Pool Party; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

Notre Dame Baptismal FontOver the winter, Grey Wilkes learned to swim.

Having recently moved to a house with a pool, her parents wanted to make sure she could navigate the waters as soon as possible, safety fence notwithstanding. Instead of floundering in the waters, Grey has learned, should she fall in, to float on her back and then to kick her way to the edge. I wonder if our encountering the mystery of the Trinity might be a little bit like Grey learning a new response to being dropped into water; rather than reacting with fear and seeking to control the water around her, to become master of it, she now calmly floats, allowing the water to be what it is, finding her place in it, and then using her newly acquired habit to relate to those waters.

I have a tendency to come to things like the doctrine of the Trinity and to splash about, all throat-clearing and weight-shifting and brow-furrowing. “Well you see, there’re three. And there are, I mean, there is, one. God. Three. God. One.” Generally, my mind and mouth become a tangled mess, and my spirit just leaves the building completely, shaking her head and rolling her eyes as I splish and splash and in not too much time, end up drowning in words and phrases and analogies and nonsense. So I wonder if maybe we’re meant to learn a new response to mystery. Continue reading

Waiting to Breathe – The Feast of the Baptism of Jesus

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Collect (Prayer) for the First Sunday after the Epiphany (BCP)

If you would, close your eyes with me.  Let’s take one big, deep breath in through our noses together–as much air as your lungs can hold; then let’s all exhale at the same time, with our mouths wide open, a big “ha” sound…  Let’s do it once more, a big, long, deep breath through our noses, and a loud, long breath out through our mouths.

Thank you.  I just thought we could all use a little more oxygen.  Now, on with the sermon!

In a break with many other Protestant churches, our Anglican tradition is to baptize babies.  As you’re probably aware, many churches choose to wait till a person can speak for themselves and decide on their own whether or not they really want to be Christians before they submit to the Christian ritual of baptism.  We side with the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox churches on this count, and in doing so, we’re making a significant statement about who we believe God to be.

During the first centuries of Christianity, before there were so many denominations as such, they were ironing out some of the import sacraments–what it meant for humans to take up common physical items, water, bread, wine, and to ask God to enter those things, so that we could better understand how it is that God enters each of us.  One of the questions that came up was: what if the priest who prayed that God would bless the water for Baptism, or enter the bread and wine for Eucharist later on turned out to be a fraud?  They used a word worse than fraud, but the question they were getting at was how much human effort and righteousness affected God’s potency.  Who was responsible for how things turned out, humans, or God?

As you can probably guess, the answer our ancestors in the faith came to is that what matters is God.  Even if the priest who baptized you, or officiated your wedding, or buried your grandma turns out to be an embezzler, or worse, the Christian church throughout the ages has agreed that we all trust that God takes care of and protects and is the one thing that matters in whether or not a sacrament does the job.

Let me tell you what a relief that is!  So perhaps we should all just go home now.  God’s got it all under control, he can zap us with grace any time he likes–why bother with saying a creed and praying prayers and having this strange meal together?

Did you know that our respiratory system is the only system in our bodies that is both voluntary and involuntary?  We can’t stop our stomachs from digesting just by thinking about it, and if everything’s working right, our limbs don’t fly about on their own.  But at the beginning of the sermon, we all concentrated and made ourselves breathe.  Since then, I’ll bet that no one has kept thinking “breathe in, breathe out” every moment while I’ve been up here preaching.  But none of us has passed out, we’ve all kept breathing just as we always do, without thinking about it.

Whether we’re paying attention or not, God is at work.  When we concentrate on it, when we look for what God’s up to around us and in us, we start to see more clearly how God is active all the time.  Our lungs are passive, in a way; they can’t control how much oxygen is in the air, or how they function in different levels of pressure.  God is like the oxygen in the air–he’s present everywhere, and we breathe him in without noticing sometimes, though the greatest benefit comes when we pay attention to what we’re taking in and what we’re letting back out.

We come to church because this is where we learn to breathe.  We learn how to take God in, and how to let him fill us up.  In our modern society, spending lots of time sitting behind desks and hunched over computers, we are not breathing as well as some of our forebears did who spent their days outside in the fresh air, working the soil and making their own food.  Our lung capacity shrinks when we don’t use the full range of our breath, just like our ability to notice and listen and respond to God shrinks when we don’t make a habit of spending time seeking and noticing him with others as we worship.

We baptize babies because we believe that in the end, it’s about more than any decision or declaration one person makes; it’s about the God made known in Jesus Christ coming to be with us in the Holy Spirit, that we would never be alone, and that the love manifest in the Trinity is stronger than death.  That kind of love takes a community, and it is the Christian community, throughout time and space, that commits for us at our baptism, and with us throughout our lives, to continue to help us learn how to breathe.

Healing in the Jordan River – Trinity Cathedral

2 Kings 5:1-15 & Luke 17:11-19

When you stepped over the threshold of the building you’re sitting in this morning, you left the United States of America.  You left American society.  Be not afraid! (have you heard that one before?)  You see–it’s more that you entered God’s Embassy than that you left American soil, but here, in the church, we are now on God’s turf.  Here, God’s rules carry the day, we are on holy ground that has been consecrated to be the place where we encounter God in the sacraments and are changed by our interaction with the Holy One.  The rules here are different than the ones we often follow outside these doors, the social customs are different here than the ones we’re used to following walking down the streets of Columbia, South Carolina.  These differences aren’t just nuances or quirks–there is significance to the way that God’s kingdom works; it’s sometimes in opposition to the way we’re used to behaving.

