come!” he shouted with joy, “You must see the civilization I’ve built during my isolation.”  He brought them to a row of three buildings.  The first building, he pointed to proudly and said, “This is my home.  It isn’t much, but I built is with my own two hands.”  At the next building, he brought them inside to show them all around.  “This is my church.  In 20 years of being lost on this island, I’ve found my faith in God brought me hope when it was easy to feel hopeless.”  Finally, they stopped out front of the third building.  The man pointed over his shoulder and said, with a bit of a scoff, “This is the church I used to go to.”

On the night before he died, Jesus prayed over his disciples.  He prayed that they might be protected by the Father.  He prayed that they might be guided by the Spirit.  And, he prayed that they might be one as Jesus and the Father were one.  Despite the prayers of Jesus himself, somehow, from almost the very beginning, the Church that tries to follow the Way of Jesus has been broken.  Paul’s letters to the Corinthian Church were written to address, among other things, disputes over who was worthy to receive communion that threatened to tear it apart.  The letters of John were sent to deal with a group of Christians who claimed to be the only true believers and were willing to cast all other followers of Jesus into outer darkness.  By the early fourth century, Christians were killing one another, each claiming to understand the nature of Jesus better than everyone else.  Fast forward to the 2001 edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia and the number of different Christian denominations in the world was counted at a whopping 33,830 (thirty-three thousand eight hundred thirty).  I know of a few new Anglican denominations that were founded in the United States since then, so that number only continues to grow.  We are so very far from the dream Jesus articulated in that prayer at the Last Supper, it is lamentable.

As William Reed Huntington, my spiritual mentor from the turn of the 20th century, would ask, what kind of damage have we done to the Kingdom of God when we spend our time and energy fighting amongst ourselves over things that the world sees as frivolous like music, vestments, candles, debts versus trespasses, or the age of baptism?  How can the Church possibly be an agent of blessing in our communities when we are so caught up in being right that we are willing to walk away from those whom Christ would have us call sisters and brothers?  As we heard in the prayer Jesus prayed, our unity as Christians is meant to be a symbol for the world of just how deep and wide God’s love is for the whole creation.  Our disunity keeps the world from knowing that out of love, God sent Jesus, the very Son of God, to live and die as one of us, thereby saving us all from death in sin.  I’m pretty sure that all those who live outside of the Christian faith can see is yet another group of human beings who have totally lost the ability to live together in our differences.

Even as our disunity may feel disheartening, there are glimmers of hope on days like today.  As we welcome into the Body of Christ Turner Hawkins this morning, we do so hopeful of a future in which all Christians are able to work together toward the building up of the Kingdom of God.  [At 10 o’clock,] In just a few moments, we will act out that hope of unity by making a lifelong commitment to young Turner.  Mother Becca will ask us, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this person in his life in Christ?”[1] In the split second between that question and the answer “We will,” I hope we can ponder for a moment about what that promise really means.  As a child in a military family, young Turner will likely know several different congregations in his lifetime.  His family may worship in an Episcopal Church in Montgomery, Alabama, but he’ll spend plenty of time at his Presbyterian pre-school.  He’ll be raised alongside children whose families are Baptists, non-denominational, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, you name it. The promise we make today is not merely on behalf of the 10 o’clock crowd who will bear witness to this joyous event, but we commit alongside godparents, alongside grandparents, Vicki and David Cole, and their usual 8am crew, alongside Episcopalians and Anglicans, and alongside Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christians around the globe who may one day be called upon to support Turner’s growth in the knowledge and love of the Lord.

I am under no illusion that this simple promise is going to fix the shredded fabric of the Body of Christ that is denominationalism.  Today’s baptism will, I hope, have a profound impact on Turner and his family, but it can’t bring all of Christianity back under one roof.  It can, however, have an impact on us as individual disciples of Jesus.  What if supporting Turner in his life in Christ means modeling behavior that can lead us back toward unity?  We can model unity by holding our identity as Episcopalians with humility.  We can change the way we talk about those who live out their Christianity differently than us.  Rather than looking down our noses at “those evangelicals” or “those Baptists” or “those Roman Catholics,” perhaps we can show Turner what it means to work toward unity.  We can seek ways to work alongside our siblings in Christ in tackling larger issues in our community like poverty, hunger, racism, addiction, and income inequality.  We can show Turner what it means to be one in Christ by loving our neighbors, striving for justice and peace, and respecting the dignity of every human being.

