Sermon – Trinity 20, 2020

I was listening to the Mockingbird podcast this week, and the host quoted from an online newsletter called “The Unfurling,” written by a woman called Mo Perry.  In this article, Perry talks about the strange times we are living in, and how it has affected us.  She says: “Everyone is doing their own calculus when making their choices about how to live these days. Some have concluded — by evaluating their personal risk factors and interpreting the news headlines and local public health stats — that they don’t want to go into shops or walk outdoors in crowded areas. They want to get their groceries and other essentials delivered, stay in, and minimize contact with others. 

Others have looked at their own constellation of factors and needs, and come to different conclusions. There’s a huge spectrum of ways people feel about the right balance between sensible precautions and what they need to do for their own economic, mental, physical, and relational wellbeing. 

It seems to me that the vast majority of us are trying to navigate our individual circumstances as responsibly as possible, even if one person’s idea of what that looks like for them is different from another’s.  

The virus is one thing that can hurt us, but there are others. Fear, shame, loneliness, anxiety, depression, poverty, isolation…I posed this question on Facebook and Twitter: “Do you feel like you have to hide (or are less inclined to share) pleasurable or fun activities you do outside your home?” The answers were striking. The folks who said no all explained that they’re not doing anything risky, so they have nothing to hide.

A lot of other folks said yes. And the reasons they gave were only partially about [being] risk-sham[ed]; they also mentioned wanting to be seen as appropriately somber in these dark times.

All this seems to add up to a new relationship we’ve communally developed with social media. It’s a place we go to demonstrate our goodness, display our adherence to the rules, and show our fealty to the approved positions on social issues.

Our real lives — the parts that are messy, fun, joyful, playful, morally ambiguous, less than perfectly ethically vetted — stay in the shadows.”

I have to admit I’ve felt this way a bit myself about coming to church.  I find myself avoiding talking about coming to church, in case the person I’m talking to disapproves of the risk I’m taking in being here with all of you.  I was particularly struck, though, by what Mo Perry said about people avoiding posting on social media about doing fun things.  They “want to be seen as appropriately somber in these dark times.”  How appalling!  

This made me think in a new way about the church calendar; the rhythms of feasting and fasting, joy and sorrow we in the church repeat, year after year.  So often that is out of step with what the world is doing.  Think about the dark and sombre tone of Advent, while all the world has begun their Christmas celebrations soon after the Halloween decorations come down!  Or think of the heaviness of Lent, and the grief of Holy Week, when outside the world is turning the corner from winter to spring.  We march to the beat of a different drum in the Church.  We always have.

So I think it entirely appropriate that despite a worldwide pandemic, we choose to come to church.  With our masks on, certainly.  And squirting hand sanitizer every time we turn around, but nevertheless.  We are here.  We are singing, “Praise to the Lord! who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth!”  And next week, on the Feast of All Saints, we will welcome another person into the church through the waters of baptism!  Now there is something to brag about on social media!

Through the circuitous pathways of the internet I recently came upon a video clip from the 1973 film version of the musical Godspell.  Is anyone familiar with this?  I had never heard of it until this year.  Apparently it was put on again this summer as a musical theatre, because it is one of the few musicals which can be done with the actors maintaining social distance from one another.  But anyway, there are clips of the songs from the 1973 Godspell on Youtube.  One of these clips is from the beginning of the musical:

The scene is a city in summer.  People are going about their business.  Then you hear a voice from far away singing, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”  Most people don’t seem to hear, but some do.  They instantly drop whatever they were doing, and start searching for the voice, which carries on singing, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”  The people start shedding their burdens as they run toward it: a man leaves his taxicab; a woman drops her shopping bags on the street; a librarian abandons her books!  Then we see the singer.  He’s dressed like a cross between a clown and a hobo.  He’s standing in the middle of a fountain in a park, holding the hand of an angel statute! and singing out, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”  The people arrive, and with joyous abandon dive into the fountain with him.  They are splashing one another and laughing and singing, as they stand under the falling water, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”

I have to admit, this video stopped me in my tracks.  Whatever else we might say about the artistic licence Godspell takes in portraying Matthew’s Gospel, this is such a beautiful, joy-filled depiction of baptism.  The response to the call, the shedding of burdens, the joyful acceptance, and the child-like exuberance of it.  Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “We are fools for Christ.”  Godspell takes this to heart.  After the people are baptized, for the rest of the film, they are dressed like crosses between children and clowns, complete with facepaint and puppets.  Fools for Christ indeed.

