Category Archives: Baptism

Easter sermon

He was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed… 

This Lent, Father Tom McAlpine – a retired priest and Old Testament scholar who makes his home at St. Dunstan’s – invited us into deep study of a set of texts from the book of the prophet Isaiah. 

These texts are called the Servant Songs, and they probably date from about 500 years before the time of Jesus – with the rest of Second Isaiah.

I’ve just quoted part of the fourth and last Servant Song, found in Isaiah chapter 53.  If you’ve hung around churches for a while, you’ve heard bits of the fourth Song, especially during Holy Week.

“Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
so he did not open his mouth… an
d the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all…

Even if you don’t remember hearing the words of the Fourth Song directly, its vocabulary and ideas are woven into the worship and theology of the church in so many ways. 

It’s a little hard to know what to make of the fourth Song in its original context. The idea of someone innocent suffering on behalf of others, in a way that somehow frees or absolves those others, is distinctive here. It has loose parallels elsewhere in the Old Testament, but nothing terribly close.

If your immediate reaction is to think that this text is unusual because it’s pointing towards Jesus, let’s tap the brakes. I don’t believe that Judaism is only fulfilled in Jesus. That all these pre-Christian texts and traditions just sat around waiting for their true and full meaning to arrive when Jesus was born. I don’t believe that and I invite you to not believe it with me. 

The Fourth Song meant something in its original context and it means something for Jews today.  That does not keep it from meaning something else, something additional, for Christians. And it has, and does. 

Textual study makes it very clear that early Christians interpreted Jesus’ life and death through the words of of the Fourth Song. There are hints, too, that Jesus himself understood his mission through these ancient and evocative words. Jesus knew the Old Testament – the Hebrew Bible – very well. Perhaps he found in this song a poetic description of his call to suffer and die among and for God’s people. Much as one might hear a song of love or anger on the radio and think, That’s it. That’s exactly what it’s like. 

The Fourth Song speaks of death – but I’m bringing it up today because I want to talk about life.  About resurrection – Jesus’s, and ours. 

We think of resurrection – the Church’s fancy word for rising from the dead – as something that happens after we die. And the Bible and the church do speak about a new life in God for the faithful departed. I trust and hope in that promise. 

But the Christian Scriptures also describe baptism as a dying and rising with Christ.  At the Last Supper, Jesus describes his coming crucifixion as a baptism (Mk 10:38) – although he was also baptized with water in the Jordan River by his cousin John, much earlier in the Gospels. 

And early Christian writers repeatedly describe Christian baptism as a death to the old self, and a rising to new life in Christ. In the letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” And the author of the letter to the church in Colossae writes,  “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God… for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  (Colossians 3:1, 3)

Our baptismal rite reflects this understanding, when we say, “We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”

What is it like to think of myself as already dead?

What is it like to think of myself as already fully and eternally alive?

The Fourth Song of Isaiah and the Christian scriptures talk about this dying – and rising – as purposeful. It accomplishes something. In the Fourth Song, the Servant is not resurrected, but their death is redemptive:  “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous.” 

Jesus says about himself: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

The how of Jesus Christ’s redemptive death remains a mystery despite millennia of theologizing. That is another sermon for another time. Today we are talking resurrection. New life. Christ’s life in us. 

The resurrection we celebrate at Easter isn’t just Jesus’s.  It’s also ours. And it’s not just meant to free us from the power of death. We are baptized to become a certain kind of people. We are freed from death to live a certain kind of life. 

Our Prayer Book gestures at some of what that means – we’ll dwell with that shortly as we renew our baptismal vows. 

In our study of the Fourth Song and how Christians understand it, we read a little of the work of Rowan Williams, the theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury, writing about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who was killed by the Nazis for his involvement with the resistance movement. He wrote about what it really means to be a follower of Jesus. What our life in Christ is all about – in times of war, chaos and terror. 

Williams, reflecting on Bonhoeffer’s writings, life and death, argues that our life in Christ Jesus is fundamentally a life lived for the good of others. He writes, “The other person I encounter is already the one with whom Christ is in solidarity, and the death I must endure is the death of anything in me that stops me acknowledging that and acting accordingly…. We are to stand in the place where the other lives, so that we are vulnerable to what the other is vulnerable to; we are to risk what the other risks…”

Williams continues, [To follow Jesus Christ,] “we must learn to ask how we may act so as to relinquish whatever fashions, conventions and securities prevent us from standing with another, whatever self-images protect us from seeing the reality of another, whatever generalities block our attention to the particularity of another.” (Christ the Heart of Creation, Williams, 2018)

I want to be clear here that in their focus on life in Christ as a life lived for others, Williams and Bonhoeffer aren’t talking about letting someone harm you or take advantage of you. They’re talking about seeing and standing with those who are under threat or pushed to the margins in the world as it is. 

