Baptisms are a wonderful time for a parish, and Miss Lilly Hines has traveled a long way to be with us today, to become our newest member of the Body of Christ. Today she will be marked as Christ’s own forever.
Open your prayer books to page 308 and please notice that important sentence where we say: “Now you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ own forever.”
The last time we did a baptism, after the service, I felt a tug on my robe from one of the children who said, “I looked and looked, and I couldn’t find the mark.”
Surprised and not thinking very clearly, I said, “what mark?” To which she replied, “the mark you said was on the baby’s head after you washed it.” “Oh,” I said, “you mean Christ’s mark? Well, it’s there, and it won’t come off, even when you wash it. But you can’t see it.”
“How do you know?” she asked, skeptically.
“Because it grows up with us, and never leaves us. It is sort of like when a person gets lost and needs to send out a flare so we know where she is. God can always find us because of the mark.”
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Yes, I am sure. The way you can tell if the mark is there is by the way people live their lives and treat each other. I’m sure it’s there, but it took me a long time to be
Finally she said, “I know. It must be like when of those stamps those only shows up under the purple light. Do you think Jesus has one of those?”
“I’m sure he does,” I replied.
The mark that will rest upon little Lilly’s head will be eternal and invisible, but we pray it will make quite a difference in her life. Because she cannot see it on her forehead, we must tell her that it is there. Just as we have faith that Jesus will know her, so we promise to accept her, and to love her with a love that is holy and life giving. That is an incredible promise!
Of course, it is easy to make such promises to a cute, cuddly baby. It’s much harder to remember that promise when they turn 10, or 13, or 21, or 40, or 70. But the mark is still there. We promise to be there for each other when we’re babies, teenagers, parents, and grandparents. We promise to continue loving each other when we are mean, full of spite, gossip, and do hateful things. We promise not to desert each other but to stand with each other during all of life’s struggles. When we make mistakes, we promise to offer forgiveness. When we see someone in trouble, we promise to come to his or her aid. When we see someone in need we promise to help. And that is the holy promise sealed by God today for Lilly, but owned by each one of us. That is the Church at its best.
The rubrics in the service of Holy Baptism instruct the parents and Godparents to give the child to the priest. What you may not have noticed is that there is no instruction to give the child back! Once we are given to God, we are God’s, and so, when we encounter each other in vestry meetings, in church, at parties, in other groups, and find ourselves in conflict, we always must remember that the person across from us is just as much God’s as we are.
I have always hated this morning’s Gospel reading. I don’t like the way that Jesus treats his best friend Peter, and always—unintentionally—I find myself imagining being in Peter’s place. After all, Peter doesn’t seem to be doing anything that terrible that Jesus would turn on him and call him Satan. He just wants to protect Jesus from himself. He doesn’t want Jesus to suffer and die. He doesn’t understand why that has to happen. And so he says to Jesus, “As long as I’m around, you have nothing to worry about, I’ll protect you.” And Jesus says, “Your protection is not what I need, I need your life. I need you to pick up the cross, too.”
Some people think that to do something truly evil, you have to be some kind of Bengal tiger. In fact, it is enough to be a tame, tabby cat, a nicely-packaged citizen—safe, polite, obedient and sterile. It is enough to be a nice guy as opposed to being good. It’s the idea that as long as we do not make any waves, or cause any trouble, we are being good. Why do you think Saint Paul has shouted over the centuries to Christians like us: “Do not be conformed to this world”?
Conformity to the world is to be on the side of Satan. Satan doesn’t get people to do evil. He simply gets people to do nothing, and evil is allowed to exist. I don’t know anyone who gets up in the morning and says, “Gosh, what a wonderful day to do evil.” But I do know people who get up in the morning and try carefully to be as conformed to this world as they can, to not make waves, to not cause conflict, people who try to be more like Peter than Jesus.
For Christians, there are two kinds of crosses: the pretty ones we wear around our necks or keep in our churches, and the splintered, beat-up ones that we wear inside—bearing all the scars, hurts, and failures of our life. It is the inside cross that matters.
Every time I get in a Church meeting that is talking about doing something dangerous or controversial, I tend to react like Peter. We shouldn’t do that because it is far too risky or so and so will be upset. It’ll cause conflict. Immediately, I recognize that uncomfortable feeling that makes me want to run the Church as we would run a country club. We need to be on a firm financial footing, we need to not offend anyone, we need to be proper and respectable. In other words, we judge our success by the strength of our financial bottom line and not our spiritual bottom line. We conform to the world and not to the cross.
Whenever I read the Gospel, it is very hard for me to reconcile that feeling with the story of Jesus. I say I want to be a Christian, but I wonder how well I carry my cross into the world. I have great respect for the people who have just returned from Rwanda. It was a difficult and dangerous trip. Lots of us were afraid for them, and some of us tried to stop that mission trip because it was too dangerous or too expensive. Later in the year we will all hear about that journey carrying the cross, and I know you will be as proud as I am of these missionaries.
There is no carrying of the cross without risk. You don’t have to go to Rwanda to carry your cross. You can risk it right here at home. What it requires is living into the cross with all of its scandal, hurt, risk, and sacrifice. There is another side to it. Although carrying your cross may at first sound like a negative experience, it is the most positive thing you can do in your life, any day of your life. It enlarges your heart and offers us the opportunity to find meaning in life. It restores and builds relationships, and it gives us that joy and peace that surpasses all understanding. But it is not accomplished without risk or without the willingness to go into those places where we would rather not go. Because that is where we will find Jesus. Probably not as a shining, radiant presence, but rather as an ordinary good man or woman giving water to the thirsty, binding up wounds, comforting the lonely and visiting those in prison.
Lilly now bears upon her forehead that invisible cross which will bring her life. It is part of her resume from this day forward.
Krister Stendhal, the former Dean at Harvard Divinity School and retired Bishop of Oslo, Sweden, tells the story about a little boy who kept following his mother all around the house. Finally she stopped and asked, “Harry what do you want?” The little boy replied, “Nothing, I just want to be where you are.” That is what carrying the cross is all about: wanting to be where Jesus is because that is where life begins. Whether you are with friends, or at work, or on the street, carrying your cross is getting to where Jesus is. When we do that, then everyone can see upon our foreheads the mark that was imprinted at our baptisms. Lilly, if she is lucky, will spend the rest of her life trying to be where Jesus is, and so should we.