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Sunday, May 20, 2007

A Baptismal Love Letter

“. . . .that they all may be one.” John 17:20-26
A Baptismal Love Letter to Madeline and Nolan
Easter VII – May 20, 2007 – The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

Dear Madeline and Nolan,

I’ve just returned from spending a day and a half at the wee cottage we own on Rehoboth Bay in Delaware. The weather has been particularly harsh on our property this winter and early spring, and I had to be present while some work was being tended to by the repairmen.

I am never bored in that place, but this time of year in particular, Mother Nature puts on quite a performance. Indeed, it’s hard to get any work done. It’s amazing to watch life return to the marshes around the Bay. The Sea Gulls are always there – the Fred Sanford’s of the Waterways, I call them.

Your parents may remember the character Fred Sanford from the old TV show ‘Sanford and Son’ (It Was ‘Steptoe and Son’ in the original British comedy), about a junk man and his son who scratch out a life together in the junk yard.

The Gulls remind me of Fred – they are always on the lookout for treasure that was carelessly tossed aside or left behind, ready to swoop down and claim it as their own. (“Mine! Mine! Mine!” they cry in the animated film ‘Finding Nemo.”)

The Cormorants are due to return any day. These ‘sea birds’ are magnificent to watch as they swoop down and pluck out a long, slender, black eel from the marsh water, gulping it down in midair as they wing their way back to their tree top nests to finish their meal and then, later, feed their young.

I always say a silent prayer of thanks for their ridding the water of another ugly eel – one less for me to worry about when I’m fishing off the pier. (Euwwwh!)

The White Cranes and the Blue Heron will also soon return – hanging out in the shallow waters of the marsh, looking like something from a prehistoric age and yet strangely majestic and fully present as they patrol the area, elegantly bending their long legs and gracefully tilting their long necks to feast on the great bounty of mosquitoes and grasshoppers and dragonflies all day long.

Much to my delight, I discovered that the Purple Martins have returned – and they have had their first clutch of chicks! One of our neighbors must have put the bird house back up to its highest point – a signal for them to return home.

I call them “The Honeymooners (that’s another very old TV program) because the bird house is sort of an apartment complex affair – and two different families share the space. Lucy and Desi Ricardo are upstairs and to the left and Ethel and Fred Mertz are downstairs and to the right.

Purple Martins mate for life and they and their descendents return to their nest year after year after migrating to South America for the winter. They squabble and squawk at each other, but they are fiercely loyal to their family and absolutely committed to tending to their young until they are able to fly independently. The extraordinary thing about them is that both the male and female Purple Martin share equally in tending to the nest and to their young.

Just yesterday morning, Desi Purple Martin was returning home with a big fat dragonfly in his mouth, obviously food for the babies. Fred Steptoe, one of the Sea Gulls, must have spotted it and, thinking of nothing else than claiming that dragonfly, started to fetch it right out of Desi’s mouth. You could hear Fred calling, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” as he chased after Desi.

The two birds were within inches of the bird house when an amazing thing happened. Desi Purple Martin made a very sharp turn and started heading right for Fred Steptoe Sea Gull’s chest. At which point, Fred Sea Gull stuck out his clawed feet in an attempt to come to a screeching halt in mid air. Had this been a cartoon, you would have heard the soundtrack of tires burning.

Just as Fred Sea Gull started to flap his wings to stabilize himself before reversing direction, Desi Purple Martin transformed himself into a deep purple-black flash in midair. He turned again and flew for safety back into his apartment. Lucy and the kids were cheering him on, while Fred Sea Gull seemed dazed. It was quite a dramatic episode, no doubt repeated several times that very day when I wasn’t watching.

I tell you these things, Madeline and Nolan, because I think Mother Nature has a powerful gospel story to tell you today, the day of your Baptism, about your life as a Christian. I think that message from Mother Nature may be a bit easier for you to understand than the words we heard today from the Gospel of St. John, who can certainly have his way with words, often in a most confusing way.

As I do with all of these baptismal love letters – and Nolan, your big brother Owen and big sister Gwendolyn’s will have them, too as they were baptized here at St. Paul’s (Unfortunately, Madeline, your big sister was not baptized here, but not to worry, she’ll be Confirmed here) – I use the gospel lesson for the day as one of the meditations I hope you will use as you prepare yourself for your Confirmation. Confirmation, of course, is when you will take these baptismal vows, made on your behalf today by your parents and godparents, for your own emerging young adult self.

As I mentioned earlier, John’s gospel can be difficult to understand. The language can get pretty convoluted, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Whew!

Well, when you wonder about that, Madeline and Nolan, I want you to think about the story I just told you about life on Rehoboth Bay. What God wants most from human kind is that which the birds of the air already know. God wants us to be one – to work together to bring balance and harmony to the world which God has created.

Now, hear me clearly, children, because this is a very important message: God wants unity, not uniformity. God does not ask the Purple Martin to be a Sea Gull or a Cormorant to be a Blue Heron. Neither does God want Nolan to be his big brother Owen or Madeline her big sister Elizabeth. God wants you to be the best YOU you can possibly be.

You are one of God’s masterpieces – a unique one-of-a-kind creation. There has never been a you like you before and there won’t ever be anyone else like you ever again. If you work on becoming all of what God has made you to be, nothing will make God happier. Indeed, if each one of us made it our life’s work to become all of what God created us to be, instead of worrying about what everyone else in the world had in their possession or what anyone else was doing, the world would be a much happier place.

Oh, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be squabbling and fussing among us. From time to time we all behave like Fred Sea Gull, blinded by our own greed and swoop in where we don’t belong, trying to get what isn’t ours – sort of like the men we hear about in the first lesson from Acts.

Although we sometimes don’t use them the way they were intended, we do, as humans, have the gifts of “memory, reason and skill.” I believe that we are called in Baptism to take these gifts and use them to care for the gift of creation – to reconcile ourselves to God and with each other that the world may be reconciled in God’s name. That is the essence of our baptismal vows which will be made for you today, which you will claim as an adult.

I believe each of us is magnificently and uniquely made. I believe each one of us is here because there is something God needs and wants done in our lifetime, with the uniqueness of our individual lives, that can’t be accomplished any other way so that the universe will be in balance. One of the great mysteries of life, Madeline and Nolan, is that when we are most ourselves, we are in greater unity with each other.

I don’t know, exactly, how that works. I only know that the Great Mystery that is at the center of the Trinity is the same Great Mystery at the center of our humanity. And, the greatest mystery of all is the mystery of God’s love.

Like life in its most natural state, the simplest things are often the most mysterious – and the most compelling: Love yourself. Love others. Love God. Be uniquely who you are and do the work you are uniquely created to do. And, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, we will be one, even as God and Jesus are one.



emmy said...

Thank you. And thank you for writing, "Love yourself. Love others. Love God." which is the opposite order from the way I learned it, but I think may be a much wiser way to do it...for some of us, at least.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

The "other way" is easiest to talk about, and it certainly sounds noble, but I haven't found that it helps people to love God.

When I love my neighbor AS myself, I can better love God. But, I can't love my neighbor or my God unless I start with myself.

I'm probably going to get excoriated by the "fungelicals" for that, but, well there it is.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Lovely letter, Elizabeth. I don't know how anyone could excoriate you for that, but you never know.

Lauren Gough said...

My dearest colleague Judy Upham often says that "Jesus loves me this I know because the Bible tells me so" is patently untrue. We learn of Jesus' love for us through the love of those around us. Thank you for the love letters to your baptismal children. It is a wonderful ministry and I hope that these children may read these letters as they prepare for confirmation to know how the incarnational love of Jesus was offered them by the Church.