And I want to acknowledge that Bonhoeffer, Williams – and I – all speak and write from the position of people who could roll along pretty comfortably with the cultural and economic status quo. Some of those hearing my voice right now may feel yourself outside the “we” of the texts I just read. What you need are people ready to see you and stand with you. To risk what you risk, simply by being. 

There’s a prayer we prayed, here, last Sunday – a prayer we pray every Palm Sunday, as we begin our walk through the great story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.It says, “Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace…” 

This year, our work with the Fourth Song and its meaning for Christians has me asking myself: Whose life? Whose peace? 

I wonder if the author of that prayer – William Reed Huntington, in the late 1800s – actually had the Fourth Song, Isaiah 53, in mind. “Upon him was the punishment that made us whole” – that’s actually the Hebrew word Shalom, often translated as peace – “And by his bruises we are healed.” – it’s not a big step from healing to life. 

Shalom and healing, life and peace. 

The Servant’s death was for the healing and peace of others. Jesus’ life, death, and rising were for the life and peace of others.  It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that as God’s baptized and resurrected people, the life and peace we are to be about is not our own… but others’.

As the author C.S. Lewis once remarked, “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

Bonhoeffer wrote, “My life is outside myself, beyond my disposal. My life is another, a stranger; Jesus Christ.” 

What is it like to think of myself as already dead?

What is it like to think of myself as already fully and eternally alive?

What makes this an Easter sermon, beloved friends, is that Jesus’ story doesn’t end at the tomb. Bonhoeffer’s story doesn’t end at the gallows.  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s story doesn’t end on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.  Last night, at the Easter Vigil, we called on the saints, the holy martyrs, the faithful departed, to stand with us as we marched towards Easter. So many names. So many prayers for us, for our world, our lives, our discipleship, uttered – even now – in the presence of the One who is first and last. 

Love wins.

Life wins.

Whatever we spend, comes back to us – in this world, or another. 

Whatever it costs, it’s worth it. 

Whatever we pour out for the life and peace of another draws us deeper into Christ. 

For we are already dead,  and our life is hid with Christ in God. 

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. 

Sermon, Feb. 10

Substitute Old Testament lesson: Tobit 6:1b – 9

The book of Tobit is part of the Apocrypha – a set of books in the Bible that were written later than the rest of the Old Testament, but just before the time of Jesus. Some churches treat them as part of the Old Testament; some don’t use them at all. We Anglicans have treated them as a sort of secondary Scripture, of some historical and theological meaning. Some of us here at St. Dunstan’s know the book of Tobit very well, because it was the core story for our Vacation Bible School back in 2016. We know that Tobit was a pious man, who took sacrifices to the Great Temple in Jerusalem even when all his neighbors had started worshiping other gods. We know that Tobit married a woman named Anna, and they had a son, Tobias. We know that when the Assyrian Army conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, this little family was taken into exile in the city of Nineveh in Assyria. 

It was a terrible time. Tobit’s family and the other Jewish exiles had lost everything, and Nineveh was a violent and heartless city. Often Tobit would find dead bodies in the street – people who had been killed by bandits or died of starvation. If the dead person was one of the people Israel, Tobit would take the body outside the city gates and bury them with prayers, according to the ways of the Jewish people. What he was doing was against the law, and risky; but Tobit was stubborn in offering that final dignity to his kinspeople. As little as his family had, they also gave food and clothing to those in worse circumstances. But then one day, through a tragic accident, Tobit became blind. He could no longer do good for his people, or even care for his own family. Anna had to work, so they could eat. 

In his grief, Tobit became bitter and angry. One day, in desperation, he prayed that God would free him from this life, because death would be better than this suffering: Blessed are You, O God of my ancestors! God, you are righteous and just in all that you do. Please, God, hear my prayer and be merciful to me. Remember me and set me free! 

