I know it’s Mothers’ Day, but I have a story for you today about fathers. Two fathers, a couple, who live and attend church in Orlando, Florida. Rich and Eric attend the Cathedral Church there, and when they became parents, they sought to have their baby son, Jack, baptized at their church. The Dean of the Cathedral agreed to the baptism, but he explained that the congregation includes some conservative folks who would have a hard time accepting and celebrating Rich and Eric’s partnership and parenthood. The Dean suggested doing the baptism at a smaller evening service, attended by more “open” folks. Fine. But then, a few days before the baptism, Rich and Eric got a message from the Dean. Some members of the congregation were opposing the baptism, and the Dean explained that it would need to be delayed, in order to resolve those difficulties. Angry and sad, Rich took to the Internet to share the story and ask for prayers. After an outpouring of support for the family and anger at the Cathedral, word is that the Dean and the family are discussing next steps, and that Jack likely will be baptized at the Cathedral soon.
Today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles is about baptism – and who’s entitled to it. This is the end of the story of Peter and Cornelius the Centurion. Cornelius was pious and generous man. But he was also a Roman, a member of the occupying army. Not quite an enemy combatant… but in that ballpark. And he was a Gentile, a non-Jew. The apostle Paul was going around saying that Gentiles could become Christians without following Jewish religious practices, including being circumcised. The apostle Peter was not on board with that, seeing it as wishy-washy anything-goes feel-good inclusivity. But then Peter has a holy vision, in which God says to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” And moments later he is called to the home of Cornelius, to teach him about the Christian faith. So Peter preaches the Gospel to Cornelius and his household. And they are so stirred by his words that the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and they praise God with wild abandon. And Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” It’s a rhetorical question. The only person likely to withhold the water is Peter himself, and his heart has been changed. Cornelius and his family are baptized on the spot.
Peter’s question should remind us of another one, from last week’s Acts lesson, just a couple of chapters earlier. Philip the deacon, walking the wilderness road, meets a court official from Ethiopia. Like Cornelius, he’s a pious man, with a heart open to God. Like Cornelius, he’s a Gentile, an outsider to the covenant. He’s not an enemy combatant -but he’s a black African, and he’s a eunuch; his body has been mutilated in a way that would have made him ritually impure for a lifetime, within the purity codes of the Jewish religion. But Philip, like Peter, heeds God’s call to welcome this seeker into the body of Christ. After Philip preaches the Gospel to him, the eunuch says, “Look, here is some water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Well… Nothing. The eunuch is baptized, marked as a member of the household of God, clean and pure and whole in God’s eyes, and goes on his way rejoicing.
Can anyone withhold the water? What is to prevent me from being baptized? One of the central themes of the book of the Acts of the Apostles – and, for that matter, of the Gospel of Luke, by the same author – is the early church’s discovery, and rediscovery, again and again, that God’s mission is bigger than their understanding. That where they see barriers, God sees doorways. That where they see dividing lines, God sees connections. That where they see distinctions and differences, God sees unity and belonging. As Peter says at the moment of his great epiphany, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” God has no favorites. All who seek, find. All who enter are welcomed.
Good news. And… the story of two thousand years of the life of the church is a story of the church’s forgetting this, or failing to realize it fully, again, and again, and again. The 19th-century poet and priest Frederick William Faber put this into words so beautifully in a hymn known to us as “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.” It’s in our hymnal, but some of the best words aren’t included: “For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind, and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind. But we make God’s love too narrow by false limits of our own; and we magnify its strictness with a zeal God will not own.”
We make God’s love too narrow by false limits of our own. That has been the story of the church, over and over and over again. Rich and Eric and Jack are only the latest to feel the sting of being told that they are only mostly children of God. Most of the comments I’ve seen on their case mirror my own immediate reactions: the Dean had NO RIGHT to create a barrier for this child’s baptism; my church would have agreed to baptize this baby in a heartbeat; et cetera, et cetera. But I’ve also seen a point raised that gives me pause.
