Archive for Baptism

Not the Prim, Proper, and Perfumed

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Temecula, California on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 13, 2019, also known as the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

1.

No one is getting baptized here today.

Still, today we gather around the liturgy of baptism. Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany, the day on our church calendar when we celebrate the Feast of our Lord’s baptism.

Jesus was right there with everyone else in the crowd that day, waiting in line to be baptized in the Jordan by that enigmatic character John, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

What do you think Jesus experienced on that day?

What did that crowd look like, “filled with expectation . . . questioning in their hearts . . . whether [John] might be the Messiah”?

Did the line of people stretch farther than the eye could see? Or was the “crowd,” say, only about twenty people?

Were the people mostly young; or a good mix of all ages, including children? Or were they only men, representing their households?

What kinds of disabilities would Jesus have seen?

What kinds of clothes did the people wear? How dirty were they?

Then, what do you think Jesus overheard the crowd around him discussing? The people were filled with expectation about John’s identity, Luke says. So, what were the topics of their conversations? Religion? Politics? Small talk? Gossip about their neighbors?

And what do you think they smelled like? Lunch? Livestock? Body odor?

2.

My, how times have changed!

What picture comes to your mind today when you hear the word churchgoer? What does the crowd we find ourselves a part of today look, sound, and smell like?

Here’s what comes to my mind, a picture from the late 1980s, when I first began to attend church regularly.

I was 18 or 19 years old, never been in church more than a few times. My eyes had recently been opened to the saving knowledge of the 1980s soCal conservative evangelical image of Jesus—all gentleness and blue eyes and flowing blond hair . . . like some surfers I knew.

Jesus wasn’t like those other surfers, the ones living out of their beat-up Volkswagen vans, somehow managing to eke out livings repairing surfboards and painting fences for the friend of a friend.

No, Jesus was one of the good guys, like the surfers who managed In-N-Out Burger chains, a good job to come by, especially since they print “John 3:16” on the bottoms of their drink cups. These surfers drove respectable vehicles, pickup trucks or hatchbacks.

And the families that these gentle surfers came from—well, now, there’s a picture to behold! The dads wore ties that matched their socks and the moms wore perfectly coordinated ensembles, often with three or four little siblings in tow, just as prim and proper as their parents, hair braided or gelled, always on time.

They behaved perfectly too, in church or out, from what I could tell anyway.

And as for their smell: just one whiff and I knew, yes, here was the perfume, aftershave, and deodorant of the Promised Land.

Churchgoers par excellence!

3.

Jesus came and stood in line with the crowd to be baptized by John. John’s message was repentance. Repentance means to turn and head in a different direction. By the looks, sounds, and smells of churchgoers today, well, we’ve repented all right!

But is this what baptism is about? Our actions?

When we come to the waters of baptism, we make a public statement expressing our repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In other words, we don’t want to live the old way anymore; but new life in Christ!

And, as we all know, the old way of life looked, sounded, and smelled like the crowd that was with Jesus on that day so many years ago on the bank of the River Jordan.

The new life is different. We mind our p’s and q’s now! We need to have everything together, to live out a life that honors Christ. Or at least we need to look like we do.

Really?

What if I change the term from churchgoer to seeker? What image comes to mind now, of a person truly seeking Jesus today?

Wise people? Magi?

Sometimes. In fact, we considered this image last week.

But, also, what about the poor, the sick, and the marginalized? What images come to mind here? Homeless persons? AIDS victims? Criminals? Do they seek Jesus too?

Seekers are not always the people we like to envision. Seekers might not fit our prim, proper, and perfumed expectations. Seekers might make us uncomfortable.

4.

So, today we remember our Lord’s baptism.

Baptism is an act; and thus, logically, we associate actions with our baptism: the clothes we wear, the things we say, how we come across to others, how we express what we believe.

But the Gospel of Luke does something different today.

There’s Jesus, standing in line with the crowd of seekers, waiting his turn to be baptized; Jesus, taking in all those sights, sounds, and smells; Jesus, himself contributing to all those sights, sounds, and smells.

But Luke passes this over as if it’s no big deal.

Just like that, Jesus is baptized along with everyone else and it’s time for the story to move on. No lingering here; no detailed development like with the birth narrative. Just, bam! And it’s over.

This is a very different telling from we hear in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the versions we will hear on this Feast day over the next two years, which are both much more detailed.

But Luke is low-key; as if to say we shouldn’t make too much out of the act of baptism—or the things we do in our new life.

Even so, there is a little detail Luke adds to the story that we mustn’t overlook, a small yet profound phrase Matthew and Mark leave out. Luke glosses over the action and instead says Jesus “was praying.”

After everyone is baptized and before the heavens open and the heavenly voice booms—right in between!—Jesus prays.