In baptism, each of us given the gift of the Holy Spirit whose mission is to lead us into all truth.  On this day, as we rejoice in Turner receiving that same gift, may we strive toward unity and work to make the church that Turner inherits something closer to the dream Jesus had for it as he prayed for his disciples on that most holy night.  Lord Jesus Christ, help us to be one as you and the Father are one so that we might be models of your love in a world that desperately needs it.  Amen.

[1] Book of Common Prayer, 1979, 303.

What Would the Avas Have Us Do?

My middle school years marked the heyday of the What Would Jesus Do era.  WWJD made its way onto license plates, t-shirts, and of course, bracelets.  No self-respecting Manheim Township Middle School 7th grader who considered themselves a Christian was without a WWJD bracelet in every color that the Provident Bookstore had to offer.  Later in life, I was surprised to learn that those bracelets that were all the rage in the early 90s come from a theology that is based on a novel written in 1896 that sought to teach Christian Socialism and the Social Gospel.  Lost somewhere in the hype of being seen as properly Christian by wearing the right bracelet was the reality that What Would Jesus Do? is a shockingly countercultural question.

In the last few days, we’ve been reminded of what Jesus would do.  He would eat dinner with sinners and tax collectors.  He would turn the tables in the Temple and call to account a system of religion that was built upon on the backs of the faithful poor.  He would stand up against the challenges of the Pharisees and Scribes, unafraid that it might cost him his reputation.  He would challenge his followers to love one another.  He would get down on his hands and knees and wash their feet.  He would willingly be betrayed and handed over to be mocked, scourged, beaten, and ultimately killed in the name of love. And on this night, we are brought to mind, yet again, that Jesus would rise from the dead and in so doing defeat death forever.

As the Exsultet that Deacon Kellie sang so beautifully says so eloquently, “this is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.”  That’s what Jesus would do.  That’s what Jesus did do.  And so, we gather on this most holy night to recall the events of salvation history throughout time.  We remember the covenant that God made with all of creation after the flood, that by the sign of the rainbow we would be reminded of God’s promise to bring us back into relationship by another way.  We remember the Exodus, and how on the banks of the Red Sea, God opened the waters so that God’s chosen people might begin their journey to the Promised Land.  We remember the testimony of the prophet Isaiah, and how every time a prophet proclaimed God’s judgement upon the people, it was followed by the promise of restoration and renewal.  We remember the vision of Zephaniah and the assurance that one day all people will be drawn into the loving embrace of God’s forgiveness.

This night isn’t simply about the events of the past, however.  If tonight was only about things that had already happened, we’d be stuck looking for the living among the dead.  No, what we are about on this night is what comes next.  Our question isn’t just “What did Jesus do?”, but “What would Jesus do in Bowling Green, Kentucky in 2019?”  So, on a night in which we recall the various ways in which God has called us back into right relationship, it is also especially appropriate that we baptize new members into the household of God.  Through water and the Holy Spirit, we welcome two Avas into the ongoing story of God’s salvation history.  Alongside them, and with their sponsors, we recommit ourselves to what it means to follow the resurrected Jesus in world today, and we promise to seek God’s help as we work to take our place in the resurrected life.

