Welcome and peace to all of you, people of St Dunstan’s! Welcome to guests and to those returning from afar; it is so good to be with you. Welcome to that fellowship divine of the faithful departed, who are always with us but whom we call to mind especially today. The household of God includes people who left this earth centuries ago; people whose passed from among us recently, like Lou, Ginny, George, Jeff; and people who have just begun their life in this world – like the babies whom we have the blessing of baptizing this morning.
Not all churches baptize babies! Some churches teach that it doesn’t make sense to baptize a baby who can’t believe what our church teaches or even understand it. I respect that position, but it’s not how our church does things. We confess in all humility that if a real Christian is someone who can diagram the Trinity, comprehend the Incarnation, or explain the Eucharist… then none of us belong here. As Episcopalians, Christians in the Anglican way, we follow the church’s ancient pattern and baptize infants – as well as kids or adults who seek to join Christ’s Body the Church.
Our church thinks of baptism a lot like birth. There’s a completeness to it – a newborn baby is a whole person. And yet, obviously, it’s also just a beginning. That baby still has to be loved and fed and sheltered and taught and raised to maturity. That nurture and growth might happen in the family that shares the baby’s genetic material, or it might turn out that another household is the best place for that child’s flourishing – and the same is true with churches: some of us come to maturity in the church that birthed us, some find a new faith home. But either way, somebody’s got to raise that baby. Baptism, which is birth into God’s household, is just a start. When we, as a church, baptize babies – when I ask, “Will all of you do everything in your power to support this person in his life in Christ?” and you shout, “WE WILL!” – we are taking on the responsibility, together, along with their parents, godparents, and siblings, of raising that child to know and love God, and to find comfort and courage in a community of faith, throughout their lives.
Let’s be honest, though: Churches are inconsistent at best in following through on that commitment. I’ve gone looking, friends, and from what I’ve seen,
churches that understand nurturing faith in their children as a core part of their common life are few and far between. (I’m proud that St Dunstan’s is one of them – though we’ve got lots of room to grow!) Our prayer book clearly states that baptism is our church’s rite of full initiation by water and the holy spirit: a baptized baby is a full member of the church! Yet churches find so many ways to tell kids that they are only “junior” members. That their presence is disruptive or unwelcome; that their needs are secondary.
What does it take for a church to live deeply into its commitment to raise its children in faith? I came back from my sabbatical, focused on intergenerational worship, with some thoughts. Here are few of them.
First, we grownups need to be extra mindful about kids’ dignity. Dignity – like in the baptismal covenant: “Will you respect the dignity of every human being?” And like in the song: “And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Dignity is a tough word to define, though we all know what it feels like when our dignity takes a hit. Adults can sometimes forget that kids need their dignity tended just as much as grownups do – maybe even more. One weekend during my sabbatical, Iona and I visited a church in a big city that advertised a Sunday morning service where children “actively engage in the readings, sermon, and Communion.” The service began with a responsive prayer led by a child, a boy, maybe 7 years old. The only problem was, the microphone was attached to a lectern, like this, and it was too tall for him. So his mom had to hold him up around his waist while he led the prayer. At first I thought, Awwww. What a nice icon of an adult supporting a child’s ministry. But then, after the prayer, the boy and his mom walked past us on their way back to their seat, and I could see that he was furious. That was humiliating and uncomfortable for him. He was given a role, but he wasn’t given a way to do it that honored his dignity.
This dignity thing is a big, broad general principal; it’ll take a while, and probably lots of talking and listening, to figure out all its implications. For example: I’m trying to get out of the habit of patting kids on the head. It’s hard because their heads are RIGHT THERE. But they’re not dogs; they’re people. And even with a dog, I’d give the dog a chance to show me whether it wanted me to touch it or not. Grownups and kids are different in important ways, but it can still be helpful to ask yourself, Would I do this to a grownup? If not, is there a reason to make a different decision with a child?
Respecting kids’ dignity leads to a second core way churches can live into our commitment to our kids: By taking kids’ belonging and participation here as seriously as we take grownups’. One of the people I interviewed who really thinks deeply about kids and church, Sylvia Mutia-Miller, said, “The best way we can honor any person is to believe they are capable of things.” Kids have particular gifts and skills to contribute to our common life, just like grownups do. Our friend Sir Bjorn, who is a knight, talked about how in his organization, the Society for Creative Anachronism, they try to match jobs for kids to what the kids are good at and like to do. LOUD kids make good heralds. FAST kids make good messengers and gophers. KIDS WHO LIKE TO DO STUFF WITH THEIR HANDS make good Duct Tape Pages, going around to fix broken weaponry and such.
Yet in churches we often assign kids jobs based only on age: When you’re seven, you can be an acolyte. If acolyting isn’t really your jam, or if acolyting is fine but you’d like to do more… sorry! This is something I really want your help to think about here, friends – kids and grownups. We can ask kids: What are you good at that you think would help our church and be a gift to us all? What could we do differently that would give you more chance to participate and contribute? That’s a good question for grownups who would like to be more involved, too!
Finally, we raise faithful kids by filling their hearts and minds and imaginations with holy stories of justice and mercy, hope and courage. Gretchen Wolff Prichard, the amazing Christian educator who creates the “Sunday Papers” we use, says we have to avoid the temptation to offer children a “kiddie Gospel” of “Everything is fine.” Kids know everything isn’t fine, and pretending it is, is much scarier than talking about the truth. Writing about All Saints Day, Gretchen challenges churches to go beyond the message that we’re all saints, chosen, called, and sanctified – which is true! – and point out that living a holy life and resisting evil is hard, sometimes scary work. We need stories of someone small but brave, who prevails against evil with the help of friends and of a mysterious Power of Good. That reminded me of our Christmas pageant last year – who remembers it? Was the Devil involved? … What was he trying to do? He was trying to keep Joseph and Mary from getting to a safe place to have the baby, and to keep the shepherds from coming to welcome and honor the baby! (And who’s the baby?) And how was the Devil defeated? Yes – the people recognized him, and the Angel drove him away! Writer Boze Herrington says: “As much as kids need food and shelter, they also need stories to teach them that there are monsters that need fighting, and good worth fighting for.” The Church has stories like that – so many. Let’s keep telling them to each other.
Who knows what a simile is? It’s when you show that one thing is like another thing, to help you look at the first thing in a new way. My friend Father John has a wonderful simile about baptism: He says it’s like making pickles. Can you just go pick a pickle? …So, then, where do pickles come from? You take a cucumber and you dunk it in brine – salty water, with maybe some peppers or herbs in it too. Maybe that’s like baptism! And then… you WAIT. It takes a while, but slowly, over time, the brine gets inside the cucumber and it changes. It becomes something else. It becomes… a pickle. Maybe that’s like growing up in church! Pickling each other, over weeks and months and years, by guarding each one’s dignity, and raising up each one’s gifts, and sharing holy stories that give us courage for the hard work of justice and mercy in our time and place.
Poet Russell Brand says, “If we become the kind of people that can change the world, then the world will change.” May it be so. Amen.