I’ve found myself seeing and hearing and reading more about baptism in the past few weeks than I think I ever have in my life.  During Evening Prayer the last month or so, we have been reading from St. Basil, Bishop of Caesarea’s treatise “On the Holy Spirit.”  St. Basil wrote this in the 4th century as a defence of the Trinity, and particularly of the Holy Spirit, against the Arian heresy.  Part of his argument for the co-equal divinity of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son is that Christians have always been baptized in the name of all three Persons of the Trinity.  

I like St. Basil’s style.  He rocks the rhetorical question.  In chapter 10 of his treatise he says, “Whence is it that we are Christians? Through our faith, would be the universal answer. And in what way are we saved? Plainly because we were regenerate through the grace given in our baptism. How else could we be? …For to me my baptism was the beginning of life, and that day of regeneration the first of days.  And I thought, isn’t it lovely that we do this for our babies!

What is baptism for?  Near the end of the Prayer Book, there are the 39 Articles of Religion.  Article 27 is about baptism.  It says baptism:

  1. Is a sign of profession
  • and a mark of difference, whereby Christians are discerned from those who are not.
  1. BUT it is also a sign of regeneration and new birth,
  • whereby they that receive baptism rightly are grafted into the Church.
  1. It is the visible sign and seal that God has promised us forgiveness of our sin, and has promised us adoption to be the children of God by the Holy Spirit.
  2. In baptism, our faith is confirmed,
  • and grace is increased by virtue of prayer unto God.

So let’s break this down.  What does this mean?  Well, according to Greg Goebel, writing for The Anglican Compass, “It means that baptism is not something we do, it is something God does in and for us.”  That is also how the early Church, and St. Basil and the other defenders of the Nicene Creed, saw this sacrament.  “The Church was given baptism as the way in which Christ commanded us to bring in new Christians. Therefore, Anglicans accept a baptized person as a Christian and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ.

This can be confusing.  It sounds as if Anglicans believe that the act of Baptism gives the Church or the priest the power to save people. And yet we believe with the rest of the Christian Church that only God saves.

It can seem as if this church believes that the water of baptism is magical salvation water, which if poured, provides a kind of “fire insurance” for salvation in which the baptized now have a claim on God’s grace that he is forced to honour. 

But here is what really happens.  In Baptism, faith is not created in the baptized, in this case Sophia, but it is confirmed by our community. In baptism, grace is not created, but increased by prayer. This demonstrates that while we, the Church, are to welcome new Christians through baptism, and to treat baptized people as Christians, even to associate regeneration and forgiveness with it, we do so while at the same time leaving the origin or presence of faith and grace in God’s hands.

When we baptize, we trust in the mercy and grace of God and his promise of forgiveness of sins.”

Baptism, with Communion, is one of the two sacraments, or physical means of God’s grace in our lives, that we should not do without, pandemic or no pandemic.  Why is this so important?  because we were slaves to sin, as Jesus said in this morning’s Gospel lesson.  “I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever.  So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”  In baptism, Christ puts his seal on us, and the Holy Spirit comes upon us.  We are no longer slaves to our sinful natures.  We are free, and adopted into God’s family, the Church.  That is worth taking risks for, even if that risk is merely that someone might disapprove of us on social media.

When Sophia is baptized, we as her community take responsibility for her.  We speak for her, and make promises to God on her behalf, until she can speak and make promises herself.  God promised this, you know, long ago for each of us, and for Sophia.  We heard God’s promise in the first lesson from Jeremiah the prophet: “The days are coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall each man teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, and I will remember their sin no more.”  This new covenant is the one God makes with us through Jesus.  And our baptism is the signing of it.  Paul tells us this in Romans.  We cannot come to God through our own work, but only through faith in Jesus’ work on the cross.  When we baptize Sophia, Jesus marks her as his own, not because she has earned this, but because he has.  And we who bear witness affirm our own faith in Jesus’ gift.  Like the characters in Godspell, we “renounce the devil and all his works, and the vain pomp and glory of the world,” and turn, once again, to follow Christ in faith.  

It’ll be worth it, I promise!  Amen.