The Very Rev. Tom Callard – May 26, 2019
I want to start off sharing something I heard last week in Alexandria, Virginia, where I went to church on Sunday. The priest shared this story: There was a woman, someone he knew, who was driving at an intersection, and it was one of those intersections that everyone in the church seemed to know. It was one where you’d just wait and wait and wait for the traffic to clear and then suddenly you’d have an opening of like 10 seconds to get through, and if you didn’t make it, you’d have to wait again.
And so this woman was at the intersection and she was the second in line behind a car that had not been moving. It was just stuck there, it had been waiting there for a while. And the woman could see that the driver was looking down at their phone. And so she did what you do. She gave a gentle tap on the horn to say – you can go now, don’t look at your phone. But the person in the car just sat there.
So it happened again- there was a big opening and the driver just sat there, and the woman this time laid on the horn, and she accompanied the horn with some words and some gestures, with her hand out the window. And she really let them have it, let them know what she was thinking. And suddenly, from nowhere, a cop pulled up behind her, and told her to make a turn and instructed her to pull over. And so she did and stopped her car and the police officer got out and went up to her. And she rolled down the window and the police officer asked for her license and registration, and then went away, and after a few minutes came back.
And the police officer said -do you know why I pulled you over. And the woman said – well I was a little animated at the intersection. And the officer said, I actually saw you do those things in your car and I heard what you said. And I saw “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” bumper sticker on the back of your car, and I thought the car must be stolen. Because I know a Christian wouldn’t do those things.
And so I thank that nice priest from last week for loaning me this story to help us think about being Christian and what being Christian means. And it’s a great day to do that because we are baptizing people. And so what does this thing mean, that we are Christians and baptized and part of the body of our Lord. What does it mean that we are grafted unto these people who are sitting next to you and people from all over the world, and we are marked as Christ’s own forever.
Perhaps many of you were children when you were baptized. And you came to the church as babies in the arms of your parents or godparents. Or perhaps you were slightly older, like the young girl we are baptizing at 10. Or perhaps you were like me. I was 27 when I was baptized, and I actually remember it pretty well. Of course as the years go by, the memories get dim. But I do remember the day of my baptism.
I remember clearly there was a before and an after. And in the before I was not baptized and I stood in front of the priest and the congregation at Christ Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and my family and my godparents were there. And then something happened, and it involved water, and suddenly I was baptized. I was marked as Christ’s own, and I was given a candle. And we went home and ate cake.
But what happened when I became a Christian? What was that moment like? I couldn’t say there was a noticeable change between the before and after. I hope we’re not waiting for a noticeable change today. A dove did not come down from the sky to herald my arrival into Christ’s kingdom. The voice of God did not come down to say: this is my beloved, listen to him. No one was listening to me. I knew a couple at whose wedding, the moment the priest pronounced that they were husband and wife, there was a huge thunderclap right over the church. That did not happen at my baptism. And, judging by the sky today, it will not happen now.
It’s hard to say what marked that moment and what marks the instant you cross that line and become part of this. Because it’s not like you walk into a store and then you walk out again holding something new. It’s not like you walk into a car dealership, and you walk out with a new Ford. It is not a moment meant to fulfill our expectations or meet our understanding, for it is a moment of God.
I know, looking back that I wanted things for my baptism. I wanted, at the age of 27, for baptism to make me holy. But I didn’t get holy. I wanted, at the age of 27, for baptism to answer my questions about life and death and purpose and meaning. But I still have hose questions. I wanted, at the age of 27, for baptism to show me the face of God, whom I had sought since I was a child. But I did not get that. Instead I got cake.
So baptism, whatever else it is and however we might conceive of it, is not about something quick and immediate we get, nor is it about an immediate change in our perceptions. It is more than that. And in our collect this morning, we get insight into part of what baptism is, for in the collect we pray these words: O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding.
Baptism is something that surpasses our understanding. I know we come to church partly because we want a greater understanding of life. At least if you’re like me you look around and say: Lord, I’m looking at this world, I’m looking at my life, I’m looking at what people do and how they treat each other. And I can’t begin to understand it. Help me understand.
But this reminder today in the collect is that the things of God often surpass our understanding. We can’t really know God. Sometime this past week someone told me a story about a woman who was a person of means who built a huge house. And at the center of her house she put a huge statue of God, which was a representation of the divinity. It was right in the middle, in a courtyard, and it was about two stories high. And from the hallway going into the house you could see this statue, but you could only see the base. You couldn’t see the whole thing.
She built her house that way because that was her sense of God. That you could never see the whole picture, and that if you got just a glimpse of the base that you’d want to go further into the house.
And so if we believe, as the collect today says, that God has prepared for us these things which surpass our understanding, how are we going to get close to see them? How are we going to draw further into them and know what God has prepared for us? How are we going to hope to understand life and make sense of it and get to that statue and the presence of the divine, unless we have some route or direction to take.
And so what is baptism? Baptism is our route. It is our support to get to that thing there in the middle of the house that we only just barely see. Baptism is the house in which we dwell, and in which the divine dwells, to guide and support us in our quest.
Think of all the things we can do in life and all the ways we can possibly get to God. There are countless numbers of things to do, countless philosophies, theories, religions, pathways, books to read, podcasts to explore, gurus to follow. And perhaps many of them are good and will get you where you want to go. But we, by the grace of God, perhaps by custom or tradition or through our own self-determination, we have been put on this path. We have chosen this way. We are with Jesus. And his fellowship and his teachings. This is the boat on which we sail down the river.
We follow not just any random journey, but one that is pretty specific and clearly spelled out. To get to God, to get to the thing there in the middle of the house, we will continue doing what the apostles did, to teach, to gather, to break bread and to pray. We will struggle with all our might to resist evil, and when we do sin, we will repent. We will proclaim good news in a world where good news is not the norm. We will look for and serve Jesus in everyone in the world, and especially the poor and outcast. And we will strive to do justice and bring peace. And respect the dignity of all.
Sure, other things will get us there, but this is our path. This is what being baptized as a Christian means. Walking with Jesus. And with each other. And with those out there, from the doorway of the house where we can barely glimpse the divine within, going forward by doing all these things until we inch closer to God, and little by little complete the mission that is our life.
Of course, once we have done these baptisms today, once this thing has happened, who knows what these folks will do. Just like with all of us. Who knows how we’ll act, what of our Christianity we will accept and practice and what we will choose to ignore, what we will pick up and what we will put down over the course of life.
But at least we know it. We’ve got a sense of it there before us. We know what the ideal is. And somewhere within us, and within every baptized Christian there is written on our hearts and sealed on our souls these words we’ll say today, “You are marked as Christ’s own forever.” Look within. Can you see it ithere? Somewhere in you it says, “You are Christ’s.” So it’s not just chaos and randomness and evil in this world. There’s always a way, and a truth, and a life.
All of us at one time or another have not lived up to what is written on the bumper stickers of our car. Which is why I refuse to put bumper stickers on my car. But at least we know better. And Jesus will always give us a way to try better. Baptism is the way.