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Sermon: I'm No Cradle Episcopalian!

Sermon preached Epiphany I: Baptism of Our Lord at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill, Alexandria on Jan. 13, 2013.

First Sunday after Epiphany; Year C (RCL): Isaiah 43: 1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8: 14-17; Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22.

I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.


You've probably heard it.  Maybe you've even said it.  “I am a cradle Episcopalian.”  I'd like to suggest that we stop using that descriptor in our church, because in that, I hear just a hint of pride and a smidge of superiority. That statement could inadvertently create barriers to any visitor feeling fully and warmly welcomed to the Episcopal Church.  Seekers showing up at our door, wondering if our Church might become their spiritual home, don’t need to hear others boast about how long they've been members.  It could suggest there are expectations one must meet to be fully included in our flock. 

Now we all know that's not true.  And I don't know about y'all, but I’m no cradle Episcopalian!

In 1965, my father, who was a Navy aviator, came home after a long time at sea when we were based in East Greenwich, RI and whisked my older sister, brother and me off to nearby St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.  I was seven years old when I was baptized and could not remember church playing a huge part in my life, or in the life of my family before that time.  We would sometimes attend Protestant services offered on base, but we had no real church home.  I learned later that my father’s impulse to ‘get back to church and get right with God’ came after he had my lost men in his squadron during the last deployment.  He found the content of his condolences letters to wives and families lacking any kind of comfort or hope for life after death.

During my discernment process, I was curious if anyone cared that I was not baptized as an infant.  But, in fact, it never came up.  During that time, people were more interested in whether I had any inkling I would be called from an active ministry as a lay person into a new and wonderful kind of ministry as deacon and then priest?  No, I didn’t.  But I believe God spoke into my heart, with the Holy Spirit stirring my very being, beginning at my baptism and later on in life, which prompted me to audibly articulate for myself what God intended of me, and how God might use me further. 

I wonder if any adult being baptized has stopped to think that Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan when he was older, around age 30.  Granted, he was the Word, the Son of Man, incarnate of God, manifest in the flesh and lived here on earth.  I guess Jesus could claim being ‘cradle God,’ yet his baptism came later in life before beginning his ministry among us.

I take particularly great delight in seeing older children or adults commit their lives to Christ and to walk more closely in God's Kingdom after they have been baptized.  Chrissie and I have friends where the father was churched and his wife was an atheist, even though her devout grandmother had tried to raise her in the faith regardless of her belief or lack thereof.  Following the birth of their 2nd child, which included a time of unemployment that led to filing for bankruptcy, and basically hitting rock bottom, she came to find hope in her life and realized they had something to believe in which was bigger and better than themselves.  As Bonnie, Elizabeth & Nicholas were all baptized, I cried quietly while Chrissie wept great tears of immense joy.

Today’s Old Testament lesson talks about the voice of God and how as guardian, God protects us from physical forces that seek to destroy our spiritual selves.  What powerful words those are to proclaim God's loving care and encompassing protection.  Isaiah has such wonderful language.  “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”  We actually hear ‘I love you!’  God shares with us that unadulterated, unabashed, unrelenting, unembarrassed, and yet undeserved love, and we gladly receive these as God’s words to us.  You are loved.  You are my Beloved.  With you, I am well pleased.  The psalmist also speaks a joyful word about refuge in, protection of, and provision from a God who loves us so.  This language leads directly to the claim that we are baptized into the family of God.  Indeed, we are born into it and accept our membership in it through Baptism.

The account from Acts has Peter and John visiting the people of Samaria to pray they receive the Holy Spirit after being baptized by Philip.  The laying on of hands by the apostles suggests initiation into the Body of Christ is not a ‘once and done’ proposition, but rather that maturation in the Christian faith is a ‘process,’ where the commissioning, naming and claiming is a time where we step into that special relationship of ‘you are mine, and I am yours.’  We are beloved children, of infinite worth and favor, who are shaped by prayer.  Note Jesus had been baptized and is praying as the Holy Spirit descends upon Him.