Then there’s this wonderful split-screen moment, in this 2300-year-old text: JUST AS Tobit is praying for death to free him from suffering, so is a young woman named Sarah. Sarah is distant kin to Tobit; she lives in another city, with her parents. She has been married seven times, but each time, on her wedding night, a demon, Asmodeus, kills her new husband! People blame her for the deaths – and no future seems possible for her, especially in a time when family was a woman’s fulfillment. Sarah prays: God, I turn to you for help! Please hear my prayer and set me free from this terrible life!  

And Tobit’s prayers and Sarah’s prayers land on God’s desk in the same instant -and God says, I have an idea. We can fix both of these situation at once. God sends the Archangel Raphael, in disguise, to set the plan in motion. And… hijinks ensue, with young Tobias and Raphael, under the name Azariah, at the center of it all. I really can’t tell the whole story here but I hope you’ll go read it if you don’t already know it!

There are many Biblical names you might hesitate to bestow, if you actually read the stories attached to the names. But Tobias is not one of them. In the story, Tobias is plucky and good-hearted. He loves his family, but he’s up for adventures out in the world. And with Raphael’s help, he saves his father Tobit; restores the family fortunes; frees Sarah from bondage to the demon, with the help of fish guts; and of course, finds true love. We’re taking liberties with the lectionary this morning; the book of Tobit does not actually appear in the Sunday lectionary – but there IS a suggested Tobit reading in the marriage rite, Tobias and Sarah’s prayer on their wedding night: “Grant that we may find mercy and that we may grow old together.” Naturally, the story culminates with the mysteriously helpful companion Azariah revealing himself as the Archangel Raphael – who tells the family that it is God’s grace that has brought good out of their misfortunes, and charges them with blessing God and doing good for others, their whole lives long. 

I guess you could say the thread connecting the story of Tobit and Tobias with today’s Gospel is: God invites ordinary people on extraordinary journeys. 

In the other three Gospels, Jesus acquires disciples – this set of people who were his friends, followers and students – he acquires disciples by simply inviting people to follow him; and some of them do. It’s only Luke who fills out the story this way: Simon Peter, James and John have been fishing all night; they haven’t caught ANYTHING. The nets are empty. Then Jesus asks Simon to take him in his boat and take him just a little bit out from shore, so he can preach to the people without being crushed by the mob. Pretty clever! 

Simon’s fine with it; it’s not like he has fish to clean! But when Jesus finishes his speech, he has this dumb idea: Put out the nets, see if you catch anything. Simon says: “… If you say so.” And of course the nets come up so full that they’re breaking. Simon calls James and John to bring their boat, but there are so many fish the boats are nearly sinking. And it’s in this moment when it just becomes too much for Simon. He’s heard Jesus preach; he’s seen Jesus heal; and now – these fish – well, it’s terrific, of course, but it’s also almost insulting. Simon is a fisherman. He has a craft. He knows the right season and time of day, the right temperature in the air and color of the water, to maximize his catch; and Jesus comes along and says, You want fish? Here, have some fish. 

And Simon cracks. He falls to his knees among the fish in the bottom of the boat and says, Go away! This is too much for me! I’m a sinner! Which is to say, I’m ordinary! Let me stay ordinary! And Jesus says, Don’t be afraid. You’re coming with me, and you’re going to do new things. 

Don’t be afraid. In Tobit the refrain is, Take courage. People say that to each other over and over again: facing the bitter violence of the times, the uncertainty of the path ahead, demons to be vanquished, healing to be received: Take courage. Don’t be afraid. Such a little thing to say, but somehow it’s enough. Just as Tobias sets out on his journey, Simon, James and John set out on theirs, leaving boats, nets and fish alike on the shore, and following Jesus. 

Simon Peter’s holy adventure doesn’t, as far as we know, lead to true love or wealth. Tradition says he was crucified, like Jesus, his friend and Lord. On the other hand, he could have spent his whole life as a not-very-good fisherman, instead of becoming a revered saint and father of our faith. So. 

God invites ordinary people on extraordinary journeys – and it’s good to have companions on the road. Tobias has Azariah, the mysteriously knowledgeable gentleman with – are those wings, under his cloak? And Tobias and Azariah also have the comfort and companionship of the unnamed dog. 

