Declaration of Love
A Sermon by The Reverend Barbara Mraz
January 12, 2014
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
The Baptism of Our Lord
Matthew 3:13-17 and Isaiah 42:1-9
We’ve all been in those social situations where, suddenly, we feel lonely in the midst of a crowd, even with our friends. Then we may start comparing our lives to those of others, our dreams to the realities, and this seldom ends well.
I had just been to a lovely holiday event that had, unfortunately, pushed some buttons for me and I felt more seasonal sadness than usual as I walked to the car. But it was a beautiful, glistening winter night so I decided to take a short detour driving home and go through my old West St. Paul neighborhood nearby.
I drove slowly by my grandma’s old yellow house on Manomin Street, right across from what had been my aunt and uncle’s brown brick home, then three blocks east on Curtice Street to 205, where my parents had lived for 60 years and where I grew up. Fortunately, the new owners had put the Christmas tree where it was supposed to be, in the front window, and lights brightened the railing by the steps.
The house next door had its front light on, this house that had been home to another aunt and uncle who had no children but my brother and me to spoil. My Danish grandmother had kept her three children living within blocks of her their whole lives – she was formidable and she loved me.
I got what I needed that night: a reference point, a reminder of what had been reliable, stable sources of affection and identity. I had successfully pushed the “reset” button on my perceptions. I turned on the radio and hummed along with Bing as I drove across the High Bridge, home.
Americans are “less happy” today than 30 years ago, studies tell us. One reason is that we are so easily measured by the yardsticks of culture and personal expectation. We are constantly reminded of what we lack: more money, the right partner, well-adjusted children, perfect health, impressive intelligence and being really, really fun! It can be kind of like an Antiques Roadshow mentality, where we allow outside experts to tell us the worth of the life we have assembled.
There is no better way to reset our collective psyches for the new year than by talking about Baptism. Today is the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River at the beginning of his ministry, as well as the baptism of Ruth Bradtmiller and Paul Bradtmiller.
Baptism is understood as a lot of things: “fire insurance,” (as someone put it); a rite to appease grandparents; a naming ceremony; a chance to wear an heirloom dress; an opportunity for a party; an incomprehensible ritual that we perform because, on a primal level, people want to share their uncontainable joy in the gift of a child – and church is one of the few formal settings where we can do that.
Baptism is not a private act but an initiation into a community where those of us in that community promise to be active members of the village it takes to support the baptized. The communal aspect is one of the most important parts of John’s baptism of Jesus. At the River Jordan, Jesus joins the other sinners in the water, not holding himself apart as a special case.
Although some people have trouble with this event, asking why Jesus had to repent if he was “sinless,” the equivalent of Baptism was not unknown among the Jewish people. The rabbis teach that the Israelites were cleansed by passing through the Red Sea before they entered the promised land, and purity rituals involving water are common not only in Judaism but in other faiths.
The most important question today is what Baptism says about our relationship with God. As a sacrament of the church, it is an outward sign of an inward reality and that reality is love.
At the baptism of Jesus, we read, the heavens opened and the voice of God was heard declaring his love for Jesus and how pleased God was with him. Note that this is at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, before any big accomplishments or successes. We are accepted by God for who we are, and not for what we have managed to do. We are loved at the beginning, as these babies today are loved, and “marked, as Christ’s own, forever.”
We know this love in many ways. It is something that is often held especially close at the end of life. If you were at the funeral for our former rector, Grayson Clary, you heard this anecdote from Jered, but let me repeat a part of it, with the family’s permission.
Before his death, Grayson’s speech was compromised, but with his son Brad and later with Jered, he kept repeating the same phrase. Jered figured it out; it was “139. 139.” It was the Psalm, and Jered read it to him; he smiled, and then said again, “139.” “You want it read at your funeral, right?” He nodded.
As it turned out, it was not in the meticulous funeral plan Grayson had prepared, but it was what he was clinging to near death. Is it any wonder? My favorite Psalm, as well, it reads, in part:
“O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works
That I know very well.”
That is one description of what it is like to be intimately known and loved by your Creator.
Baptism, then, is a declaration of love from God, a claiming of us by Christ who marks us as his own forever.
There can be a tendency to stop here, to see Baptism as a joyous, touching ceremony that celebrates new life and new beginnings, a pretty ceremony with sweet children, a smiling congregation — and some questions for the godparents (and the congregation) that can be easy to dismiss until you really hear them:
“Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?”
“Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
Baptism is more than a blessing. In it, all of us commit to be agents of love and justice in a world that can be cruel and punishing.
A provocative statement of the two aspects of Baptism– the blessing and the challenge — is at the end of the first part of the three part movie, The Godfather, about a New York Mafia family in the 1950s. In the midst of a fierce gang war, the youngest of Don Vito Corleone’s adult sons, Michael (played by Al Pacino), is godfather at a private Catholic baptism for his sister Connie’s child, also named Michael.
The baptism is Michael’s alibi because, during this time, he has arranged to have every one of the leaders of the four other Mafia families brutally and systematically murdered: the Barzinis, the Tattaglias, the Cuneos, the Straccis. The organ plays softly, the baby cries, the priest intones Latin and makes the sign of the cross — as human beings are shot down, one after the other. The powerful forces of evil and wickedness which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, are visually interspersed with scenes from the Baptism. I was deeply disturbed when I first saw it, perhaps because of the truth of the images.
Our job in the face of the brutality that increasingly defines our world is portrayed in another film. In Dead Man Walking, convicted murderer Matthew Poncelet is about to be put to death in Louisiana’s Angola prison. The guards will soon cry out, “dead man walking,” as he goes to his execution. The nun who has visited him for months on Death Row, heard his confession, and grown to care for this man who is at once a murderer and child of God, tells him, “Look at me when they do this thing to you. I will be the face of love for you.”
And there is our baptismal mandate: to be the face of love to each other as we are given that love and not let our Baptism be reduced to a certificate in a drawer or pictures in an album. If I had driven a few blocks further through my old neighborhood that night, I would have come to St. James Lutheran Church where I had been baptized as an infant and God proclaimed her love for me before I had accomplished – or not accomplished — anything. After all, it was Martin Luther who told those who came to him in times of duress, “Remember your Baptism. Remember your Baptism.”
In the mysterious process that is sermon-writing, I’ve learned to trust that what I need will appear at some point. However, Saturday afternoon is a little late and I was still looking for the right image – an image of fierce, unconditional love – to end this sermon. I opened Facebook (of all things) and there it was: I want to conclude today with an image of instinctive love, love so strong that it could not be second-guessed or questioned.
According to the Hastings Star-Gazette, a dog had been seen on the loose outside of the city this past week near the Green Terrace Mobile Home Park. In the freezing temperatures of the week, workers left food for the animal but it eluded capture until late in the week.
When they finally got the dog to the shelter, they realized that she was producing milk. A humane society worker, Cheryl Polachek, took the dog back to the area where she had been captured and immediately it led her along a secluded trail, and around a bluff, straining at the leash. She bolted underneath an old trailer and the worker crawled in after her.
The paper reports: “There, huddled in a nest of leaves, were three fat brown and white wiggly puppies. The mom immediately began to nurse them.
“I took my coat off and covered them,” Polachek said. “She looked so relieved. She put her head on my hand. I was crying.”
We may wonder if many things in life are real or illusions, what can be counted on, what will not abandon us. It is love; love given, love received. So remember your Baptism.