Epiphany 1 – Year B

Oh Lord, uphold Thou me, that I may uplift Thee. Amen.

Back in 1998, when I was still rector of St. Peter’s in Savannah , I used to meet with Henry Louttit, the Bishop of Georgia about a project I was working on for the Diocese. At that time, the Bishop had just returned from England and the Lambeth Conference where every 10 years bishops from the 37 provinces of the Anglican Communion gather for several weeks to study, pray and work together. I remember asking Bishop Louttit if he enjoyed his trip. He told me it was incredibly powerful to be in the midst of 750 bishops from around the world representing 70 million Anglicans across the globe. He said that during his time at Lambeth the bishops had been divided up into small working groups who would meet together everyday to pray and work and plan. These working groups were designed to be quite diverse composed of English, European, American, African and Asian bishops.

Over the course of the conference, the bishops would discuss many things. Frequently they would engage in theological and ethical debates. One morning one of the small groups was sitting around discussing issues such as human sexuality and whether or not there is a need for a new prayer book. The conversation was quite heated but there was one African bishop who remained very quiet. Finally, after about an hour he was asked for his opinion. Quietly and in broken English, the bishop explained that while these subjects were very interesting such debates were a luxury for him that he could not afford. He had other issues on his mind. When he was asked to elaborate, he said that as a Christian bishop in a small but very fundamentalist Muslim nation he had to decide whether or not he could condemn his people to death. Many of the local people, he explained, were coming to him wanting to be baptized, peasants and poor people living in rural villages. They brought their entire families, proclaimed their faith in Jesus Christ and begged the bishop to baptize them. However, the bishop knew that to do so might seal their fate. In his country, it was illegal to become a Christian. If someone was caught converting, they were often put to death for blaspheming Allah. To baptize an entire family might lead to all of them dying for the faith and this bishop explained he was not sure he was prepared to create martyrs. His people knew the risk of what they were asking for, they were not stupid, but they came anyway. They knew the cost of that water sprinkled on their heads and they wanted it anyway.

I think that is an amazing story, so strange, so foreign to all of us in the Western world. We baptize babies by the dozens and the most stressful things we have to deal with are – will the baby cry, can I get together the baptismal brunch, can we find a date that suits the entire family. For most of us baptism is this lovely and sweet ritual – harmless, benign, and seemingly without consequence. We take it for granted. If you are a Christian, baptizing your baby is just something you do but often it means little. All of us remember when we graduated from high school and college. All of us remember our wedding anniversaries, or at least our wives do, but how many of us know when we were baptized? Many of us can probably guess by just adding a few weeks or months from the day of our birth. However, have you ever seen your baptismal certificate? If you have, is it framed and hanging on your wall like your college diploma? Do you even know who it was who performed the ceremony? Do you understand yourself as fundamentally different because of your baptism? Baptism is just so easy, it seems to have such little cost and therefore it must also have little meaning.

“I think more of the place where I was baptized than the Cathedral where I was crowned. For the dignity of a child of God, which was bestowed on me at baptism, is greater than that of the ruler of the kingdom. The latter I shall lose at death, the other will be my passport to everlasting glory.” Emperor Louis IX, King of France .

What we do today and over fifty times in this church every year has immense implications. Whether we know it or not, whether we claim it or not, our baptisms signify that fence sitting has ended. The freedom of uncommitment is over. Wondering where you stand in life, confusion about who you are and who directs your life are no longer ambiguities. Allegiance is made public, and solidarity with others who profess Jesus Christ is made manifest. Our baptism is our epiphany, our showing forth, in response to God’s showing forth in Christ.[1] It means we belong to something bigger than family or even national alliances. We have been claimed as Christ’s own forever and given an invitation to new life.

A little girl dressed in her Sunday best was running as fast as she could, trying not to be late for Sunday school. As she ran she prayed, “Dear Lord, please don’t let me be late! Dear Lord, please don’t let me be late!” As she was running and praying, she tripped over the curb in front of church and fell, tearing her dress and skinning her knee. She got up, brushed herself off, and started running again. As she ran she once more began to pray, “Dear Lord, please don’t let me be late. . . But please don’t shove me either.”

Our God never shoves. We are loved and valued beyond measure but we are never shoved into anything. For many of us the power and personal implications of our baptisms sit and wait like an unopened invitation to the greatest of adventures. We can forget that this sacrament ever took place; we can minimize its significance and reduce it to a nice cultural event if we want to. God never forces us into anything. Rather, Christ stands always beside us inviting us to open up this invitation and claim our true identities. We are the children of God, members of the body of Christ and we have been given the power of the Holy Spirit to live our lives in ways we never imagined.

Many years ago a lady in a faded gingham dress and a man in a threadbare suit walked into the office of the President of Harvard University. They didn’t look like much and the President was a busy man. They explained that their son had attended Harvard for one year and had loved the University. However, he had been accidentally killed the year before and they wanted to erect a memorial to him somewhere on the campus. It is said that the President treated them rather poorly because of their appearance. He explained that while he was very sorry, the University was not in the business of putting up statues for every person who attended Harvard and died. While the couple tried to explain that they were not thinking of statues, the President quickly ended the meeting and politely sent them on their way. Mr. and Mrs. Leland Stanford returned to Palo Alto , California where they established the University that bears their name, a memorial to a son that Harvard no longer cared about.[2]

Be careful not to overlook that gift that lies in front of you. Be careful not to decide too quickly that was done for you in your baptism is of little significance. Sometimes the greatest gifts are free and much grander then we ever imagined possible. Atheists would say we leave this world much the same way we come into it – alone and anonymous. The gift of baptism says otherwise. Baptism says we are named and known by God, loved and empowered to live life as a disciple of Christ and promised that in the end not even death can separate us from the God of love. Amen.

[1] H. King Oehmig

[2] Ascribed to Malcolm Forbes.

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