It is interesting to me that both of our newly baptized members are named Ava.  Ava is a variant on the first name ever given, Eve, which is likely familiar to most of us.  Eve was the wife of Adam.  His name, Adam, wasn’t really a name, but is simply the generic word for humankind.  It is based on the world for dirt, from which God made humanity.  Eve, on the other hand, is the Hebrew word for life.  It seems particularly appropriate tonight, as we seek to encounter the resurrected Jesus alongside the two Avas, that we might reframe that age-old question.  Not, what would Jesus do, but maybe tonight we ponder, what would Eve do?  What would these Avas have us do?  How will we live life differently as a result of the promises that we’ve made with them?  What brings life, true life, eternal life, the resurrected life into the world?  On this night in which we celebrate that Jesus Christ is risen, still, from the dead, to what kind of life does the resurrection call us?  Let’s not be about looking for the living among the dead, but rather, let’s be about looking for stories of the resurrection life among those who are living it.  So, while what would Jesus do is an important question to ask, this Easter, I invite you to carry with you our two Avas and instead ask, ‘What would Ava, life, real, abundant, resurrection life, have me do?  Amen.

Beloved by God

Having quit Greek after only a semester nearly fifteen years ago now, there is very little that I’ve actually retained.  I still know how to use a Greek lexicon, I’ll never forget the aorist tense being like the refectory’s Fiesta Dog, and because I use it in pre-marital discussions, I’ve got down the four words for “love” in Greek.  I’ve written about it before, so regular readers of this blog may want to skip ahead, but as a review:

  • Eros is the passionate love we associate with an intimate partner
  • Storge is the natural affection felt within families
  • Philia is the catch all type of love between friends and for Alabama football
  • Agape is self-giving love that seeks the needs of the other

The First Sunday after the Epiphany <colon> The Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ is a day set aside each year to ponder Jesus as God’s beloved.  In the Collect of the Day, new to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the author, the Rev. Dr. Charles M. Guilbert, chose to highlight that in his baptism, Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit and God proclaimed him beloved.  The lesson from Luke appointed for Year C, despite being mostly about John the Baptist (yet again), also makes note that the voice from heaven declared Jesus to be “the beloved,” o’ agapetos.

baptism-of-jesus

Jesus isn’t just loved by God because he is God’s Son (storge).  Jesus isn’t just loved by God because God loves everybody (philia).  Jesus is declared by a voice from heaven to be The Beloved (agape), the one whom God’s self-giving love is directed towards.

Here’s the neat thing, however. That belovedness, that desire on the part of God to pour out agape love on something or someone isn’t the exclusive property of Jesus. As we can infer from the story in Acts, this belovedness, shown forth in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, is the status of all who have been baptized into the family of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That Jesus is the only, pre-existent Son of God doesn’t mean that he is the only one whom God loves with agape love, but rather, Jesus serves as the harbinger of that love, the exemplar of that belovedness, in the world.

Imagine how different the world would look if we truly lived into the reality that we are beloved by God? How would it change the way we saw ourselves? How might we see our neighbors differently? How might it impact how we treat the stranger in our midst, our enemies, even the creation which God has entrusted to our care? Being the recipient of God’s agape love has the potential to allow you to love the world with that same sort of love.

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.

The Open Font

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For the second Sunday in a row, congregations following the Revised Common Lectionary will hear of the profound power of the open font.  Last Sunday, it was Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch from Acts 8.  In that story, the Spirit compelled Deacon Philip to come alongside a foreigner who also happened to be a Eunuch, and share with him the Good News of Jesus Christ.  After Philip takes him from the Suffering Servant in Isaiah all the way through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Eunuch comes to faith, sees some water along the side of the road and asks, “What is to keep me from being baptized?”

The answer, of course, is nothing.  Nothing would keep him from being baptized.  It would be easy to consider this an aberration: a one off event with details so out of the ordinary as to be ignored.  It is as if the RCL folks knew this, and so, in this week’s lesson from Acts, we hear of a similar situation involving Peter and a group of Gentiles.  Here, instead of it being the outsider who asks, we hear from Peter, the rock upon which Jesus would build the Church, asking, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?”

The answer, again, is no.  No one can withhold the waters of baptism.  Nothing would prevent someone who desires it from being baptized.  This is why, in proper Episcopal architecture, one passes by the font en route to the table.  It serves as a weekly reminder that we walk through the waters of baptism to be nourished weekly at the Table.

