Thursday, February 4, 2010

Indelible Grace

Scripture for the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany includes Isaiah 43:1-7, Acts 8:14-17 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Can there be a finer way to celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord than to baptize in his name today? On your behalf, I thank Jennifer and Jarrett, Eleanor and Will, for choosing this day for their child’s baptism.

I find names fascinating. Maisie and Wilson are the two we will hear today at the font.

You can bet I googled Maisie, and learned that it’s a Scottish form of the name Margaret. I learned that Sir Walter Scott wrote a poem about Proud Maisie. Henry James wrote a novel, “What Maisie Knew”. More recently, Maisie Dobbs is the London psychologist-investigator featured in Jacqueline Winspear’s mystery series. And there is a London wedding cake baker named Maisie Fantaisie. I don’t know if that’s how she pronounces her last name, but could there be a better way? What’s so to be liked about this name Maisie is how it sounds.

We might say the same about Wilson. I don’t suppose it’s an accident that the son of Will should be Wilson. Another fellow named Wilson once stood at the baptismal font here, though that wasn’t his first name—his well-meaning parents had saddled him with the first name Woodrow. That must have set him up for challenging times on the playground when he was a child, but perhaps those were more polite times than these—and it evidently didn’t get in the way of a career in politics.

Having started that story, I’d better finish it. President Wilson came here in April of 1915 to serve as Godfather to Francis Woodrow Sayre, his grandson, the son of his daughter Jessie and her husband, Francis. Why here? Francis was a Williams alum, and during his student years (when he and Jessie were courting), Jessie would stay at what was then the rectory, the private home of The Rev. and Mrs. J. Franklin Carter. There’s a story about student ministry and hospitality… And by the time of the baptism, Francis was Secretary to the President of Williams College, and he and Jessie and Baby Francis were living in a house on West Main Street.

Explaining things further, the Carters and the first family were old friends. In a recent article in the Eagle, Bernard Drew says that from time to time, on their way to or from the summer White House in New Hampshire, the Wilsons would come to visit the Carters in their home, what is now Vogt House here on Park Street, a house not quite as big as the White House.

If you read Bernard Drew’s story, you know he ended without resolving a mystery. When that once-upon-a-time baby Francis Sayre died in 2008 (after an illustrious career as Dean of the National Cathedral), his name was given not as Francis Woodrow Sayre, but Francis Bowes Sayre, Jr.

Now, the Episcopal Church considers Holy Baptism to be indelible. What is given in Baptism cannot be taken away. One is made a member of Christ’s Body, the Church, a child of God and an inheritor of the Kingdom of God.

But evidently one’s name is not indelible. When Francis gained a little brother, the name Woodrow, Francis’s middle name, was given to his kid brother as a first name. Is that why Francis’s name was changed, his middle name replaced by his father’s middle name, to free the name Woodrow in that generation? Or did Francis’s parents decide that they wanted a junior?

Who knows? Who cares? I presume that the change was made while Francis was still young enough that he was none the wiser. But isn’t it a story of how ephemeral some things are that get set down on paper, how whimsical we humans can be.

By contrast, hear again the firm opening words of the 43rd chapter of the Book of the prophet Isaiah: “Now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

Indelible is the name God gives to us each, the very same name God gives to his Son Jesus in his baptism: beloved. “You are my Son, the Beloved.” Becoming a Christian—and I don’t mean just at the moment of baptism, but becoming a Christian over a lifetime—is much about daring to hear those words addressed to each of us: “You are my son, my daughter, beloved.” And daring to let that voice commission us to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus so that all will come to know this relentless love.

Isaiah’s words express the promise Christians find in baptism: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…” By these terms, see Christian baptism not promising the magic of being protected-from life, but promising the companioning presence of God who supports and carries us through life, into life. Through deep waters in life, through whitewatered rivers, through crashing breakers… you get the idea.

No mistaking it that using water as the outward and visible sign for this sacrament skirts the razor-thin border between security and vulnerability, between life and death. A mother’s water breaks for a child to be born, a baby’s bathwater replicates the wet warmth of the womb. Water sustains and comforts us.

But Jesus standing in the muddy waters of the Jordan River does so with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other pilgrims seeking to be washed in newness of life, and it’s not the picture of hygiene. He’s there on our behalf, achieving solidarity with the human race—and see this scene declaring his immersing himself in the total care and ecology of God’s creation. He’s opening himself to his full mission, the birthing of God’s new creation. And it’s risky, mucky business, this taking-upon oneself full humanity. Water sustains and comforts us, washes us, but also calls us to our responsibilities.

And in the early generations of believers, to be baptized was to be physically lowered, covered, immersed, in the live water of a stream, river, or natural pool, as if brushing against the very threat of drowning, death. On Easter Day, when baptisms were conducted by dawn’s light, believers went with Jesus right to the gates of death to find him already there, his the lift of strong arms belonging to deacons lowering and lifting each candidate in baptism, once in the name of God the Father, again in the name of Jesus the Son, once more in the name of the Holy Spirit.

Water sustains and comforts us, washes us, calls us to responsibility. We’re made of it, and it can unmake us, threaten us, endanger us. And it is along this razor’s edge that the water of baptism is poured, the promise of the sacrament being not a magical protection from life, deep sweeping tidal life, but the promise of bearing us, carrying us through, indelibly pledging to us God’s presence, God’s passionate naming of us beloved, God’s Spirit engaging and embracing and dwelling within us in Jesus Christ our Lord. All the powers of God that will make us ready and able to open ourselves to life, to the birthing of new life.