Monday, January 14, 2013

Baptismal Gifts Galore!

Scripture appointed for the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord includes Isaiah 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

It’s a delight to have another triple baptism so soon after the last one. We seem to be bucking the downward trend in childbirths. When I’ve mentioned multiple baptisms to colleagues, some have longingly asked, “Where are you finding the babies?”

I tell them it’s the complimentary incentives: the tee shirt, the toaster oven…

Part of the pleasure of preparing for today has been, for me, visiting these three families in their homes this week. In one home, a big brother gave me a tour of the family Christmas tree, identifying his favorite ornaments (only to find that they are all his favorites). In another, a big brother introduced me to the awesome toys that Santa brought.

In fact, since there’s an older sibling in each of these families, the gift I came home with was the challenge to explain to a three- or four-year-old what baptism is. In my first family visit, I tripped all over myself piling words on words, watching helplessly as a glazed look came over the young face that just moments before had been so earnest. By the time I reached the third family, I had given up trying.

Not really. But by then I had concluded two things. One is that the attempt to explain a sacrament may be defeating, given the degree of mystery and metaphor involved. (If we were required to explain communion before we were allowed to have it, how many of us would come to the rail?) My second conclusion is that describing baptism to a pre-schooler is a gift to be welcomed as a work in progress, a project I can putter with.

Epiphany season started last Sunday with three wise men bringing gifts to the Christ child, and just one week later here we watch a very grown-up Jesus receive his own baptism. And three young children invite us to consider just what we are doing with them at the baptismal font, this morning.

I believe we’re helping them receive a gift. When the wise men bring gifts to the manger, we notice that those gifts are more than they appear to be. Gold, the king of precious metals, tells us that Jesus is the King we need. Frankincense, that a priest might burn as an offering to God, shows us that Jesus is the priest we need. Myrrh, a fragrant ointment to prepare a body for burial, tells us that Jesus will carry us through death into eternal life.

Our three little magi come empty-handed to the font this morning, and each of them receives gifts.

Water, oil, fire, a rose, a certificate, a cake, a book… They make out even better than the baby Jesus! (With the exception of the gold, but who knows what gifts await them at home?) Let’s review that gift list.

Water: every person needs it to drink and to wash, but in baptism water reminds us that we go down deep, even down under with Jesus; as Jesus rose from the grave so, joined with him in baptism we will rise from ordinary life to extraordinary new life. Long before fonts in churches limited water to a polite little bowlful, baptism meant being immersed in the deep water of a lake or a river, three times sunk and three times raised, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Oil: On the still-wet forehead of each of these children I will use olive oil mixed with balsam oil, blessed by the Bishop to anoint in baptism. In the ancient world, kings were anointed to convey to them God’s call to rule in his name. At that moment I will call each child by name and declare her or him sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.

Fire: As soon as that sign of the cross is made in water and oil on the forehead of the child, someone from the team of parents and Godparents lights a keepsake candle from the great Paschal candle of Easter that burns at every baptism and at every burial. “Unquenchable fire,” John the Baptizer promises as a hallmark of the Messiah anointed by God.

A rose: Here we get into parish custom, that each newly baptized person receives the flower that symbolizes love and victory, on the one hand beautiful and fragrant like paradise, on the other hand equipped with thorns (which legend says sprouted only after Adam and Eve blew it in the Garden of Eden).

A certificate: When a priest is installed in a parish, the Bishop hands him or her a vessel of water and says, “Take this water, and help me baptize in obedience to our Lord.” As the Bishop represents the apostles, so the priest signs and gives to each baptized person proof that this person is now one with the apostles through baptism, the sacrament by which God adopts us and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.

A cake: How sweet it is to know who and whose you are, to have a seat at the table of life and a role to play in the new creation!

And a book: “My Baptism Book” is our current choice to give to each newly baptized child. It’s a charming collection of very simple prayers and verses. In it is a Gospel story that deserves to be heard today.

“One day, some people brought their children to Jesus. They wanted him to give them his blessing. Jesus’ friends were angry. ‘You mustn’t waste Jesus’ time,’ they said. ‘He’s so busy preaching. The things he has to say are far too clever and far too important for children.’ Jesus called the children. ‘Let the children come to me and do not stop them,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God belongs to them.’”