As you might suspect, I am not an advocate of so-called “open communion.”  I am a firm believer that our fonts should be wide open, that nothing should keep anyone from being baptized, but that it is through baptism, the outward and visible sign of “union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit” that we are then brought to the Table to receive the Body and Blood of our Savior Jesus Christ (BCP, 858).

There isn’t, I don’t think, a need to preach on these theological arguments.  My guess is that the average Peggy Pewsitter doesn’t much care about the battles that get waged at General Convention.  There is, however, a teaching/preaching opportunity to highlight the hows/whys of our open font, architecture, and the call that all Christians share to bring people to faith in Jesus Christ.  If you didn’t preach Acts 8 last week, despite my pleas that you would, maybe this week’s short passage from Acts 10 will offer you the opportunity to share with your community God’s love for everyone, no exceptions.

The Great Tears – a sermon

Today’s sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or read here.


One of the joys of my children getting older is that we can now watch shows that entertain across the generations.  Gone are the days of endless episodes of Curious George and Paw Patrol.  Now, in the evenings, we can all pile on the couch and watch something that everyone will enjoy.  One of our favorites over the past year has been Americas Got Talent.  The variety show format seems well suited for our wide-ranging tastes.  Musicians, dancers, stunt artists, you name it, on AGT someone who has tried to win a million dollars doing it.  My favorite performances of this past season were the street magicians.  There is just something amazing about close-up magic. The prestidigitation of the magician means that what you think you see isn’t really what you are seeing.  The thing you are paying attention to isn’t really the thing.

Mark’s take on the Baptism of our Lord recalled the street magicians I saw on Americas Got Talent because the thing isn’t really the thing.  Having just heard Mark’s introduction a few weeks ago, we’ve already heard five of the eight verses in today’s Gospel lesson.  We know about John appearing in the wilderness.  We’ve heard about the crowds who came seeking baptism for the forgiveness of their sins.  We can imagine John in a camel hair coat with a leather belt around his waist and a locust wing stuck in a bit of honey in his matted beard.  Mark spends five verses describing the baptism of John, but this story isn’t about John.

This story is really about the baptism of Jesus by John.  True to form, Mark is skimpy on the details.  We get none of John arguing with Jesus about whether or not he should be baptized, like we do in Matthew.  We hear nothing of Jesus’ personal prayer life like we do in Luke.  All we know is that Jesus came from Nazareth and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

It is a story about the baptism of Jesus, but it is also about a whole lot more.  The thing we should really be paying attention to comes next.  Sure, Jesus went into and out of the water, thousands of others had too.  What is remarkable is what happens immediately as Jesus comes up out of the water.  While Mark is directing our attention down here, the thing we really should be paying attention to is happening up there.  The heavens torn apart, the Spirit descending like a dove, and a voice from heaven declaring “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Mark is adept at hiding things in plain sight.  Despite beginning his Gospel by calling Jesus the Son of God, one of Mark’s key motifs is the Messianic Secret.  Again and again, Jesus commands his disciples and those whom he heals to not tell anyone what they have seen and heard.  Unlike in the other Gospels, in Mark, the words we all know well from Jesus’ baptism seem to be addressed only to Jesus, as if the crowd gathered at the river bank couldn’t see or hear what was unfolding.  As the reader, we get to see all the amazing details, even if they feel hidden among a bunch of superfluous content and sleight-of-hand.  Like the close-up magic of a street magician, however, if we pay careful attention to everything we are seeing and hearing, we can begin to understand what is really happening.  While our eyes are focused on the water, Mark’s deeper lesson is found in the great tearing of the heavens.

There are actually two great rips in Mark’s Gospel.  They bookend the ministry of Jesus.  The first, happens in our lesson for today, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  The second comes just as he breathes his last breath from the cross.  Both are significant, not just because of what is happening in the moment, but because of what they signify in Mark’s larger theological scheme.