Jesus’ disciples have each other – and Jesus has them. This is interesting: Luke puts this scene slightly later in his Gospel than the others. In Mark, Matthew and John, Jesus calls disciples to accompany him as soon as he begins his public ministry of preaching and healing. But in Luke, Jesus gives it a go on his own for a little while. Not long; but long enough to travel around a few villages, healing people and casting out demons and proclaiming God’s liberating love. And long enough that he’s starting to struggle with the overwhelming crowds that follow him and cling to him, won’t let him rest, won’t let him move on. 

THEN, already becoming famous, perhaps already becoming exhausted, Jesus calls his first disciples. I don’t know why Luke flips the story this way. Maybe he simply heard that that’s how it happened. But it does make me wonder if even Jesus, the Son of the Living God, fully divine as well as fully human, needed some friends. 

He needed people to walk with on the long dusty roads of Judea. To relax with in the evenings, to laugh over the awkward moments and unpack the hard ones. To tell the crowds to leave him alone, now and then, so he could pray, and sleep, and maybe take a shower. So he asks Peter to join him. And John. And James. And the rest. 

God invites ordinary people on extraordinary journeys – and it’s good to have companions on the road. Today we will  baptize a baby boy named Tobias.  These stories can direct our prayers for Toby, for all the young ones we are raising in this faith community and the not-so-young ones too: May Toby, may all of us, come face to face with something important, something that calls us with urgency; and may we have the courage and curiosity to answer the call. May Toby, may all of us, set our feet to the path on which our own hopes intersect with God’s purposes, for us and for others through us. May Toby, may all of us, have companions for the hard stuff, and the fun stuff too. May we have enough; may we find love; may we be guided by angels in disguise. 

In the book of Tobit, Sarah’s father prays for the young couple with gratitude and hope: ‘Blessed are you, O God, with every pure blessing; let all your chosen ones bless you for ever. Blessed are you because you have made me glad. It has not turned out as I expected, but you have dealt with us according to your great mercy. Blessed are you because you had compassion on these beloved children. Be merciful to them, O Master, and keep them safe; bring their lives to fulfilment in happiness and mercy.’  Amen.

(Tobit 8:15-17)

Sermon, Jan. 13

Did you notice that today’s text from the Acts of the Apostles felt kind of like one short paragraph cut out of a newspaper story? A tiny slice of events, leaving you wondering how we got here and why it matters? Well – you know me; I always like to give you the whole story.

This story begins with a disciple named Philip. A couple of chapters ago, the Twelve Apostles decided they needed some help. The Christian community was growing. One part of their ministry was sharing food with those in need – and there were arguments about whether food was being distributed fairly. So the Twelve got everyone together and said, “Listen, our mission is too important for us to spend our time waiting tables.” (Chapter 6, verse 2; I wish I was making it up.) So the group selects seven men to be in charge of distributing food: Philip, Stephen, and five others. They are set apart with prayer and the laying on of hands – what we could call ordination. Luke doesn’t use the word, but the Church soon began to name this role as deacon – one ordained to stand where church meets world. 

The deacons were supposed to run the food pantry while the Twelve Apostles focused on the Word of God. But the Holy Spirit had other plans. First, Stephen the deacon, full of grace and power, preaches the Word so well that he gets arrested. At his trial, he gives an inspired account of the Gospel, and is condemned to death by stoning – the first Christian martyr.  A time of fierce persecution of Christians in Jerusalem begins – and another deacon, Philip, flees to Samaria, to proclaim the Gospel there. 

Samaria was a region just north of Judea. Its people, the Samaritans, shared common ancestry and holy texts with the Jews of Judea, but understood and practiced their faith very differently. And by the narcissism of small differences, the Jews of Judea thought very poorly of the Samaritans, and the Samaritans though pretty poorly of the Jews. If you’ve ever heard a sermon or Sunday school lesson on the parable of the Good Samaritan, you’ve heard about all this. That parable comes to us from Luke, who also wrote the book of Acts; Luke was keenly aware of the Samaritans as people his original audience loved to hate, but among whom God was nonetheless at work. 

So Philip preaches about Jesus in Samaria – and people listen eagerly. And by the grace and power of God, amazing things start to happen. Those beset by evil spirits or illness find freedom and health. So there is great joy in the city! And many people believed what Philip told them – the good news that we are not forsaken, that God is with us and for us, and that we know the face of this Presence in Jesus Christ* – many people believed, and were baptized in the name of Jesus. 

