Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Sacrament of Holy Baptism, Pentecost 2024

At the Baptism of Julian David Simpson
All Saints Church, Worcester
The Feast of Pentecost, May 19, 2024

Good morning, saints. I am Julian David Simpson’s Grampa.

I have other names, of course, other relational words that define who I am. But this one is pretty special, I have to say. I am married to Hathy, Julian’s Gramma, who serves on the Altar GuiId here at All Saints. I’m sort of a Christmas and Easter Episcopalian here.

I invited myself to do the Baptism that will follow this sermon. I’m so grateful to the rector, Sam Smith, for saying yes and then for going on to ask me to preach as well while I’m here. Thank you, Sam.

On the one hand, I’ll be doing something in a few minutes that I’ve done literally hundreds of times before, over 36 years of ordained ministry. On the other hand, this is unique. When Julian’s father and godfather were baptized, I decided not to do those, as I wanted to focus on being the dad on those days. But I’ve learned over the past thirty years or so how to multitask.

I’ve told parents and godparents over the years that Baptism is not fire insurance, which usually has people scratching their head for a moment. But let me be clear – we aren’t here today “just in case…” or “God forbid...”  Julian is already God’s beloved. Full stop. 

Rather, we are here today because Holy Baptism is an outward and visible sign of that truth. Baptism is a sacrament of initiation. It’s about becoming part of a community that stands for some things in this unsteady and confusing world. It’s not a club; but rather a community of people trying, with God’s help, to follow Jesus and be his Body in this world.

The waters of baptism and the Holy Spirit’s presence among us today creates an extended household of faith. This means that we are called (with God’s help) to care for one another and to love one another, one day at a time. It means, to be very blunt, that we are bound together in faith not only with those to whom we are bound by blood, but with all the little children of the world to whom we are bound by water and the Spirit.  

Baptism is not fire insurance. It calls upon us to move beyond familial and tribal ties to human ties across the boundaries of language, creed, or race. I know this is hard – but those kids in Gaza and Israel and Ukraine and living in poverty around the world and in this city are also somebody’s child and grandchild, and we will renew our promises today to treat them all with dignity and respect. I want Julian to grow up knowing that and it’s our responsibility to teach him that not only by words but by our actions as he grows into the full stature of Christ, one day at a time.

You likely already know the story told by Luke in Acts of the coming of the Holy Spirit. And you may also know the story that unfolds in the Gospel reading. So today I want to focus on those dry bones from Ezekiel. It’s a vision – a kind of dream. It’s not some zombie apocalypse. It’s an extended metaphor that comes at a terrible time in Israel’s history, the Babylonian exile. But it crosses time and space. You don’t need a theological degree to know what it feels like to be dried up and burned out and as good as dead and then cry out in desperation: can these bones live? Maybe some of us are feeling that way right now.

Christian hope is not denial. I see a lot of denial in the Church and try not to judge it too harshly because let’s face it, life is hard and the world is a mess in so many ways, and there is so much hurt and injustice. Sometimes just turning it off is necessary for survival and I get that. But Christian hope is not denial.

Nor is Christian hope wishful thinking. Wishful thinking keeps us from engaging, it keeps us spiritually immature. We pray for God to make things better, we say that it’s in God’s hands, and everything will be just fine. But Christian hope is not the same thing as wishful thinking. It’s not even a synonym for optimism, which as Seamus Heaney has put it, expects that things will just turn out well. Rather, Heaney says that hope is rooted in the conviction that there is something good worth working for. Hope is about learning to say, we are willing to be your hands and feet in this world, O God.

Or as Pope Francis has put it: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” That short creed sums it up, I think. Today Julian is being welcomed into a house of prayer, a community that prays in the quiet of our own hearts and when we gather at our tables for a shared meal and in the grandeur of places like All Saints. We pray on our own and we pray in community. We meditate in silence and we sing out with joy so that in our music, God is glorified. All of our prayers are shaped by two great commandments: love God, love neighbor. That’s our mission statement, friends. That is the work God gives us to do. To love God whom we cannot see and to love our neighbor who is right before our eyes.  That’s what Julian now becomes a part of, with us.