In this first great tear, we see the veil between humanity and God being removed.  In taking on human flesh, Jesus forever altered the landscape of humanity and divinity.  It is in this moment that the heavens show fully what God has done in the Incarnation.  From here on out, there is no difference between the sacred and the profane.  God is not an aloof deity, up in the sky, watching us like a divine security guard.  In the Incarnation, God permanently opened the barrier between earth and heaven, and brought the fullness of the human experience into God’s self.

Not only do the heavens being torn in two break the barrier between the human and the divine, but by tying this story with the beginning of creation in Genesis 1, we see that our own baptisms, following the model of Jesus’ baptism, take us all the way back to that very first moment when God turned chaos into order.  In the Hebrew, the word translated in Genesis 1.2 as “the deep” is tehowm, and it means deeper than deep.  It is the abyss, the chaos in which fear and darkness and death reside.  Nothing can exist in the deep.  It is formless and void.  Into that overwhelming nothingness, God speaks creation into being.  From the depths of chaos, God brings order.

If that isn’t a metaphor for our lives in Christ, I don’t know what it.  In our baptisms, through heavens torn asunder, God pulls us out of the overwhelming chaos of the world and brings us into the order of the Kingdom of God.  Yes, we still live our lives on this plane, where there is still sadness, darkness, and death, but in baptism, we are also welcomed into the Kingdom, where God brings all things into joy, light, and life.  In the water of baptism, we are welcomed out of the chaos, having been brought into the light.

As momentous as this is, the thing we are seeing still isn’t the thing.  The Messianic Secret won’t fully be revealed until the day of Jesus’ death.  The culmination of it all won’t come until the second great tear happens at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  As Jesus breathes his last, Mark tells us that the Temple curtain, that which divided the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple, was torn in two from top to bottom.  While the tearing of the heavens looks back upon the moment of Creation, this tearing open symbolizes our ability to enter fully into the nearer presence of God.  Getting from earth to heaven is impossible on this side of the River Styx, but with the symbolic dwelling place of God on earth made accessible to everyone through the death of Jesus, all of humanity can now find themselves in the holiness of God.  As this second great tearing happens, it is a Roman Centurion who is the first to fully understand what has happened.  In words that echo the words Jesus heard at his baptism, the Centurion proclaims, “Truly this was the Son of God.”

Through the Incarnation of Jesus, God became present to humanity.  Through the death of Jesus, humanity has been made present to God.  These two great tears that bookend the ministry of Jesus have forever changed the landscape of our relationship with God.  No longer is God some far off deity, but rather, God is fully available to humanity.  The fullness of God is opened to us through these two rips in the fabric of creation.  Despite all the hurry and all the secrets in Mark’s Gospel that might distract our attention, the thing that Mark’s story is really about is how God has entered fully into the messiness of human existence.  Through Christ, God has called us from the darkness of the abyss to the light of the Kingdom.  In our baptism, we enter with Christ into the chaos of the waters of creation one final time before we are brought into the light of God’s love.

As you came up out of the water at your baptism, you might not have seen the heavens torn in two.  Maybe you didn’t hear God call you his beloved.  You probably didn’t see the Spirit descending upon you like a dove.  Yet, I believe that these things occur at every baptism.  Each time someone commits their life to the Kingdom of God over and above the chaos of this world, a party erupts, and all of heaven rejoices.  So, in case you didn’t hear it the first time, here’s the thing: You are God’s child, beloved, and with you God is well pleased.  Amen.

How will I know?

I may be alone in this. It could be the result of my recent change in geography.  I’m hoping it isn’t a sign of the times.  In the past month, for the first time in my ordained life, I’ve become aware of two instances in which the efficacy of one’s baptism was questioned.  Both were baptized in the Dominical form: with water and in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which, at least according to my read of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, is all that is needed for a baptism to be considered valid in our tradition.  Of course, those who are suggesting that age and mode matter above all else, don’t care much about William Reed Huntington’s attempt at church unity or what some papist rag wearing guys in purple shirts (probably a historical anachronism) voted on in Lambeth in 1888.  Realizing that, I turned to an old friend, Maxwell E. Johnson’s The Rites of Christian Initiation, which every clergy person should have on their bookshelves.

