Sermon: June 11 2017

Trinity Sunday
Baptism of Kathy P.

Audio link here.

Exodus 34:4-6, 8-9
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
[John 3:16-18]

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The fiery pillar materialises ex nihilo, and speaks, to Charlton Heston in Cecil DeMille’s 1956 biblical epic The Ten Commandments.

I am, I am, I am the Lord Thy God, names the voice before a prehensile stream of Oscar-winning special effects emerges from the pillar and etches into the mountainside some Bronze Age Phoenician Hebrew far beyond my palaeographical powers. And then the familiar slabs—those rectangles with rounded tops—are carved by the same supernatural flame, and Heston’s Moses reaches for them, and holds them in his own hands.

These are not the plates he now holds, of course. They lie crumbled at the bottom of Mt Sinai; God’s own work and writing smashed in the old prophet’s fury at his people’s faithless idolatry. His wrath burned hot and burned the golden calf and ground it into dust, and the people drank the dust mixed with water, and so the idol is transmuted into effluent waste.

Moses had to supply the slabs this second time around. But the Lord came again and stood with him, comes in the midst of us and takes us as an inheritance and utters that mystery of a name, a name that may or may not come from the verb to be, but has been received anyway as an indication that God just is. I am, I am, says the Lord. There is no why or how to the existence of God. There is, in other words, no purpose, no function, no point to God. God is in this way like number theory and the ballet, like poetry and musical theatre, none of which need to be useful to be essential. God is a gratuitous act, and therefore utterly free, free from our obsessions with utility and value, costs and benefits, and therefore free to love for no reason at all.

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And so, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity is most commonly and disastrously misunderstood in functional terms: the Father is for creating, the Son for redeeming, and the Spirit for sanctifying. God is thus defined in terms of what God does for us, which is almost laughably narcissistic, if not tragically idolatrous. The problem with modern idols—made of ideas rather than of gold—is that they cannot be so easily identified and expelled.

It is not our fault, of course. From all fronts, we are assaulted with our own objectification and commodification. Human beings have become human resources, to be evaluated based on our outputs and efficiencies. Cries of need are met at best with unfeeling mantras about balanced budgets and at worst with mocking talk of magical money trees. We are now perhaps known best by the mindless algorithms that extract data from our most popular avenues of self-expression; this data is then sold to the highest bidder, and thus we have become the products of the services we purport to use. It is no wonder that we don’t know how to be loved, that we are in perpetual states of anxiety about whether we belong, whether we are worthy so to do.

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity is the idea that at the heart of all things is a life that consists of nothing other than gratuitous love. Father, Son, and Spirit pour themselves out into one another without remain, holding nothing of themselves back for themselves: they therefore define one another, not by roles fulfilled but by love given and received, given and received, given and received, ever world without end.

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This then, is the name into which you, Kathy, are to be baptised, really the same name revealed to Moses so many mythic years ago.

This is the life into which you are to be baptised, a life of learning to be loved not for what you can produce or accomplish or what you look or sound like, but just because; because you were made by love for love.

Our job—the job of this congregation now gathered and of the Church throughout the world—is to help you with this learning, by loving you. Your baptism calls forth ours, in which we too were brought into this new life. And we are unspeakably privileged, from now on, to call you our own. Take seriously the promises we are making to you, Kathy: This will forever be your Church, and we will forever be your people. It will not matter how far away you go—though London is really not very far away—this will always be a home to which you can return. We will always have your back.

Your job is, like ours, to live out this calling to be in the world unencumbered by the trappings of life as it is typically known, the petty insecurities that fuel our narcissistic compulsions to assert ourselves, even to the detriment of others. This is, of course, the sense in which baptism is a kind of death: you will be drowned in the waters of baptism into the death of Jesus Christ, who gave up his life for the sake of the world. The life into which you then emerge is the life of his resurrection, which walks with strangers and breaks the barriers of fear and sits at table to truly know and be known.

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These are all glorious mysteries.
God the Father; God the Son; God the Holy Spirit.
The baptism by water and the name of God.
And you.
Amen.

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Sermon: October 30 2016 (All Saints Day + Baptism)

The Feast of All Saints (and baptism of Anne Barkham)

Daniel 7:1-3,15-18

Ephesians 1:11-23

Luke 6:20-31

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The communion of saints: communio sanctorum. That is—so the Catechism tells us—the sharing of holy things among holy people: not half bad as far as definitions of “the Church” go.

In the current fashion of democratisation, we are quick to insist that we are all saints, all holy people, all of us who have, in the waters of baptism, died with Christ and risen with him into new life. And of course we are. But this is not what the Feast of All Saints is about. It is, in the first place, not about the Church militant, those of us currently here on earth, faithful and feckless in equal measure, souls made both of wheat and tares. I mean, we would be very tall poppies indeed, if we dedicated a feast day to ourselves. Nor is it about all the Christians who have come before us: we have another celebration of that great cloud of witnesses, to which we too will one day all belong, the Feast of All Souls, which falls just one day after All Saints’ Day. 

And so it is that today, Anne is being initiated into the communion of saints—she is being made one of this holy people, who will share holy things—and yet, she is not among those we celebrate today every year. Today is about her, and yet not about her Or rather, it is about her and about who she, and we, are meant to be, whether or not we make it before our times are up.

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Who we are meant to be.

Love your enemies, he says, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.

