Baptism of our Lord (First Sunday after the Epiphany): January 12, 2014
Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
We are honored this morning to have with us representatives from our sister parishes in the Indaba process. This past fall we embarked on this partnership, where we have been placed in community with two other parishes from our Diocese – the Haitian Congregation of the Good Samaritan, which worships in the Bronx, and Christ Church of Sparkill, in Southeast Rockland County. Throughout the day yesterday we enjoyed good conversation, good food, and good fun with our new friends, as we introduced them to life at St. Michael’s Church.
This morning members of these congregations are joining us in worship, and the clergy of these two parishes, The Rev. Tom Faulkner and The Rev. Sam Owen, will concelebrate the Eucharist with Mother Liz. After the service, our Indaba partners will be with us for coffee hour and a special forum in the Gray Lounge. I hope you will join us.
Through this Indaba process we are building community, and imagining ways we might support one another as members of the diocesan household. It has been a joyful experience for all of us, and I look forward to the fruits it will bear for not only our parish communities, but also for the Diocese of New York. Stay tuned!
This morning, I am remembering my grandmother Marguerite Ward Smith, probably the greatest person I have ever known. She was a woman with a heart full of love. She loved her large family in many, many ways, but most especially through cooking.
I think the thing she loved most was having her family gathered around the table (or several tables—when you include all the children, grandchildren, great grand-children and spouses there were well over 40 of us).
I grew up in Texas, so that table was filled with good Southern cooking. I remember crispy pan-fried chicken, tender, cut-with-your-fork roasts, and, always, wonderfully fluffy biscuits. And there was always more than enough—my grandfather said that if there weren’t leftovers, that meant that somebody probably didn’t get as much as they wanted. It’s no wonder I still overeat today…
But it was not just her cooking that endeared her to us. She knew how to tell a story, but also how to hear yours; her words and her listening let you know you were loved, as did her warm hugs and kisses. And she also knew how to laugh in a way that let you know she didn’t take herself too seriously.
Grandmommy—that what we all called her—is certainly one of my primary role models in life. Her generosity of spirit and her overflowing love offered to me an example of God’s incarnate love, and I try each day to live up to her example.
She was a good Christian woman, raised in the Methodist Church and later being alternately a Methodist or a Baptist, depending on which church in their small town needed her and my grandfather the most. I know that Grandmommy intentionally lived her life as a disciple of Christ. But if you had asked her what made her so full of love, I’m not sure she would have had much to say.
Yet I know that I am not the only person who thinks of her as an example to follow. You see, it wasn’t what she said that made her so great; it was what she did. Her life spoke for her.
I remember her today not only because of her importance in my life, and because she would have celebrated her 100th birthday this past December 23, but especially as I consider the focus of this day: Baptism. You see, Grandmommy is an example of what it means to dedicate oneself to living into our common heritage as members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and taking on the mantle of an inheritor of the kingdom of God.[i]
Our catechism tells us that all of the sacraments—Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Ordination, Marriage, Penance, and Anointing—are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.
And baptism, perhaps more than any of the other sacraments, reminds us of the meaning of this important theological tenet: Grace is God’s favor toward us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.[ii]
Baptisms are always moments of great joy. Families gather together, get dressed up, and celebrate a momentous occasion in their lives. Whether we baptize babies, like Halle, Sophia and Alexander, or older children, like Allison and Gillian, or even adults, it is always a moment to celebrate the one being baptized and welcome them into the Church. We mark the entry of new members into our community, and parents, godparents, family, and especially church family promise to support these newest members as they grow and learn and discover their place in the Body of Christ.
And, like all of the sacraments, baptism is also a passage, a moment of transformation—in baptism, these five young people will become something new: Members of the Body of Christ, and, in particular, members of the St. Michael’s community.
This past week Mother Liz and I had the privilege of conversation with some of the parents of those being baptized about the meaning of this sacrament. It was truly a God-filled hour; it reminded me again what a great job I have!
One of the parents talked about responsibility of helping their kids live into their full identify as a children of God. In Baptism, we claim for those we baptize that identity as children of God.
Thankfully, this job of nurture is not one these parents must undertake on their own. God is supporting these children – and one important way God does that is through this church, through you. We all have a responsibility to these young people. In fact, in a few moments, Mother Liz will ask you if you will, “do all in your power to support [them] in their life in Christ.”[iii]
Now, before you answer that question, let’s think about what that means. Theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas says that Christians are called to be a community “capable of forming people with virtues sufficient to witness to God’s truth in the world.”[iv]
We gather here not just to make new friends, or to sing and worship, or even just to make ourselves better people. Our job is to help form each other. To work together to help each of us witness to the gift of God’s grace that we have received.
And that’s the Good News, my friends: We are not alone in this endeavor. We not only join together in this work today, but we are part of a great cloud of witnesses from the past, not only throughout the church, but specifically in the city, this Diocese, and this church itself. Think about it: people have been baptized on this very corner of Manhattan for over 200 years. I learned this week that among the thousands who were baptized in this very font was Norman Rockwell, the famous painter and illustrator of countless magazine covers! I know there are other notable folks who were baptized here as well—maybe some of you sitting in the pews today.
So who knows what these kids we baptize will become? They may become artists, known and loved by millions; they may become beloved, wise elders of a family clan like my grandmother. Whatever they become, it is our awesome responsibility to support and shape them as members of the family of God. And to support these moms and dads, too, as they go through the ups and downs of parenthood.
Today we are witnesses to the beginning of the journey for Gillian, Allison, Alexander, Sophia and Halle; wherever we are on our own journeys, we are fellow travelers.
There is still so much to see, so much to experience. With this morning’s baptisms, let us all recommit ourselves to each other’s formation as the Body of Christ, marveling at the grace of God who has put us together in loving community. And, in the words of the baptismal prayer, may we all have inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder at all of God’s works.[v] Amen.
[i] Catechism, The Book of Common Prayer, 1979. p. 858.
[iii] Rite of Holy Baptism, The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 303.
[iv] Hauerwas, Stanley, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982, p. 3), as quoted by Greg Garrett in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. p. 239
[v] Op cit., Rite of Holy Baptism, p. 308.