It’s easy to love humankind, generically. Right? It’s a lot harder to love that neighbor who just cut us off on the Mass Pike and flipped us the bird. Trust me, and I have some family here today, I’m preaching to myself here since I live a lot of my life on the Mass Pike and I see a lot of crazy birds out there. It’s easy to love humankind in general. It’s a lot harder to love our neighbor who has a political sign in their yard that makes us angry.

It’s easy for us to make people we don’t like or understand invisible. But the work of the Church is that when we pray to God for the hungry, we feed them. We participate in God’s work in the world because we believe it’s worth it. It’s not magic. It can be transformative and miraculous, but it’s not magic. We pray for the hungry and then we feed them. We pray for the sick and then we make a casserole or go visit them in the hospital. We pray for racial reconciliation, for full inclusion of all God’s children regardless of their sexual orientation. And then we go out and do what we need to do to make that more real. We listen and learn and grow. That’s how prayer works. And when we participate in God’s world in this way, we plant seeds of hope. We cannot control outcomes or the speed of outcomes. But by sharing in the work, we cultivate hope in our own lives and in the lives of others.

Patience is not a gift I was born with. In fact I’m an incredibly impatient person in so many ways. I’m hoping that Julian David got the genes that lead to being more laid back than I’ve ever been. But I have learned, as a parent teaching two kids to drive, as a priest helping a congregation to thrive, and as a canon who thought after ten years or so in this work we’d have ushered in the Kingdom of God here in Western Mass by now, that patience is less of a gift most of us are born with and more of a practice we can cultivate one day at a time. So we do well to remember what Dr. King said, that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it does bend toward justice. Today we commit Julian to share this slow work of God with us.

There is a line I’ve always loved from the Prayerbook about raising children “in an unsteady and confusing world.” It’s all that, for sure. And it’s tempting to think the world that Julian David has been born into is an even bigger mess than the one that Graham and Cara were born to, and certainly than Rich and Hathy and Rocio and Rafael were born into. Right?

I am not so sure. Julian’s maternal grandfather left Cuba as Castro rose to power, and his maternal grandmother lived under Franco. Hathy and I were born into a world where a president was assassinated and then in quick succession his brother and Dr. King as well. Kent State and Selma and Mai Lai were in the news. Maybe the world has always been a mess.

Can these bones live?

The work to which the Baptized are called is to be salt, and light, and yeast in a world that has always needed, and still needs, some salt, and light, and yeast. It doesn’t take a lot of either to change things. The late Bishop, Krister Stendahl, said the work of the Church isn’t to make the whole world into a salt mine. From generation to generation we cannot control the world or even our own lives. But we can love God and we can love our neighbor today and then again tomorrow. And we can live in such a way that when people see us they might love Jesus and not hate the Church.

Can these bones live?

You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works. And if we ever feel that’s all on us, all on our shoulders, we remember that by the waters of baptism God keeps calling and claiming and marking and sealing new witnesses by name. Claimed as God’s own forever, Julian is invited today to share with us in the work of being light, and salt, and yeast that makes this tired old world new again. No pressure!

As he grows, I pray that he will become part of a community of faith that is not afraid of hard questions. I
can’t change the world or immunize Julian David from experiencing all of the pain that it may bring his way. But I hope that he experiences a community beyond the parents and family that love him so very much that also will both love and challenge and sustain him. Although Julian is pretty precocious, even I know he won’t remember a word of this sermon today. But it’s not the sermon that matters. What matters is that Graham and Cara and James and Cristina and all of us here today take vows to live what we profess with our lips, so that we became an outward and visible sign of what baptism truly means.

Can these tired old bones live? You bet they can. They live as the Spirit of the Living God falls afresh on all of us, as we recommit ourselves to do the work God has given us to do, work we do not do alone.

4 generations have worn this gown