Baptism: Comfort and Challenge

I want to thank your rector, Jered Weber-Johnson, for inviting me to come to Minnesota. In January.

Your rector is sneaky. He chose a really specific moment to invite me to come preach, the end of June last year. I had just walked the streets of my city, St. Louis, for the hottest, sunniest, muggiest LGBTQ+ Pride march I have ever encountered. The group that marched from our parish, Holy Communion, when we made it to the finish, probably 30 or 40 pounds less collectively than when we started from all the sweat. St. Louis summers match Minnesota winters on the question, “How do you survive that weather?” So Jered, since it is January, and it is freezing, let me officially invite you to come to St. Louis to preach. You can pick any Sunday in July or August. We’ll work out the date. You can come warm up.

In all seriousness, it is a joy to be with you all on this frigid Sunday morning. I have heard wonderful stories about this parish. It is fantastic to worship with a congregation that has welcomed, walked with, and loved a family that I love.

Today we mark a feast of the Church, the Baptism of Jesus. Today is a fitting day to hold baptisms, to remember our baptismal promises. I want to propose to you that Baptism, like most things in faith, like most things in life, is complicated. Baptism has more than one dimension. This morning, I want to touch on two seemingly conflicting themes, two truths about Baptism that are true simultaneously, though they may seem to be in tension. Here are the dimensions:

Baptism is a comfort and at the same time Baptism is a challenge.

First, some words of comfort.

I was fortunate to start my ministry at a beautiful historic church in Washington DC. My former rector, The Rev. Dr Luis León had a standing joke, that he wished he could have convinced the vestry in a capital campaign to allow him to alter the beautiful dome at that church, a dome designed by Benjamin Latrobe, the architect of the US Capital. Luis wanted to make our church less like the capitol dome and more like the dome on the Dallas Cowboys stadium, retractable.

If he had been able to raise the money and get the permission, he also wanted to add in a holographic projector, stay with me now, so that every time someone was baptized, Andrew Lloyd Weber style special effects would commence just as the water was dripping down their forehead. The dome would open, a holographic dove would descend, and a booming voice over the loudspeaker would say: “This is my beloved child, in him, in her, in them, I am well pleased.” Luis lamented he couldn’t get the vestry or the historical society’s approval for his plans for the dome.

My former rector joked about the dome because these words Jesus hears at his baptism, they are the words each and every baptized person should hear, they are the truth named by the sacrament: “You are my beloved child. In you I am well pleased.” Those are God’s words about every single person.

Jesus’ baptism is his “coming out” party, his initial public offering. Just last week, at the Epiphany, Jesus was a baby, being chased by the magi. Today we have jumped forward, and Jesus is an adult. The Gospels have almost no mention of anything that happens in between. Jesus’ baptism is regarded as the beginning of his public life, the beginning of his ministry. Notice, words of God to Jesus, come BEFORE Jesus does anything, BEFORE he heals, BEFORE he teaches, BEFORE any of the work, God loves him. God is well pleased. Grace isn’t merited.

That is true for you as well. You start out as God’s beloved. You start out well-pleasing to God. Nothing you can do can earn you another ounce of God’s love. Nothing. God’s grace is already infinite. Neither can anything you have done, anywhere you have been, negate God’s love. You are God’s beloved. You are God’s beloved. Take comfort. Baptism reminds us.

Baptism sacramentally marks a fundamental sacred reality. There’s a reason so many grandmothers fret about getting their grandchild baptized. Baptism is meaningful. Baptism marks a deep and lasting truth.

As a priest, I can’t tell you what a privilege it is to speak these words of God’s love to folks who are being baptized, to say “you are marked as Christ’s own forever.” Jered can tell you, baptisms are among the best parts of our job.

My husband and I are anxiously awaiting our own son Silas’ baptism. Silas has been on foster-placement with us since August, and after 6 months we can apply for adoption. (I see some of you doing math. We have one month to go.) If and when his adoption finalizes, we will have Silas baptized. We will celebrate the deep truth of God’s love for him. He is Christ’s forever. I can’t wait to hear those words spoken over our son.