In fact, the way Luke tells it, the Spirit descends bodily and the heavenly voice resounds not as a part of his baptism but because Jesus prays. The prayer of Jesus is the cause; the dove and God’s voice are the effects.

This unique-to-Luke detail arrests our attention today.

No one from our congregation is getting baptized; the rite will not be enacted today at St. Thomas.

But that’s perfectly appropriate; because the actions in and around our baptism—how we look, sound, or smell in our new life—are not Luke’s point! Rather, today Luke declares that the baptized life is characterized by the practice of prayer.

And then it doesn’t matter: then we pray because we are grateful churchgoers; and then we pray, too, because we are needy, sick, and marginalized seekers.

Comfortable or not, thankful or in need, we pray because we want to and we have to.

5.

And the best part about today’s Gospel is what happens when you do pray.

Two things, right?

The first: the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove; and here again Luke adds a detail not seen in the other Gospels: “in bodily form.”

You don’t see your prayers ascending. You speak them into the air and they dissipate. And you’re left to wonder, Has God heard me?

Prayers seem so immaterial, so abstract!

Yet, Luke reminds us today, when you pray the Holy Spirit descends upon you as concretely as a dove in bodily form!

And second—my favorite part of all—is that voice from heaven that says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

You know what this is? You’ve just earned an 89 on your faith test; and God is not that parent who spouts off, “You should have earned an A!” Instead, God puts loving arms around you and responds affirmingly, “Well done!”

You pray; and God affirms!

God loves you; God is well pleased with you.

It doesn’t matter how imperfect or perfect your life is. It doesn’t matter whether you are a churchgoer or seeker. It doesn’t even matter what you look, sound, or smell like. “You are my child,” God says, “my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Our prayers are as concrete as a bird in flight; and God affirms us, whoever we are. What better reasons to live a life characterized by prayer?

Celebrating Inconvenience

Posted in Doing Church, Rationale with tags , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2017 by timtrue

17th-century_unknown_painters_-_The_Resurrection_of_Christ_-_WGA23478[1]The following article, which appears in the April/May newsletter of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Yuma, Arizona, discusses the significance of the historic Easter Vigil worship service.

“The Great Vigil, when observed, is the first service of Easter Day. It is celebrated at a convenient time between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Morning.”

So says the Book of Common Prayer on page 284.

To which I ask, “Is there such a thing as a convenient time between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Morning?”

Easter is late this year. Sunset will occur after seven o’clock, with real darkness only truly descending after 7:30. The rubrics of the Prayer Book constrain us really, then, to a first “convenient” time of 8pm.

But how convenient is 8pm for folks who cannot easily drive in the dark?

We do have other options, I suppose. “Between sunset and sunrise” means a midnight service would be appropriate, and midnight’s always cool. Or, for those who have trouble seeing in the dark, we could begin the service at 4:30am, timing it so that it would end just before sunrise (which will occur at 6:07am). That way people would only have to drive one way in the dark, and at a time of the day when there is very little traffic.

Still, neither of these options strikes me as any more convenient than 8pm.

The Prayer Book continues:

“The service normally consists of four parts:

  1. The Service of Light.
  2. The Service of Lessons.
  3. Christian Initiation [i. e., baptism], or the Renewal of Baptismal Vows.
  4. The Holy Eucharist with the administration of Easter Communion.”

In other words, it’s like a normal Sunday service—which consists of two parts, the Service of Lessons and the Holy Eucharist—with a couple of additions: the Service of Light and baptism.

That “Service of Light” part really does constrain us to the dark—a time between sunset and sunrise—which, let’s face it, really does feel inconvenient, no matter how we look at it.

And it feels even more inconvenient when we think about that other part, that baptism part!

I mean, really? The Prayer Book would rather we baptize at the (dark) Great Vigil than wait for the next day, when the sun is up and the Easter Lilies are smiling along with everyone else who got a good night’s sleep? What if that baptism is of a young child, who’d probably be in much better spirits on a bright Sunday morning than a dark Saturday night—not to mention his parents? Or what if the hoped for godparents aren’t able to make it out at night for whatever reason? Or what if? . . .

Okay, okay, I hear your questions. Yes, they are reasonable. Yes, a nighttime, dark service does indeed feel inconvenient. And yes, we could just as well forget about the Vigil and revert to the way things used to be around here, when we simply waited for Easter Sunday to roll around, stress day.

But if there’s one thing about me you’ve gotten to know by now, it’s that I highly respect our Episcopal tradition. And by “Episcopal tradition” I don’t mean the way we did things last year, five years ago, fifty, or even a hundred; I mean the tradition that goes back before the Reformation, before the marriage of the Roman and English Churches in the seventh century, even before the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. I want to go clear back as far as history will take us. How did the early church do it? That’s the tradition I’m talking about.