Now, in that city was a certain man named Simon. Simon was a Samaritan; and he was a magician. Someone who used trickery, patter and sleight of hand to amaze and confound. Simon has no real power, as Luke sees it; he’s a trickster, a fraud.  The word for “magic” here is just, well, magic – mageia. It’s a form of the same word Matthew uses for the Wise Men who visit the infant Jesus – but while those were noble Eastern astrologer-wizards, Simon is just a commonplace charlatan. 

He’s got a pretty good thing going, before Philip shows up. For a long time he has amazed people with his magic, and they listen to him eagerly, because they believe he has some kind of power. He calls himself Simon the Great, and they swallow it, hook, line, and sinker – they tell each other, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God!”

But Simon doesn’t really have God’s power. Philip does. And Simon can see right away that Philip has him beat.  The crowds turn towards Philip, whose amazing deeds don’t just dazzle their eyes, but restore their hearts. And Simon, too, believes in Philip’s message. He is baptized, and follows Philip around constantly. Luke says, The one who once amazed crowds is now himself amazed by the signs and miracles he observes. And Luke doesn’t say it in so many words, but Simon is probably also closely observing Philip’s technique – trying to figure out how exactly this stranger commands the power to do these things. 

Now, word gets back to the Twelve Apostles in Jerusalem that folks in Samaria are turning to Jesus. And Peter and John, the two great leaders of the early Church, set out for Samaria to see what’s going on. They meet with the Samaritan Christians – and they learn that while many have been baptized in the name of Jesus, they have not yet received the Holy Spirit. Now, this is a bit of an odd thing; generally the Christian Scriptures and the church understand Christian baptism to be all one thing, water and the Holy Spirit together in one sacrament. But in this instance, the Holy Spirit is given in a sort of second baptism. There are various theories to explain the anomaly. Maybe Philip – who, after all, was ordained to hand out bread – hadn’t yet learned the fullness of what he could offer, in baptism. Maybe the gulf between Jews and Samaritans was so great that Peter and John, men of indisputable authority, needed to show up in order to put the stamp of legitimacy on Philip’s mission. 

Regardless: Peter and John see that God is at work here, though Philip. They pray for the new believers, and ask that they may receive the Holy Spirit; then they lay their hands upon them, and the Holy Spirit comes. I wish I knew what that looked like – what that sounded like. Hundreds of people gathered, men, women, and children… did they line up and come before the great Apostles one by one, or did Peter and John walk among them, touching each head with loving intent? And how could they tell that the Spirit was moving among them? Did people weep and sing? Dance and shout? Give and forgive? Fall to their knees under the holy weight of divine belovedness? 

 Whatever happened – it impressed the heck out of Simon. Here, he sees plainly, is true greatness. After things had settled down, when he could approach the Apostles privately, he went up to them and offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that I can lay hands on anyone and they will receive the Holy Spirit.” 

I feel sorry for Simon. He genuinely doesn’t know any better. He’s gotten this far in life through skill, bombast, and luck. In his line of work, you’re always banking on people’s credulity, and always fearful someone will ask the wrong question, or spot you slipping the marked card into the deck. People were not more gullible back in Simon’s time; trickery and fraud were well-known in the ancient world. If you want people to keep dropping coins in your hat, you have to either keep going bigger, or keep moving on before your tricks become old news – or a more impressive act comes to town. Simon knows he’s been bested – and he respects the power he sees at work. As a fake, he’s uniquely qualified to spot what’s real. And it makes perfect sense – from his standpoint – to offer money for access to this power. Magicians today still sell access to the mechanics of their tricks – the ones they’re willing to give away. 

Maybe Philip, who’d gotten to know Simon, would have answered more kindly; but Peter is furious. He says, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the chains of wickedness.’ 

In his anger, Peter shows that he is quite clear about something the church has sometimes forgotten in the subsequent millennia: The Power, the Presence that hovers low over the font in baptism is not ours to command. All we can do is ask nicely – as Peter and John did when they asked the Holy Spirit to come to the new believers of Samaria. Peter tells Simon, This power isn’t OURS. I couldn’t sell it if I wanted to, because I don’t OWN it. 

Poor Simon! He says, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.” Then Peter and John go home, and Philip is called away to the Gaza road, where he will soon meet an Ethiopian court official. We get no resolution to Simon’s story – but I think it points in a hopeful direction. He wants to understand, to become part of what God is doing. I choose to believe that Simon’s heart was changed that day. That he made his fame, eloquence and skill available to God’s purposes from that day forward. That he sought to offer people truth instead of trickery, healing instead of humbug. 

