Sunday, October 23, 2011

Our story: Baptism and the Baptismal Covenant

I was back in the pulpit today after a few weeks away.
Today's lesson is based on Matthew 22:34-46.

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The last few weeks you may have noticed that all of our sermons have touched on our baptismal covenant. And you may have noticed that each Sunday, instead of saying the Nicene Creed, we have been renewing our Baptismal covenant. 
Today is my turn, and next week Margaret Mohrmann will wrap up this theme.
I’d like to begin by asking you to turn to the Book of Common Prayer page 304 and take a moment to look at the baptismal covenant.  
You will notice it comes in two parts; the first half is a restatement of the Apostle’s Creed, and the second half is a series of promises. 
Please notice something else: It is not a statement of doctrine. 
It is a story
Here is what doctrine sounds like: “There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, visible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute.” 
That is from the Calvinist “Westminster Confession” of faith written in 1646, and foundational to the Presbyterians. It has 33 chapters, ending with a jolly sounding chapter entitled “Of the Last Judgment.” Be glad you don’t have to memorize this in a confirmation class here. 
That is doctrine because it is a description of the nature and qualities of God and the terms and conditions to be saved by God. 
But we don’t have a confession of faith; we have a story. 
Our baptismal covenant is how we make the ancient story our own story. The story begins with a summary of the Bible – the creation of the universe by God; and the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; and how Jesus goes to the very depths of hell itself to rescue us; and then the story of the Church, ignited by the Holy Spirit, and bringing forgiveness and new life. 
We call this “catholic,” a word meaning “universal,” making this story a declaration that all of us are included regardless of church brand. 
If you are stumbling over the words “I believe,” there is a more ancient understanding of the word “believe” than attesting to a set of facts. 

The ancient definition of “believe” is to say, “I am in relationship” with the story, and therefore this ancient story is my story, too. 
We enter into the story through our baptism, and through the promises we make for living into the baptismal story in a very particular way: 

We pledge to continue journeying with each other in the tradition of all those who came before us – we call them apostles, and there are many down through history into our own time. 

We pledge to gather in fellowship, in joy and sorrow, in the breaking of the bread, and we pledge to always pray together. 
We pledge to resist evil, and when in our own arrogance we turn away from God, we pledge that we will “repent” by turning back to the way of our baptism – the way of God. 
We pledge to proclaim our life in Christ through our own words and actions. There is an old Franciscan expression for this: “Preach the gospel, and only when necessary, use words.” Actions speak louder than words. 
We pledge to walk with Christ by loving our neighbors as ourselves, by working for justice and peace by respecting the dignity of every human being, and especially those who live on the margins, and especially those whom we have the most difficulty. 
It is a tall bill this baptismal covenant. 

We say we will do it “with God’s help,” and how else could we do that except with God’s help? 
We baptize young and old alike, babies and adults; people who are beginning life, people in the prime of life and people who come to the story late in life. 
When we baptize babies and children, we are affirming loud and clear that they, too, are part of this epic story of God’s people, and we carry these pledges for our children until they are old enough to carry these pledges for themselves. 
We enter into this story with our whole being. We call this a “sacrament” because we experience everything through our human senses – our touch, our hearing, our taste and our sight. 

We have no other access to the Holy except through the humanness of our physical senses.
God made our bodies good, and that goodness allows us to experience the divine, and that makes us sacramental beings. 
We use the physical outward elements of water, bread, wine, words, music, and prayers, to give us entry – a window if you will – into the sacred presence that is inside all of us, surrounds us and connects us to the holy – and to each other. 

St. Thomas Aquinas once said that we are not souls inside a body, but bodies inside a soul. By that he meant that our souls are connected to each other and to God in ways that we can’t describe, but in ways we can touch, see and hear through sacraments. 
When we baptize people we are saying through physical symbols that God is already at work in them. 

We are also doing something more – we are welcoming the newly baptized into the “household of God” – the Body of Christ. We are declaring that this household of God needs everyone, of every age and every gift, and no one will be excluded. 
It is true that religion, faith and belief is an intensely personal thing. You believe what you believe, you journey where and how you will, and it doesn’t get more personal that that. 

Yet the religious experience is more than personal. It is about all of us experiencing the divine together as a sacramental community. When I falter, when I doubt, when I cannot pray, I rest assured in knowing you will do that for me. I cannot do this alone, and neither can you. Faith is personal, but it isn’t private. 
We come together around this Holy Table to be connected to each other in the sharing of the bread and wine, and hearing once again the story of salvation that is our story. 
The Church has long taught that baptism is the gateway to the other sacraments, including the Holy Eucharist, and that is true. 

But as you may know, in this parish we welcome all who enter these doors to share in the bread and wine of our Holy Eucharist. We invite everyone who is drawn here to bring with them their faith, their doubts, the longings of their hearts, their brokenness and wounds, and their hopes and joys, and bring all of that to this feast of the divine. 

We don’t check baptismal certificates at the railing because Jesus didn’t check the certificates either. Nor does it matter if you’ve led a saintly life or a sinner’s life, or both. 

Yet the Holy Eucharist finds its fullest meaning in baptism. It is not so much that baptism is a ticket to the table, as it is that coming to the table is an expression of the fullness of baptism. Everything we do emanates from the center of our baptism. That is why the baptismal font is placed in the center of the church and why symbolically you pass by it on your way to the Holy Table. 
It may be that coming to this table may lead you to baptism, and I know many people for whom that is true. 

They asked to be baptized precisely because they had been welcome share in the Holy Eucharist. 
Gathering at this table, Sunday after Sunday, is foundational to living fully into the promises of our baptism. 

How do we live fully the sacramental life of our baptism? There are many ways, many techniques, many practices, yet all of them come down to what you hear this morning proclaimed by Jesus in the gospel lesson from Matthew: 

“ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” 
To love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves is to write our story differently than we might have otherwise – to live a life of giving to others motivated not by guilt but by love.
Think of giving itself as a sacramental action. 
Giving is not just about pledging money to the church, though I hope you do. Giving is really about leading a life that is marked by generosity in all that you do, in your daily life, in your home, in the classroom, in your work, in your church, and everywhere you go and with everyone you meet. 

How? With God’s help; by finding your passion for how God is calling you to build a world brimming with love and generosity, and then following your passion wherever God leads, and writing your story large.

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