Holy people who share holy things, unequivocally asked to live impossible lives that go against, if not our natures, then the cultures into which we are all born, that quid-pro-quo dog-eat-dog world in which revenge and meritocracy are confused for justice.

Give to everyone who begs from you; he says, and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Holy people who share holy things, and therefore share all things, as if those things were not our own to hoard because, well, they’re not our own to hoard. In baptism, we have been drowned, and the dead have no private property, no rights to withhold things from the needy: in the eucharist, even we ourselves are broken to feed others, even as we feed on everlasting life.

There can be no mistaking who we are called to be, who Anne is called to be: what saints look like.

I don’t know about you, but that’s not what I see when I look in the mirror.

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She’s a funny old thing, the Church. Invariably, we who are not saints nevertheless make saints: recognise them, canonise them. In an odd way, they are saints only because of us, only because we share with them this holy thing. And, of course, in a different way, we too are only here because of others: we were baptised, some of us as adults and others as infants, but always by someone else. One does not baptise oneself: there is no room for that kind of individualism in Christianity, that ethic of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps, the theological anthropology of Thatcher and Reagan (not to mention Rogernomics and Ruthanasia) that still infects us today like a bad jingle stuck ringing in our heads.

One does not baptise oneself, and this is because the Church is not made up of autonomous individuals who, having given informed consent, plunge into the waters of baptism as if bungee jumping on a Queenstown holiday. It is a mystery, even to the compos mentis, even to the most sober and reflective and well-read of theologians. In this way, those of us baptised as adults are really no better off than those received as infants. It may be clear to see who we are meant to be, but information does not in this case help us truly to know anything about the Christian life into which we are baptised.

One does not baptise oneself because the Christian life is not one to be lived alone, but with one another, in a community of mutual self-giving that nourishes each of us to nourish the world. We know the Christian life by living it together for the sake of others. There is no short cut available.

And so it is that we—you and me, those of us entrusted with Anne’s pastoral care and Christian formation, and those of us looking on—(we) will be making vows today too, to be their people, their holy people who will share with them holy things, that is, all things, denying them nothing they need, if ever needs should arise, and they will. Today, we will be making vows to have their backs, just as others have made vows to have our backs. We have no idea what this will mean, and neither do they: we are again, in this, the same, in the same dark, which for God is light, to whom the night is as bright as day.

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Anne, you may or may not always remember this day; days have their way of bleeding into each other, and our minds are fragile things. But that’s what we are for: we will remember, we will remember you, even if you decide some day to walk away from us, even if you decide to hate us and curse us, even then (though we would really prefer you didn’t), we will be your people, who will love you and withhold nothing from you. Holy people, sharing holy things: all of us, saints for your sake, so help us God.

Sermon: February 21 2016 (Baptism)

Baptism of Scarlet O’Keefe

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

— John 1:13

Scarlet, this is the most important day of the rest of your life. This is, I realise, a strange thing to say, seeing as you won’t remember any of it. You have not spoken your first words; nor have you taken your first steps. You have many birthdays to come; some will be more memorable than others. There are many milestones ahead. First day of school; first job; first home. First love, first heartbreak. Perhaps one day you will have a daughter of your own, and that will be a glorious day indeed. These will all be important days, to be sure—life changing ones, even—but still, none will be more important than this day, the day of your baptism.

Unlike all these other events, baptism does not change your life, so much as it gives you life: today, you will become truly alive. Actually, today your birth and your death come together. In baptism, you will be joined with Jesus in his death, and this means that you are also joined with him in his resurrection. You will be drowned, in the water of baptism, and be born again with life that flows from God’s abundant spring. (We don’t usually tell parents this before they have their precious babies baptised, but I figured I should be straight with you.) It is a mysterious thing, but I guess that is appropriate, because you, Scarlet, are a most wonderful mystery too.

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You might think it odd that this day, this event, should be in some sense about death. That sounds like a scary thing. And so it is: the Christian life, into which you are baptised, is no light and easy matter. We are told in no uncertain terms to give up our lives for the sake of others. The pattern of our lives is Jesus Christ, who lived and died for his enemies as well as his friends. This is to be the pattern of your life too. It is good to be clear and frank about this from the start, I think: Christianity is not a particularly cuddly religion. We’re out to change the world, and the world doesn’t particularly want to change.

But here’s the thing about the Christian life, impossibly hard though it is bound to be. It is, by definition, one in which you will never be left struggling on your own. To be baptised into the death and resurrection of Christ is to be adopted into God’s family, the Church.

You already have a family, of course: your mother is here, and she loves you with a love stronger than death. You probably won’t believe me when you’re a stroppy teenager; but it’s true. You already have a family, but in baptism, your family grows; as, indeed, did your mother’s, when she was baptised. We—those of us here today, and the Church more widely—are unspeakably privileged, from now on, to call you our own. And, just as we will always have your mother’s back, we will also always have yours.

This will forever be your Church, and we will forever be your people. It will not matter whether you have been a good girl, though of course—for your mother’s sake—you should be; our call is to always stand by you and walk with you. It will not matter how many times you leave from this place; it will always be a home to which you can return. Your baptism calls forth ours, in which we too were brought into this family, and became committed to one another for the sake of the world. God help us, then, that we keep our vows to share with you this life that we have been so blessed to receive.

Scarlet, this is the most important day of the rest of your life. And, you know, it’s pretty freaking important for the rest of us too.