            Baptism is a sacrament of initiation and incorporation.  The Jewish people escaped slavery in Egypt by crossing through the Red Sea; they received the Promised Land by passing through the Red Sea waters.  Our faith remembers and celebrates the escape from captivity and receiving new life by passing through the waters of deliverance and redemption.  The Waters of Baptism are the outward and visible sign of that inward and spiritual grace.

When we step into the waters of Baptism, it is with the hope that we will be cleansed: heart, mind, body, and soul, and that that which is broken will be made whole.  When Jesus stepped into the River Jordan to be baptized by John, he brought his whole, perfect, human and divine self into those same mucky waters where some before him had been cleansed.  Jesus, in those waters, stepping into the filth of our existence to join us in that, is then affirmed by God above as beloved, as one in whom God is well pleased.

Washing is how we are cleansed from our sins and brokenness.  Everything that happened to Jesus lets us know that, after the washing of water, the Holy Spirit descends upon us from the heights of heaven, acknowledges us as children of God, having been named by the voice of the Father Creator and pronounced as God’s beloved.

Baptism is not just water on its own, but it is water used according to God’s command and is linked to God’s Word.  That Word, which was given from the Word made flesh, Jesus, is recorded in Matthew 28: 19, said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  And what that command offers us through an element of this world and the Word of God is the forgiveness of sins, which saves us from death and Satan, granting eternal blessedness to all who believe, as the Word and promise of God declares.  This cleansing allows for the old Adam in us, which knows daily sorrow and the need for repentance, to be drowned, and then calls forth a new person in Christ who rises up in righteousness and purity, to live forever before God.

God’s reconciling humankind to God begins in the River Jordan, but is not complete until the Passion of the Cross at Calvary and the Resurrection, leaving the tomb empty and the power of death conquered.  God’s promise is to be with us, to go where we go, and to remain among us.  At Baptism, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus.  At the Cross, Jesus yielded up his spirit.

I have to give a hat tip to my fellow clergyman and former mentor; John Weatherly of St. Mark’s, Alexandria on South Kings Highway where I did my Mid-Atlantic parish training two summers ago.  John put before me some wonderful words from William Porcher DuBose, a chaplain in the Confederate army, who helped found the University of the South at Sewanee after the Civil War.  DuBose wrote:  “God has placed forever before our eyes, not the image, but the very person of the Spiritual Man.  We have not to ascend into heaven to bring him down nor to descend into the abyss to bring him up, for he is with us, and near us and in us.  We have only to confess with our mouths that he is Lord and believe in our hearts that God has raised Him from the dead and by raising us in Him, that we too shall live.”

Later today, three young people and two adults will be presented to +Bishop Shannon for Confirmation or Reception.  I understand some were baptized as babes, but I believe they are all children of God.  From their birth.  Regardless of their family's knowledge or concept of God, they were already claimed by God, pronounced as His Beloved, and were being prepared for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Adoption through the waters of baptism or the laying on of hands in confirmation and reception are times of God's grace becoming more manifest in our own lives.

Cradle Episcopalians who have never tried another way to worship might learn something more from those who have chosen the Episcopal Church, for they are “Episcopalians by choice.”  It suggests they have thought carefully and prayerfully about how this this church supports their theology and informs their spiritual practices and needs.  The National Church estimates that half the parishioners in any Episcopal parish are ‘Episcopalians by choice.’  Perhaps I should ask:  How many here today were raised in a different denomination or religious tradition?  I can tell you I have deliberately worshipped in many churches in our diocese and I am delighted to say that because of the differences among them and because of their similarities, I am an ‘Episcopalian by choice.’

In any regard, we should remember that we are all equal in the eyes of God, and are here now worshipping together at Immanuel.  When you introduce yourself to others in the faith, start with “I am a Christian” and then describe how you chose to worship in the Episcopal Church.  Listen to the stories others tell of why they chose this parish, this denomination, this tradition, as the community in which they will live out their faith in Jesus Christ.  Sharing our stories with one another builds community and deepens our personal and corporate faith.  Let us open wide our arms and cradle close all the children of God.  This is what our baptism tells us to do.