Simon is struggling with a question that Christians still wonder about: What is baptism for? He sees it initially through the limited lens of his livelihood: Wow, this is impressive! This really draws the crowds! And he’s naturally drawn to the idea of *real* supernatural power that can actually change things… It would come in handy to be able to heal people, cast out spirits. You’d be set for life if you could do that, and people would REALLY call you Great. 

The church is prone to a misunderstanding – or limited understanding – similar to Simon’s: Thinking that the divine power present in the sacrament of baptism, the power Simon longs to be able to call or compel, is given for individual benefit – of the one baptized, and/or of the person authorized to offer baptism. 

While Simon longs for true and lasting greatness, we have more modest hopes and expectations of the fruits of this sacrament for the one to be baptized: A profound, mysterious, and indissoluble connection to God; a fundamental membership in Christ’s body the Church, with all rights and privileges appertaining thereunto; the gifts of the Holy Spirit made available as a birthright of faith. These are real and undeniable blessings for the one baptized and their family, and for the church gathered to celebrate and welcome. 

But baptism isn’t just for us. It’s for others – through us. This whole story is set in motion because God’s grace is at work in Samaria through Philip. Through God’s power manifest in his preaching the good news of God’s love made known to us through Jesus Christ; in the driving out of evil spirits, in healing and curing, and in the bubbling up of a great civic joy. Philip’s ministry reminds us that our baptism is about belonging to a power that works through us for good, to save and heal, comfort and encourage, restore and reconcile. He shows us life as a servant of that Power, listening for God’s word and following God’s nudges: Go there. Speak now. Reach out to her. Ask him what he’s reading. 

Baptism is not about a power we can use or direct. It’s about a Power that can direct and use us. 

Dorothea Mae, we baptize you with earnest prayers for your wellbeing and your flourishing. We long for God’s grace to bless and sustain you, as you grow. But we baptize you not for your greatness but for God’s; not for your good only, but for the good of the world God longs to redeem. Dorothea, we name you Gift of God, and we baptize you into a life of availability to larger purposes and greater goods than we can see or imagine. We baptize you to love others in the power of the Spirit, whose gracious Presence in our rite today will do what our words can only invite; and we send you into the world in witness to God’s love. 

Sermon, Jan. 6

Today’s Gospel – the Epiphany Gospel – isn’t telling us the full story. It ends on a cheerful note:  The Wise Ones honor the infant Jesus and give him rich and meaningful gifts. Then they return home by another road, evading King Herod’s evil intentions. All’s well that ends well, right? But that’s not actually where this part of the story ends. The story stops here, in our lectionary, because the next part of the story has its own day, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, on December 28; and because the church wants the Epiphany story to be a joyful story. To inaugurate this new season with themes of journey and discovery, light and gift. 

But it’s all one story, the Wise Ones and the Holy Innocents; so listen to what happens next, according to Matthew. After the Wise Men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for King Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’  Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod… When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was furious, and he sent soldiers and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.’

You may be relieved to know there’s a good chance this didn’t really happen. This King Herod – a different Herod than the one in the Easter stories – did some terrible things, including killing his own grownup children for fear they were plotting against him. But no other ancient text describes an incident like this, with Herod’s soldiers killing children. This is probably a part of Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew’s account of Jesus, where Matthew is trying to show us something about Jesus, rather than tell us history as we understand it.

So what is Matthew trying to show us, with this sad, scary story? Well – a couple of things, I think. He wants to show us that God in Jesus Christ didn’t just become human; he became vulnerable. Fragile. At risk. Like any child; and especially like any poor child in a place ruled by oppression. And he wants to show us that Jesus was born to lead people out of oppression – like Moses, the great hero of the Jewish people. This story might remind you of another story, about Moses as a baby. Do you remember it? It begins like this: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, and he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we….’” Then what happened? … 

So that ancient story about Pharaoh killing all the Israelite babies has a lot in common with this story about Herod and the babies in Bethlehem, doesn’t it?Moses, Israel’s great liberator and prophet, was once a baby who barely escaped the callous, cruel, child-killing politics of his time. And Jesus, our great liberator, prophet, and savior, was once a baby who barely escaped the callous, cruel, child-killing politics of his time. These are both stories about children at risk; about bad and fearful kings; and about brave and loving parents. 