As Jered says the words to George Henry and Lincoln Cooper this morning, hear them again for yourself. You are Christ’s own forever. You are loved. Your children, your parents, your grandparents, and uncles and aunts and cousins and chosen family too, they are God’s own, forever. Forever. Take comfort.

Take comfort, but know there is another simultaneous truth about baptism: Baptism is a challenge.

The challenge of baptism arises because our world outside these church walls is such a mess. This week, for me, the mess was on full display, the disarray, the disillusionment. It makes you want to run, to hide, in Minnesota maybe just to use winter as an excuse and hibernate. But baptism challenges us. Baptism challenges us because baptism asks us to engage.

Notice St. Peter’s words in the Acts of the Apostles. “Truly I understand God shows no partiality.” That is a clarion call. Those words are as challenging today as they were in his own time, and Peter is talking about Baptism.

Remember, just before Peter speaks these words Cornelius a centurion, of the Italian company, an outsider, a gentile, has come to him, someone unclean in the view of his religious upbringing. And Cornelius believes God is asking him to be baptized. Peter at first can’t imagine such a call.

Then God challenges Peter. God gives Peter a vision, a sheet lowered down from above, carrying all sorts of food, pork, food no good kosher Jew would eat. God says, “eat.” Peter says, “no.” God says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Then Peter says: “Truly God shows no partiality.”

If God’s love for you, for me, comes as a comforting truth, then something else is perhaps uncomfortably true: God loves every person, every person. The priest and theologian James Allison points to this moment in the ministry of Peter as perhaps one of the most important in all of Scripture for our contemporary discussions about human sexuality, about gender. Forget Sodom and Gomorrah. Forget Leviticus. It’s here, in Acts when God does a surprising new thing, when God includes the outsider. Point here. This text should be at the heart of our discussion about LGBTQ+ identity, about race, about citizenship, about all the ways we divide ourselves. Peter baptizes, incorporates, an outsider. Baptism challenges us to witness the truth of God’s indiscriminate love.

In a week like this one, when the White House is threatening war with Iran, when cultural sites built by ancient empires named in the Bible are proposed targets of US bombs, what language we choose matters. What do we call Iranians? Enemy? Neighbor? Terrorist? Revolutionary? Protestor? God’s beloved?

The names we choose matter. What we call one another matters. This week I learned that a member of our denomination has been slated for deportation by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. I met Alvarado in El Salvador more than a decade ago. His father now serves as the Anglican bishop of El Salvador. And Alvarado, like tens of thousands of Salvadorans his age, fled El Salvador after receiving credible death threats from violent gang members. Alvarado came to the US without papers because life in the shadows here was safer than staying home.

This week a US immigration judge made an official decision about language. Alvarado would not be named an “asylum seeker.” He would not be called a “refugee.” He would be labeled “illegal” and deported. Several Episcopal priests and bishops have written to try and secure an appeal of the decision. We know the family. We know the situation. We know the threat is credible. Alvarado fears for his life. We need a different judge to choose a different word, or the consequences could be fatal.

What we call one another matters. Baptism challenges us to see our fellow human beings and to name each and every one first “God’s beloved.” Baptism challenges us to proclaim this truth not only with our lips but in our lives. When you next hear someone called an ugly name, when you next find yourself witness to the degradation of one of “God’s beloved,” when you next notice how people of a different orientation, gender, skin color, ability, age, immigration status, or social class are treated by a neighbor, or an election board, or a law enforcement policy, will you remember your baptism?

Will you remember the words of comfort spoken of you, that you are God’s beloved, that you are Christ’s own forever? Will you remember that those words belong to ALL? Will you accept the challenge of baptism, to build a community, to build a society, to build a world where no one is cast out. No one is counted less. No one is treated as anything less than the beloved of God? Alongside the comfort, will you accept the challenge of baptism?

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