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As you can see, I’ve been hard at work, crafting a good argument for why infant baptism by affusion should be considered just as valid as a “believer’s baptism” by submersion.  I do so, fully admitting that I am a fan of and would much prefer to see the latter become normative over the former which is how I was baptized as well as both of my children.  The crux of the question comes down to, as it always should in theological debate, the Bible.  What does our foundational document say about baptism?

The full argument is beyond the scope of what I can handle in a blog post, but suffice it to say that like most things that end up in a Scriptural debate, the waters are murky.  If you want to argue that only adults can be baptized and it should be done in clean, flowing water, the Baptism of John will get you pretty close (ignoring that the waters of the Jordan were considered ritually unclean (Johnson, 11)).  If you think that maybe younger children should be welcomed and the means of water is open to debate, the stories of entire households being baptized in Acts can be used to support your argument (ignoring the reality that just because something is not said to have not happened, doesn’t mean it did).  So, how are we to know for sure that a baptism in efficacious?

Turning again generally to the Bible, and more specifically Sunday’s NT lesson, my ongoing side in these debates is that we will know that God was present in Baptism because we see the signs of the Holy Spirit at work in the life of the baptized.  In the story of Jesus’ baptism, every account makes sure to mention the Holy Spirit descending upon him.  In various stories in Acts, we hear that the newly baptized are filled with the Spirit in the same way the 120 were on Pentecost.  In the prologue to 1 Thessalonians, again we are reminded that the surest sign of salvation is God’s Spirit at work.

For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…

Those who argue that there is only one way for a baptism to be valid won’t be swayed by fancy arguments from a giant textbook, just as I won’t be swayed away from my belief that God is much bigger than any box we want to put God in based on “the Bible says it, so I believe it.”  I’m not sure that matters though.  What matters in the end is that when the signs of the Spirit are there, no one can deny God at work.  How do I know?  I’ve seen it in those baptized at 1 day, 1 month, 1 year, 10 years, 20 years, and beyond.

God’s Good Gifts – a sermon

This sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or you can read it here.


I don’t know about you, but there are some weeks when it feels like hope is really hard to come by.  Weeks when the money runs out before the month does.  Weeks when the treatment doesn’t seem worth the side effects.  Weeks when it feels like you’ve been pecked to death by ducks.  Thankfully, for me, this is not one of those weeks.  Sure, it has been a loooooong week.  Vacation Bible School weeks are always loooooooooooong weeks, but they are also always weeks that are filled with hope.  Close to seventy volunteers and sixty children spent four evenings this week singing praises to God, having fun, making crafts, meeting exotic animals, and learning about the good gifts that God gives us.   It is impossible to be hopeless when you see a community come together to welcome children into the Kingdom of God.

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Today, we have another opportunity to gather as a community of disciples and welcome children into the Kingdom.  This morning, we once again celebrate baptism at our 10am service.  Sophia and Dominic have been a part of this community for a while now, but today, we welcome them fully as members of the Body of Christ, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, anointing them with oil as a symbol of the Spirit’s presence in their lives, and giving thanks to God for the gifts of inquiry, discernment, courage, perseverance, joy, and wonder.  In Baptism, we find the sort of hope that doesn’t disappoint that we heard about in our lesson from Romans this morning.

There is no promise in baptism that life will forever be easy.  What is true, is that no matter what comes our way, no matter what might try to zap our hope, no matter what challenges might cause us to suffer, being sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever means that our hope will never disappoint us.  With the Spirit’s help, the Father’s love, and the grace that comes through the Son, the promise of hope will always endure, even in the most challenging situations.  In Baptismal sermons past, I’ve talked about some of the gifts that God gives us through the Holy Spirit, but since some of y’all weren’t here for VBS, I thought I might share with you the four gifts we learned about this week.  These gifts are available to each and every one of us who are baptized into the Body of Christ.