They are also both stories about failure. About communities that failed. Neighbors and bystanders who failed. Leaders who failed. Failure is a harsh word, but think about it: By the time a child’s parent is the only one looking out for its safety, so much has gone wrong.  So many people have stepped back, looked away, chosen not to get involved. If nothing else – if NOTHING else – the whole architecture of our common way of life should protect children and give them the opportunity to grow and flourish. There is ALWAYS a better option than letting the bad guys hurt the children. Even if you feel helpless. Even if it’s dangerous. Whether it’s people in uniforms with swords or guns, or people in suits making decisions in boardrooms or legislative chambers, there is ALWAYS a better option than letting the bad guys hurt the children.

So… We’re baptizing a child, today. One of the church’s greatest occasions; one of my greatest privileges. There’s a lot to say about baptism; and I’ll get to say a little more next week, when we have another one! But as we dwell with the Epiphany Gospel, the whole story – one thing baptism should mean is that we promise never to leave Charlotte alone. We promise never to leave her parents and sister alone. We promise that when this child needs us, we’ll be there, a family of faith. As Gretchen Wolff Pritchard says, We are all the godparents of every child in this church. 

We promise to keep faith with Charlotte. To do all in our power – ALL IN OUR POWER, dear ones! – to support this tiny, adorable person in her life in Christ. That is an easy promise to make when she’s tiny and cute, and the baby-borrowers of the congregation are arm-wrestling each other to hold her. When she so evidently has competent and loving parents who are on the job, and thus doesn’t really need that much from us. It’ll be easy when she’s drawing pictures or singing in children’s choir or toddling down to Sunday school or lisping out a line in a future Christmas pageant. It’s easy to keep our promises to our children, when they’re being photogenic. And quiet. 

It gets harder when our kids ask things of us, need things from us, that stretch us. Things that we have to figure out how to give. When they grow up a little, seven or eight or ten or twelve, and tell us that our answers don’t always intersect with their questions. That they get enough sit-still-be-quiet at school, and need church to be something else, if we really want our shared practice of our faith to feed them. When they tell us that some of what we do is frankly boring.

It gets harder when we recognize that our household of faith includes kids with deeper needs and harder struggles. Kids who need more than a coloring page and a cupcake to feel safe and fed. Kids who might need us to learn something new, to better be their family of faith; kids who might need us to fight for them, someday. 

It gets harder when we realize that our accountability to the children of this faith community includes not only the ones we see every Sunday but the ones we don’t, who nonetheless belong to us. Our youth group, for example, includes kids who rarely or never come to church on Sundays. And they are our kids too. They’ve come under the wing of this parish, they have opted in, and they, too, have a claim on our love and our faithfulness. On our commitment to supporting their life in Christ. 

And it gets harder, dear ones, when our commitment to THESE kids starts to stir up in us a sense of commitment to the wellbeing of ALL kids. When we start to see Felipe and Jakelin, Carmen or Tamir, as our children. When by the perhaps-unwelcome grace of the Holy Spirit, we begin to become unable to step back, look away, choose not to get involved. When we become simply, fundamentally unable to just stand by and let the bad guys hurt the children. 

But this is what we do. We can do hard things, with God’s help. 

Charlotte’s family makes some big promises on her behalf today. To renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness, all the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God; to turn to Jesus Christ, follow him and obey him, trusting in his grace and love. Those are big promises indeed. But so are the ones we all make, today, and every time we baptize a new member into Christ’s body the church.

When we commit, with God’s help, to loving our neighbor as ourself, to striving for justice and peace among all people, to respecting the dignity of every human being. And to doing all in our power – ALL IN OUR POWER! – to support Charlotte in her life in Christ.  We promise that when this child needs us, we’ll be there. A big diverse loving family in Christ, complete with fun cousins, wise grandpas, fierce aunties, and all the rest. 

Let’s make those promises today with eyes and hearts open. Committing ourselves to do all in our power to support this little one in her growing, her exploring, her wondering, her seeking and her finding, her struggling and her flourishing. And not Charlotte only but every child we baptize, every child that Christ sets among us as ours to care for and learn from; and not these children only, but every child made in God’s image, born into this hard, beautiful, risky world of ours, as Jesus was, long ago in Bethlehem.