The 1979 Book of Common Prayer moved the rite of Holy Baptism back into Sunday worship, into the regular liturgical life of the congregation, after centuries of baptism largely being practiced as essentially a private family rite, performed after church or at another time. In our baptismal rite, the congregation stands for the Church Universal, the Church in all times and places, as it welcomes a new believer. And our baptismal rite gives the congregation a voice. At the beginning of the rite, the congregation is asked, Will you do all in your power to support this person in her life in Christ? And you answer – WE WILL. I love that part! And at the end of the rite, the congregation says, “We receive you into the household of God,” and invites the newly-baptized to share the life of faith.
The question raised by this kerfuffle in Florida is, can you – should you – perform a baptism if the congregation gathered is unable, through their convictions, to commit to supporting that child, that family; and to receiving them as fellow members of God’s household? I don’t like saying that the Dean may have a had a point, in asking this family to wait. But the Dean may have had a point. I can’t imagine how awful and awkward and sad it would be to perform a baptism, to name a child, and mark him as Christ’s own forever, and have few or no voices from the congregation speak up to welcome and affirm. Should the Dean have withheld the water? No. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe there’s any justification in our church laws or our sacramental theology for turning away that family. Is it a real issue that the congregation of that Cathedral was not able to assent to Jack’s baptism with boldness and love? Yes. I do believe that. I think the Dean made the wrong call; but it was a tough call. The family was ready; the child was ready; God was ready; but the people weren’t ready. The church wasn’t ready.
Listen, I can’t talk about this situation in Florida from a position of smug inclusivity. I could, and would, baptize a child with two daddies – or two mommies – without a moment’s hesitation. But right now, I can’t tell a gay candidate for ordination that their sexual orientation won’t be an issue in some dioceses of our church. Right now, I can’t say yes to a gay couple who want to celebrate their marriage as a sacrament of the church. I hope those things will change soon. If that is your hope too, keep on praying.
But I don’t believe in preaching sermons that only point a finger elsewhere. I wouldn’t tell you the story of baby Jack and the Dean just to say, Thank God that we are not like them! … I’ve been asking myself, where does our church draw lines, create distinctions, make barriers? Where would today’s curious guest or seeker, today’s Cornelius or court official, find our welcome to be restrained, our hospitality qualified, our inclusiveness conditional?
It’s not an easy question to answer, which makes it all the more important to ask. We think of ourselves as inclusive Christians; it’s a strong value for us, that wide welcome. We Episcopalians often define ourselves against churches that exclude, that limit the access and authority of certain types of people. To paraphrase the immortal words of comedian Tom Lehrer, “Some churches do not love their fellow man, and we HATE churches like that!” We make a point of welcoming everybody. No, really – EVERYBODY. St. Dunstan’s has a welcome statement that we crafted and adopted, several years ago; you can read it on our website. I’m proud of that statement. I think it matters.
But when we adopted that statement, one of our members reminded us, You know you can’t just adopt this and then sit around feeling smug. You still have to actually welcome people. To use the language of the baptismal liturgy, each visitor and newcomer poses a question for the congregation: Will you receive this person as part of this household of God, and do all in your power to support her in her life in Christ? And the people of the congregation have to be able and willing and ready to say a resounding, WE WILL!…
There isn’t a clear-cut place in the life of St. Dunstan’s as a parish where we are drawing lines and placing limits around a category of people for whom Christ died, and we have to quit it. It’s not that straightforward for us. What is to prevent the stranger from being baptized? Who is withholding the water? Where do we, unintentionally or accidentally-on-purpose, draw lines and build barriers that make it hard to enter, connect, belong? The questions raised by these lessons from Acts – those questions require deep, reflective, risky engagement. They require the demanding and paradoxical work of looking for who isn’t here. Like those pictures they sold in mall kiosks, twenty years ago, where you had to stand and stare at them until your eyes crossed, and then you might start to see the outline of … something. It’s kind of like that, figuring out who isn’t here, and then trying to figure out why.
