Baptized, Sealed, and Marked as Chosen Family in God’s Household Forever

A Sermon by the Rev. Craig Lemming for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN
Sunday, January 9, 2022 – The Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord

In the name of the Triune God: Father, Sibling, and Mother of all people. Amen.

Today’s sermon explores ways chosen families memorialized in the documentary film Paris is Burning¹ and the TV series POSE² teach us about the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. For those who have never heard of Paris is Burning or POSE, fear not. If you’ve ever known the love of a person who was not a blood relative but who became as close as family, then you already know everything you need to know about how the communities celebrated in that film and TV series embody what it means to be received into a household of chosen family. Since the 1880s underground LGBTQ+ communities in DC and Harlem influenced mainstream culture in significant ways. Recent examples include “Voguing,” “Reading,” “Spilling Tea,” and “Shade.” Voguing took the world by storm when Madonna’s smash-hit appropriated a dance form perfected by these Black and Brown ball communities that the “Queen of Pop” has completely failed to acknowledge despite the fact that “Vogue” remains Madonna’s best-selling, multi-platinum single. See, that was Reading and Shade.

Humor aside, when biological families were not equipped to know how to unconditionally love their Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Questioning sons or daughters, those children, who were oftentimes kicked out of their biological family homes, sought out and found chosen family. Black and Brown LGBTQ+ folk became each other’s mothers, fathers, and siblings and co-created houses within which they would not only survive but thrive with mutuality and reciprocity; supporting, uplifting, educating, protecting, and providing for each other. These houses reflect ways first-century Christians survived persecution as minorities on the margins of Rome’s oppressive, colonial culture, by gathering religiously for a meal once a week, sharing their joys, struggles, and gratitudes, celebrating the love they shared, and working creatively to respond to life-threatening systems of oppression. At the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the 1980s this underground community of outsiders gathered for balls: lavish liturgies of resistance, renewal, and resurrection which spiritually nourished, strengthened, and sustained the community to face the brutal realities of racist, sexist, and homophobic violence outside the ballroom. In a ball, members of these houses walked “categories” – categories to which the white, straight, rich world refused to grant them access. So in the sanctuary of a ballroom they subverted the meanings of those categories by fiercely reclaiming them for themselves and for all people by burning down the colonizer’s categories of race, gender, and social class in an immolation of white supremacy’s Valhalla of exclusivity so that the Rhine maidens’ river of inclusive love could flow freely for all people to enjoy.³ I clearly have tendencies to romanticize these communities, so I also acknowledge these chosen families, like any family, wrestle with the demons of poverty, addiction, and violence. And yet, it is in that life-threatening chaos, that overwhelming river of adversity, that the symbol of Christ immersed in the chaotic river Jordan preaches volumes.⁴ Before we get to that Gospel passage, let’s look at the liturgy within which God’s Word and Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist intersect with what those chosen families in the underground ball culture of Black and Brown Harlem teach us about love and belonging.

Why start with liturgy? Episcopalian ethicist Willis Jenkins writes, “The Christian practice of liturgy implies the sort of anthropology that makes persons susceptible to imaginative productions of desire. Humans are ‘liturgical animals,’ whose imagination of what to love and how to desire it is learned through embodied performances,” because, Jenkins says, “morality is learned in bodies, carried by practices, and formed into repertories that teach agents how to see and solve problems.”⁵ A small portion of liturgy we do not always pay enough attention to are the words of the Proper Preface. The Proper Preface is that sentence in the introductory section of the Eucharistic Prayer before the Sanctus that describes the theological significance of the theme or occasion of a sacred day. Today’s Proper Preface, which you will hear later in our liturgy, gives us what we need to make meaning of today’s Gospel. The Proper Preface for Baptism reminds us: “in Jesus Christ our Lord, God has received us as sons and daughters, made us citizens of God’s kingdom, and given us the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth.”⁶ We are not always aware that we are each other’s spiritual siblings. God made each and every one of us to be God’s chosen family. We adopt each other as God adopts us to be God’s own in a sacred household of love and belonging where no person can ever be disowned or kicked out. Our baptismal liturgy creates this reality in our bodies.

In his classic text, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, renowned Romanian historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, teaches that human beings across cultures, over thousands of generations, before Judaism, practiced sacred, ritual baptisms. A religious act of immersing a person in water symbolized a death by drowning an old identity so that when they come out of the water, they breathed freely again as a newly born creation.⁷ A Baptismal Font symbolizes both a Tomb and a Womb. We are midwives with and for each other, witnessing the death of each other’s old identities and celebrating births of new life together. As “newborns” we are all welcomed and celebrated as members in God’s sacred family. In our Christian expression of Holy Baptism as a Sacrament of Jesus, we recall John the Baptist’s proclamation:

"I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming... He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."⁸

Paris is Burning and POSE celebrate chosen families of love and belonging who co-created spiritual fire that burned down the categories that separate us. Their liturgical rituals incinerated all of the colonizer’s categories that divide us and make us suspicious of and hateful to those who are different. These are embodied proclamations of the Holy Spirit’s unquenchable fire of love which burns away the chaff of apartheid and segregation so that, in the words of our Collect for Social Justice, “barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace.”⁹ And then we hear that most cherished of passages in Holy Scripture: 

"Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."¹⁰

As living members of the Body of Christ, you and I, as sons and daughters of God, are also Beloved. There is no better feeling in this world than being loved and knowing that we belong. Our ancient, sacred, communal rituals make this truth real; love and belonging marked and sealed in our bodies, minds, and spirits through sacramental liturgy. Liturgy that shapes who we are to each other and to every person we encounter. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. No one is disowned because we are all received into the household of God eternally; the household of abundant, extravagant, fierce, evangelistic love and belonging. Today’s Good News is that the Holy Spirit’s unquenchable fire of love is burning away everything that separates us from the love of each other and the love of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

  5. Willis Jenkins, The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013), 309 and 10.
  6. The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church: Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David According to the Use of the Episcopal Church (New York: Church Hymnal Corp., 1979), 381.
  7.  Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion trans. William R. Trask (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1959, 1987), 130-143. 

  8.  Luke 3:16-17 (NRSV).

  9.  The Book of Common Prayer, 823.

  10.  Luke 3:21-22.

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