The reason I value this tradition so greatly is because many, many saints before us have thought long and hard—a lot longer and harder than any of us have—about how best to worship and glorify Christ. By the way, this is the rationale behind our Book of Common Prayer, leaving little room in our assemblies for novel, innovative liturgies.

And, even more importantly, there’s this: Jesus inconvenienced himself a great deal—when he emptied himself of the glories of heaven and became human; when he washed his disciples’ feet; when he stayed up all night praying fervently in the garden that his Father would take his cup from him; when he stood trial before Pilate; when he was stricken, smitten, afflicted, and nailed to the cross mercilessly; when he eked out his last breath—all for us! We break these dark inconveniences when we come to worship him at the Great Vigil, the fitting end to this drama known as the Passion, where we celebrate new light and life together—something the bright Sunday morning service just can’t replicate.

And thus, when it comes to worshiping Christ as God, the term inconvenience takes on new meaning.

Let’s celebrate this inconvenience—the Great Vigil, the tremendous conclusion to Christ’s Passion—together on Saturday, April 15, at 8pm. There will be a baptism this year; and, immediately following the service, a champagne-and-hot-cross-buns reception!

The Drama of the Call

Posted in Doing Church with tags , , , , on December 11, 2013 by timtrue

Human lives are chock-full of drama.

From the very beginnings of life—both in the love act itself, from which conception occurs, and in the birth process—all the way to death and burial: drama is an omnipresent reality.

Recently I baptized a baby girl.

Put yourself in her shoes for a moment.  There she was, safe in her mother’s arms.  But why in the world was she in the middle of a crowded group of people with bright lights blaring all around?  And what were they all saying, chanting in unison, like a mantra?

Then, already on edge a bit from the unusualness of the situation, some big, burly, bearded guy dressed in a white robe with a scarf-like thingy draping over his neck (how odd is that!) takes her from her mother’s arms into his own: from soft, warm, familiar-smelling love into hard, knotty, hairy, wizened, unfamiliarness.  Maybe it’s love too, she thinks, for she trusts her mommy absolutely, and Mommy would never let anything out of line happen; but this is probably what Mommy means by the overused term “tough love.”

And if that isn’t enough, the big bearded unfamiliar man dips her, like she once saw her daddy dip Mommy on the dance floor, and pours water over her head.  Three times!

Then the people watching say amen and clap.  The whole thing’s just a bit weird, she thinks.

Drama!

Today a significantly tattooed man came into my office and told me his story:

I’ve been in jail for eight-and-a-half years and I’m still on parole and I can’t pay all my rent so my wife and me and my three kids were kicked out of our apartment and won’t be allowed back in till I pay the rent in full but that makes it look like I’m trying to run but I’m not trying to run except my parole officer don’t see it that way but I won’t get paid till Friday because that’s payday and did I mention that I do have a job but I’m just waiting on my paycheck and my wife works too but she just had an operation and needs to take a few days off to recover and so can I just have a hundred bucks?

And I wanted to say, hey, take a breath, buddy.

Instead I asked his name, to which he replied Manuel Gonzales.  Then I told him I didn’t have any money I could offer, but would he like a gift card to a local grocery store?  That would at least get him and his family meals through Friday, when he would allegedly be paid.  To which he replied that, yes, that would be helpful.  So I asked him for a form of identification, standard procedure, you know, to make a copy of it so I can keep track of what I give and to whom.  He agreed.  But the name on the ID card most certainly wasn’t Manuel Gonzales.

Drama!

Also today I experienced my most difficult visitation yet.

It began yesterday, actually.  With Prayer Book in hand, I routinely journeyed to the assisted care facility I had predetermined.  So far so good.  But when I entered her room, the ninety-something year-old parishioner I sought was nowhere to be found.  The bed was made, in fact, and the room quite tidy.  Not allowing myself to think the worst, I asked a nurse where said parishioner was.  “Oh,” the nurse replied, “she just went to the hospital.  Blood clot in her leg.”

It was the end of the work day, so I went home resolving to track down my nonagenarian friend today.  Which I did.  And I went to see her this morning.

When I arrived in her hospital room, in the MICU, she lay beneath a bundle of blankets unconscious from sedation.  Her son and daughter were with her, very glad to see me, but also with eyes puffy from apparent tears.  I inquired about my friend’s condition.  And that’s when the shock hit me, for the daughter answered that her mom’s leg had been amputated this morning, severed just above the knee.

I uttered a tearful prayer–barely able–and said my goodbye; but I will return to see her on Sunday after church, and I’ll bring Eucharistic elements with me.

Drama!

It’s omnipresent for us humans.  And I count it one of the greatest privileges to be involved, sometimes even immersed, in it.