And there is the gift. I don’t mean one more gift on top of the others: I mean that all those others tell us, show us, that the abiding gift is the love of God. 15th-century mystic Julian of Norwich sings of that reigning love of God in a poem found in “My Baptism Book”:

“O God,
As truly as you are our father,
So just as truly you are our mother.
We thank you, God our father,
For your strength and goodness.
We thank you, God our mother,
For the closeness of your caring.
O God, we thank you for the great love
You have for each one of us.”

And if you think we’re beginning to find language that might describe baptism to a pre-schooler, this little meditation from that book may come even closer.

“I am baptized
To show that I am truly a child of God.

I am baptized
To show that I truly want to follow Jesus.

I am baptized
To show that I want God’s Holy Spirit to be my friend and helper.”

This may also help us adults understand that we, the Church, will be a gift to Ella and Ryder and Stella as we join hands with their parents and Godparents in modeling openness to being children of God, openness to following Jesus, openness to the friendship and help of the Holy Spirit.

(“My Baptism Book” is written and edited by Sophie Piper and illustrated by Dubravka Kolanovic, published by Paraclete Press, 2011.)

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Pass the Paperwhites

Scripture for the Feast of the Epiphany includes Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

The first step in this sermon is to entrust into your gentle careful hands these paperwhite bulbs. Narcissus papyraceous, named for its paper-like sheathing. I’d like you to be touching and tenderly handling these elegant little vessels of new life as I talk for a while. Doing the math, I expect each bulb will need to be passed among perhaps three people during the next few minutes, for each of us to get our hands on one.

Folks who have been around St. John’s for a while know that near each new year we plant paperwhites in big pots and place them in the vestibule, the upper room, the library, as a natural cure for the common case of winter blahs. You can’t watch a paperwhite rise, bud, and bloom without knowing there will be a spring. In the same weeks that the Berkshires can look and feel like Narnia, locked in winter, these paperwhites tell us, “Up periscope! Raise your sights!” Or, even more sweetly put, “Soon enough the winter will be past… the flowers will appear on the earth; the time of singing come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land… the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

But that’s jumping ahead a good deal faster than skiiers want, so let’s agree to be fully present to the gift of the precious present moment of now, Sunday, January 6, 2013, the Feast of the Epiphany, when the three magi finally arrive at Bethlehem and the cast is complete at the manger. In the hands of each of our three quings (I like that, do you?) is a gift, something that is more than it appears.

Gold, the king of precious metals, for Jesus is the King we need;

Frankincense, that a priest might burn as an offering to God, for Jesus is the priest we need;

Myrrh, a fragrant ointment to prepare a body for burial, for Jesus will carry us through death into eternal life.

And I am putting a paperwhite bulb in your hands today—why? Because I think it can be another gift we bring to the Christ child, a fourth gift that is more than it appears, a symbol carried by the fourth wise one, the fourth quing, you.

We already know what the paperwhite makes us think of: new life, quiet growth, the beauty of being just what God wants it to be.

One of our Christmas carols asks, “What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him, give my heart.”

Is the paperwhite a good symbol of the heart that wants to grow closer to God? Let me tell you why I think so.

For one thing, the paperwhite bulb sweats just like you and I do. I didn’t know that until last week when I opened the big plastic bag the florist used to bring the bulbs here, and they were just covered in their own perspiration. It’s not as easy as it looks to be a paperwhite.

And watch out that you don’t knock off one of those brave new sprouts on your bulb—every sign of new life needs to be carefully protected, just like with us.

And even if your bulb won’t do well if it gets its vulnerable sprouting roughed up, it’s amazing how flexible the paperwhite is. It will grow in a pot of pebbles, or in a pot of soil, just as long as it can rise to the light and sink its roots to find water. Come to think of it, the paperwhite makes us think of baptism, doesn’t it?

Now, those pots we set out won’t all bloom at the same time. The amount of light in each setting, and the temperature in each place, will affect when and for how long all those tight-slippered buds will bloom, and how tall or short the stalks and leaves will grow. But it’s all perfect.

Until the moment when the law of gravity demands to be obeyed, and top-heavy blooms leaning towards sunlight weigh those stalks down and they need a hand to tie them up, bind them back—in Latin that verb is religare, and from it we get the word religion—the gentle binding of the heart to God, whose loving care guides our growth, growth that shows itself in our keeping the baptismal vows to love, love, love.

So let’s plant those bulbs. If you’ve got one, bring it out now to one of the pots here at the front. Let this planting remind us to offer our hearts to grow closer to God in this new year.