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Are You my Mother?
A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on the Baptism of our Lord, January 13, 2013

KGL+
Christ Church Andover
Year C, Baptism of Our Lord
January 13, 2013

Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together always be acceptable in your sight, O God our strength and our redeemer. AMEN.

Over the four summers that I worked at our diocesan Barbara C. Harris Camp, I must have heard at least 400 sermons. I did the math. Over eight weeks, I would hear about 100 homilies or reflections, as we called them. As you can imagine, and as you may have experienced yourself, not every sermon lends itself to memory. But I can remember a few of those fairly clearly, and as I considered the texts for today and for our celebration of Baptism on this feast day of Jesus’ baptism, one came clearly to mind.

It was preached by Todd Miller, former assistant rector here at Christ Church. He told us (this includes many children by the way) of Gregory of Nyssa’s commentary on the second chapter of Genesis. The story is not unlike our reading from Isaiah in the first lesson. It is a retelling of the story of God breathing into the dust to make humankind. God took dust and formed it into a human being, and breathed into its nostrils bringing life, breathing God’s own Spirit into us. Gregory claims that this first intimacy with God at our creation—our visceral, actual proximity to God at that moment—God breathing life into us, God being the first thing our eyes saw when we opened them, and the face of God was only inches away from our own—that that experience oriented our way of life from then on. Because of that first, creative intimate moment, we spend the rest of our lives, Gregory tells us, searching for that intimate moment with God once more. It’s like the children’s storybook, ‘Are You My Mother?’, articulating that deep knowledge that we belong to someone, we just need to discover them again. It’s a beautiful story.

And it’s the story we tell today.

We celebrate baptisms several times a year, but today is almost super-baptism day, when we celebrate and recognize Jesus’ own baptism in the River Jordan. We most often baptize infants or young children into the Body of Christ—through the water, and the invocation of the Trinity, and the chrism that we anoint them with, we proclaim the children to be part of this Body of Christ here in Andover, or however we wish to designate ourselves. But these infants are supported by their parents, and godparents; family members, from grandparents to nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts and uncles, and by family friends and colleagues. The promises made on behalf of the children are made by adults- adults who were baptized themselves, who will take on and bring their young ones up in those promises until they can understand what it means to take them on for themselves, which is our sacrament of Confirmation. And because of this, we often focus on the children, rather than those adults. But they too are part of this story, as we all are.

It’s something to have here before us a gospel reading of a 30 year old being baptized. It was what caught my attention this week, as I thought of all the good things we do for our children; for our youngsters, our teenagers. But since we celebrated the toddler or baby Jesus last week at the Feast of the Epiphany, it is always poignant to see the adult Jesus appearing at the Jordan, with his long lost, but not much older cousin John, doing the baptizing. Last time they saw each other, John leapt for joy in Elizabeth’s womb, and Mary was just beginning to understand the gravity of her wonderful, strong, courageous ‘yes’ to the angel Gabriel. Jesus, apparently unnoticed in the crowds, gets baptized, and the dove descends on him from on high. God’s love is proclaimed to him; he is God’s son, and God is well pleased in him.  

That story doesn’t end at Jesus’ birth, but continues throughout his life. The promises, the ‘Yes’ that Mary offers Gabriel is for both her and Jesus—not just a yes for one special night in December, not a yes that starts something and then ‘lets it roll’ however it will. Jesus’ vocation, his sonship to God, is worked out over time. The gospels are light on childhood stories in the same way that many of us are ‘light’ on showing others our high school prom pictures—they are few and far between. Whatever the reason, whatever we may create as our own midrash or explanation for this gap, we know that Jesus came to the understanding of his ministry not right out of the gate, but in the very midst of his adulthood.