Here, in the Bible, we see dozens of accounts that show us the way that God desires for the world to look.  When we read holy Scripture together we learn about God’s kingdom, the world that we step into when we are in this holy place, the world that God desires for all of creation to become.  This morning, we read the story of Naaman, a powerful Syrian who is paradoxically, a sufferer of leprosy.  In the ancient world, leprosy was a disease the counted its victims among the weak, the marginalized; people with leprosy, as we saw in today’s Gospel lesson, were separated from society, ostracized.  Naaman, however, somehow manages to preserve his place of power despite this disease, though he clearly desires very much to be rid of the affliction.  Who is it that notices the skin lesions and suggests where he might seek treatment?  His Israeli slave girl–this nameless girl has a quotation in Holy Scripture, how strange that a being not even considered a real, full person by her society would get a shout out in the Bible.  She says that there’s a prophet in her home country who could definitely cure her master’s ailment.

Naaman goes to this holy man, Elisha, and parks his chariot outside Elisha’s front door.  Naaman clearly expects Elisha to dash out to his driveway and greet his Most Esteemed guest.  Elisha does nothing of the sort–he sends his servant out the front door with a message.  Naaman’s eyebrows raise, verse 11 says that he “became furious”–Elisha, this big-time prophet, was supposed to hurry out to the chariot and wave his hands about and shout in a loud voice.  Look at your Bible, it actually says that!

To add insult to injury, another low-life is now giving Naaman directions…  The messenger tells Naaman that if he will go and wash in the Jordan River seven times, he will become healed of his ailment.  Naaman grumbles.  Not only is the Jordan River a pathetic stream compared to the wide, beautiful rivers of Syria, but what sort of pathetic quest is a bath?  Couldn’t Naaman, the great military general at least prove his strength or daring or mental acuity in order to be healed?

For a third time, a servant corrects Naaman (I’m almost surprised that more slaves and messengers and servants aren’t killed or banished in this story!), saying in verse 13, “Well, sir, if you had been told to do something super impressive, you would have dashed right off to do it.  Why not go do this super easy thing?  We might even get back home in time to catch the end of the football game!”  Naaman takes a deep breath–I think he must be a very patient, and exceptionally magnanimous nobleman of his time–and agrees with the servant.  He makes his way down to the Jordan River, he immerses himself seven times–which is the Biblical number which means “complete” or “total”–and Naaman’s skin is made, it says, “like the flesh of a little child.”  “As smooth as a baby’s bottom,” if you’ll pardon the saying so early in the morning.

Did you catch that?  Naaman is in danger of societal death, perhaps even bodily death, depending on how bad his leprosy was, and Elisha sends him to be baptized in the Jordan River, which heals him.  Naaman, the Syrian, the foreigner, is made healthy and whole again by command of a holy man and the application of a bit of water.

Naaman has borne the insubordination and the humiliation of being directed about by his slave, Elisha’s messenger, and a servant; he has submitted himself to the “easy” task of taking a bath instead of showing his might and earning his reward.  He returns to Elisha–Naaman himself goes up and knocks on the prophet’s front door this time–and says, “Indeed, now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel; now, therefore, please take a gift from your servant.” (v. 15)  Naaman still wants to make sure he pays his debts and doesn’t leave himself beholden to anyone.  He’s got a reputation to uphold, and he can’t let it get out that he’s dependent on this holy man for his healing.

Elisha can sense when he’s being bought off, and will have nothing of it.  He doesn’t want an offering with psychological strings attached, God’s power is not for sale, and nor is the truth of God’s healing to be silenced with gold.  Naaman has learned–he’s been brought very low throughout this experience, and catches himself where he’s gone wrong.  He changes his request, asking instead that he might have some soil from Elisha in order to build an altar that Naaman himself might use for his worship of the Living God when he goes back to his own land.  I imagine Elisha finally smiled and nodded.

Naaman finally realized what the slave girl and the messenger and the servant had learned long ago because of their necessarily vulnerable place in society: you cannot do anything to insulate yourself from God.  Naaman tries to use his impressive strength and mind, desiring a more demanding cure, and then tries to use his money–all to keep God at arm’s length.  He finally learns that whether he pledges 2% or 55% to God, none of it is close to a repayment of the life that God, through the Jordan River, has given back to Naaman.

What would you pay for your life being saved?  We pay plenty to doctors and car makers and insurers and our government for protection, safety, and insulation from danger or dangerous circumstances.  God, through Jesus Christ, has saved us from eternal death.

Have you come back to Jesus’ feet, glorifying God and praising him with a loud voice?

Architectural Assumptions

What does the architecture of a worship space tell us about the builder’s beliefs about baptism?  –in the case of these two lovely places, it tells us a lot (I’d argue that any religious space will tell you a lot theologically, but that’s for another day).

St. Francis Chapel – Kanuga, North Carolina

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This humble little outdoor chapel almost made me cry when I came upon it early one morning.  Do you see the bridges leading over the creek from the congregational area to the altar?  One literally goes through water to arrive at the Eucharistic table.  We first experience baptism, the washing of our bodies that signifies the washing to which we submit our souls through Jesus’ sacrifice.  We then may approach the altar where we are fed, spiritually and in other ways, by Jesus’ sacrifice.  It’s really all about Jesus’ work–hence the cross you see over the altar.

…and another bit of architectural theology, from Minnesota (and the Roman Catholic Church).

Church of the Holy Spirit in St. Cloud, the parish from which my great-grandma was buried this May, has had a significant impact on my understanding of liturgical theology (half is this, explained here, and the other half will wait for another time).

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This is their baptismal font.  Do you see how it’s clearly meant to be used by adults as well as babies?  This piece of furniture will make the baptizan wet.  They will be drenched, if they kneel on the rock underneath the water flow.  It’s at least better than a sprinkle, and more significant still that this parish built its object used for the entrance rite into Christian life to be used by both infants and grown ups.  What kind of assumptions have Christians made in the past when baptismal fonts became little marble bowls?