The first gift we learned about this week is that God gives us comfort. We studied Psalm 23 through the eyes of its author, King David, who before he was a mighty king, was just a lowly shepherd.  We talked about all the different things that the Lord our Shepherd does to offer us comfort: like leading us along the right pathways to green pastures and still waters, offering a feast right in the presence of those who make life difficult for us, and overflowing our cup with blessings.  We talked about how sheep don’t always listen to their shepherds, and sometimes they end up lost and afraid, but that the Good Shepherd is always with us, helping us to make good choices.  We got anointed with oil, just like Sophia and Dominic will in a little bit, to remind us that God loves us, no exceptions.  In baptism, we receive the gift of God’s comfort.

The second gift we talked about is that God gives us patience.  That night we heard the story of Simeon and Anna who, like the rest of the Jewish people, had been waiting for the Messiah for what seemed like forever.  God had promised Simeon that he wouldn’t die before he met the Messiah, and so every day, he went to the Temple to watch and wait.  He had watched hundreds, if not thousands of babies pass through the Temple to be blessed by the priests when one day Mary and Joseph arrived with their baby named Jesus.  Simeon took the baby into his arms and immediately knew that this child was the one God had sent to save the world.  As Simeon took the child, Anna, an elderly widow who lived in the Temple caught a glimpse of the baby, and immediately she knew that the Messiah had finally come into the world.  We learned something of what it is like to have the patience of Simeon and Anna as we waited patiently for Smarties, which got everybody nice and sugared up to head off to the recreation station.  We learned that life doesn’t always happen on our timeline, but that in baptism, we receive the gift of patience that allows us to maintain hope.

The third gift we looked at this week was that God gives us peace.  We joined Jesus on a boat ride across the Sea of Galilee, which we learned is two-and-a-half times the size of Barren River Lake.  It was late and Jesus had taught a large crowd all day.  Jesus fell asleep, as preachers often do after a long day of preaching, and slept through a pretty raucous storm.  There was wind and lightning and thunder and even a chilly rain that made us scream really loudly in a mixture of joy and fear.  While it seemed like Jesus wasn’t with us in the storm, we learned that even when it feels like God is far away, he is always nearby.  In baptism, we receive the promise that when storms come up in our lives, God is not far away and will always be ready to give us peace.

Finally, on our final night together, we learned that the best gift of all is that God gives us love.  We heard the story of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Day and learned that even though Jesus could have stopped the terrible things that were happening to him, he chose to walk to the Cross and take all of our bad stuff with him.  From one of our first and second grade group members, we discovered that sin means “not being loving,” which might be the best definition of sin I’ve ever heard.  We thought about the times in our lives when we weren’t as loving as maybe God wanted us to be.  Then, we heard how God’s love is bigger than anything we can do wrong, and that because Jesus came back to life, we can experience the gift of God’s love every day.  In baptism, we are washed clean from all our sin and receive the gift of God’s love.

Scripture tells us that in baptism, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we receive all kinds of gifts, and this week, I became convinced that chief among them are the gifts of comfort, patience, peace, and love.  Like any story of gift giving, however, it can’t end there.  Instead, through our baptism and with a good-sized helping of the Holy Spirit, we are called to share those gifts with the world around us.  Sophia will make these promises on her own, and Dominc’s sponsors will do the same for him, but in every baptism that we celebrate here at Christ Church, all of us are invited to renew our promises to live hope-filled lives as disciples of Jesus.  To develop as disciples by continuing in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.  To rely on God’s never-failing love in persevering in resisting ever, but when we do fall into sin, repenting and returning to the Lord.  To take our place as evangelists for the Kingdom by proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.  To become models of God’s love by seeking and serving Christ in all persons and loving our neighbor as ourselves.  And to work to bring the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven by striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being.

There are weeks when all of this seems really hard.  These are the weeks when suffering tries to take the place of hope, but in baptism, we are assured that through the Father’s love, poured into our hearts in his Son’s life, death, and resurrection, and sustained by the Holy Spirit’s gifts, hope will never disappoint us.  As fellow members of the Body of Christ, I pray that you will experience God’s gifts of comfort, patience, peace, and most especially love, today and every day.  Amen.