Three years ago on Wednesday, I was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church. One of the most loving cards that I received at that time was from a member of the Diocesan Youth Council and it read, ‘Happy Graduation Kit!’ It was a mistake and it was kind of adorable, but it spoke to me deeply of how we can view the sacraments and rites of passage in the church. At thirty years old when I was ordained a priest, people would suggest that there was a sort of holy corporate ladder that I was climbing—baptism, confirmation, ordination—maybe I’d be a real success and be a bishop one day! But faith doesn’t work vertically, and sacraments aren’t grade levels, or promotions. They are promises we make to keep figuring out how to make meaning of this life; how to wrestle with joy and despair and anger in light of the gift of Christ; how to make meaning of the world around us; how to refuse to define oneself by the secular understanding of success—good education, nice manners, good job—and to deeply live life as though we were, and others are, beloved of God. It’s understanding the story of God among us- the mystery of a God who would rather be with us in pain and suffering with moments of joy, than a God who would rather just stay aloof. It’s the understanding of a world that doesn’t quite ‘get’ that God and the stories of the promised Kingdom—where diversity is a reflection of Godself, and justice and mercy are the foundations. It’s the understanding of death and resurrection—that we encounter death all the time, all around us—and the promise that within death, there is life, because Jesus conquered death once and for all, long ago on a lonely hill on Calvary. It’s the lifelong understanding that these stories are not just stories, but truths, promises, glimpses of what a life seeking God might hold for us.

Baptism and Confirmation, even Ordination, are reminders of the love that God has for us, and are our responses to that call of God. It’s Gregory’s story of Genesis 2—at our Baptism we are reminded of just how close we were to God, how beloved we are, how sought after and precious we are to the Divine. It’s the echo of Isaiah to our hearts:

Thus says the Lord,

he who created you, O Jacob,

he who formed you, O Israel:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;

I have called you by name, you are mine.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,

and the flame shall not consume you.

For I am the Lord your God,

the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

Because you are precious in my sight,

and honored, and I love you,

I give people in return for you,

nations in exchange for your life.

Do not fear, for I am with you;

everyone who is called by my name,

whom I created for my glory,

whom I formed and made.

And our promises at Baptism? Summed up, they are a promise to search for that divine intimacy, that absolute presence of God so close to us, infusing us with the Spirit that gives life and life abundantly. And this is important for our young people to know—for our children to experience and live into—but they are even more important for us who are adults. In her preparation classes with them, Gale asked the parents of the candidates for Baptism what we could do to help them walk in their life in Christ with their children—what we could offer to form them, to support them in their life in Christ. Because while we say we do all these wonderful and loving things ‘for the kids’, we too are seeking and searching for God’s presence. Each one of us has a reason for being here, in this place, today. And even if we can’t put words to that reason, that first Spirit breathed into our dusty bodies will offer the words for us, steer our reluctant bodies here, move us in ways we had not thought possible.

Yesterday, I went to the ordination to the priesthood of five women at our Cathedral in Boston. It was a powerful service, and not so unlike our Baptismal service here. We sang the hymn, ‘Will You Come and Follow Me’ at the gospel procession—and as I stood and listened to the lyrics, it seemed to me that God was asking them of us—not only once at our Baptism, or once at our Confirmation, but desires us to respond to them throughout our lives. So before we recite the Baptismal Covenant, and as we pray for the five boys who are to be baptized today- Brandan, Stephen, Eli, Nicolas and Jonah—let’s listen to what God is asking all of us to do, so that we can too can join with their parents and godparents in promising to walk with them, seeking that divine presence, that divine intimacy with God once more.

I will say the first four verses and please join in with me on the fifth.

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don't know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my name be known,
will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?

Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?

Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name?
Will you set the prisoners free and never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean and do such as this unseen,
and admit to what I mean in you and you in me?

Will you love the "you" you hide if I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?
Will you use the faith you've found to reshape the world around,
through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?

Lord your summons echoes true when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In Your company I'll go where Your love and footsteps show.
Thus I'll move and live and grow in you and you in me.

And thus together we’ll move and live and grow in God and God in us.

AMEN.

Last Published: February 6, 2013 10:00 AM