We are a quirky church – St. Dunstan’s in particular and the Episcopal Church in general. And we’ve always kind of assumed that the people who would join our churches would be people basically like us. People who are literary enough to enjoy the high language of our liturgy. Who are musically trained enough to appreciate our classic hymnody. Who inhabit their bodies in such a way that they can sit still for 75 minutes. Who know how to dress and behave with basic middle-class decorum. Who’ll bring the right kinds of food to our potluck suppers. Who’ll somehow magically already know about all our pet projects and ministries and three-letter acronyms, so we don’t have to keep explaining ourselves. So tedious!… I’d say our tolerances at St. Dunstan’s are pretty good; we’ve got folks who don’t fit that mold, in lots of ways, who are nonetheless beloved members of this fellowship of faith… But we’re still haunted by that image of the archetypal Episcopalian. We still use “we” to mean “people like us”, without recognizing the lines we’re drawing.
In his book “People of the Way: Renewing Episcopal Identity,” Dwight Zscheile talks about our expectations and how they shape our capacity to welcome the guest and stranger. He tells a story of visiting another Episcopal church with his family – a church that proudly proclaimed “Radical Hospitality” on a banner hung outside. Dwight and his wife are both Episcopal priests; they are white, middle-class, educated; they know how to dress and how to behave in church. Ideal guests, right? However: they had their young son with them. He was the only child in church. And they quickly realized, from the glares around them when their son so much as rustled his drawing paper, that they were expected to have him out of church – in a glassed-in “cry room” or a distant nursery tucked away in the basement.
Zscheile writes, “Radical hospitality is a wonderful idea, and I don’t doubt the sincerity of the leaders who [proclaim] it… Living into the reality is another thing, however…. In practice, the Episcopal Church has been best at including those who share its existing predominant socioeconomic class and culture…. The Episcopal Church has become a boutique, niche church, serving a narrow audience of self-selecting members.” He quotes another Episcopalian who described the Episcopal Church as being like NPR: with an audience that is “small, but discerning.” And in fact, there’s probably a lot of overlap between NPR’s constituency and that of the Episcopal Church – well-educated, affluent, liberal. But, Dwight says, this rather self-satisfied posture can lead us to “abdicate responsibility for engaging neighbors who differ from us. We assume that those who want to worship how we already worship, [and] who think like we do, will find us, and we can then ‘include’ them.”
Those words convicted me. Because I have told myself pretty much exactly that: We’ve got a good thing going here, we Episcopalians; But we’re such a nuanced, sophisticated kind of Christian that not many people can really appreciate it. We’ll probably always be a small denomination; that’s just the way it is. It’s kind of a hipster thing: artisanal, small-batch church. You’ve probably never heard of it.
Zscheile challenges me to have more faith in the gifts of the Episcopal Way. He himself was raised unchurched, came to the Episcopal Church as a young adult, and fell in love. Listen to what he says about this church of ours, this way of being Christian: “Anglicanism offers a richly textured Christianity with ancient roots, expansive sources, a living commitment to justice and reconciliation, and space for people to explore, question, and grow along the way. It embodies the wisdom of centuries, not just the latest fads. Its historical embrace of… cultural context … mandates that it speak the language of the people. At the same time, it is inhibited in many places by a traditionalism that obscures the power of its traditions; by elitism that restricts [access to] its treasures; and by a lack of theological and spiritual clarity and urgency that would fuel a renewed sense of purpose. Episcopalians still largely assume that people will find the church, rather than recognizing that [we are pushed] out into the world, on the arms of God, to serve and embrace the stranger.”
THAT’S Peter in Cornelius’s living room, making the choice to let the baptismal waters flow. THAT’s Philip standing by some muddy roadside puddle with the Ethiopian court official, acknowledging that Jesus has already chosen this man as his own, and our job is just to assent and receive. THAT’s the hard and hopeful and necessary work for us: of trusting that what blesses us here, could bless others too, and daring to offer, proclaim, invite. That’s the work that should tug at our imaginations as we begin to envision what this church will look like, could look like, in five years, or ten, or fifty; as we craft a vision, in words and worship, poetry and song, marker and glue and pipe cleaners and Lego, of St. Dunstan’s as the church of our wildest dreams.