A question about baptism has been asked more and more frequently in recent years: “Do godparents have to be Christians?” The prayer book, our governing document, isn’t exactly clear. It says that every candidate must have at least one sponsor who is a baptized Christian. (“sponsor” is what the prayer book calls a Godparent). The prayer book also says it is fitting to count the parents among the sponsors. So, I may be getting by on a technicality, but I have tended to interpret this rule broadly. We have had Jews and agnostics standing as godparents up front with candidates for baptism. I figure, as long as one of the parents or godparents is baptized, God can sort out the rest.
We live in an increasingly interfaith, multi-faith, and post-faith world. Before today, Christians mostly lived among other Christians. We segregated ourselves.
Perhaps some of you were brought up in a Church tradition that taught “exclusivism.” The idea is probably the best known Christian opinion. Exclusivism holds that no one outside the Christian faith can be “saved.” Exclusivists tend to have a very “after-life focused” vision of salvation. Christians go to heaven. Everyone else goes to the other place. Some versions of Christianity even teach that you must ascribe to their particular denomination if you hope to see the inside of the pearly gates. To be clear, this is not one of those churches. Exclusivism has never been the only Christian tradition.
Someday I’d like to sit down with an exclusivist and ask “What do you do with the Magi?” How do you account for this story in the Gospel? These mystical heretics from the East that come to pay homage to Jesus are but one moment in Scripture that make me uncomfortable with the exclusivist claims.
What do you do with these folks who are obviously mystics, and who are following God’s call outside the tribe, outside the religion? Their role is not small. Part of how we recognize God is doing something spectacular in the ramshackle circumstances of Bethlehem is because three spiritual strangers show up. Religious outsiders help Christians to recognize Christ.
My mentoring priest, The Rev. Luis León used to say: “I am a Christian because it is in Christianity that I have seen the light shining the brightest.” Those are carefully chosen words. There is an emphasis on subjectivity: “Christianity is where I have seen the light shining the brightest.” There is also an acknowledgement that I have seen the light shining in other places.
The feast of the Epiphany kicks off a season in the life of the church. The coming of the Magi marks the beginning. From now up until Ash Wednesday, as the days slowly get longer, we are invited to look for light. We are invited to find God in the places the world doesn’t teach us to look. We are invited to go and find light shining among those the church leaves out. We are invited to go to those beyond the expected palaces.
These magi are wise enough not to return to Herod. They don’t bow to the powers of the world. They aren’t interested in whatever reward the tyrant might offer. They listened to their star, they listened to the souls, and they honored the Christ child. But the magi aren’t baptized. They don’t say a prayer of conversion. That doesn’t mean they are unchanged by their encounter with Jesus. Matthew tells us, they go home on another road. The Bible is more content with spiritual ambiguity than most modern Christians.
In the Episcopal Church we are always in the business of trying to hold together tradition and the reasonable experience of life today. There are moments we are very traditional, like in the questions I am about to ask these godparents. We say ancient prayers. We make ancient promises. We use old language for faith. We are traditional because we continue to baptize infants.
Part of what I love about this tradition is that it connects people to their roots. I have baptized babies wearing baptismal dresses that were older than anyone in the congregation. (Thankfully there isn’t one today, because in all honesty those dresses make me nervous I am going to let a child slip or tear great grandma’s gown). But the symbols matter to us, they matter and they matter across the generations.
Church is one of the few spaces where people of different generations are regularly invited to share space. While the other social spaces of our world are getting more diverse in terms of race, sexuality, and religion, there is one way our world is getting more segregated: by age. Retirees might see kids and grandkids sometimes, but they are expected mostly to hang out with other older folks. Now that I’m a parent in my 40s, I can say I only see people in their 20s at church. And I get it. We come with this little person.
Kids are messy and noisy. I know. I live with probably the messiest noisiest one here. (He’s definitely a P.K, a priest’s kid. He thinks he owns the place). I know that church may be the only place some of you consent to spend time with toddlers. I know their pray-ground space up here is in the way. The toys are trip hazards. My kid, at least, interrupts the service regularly. Today we’re baptizing two more kiddos into the life of the church. I am so glad you are here to take part.
Because I believe children in a congregation offer us an important spiritual invitation. Like many invitations in the spiritual life, it may be a somewhat annoying invitation. The annoying spiritual invitations are often the most important.
As much as you can, today, see the inward and spiritual grace of this sacrament. The two we will baptize today are just at the start of a journey. In a few moments we will promise to companion them. We will promise to walk together, to tell the stories of Jesus. Point to the stars and help these kids to glimpse the truth of the love of God, just as we have caught glimpses.
The work of companioning and pointing to the light is sacred work. All of us need people, sometimes people beyond our immediate family, to name and nurture the good, the true, the beautiful in us. We need community willing to name what is holy in our lives. Sometimes we need the strangest people to show us the light in ourselves. We need folks to help us see the light out in the world too. In this season of seeking, following and wonder, how will you companion others searching for light? How will you allow yourself to be companioned?
What a gift to be asked to be a godparent, or to stand as a congregation with a family who has brought their child for baptism. The spiritual teacher Ram Dass once said, “In the end, we are just walking each other home.” It is a gift to share the journey, for one Epiphany day, for a season, or for a lifetime.
This Epiphany, can we be a church ready to welcome spiritual strangers? Ready to welcome magi? Can we allow those who don’t share our faith to open our hearts to deeper truth? Will you seek and serve the light of God, wherever it may lead you? You may be surprised where you find mentors in the life of faith.