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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Baptismal Love Letter to Michael Connecticut

“`God, I thank you that I am not like other people’ . . .”
Luke 18:9-14

A ‘Baptismal Love Letter’ to Michael F
The Episcopal Church of St. Francis
Stamford, CT
XXII Pentecost Proper 25
October 28, 2007
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton

I want to begin by saying what a great honor and privilege it is to be here with you this morning – especially since there is a baptism today.

I’m going to take this opportunity to continue something which began as a creative innovation and is now a solid tradition at The Episcopal Church of St. Paul in Chatham, NJ, where I have been privileged to be rector for the last five and a half years and have presided with joy at more than 60 baptisms.

Whenever someone is baptized, I try to underscore the importance of that baptism by preaching the gospel through the lens of what it might mean for the child or children being baptized that day.

The sermon has become known as a “Baptismal Love Letter,” which is written in the hopes that the child’s parents will take a copy of this sermon and put it away in the Baby Book so that, at Confirmation, the child taking these vows and making these promises for herself will get a clearer sense of the importance and significance of this day.

So, without further delay, I will begin this Baptismal Love Letter:

Dear Michael,

When you first read this letter, you will most likely be twelve or thirteen years old and getting ready to receive the Sacramental Rite of Confirmation. You will be taking for yourself the vows and promises made for you today by your parents and godparents.

It’s a very, very important thing you are about to do, and I hope you will spend some serious, dedicated time considering the significance of this sacramental rite of passage.

I also hope you will spend some time carefully studying the essence of the gospel message appointed for this day and considering what imperatives this parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector might have for you as a follower of Christ.

In case you don’t have a bible right handy (and not too many 13 year old boys I know would), let me remind you of the essential points of that parable. Jesus tells the story about two men praying in the Temple. One was a Pharisee who thanked God that he was not like other people. Among other things, he thanked God that he was not like the tax collector who was praying nearby.

Now, Michael, you have to understand that there was a special contempt for tax collectors. They were Jews who worked for the Romans and collected their taxes. To be a tax collector was to be as popular as someone who worked for the IRS – and not many people I know experience a warm, fuzzy glo when the IRS is mentioned.

But, imagine if this country were occupied by a foreign government, as Israel was by Rome. And, imagine if your taxes did not support your country, but rather, supported the very folks who were oppressing you. Now, imagine if those taxes were collected for the oppressor by one of your own people.

You get the picture. But, that’s not the fullness of it all, Michael. The Pharisee not only thanked God for making him a good person, he even went on to list all the good things he did, like fasting twice a week and giving a tenth of his income to the synagogue. The Pharisee wasn’t so much praying as he was bragging. And, not only that, he was bragging at the expense of another person.

Oh, I know. You’re about to say, “Yeah, but that was then and this is now. Nobody in church behaves like that anymore.” Well, Michael, part of the reason I am here this morning is precisely because there are people like that in the church. A lot of them. Trust me on this.

Now, thirteen years from now, my hunch is that you are going to look back on this time, and the topic I’m going to be talking about, and you’re going to sit back in your chair, scratch your head in bewilderment and say,

“Really? Was there really a time when lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people were not allowed to get married? Was there really a time when the Civil Rights of a certain segment of the population were denied because of the religious convictions of a larger group of people? Really?” you’ll ask. “That’s unbelievable!”

Your parents will tell you that in the year 2007, there were people who were actually trying to amend the Constitution of the United States of America to take away the civil rights of LGBT people – which is antithetical to the very nature of our Constitution, which was designed to define the rights of ‘we the people.’

Your parents will also tell you that I was here on the morning of your baptism because the Church – our beloved Episcopal Church – was in the midst of a major controversy about whether or not to bless the covenants made by LGBT people to live in relationships marked by “fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God.”

That’s the exact language taken from a resolution (D039) which was passed by General Convention Denver, Colorado in July of 2000.

I know, I know, Michael. It is hard to believe, isn’t it? That the church could acknowledge that there are people in our communities of faith who live in these kinds of relationships and take the bold action of defining the parameters of our mutual accountability and responsibility one year and, less than seven years later, be at the brink of schism because of it.

Oh, let’s be honest. The hour of schism has come and now is. There are people in The Episcopal Church today who have left – are leaving – for churches in parts of the World Wide Anglican Communion which they consider more “orthodox.”

It’s a very, very sad thing, Michael, but I pray that the church you know and love and are about to be Confirmed into is stronger for these days of self-determined pruning and shearing.

Who are these people, you ask? Well, they are good people. People who love God and Jesus and the church. People who fast twice a week and give a tenth of their income to the church. You and I know and love many of them. They are not bad people. They, just like the Pharisee in the parable, just think they are the only ones who have it right.

Let me tell you a little something about oppression, Michael, because it not only hurts the oppressed, it hurts those who oppress. My church went on a mission trip to Belize this past July with 21 people under the age of 18 and 15 adults, including my life partner and spouse.

I was keenly aware that if someone 'protested' our so-called 'lifestyle' we could be facing the next 10 years in a Belizean prison. That’s the law on the books in Belize just for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person.

There are other countries – many of them, in fact – with much stiffer penalties for being gay. We had done the research before the trip. We knew the possibilities. We knew they were possibilities and not probabilities. Still. We needed to be mindful - especially for the children in our care.

Never mind all that. Really. That’s not what’s important. Let me explain: Thomas Jefferson is reported to have said, "Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind;" adding, "we might as well require a man to wear the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain forever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."

Think for just a moment of the other "hidden costs" of memorializing that kind of prejudice and ignorance in the codes of the legal system of a government. If it is true that the real measure of a civilization is the way in which it treats the least of its members, then it must be asked what these kind of laws do to the moral fiber and soul of the nations which keep them on their books - whether or not they actively enforce them.

Think of what it must be like to wake up every morning and know that there are citizens in your country who live haunted by the fact that if they told the truth about themselves, about who they really love, it might cost them their very lives.

Think of what it must be like to live and work in a place where people sacrifice their integrity in order to appease some ancient, ignorant fear which is supported by a very narrow, rigid interpretation and application of the sacred text of an ancient society.

Think of what it must be like to belong to a church where pets and vestments and candle sticks are blessed, but not faithful, monogamous, holy, loving relationships between people of the same sex.

It’s a bit like being forced to wear a coat that hasn't fit you since you were a child. It’s like trying to put your baptismal outfit on and wear it for your Confirmation. You can’t do that, Michael. You have to make a conscious choice about that which you will claim as your own – what ‘fits’ you and how you intend to live your life as a child of God.

Just remember this: Prejudice and bigotry hurt everyone - the target of prejudice and bigotry as well as the perpetrator.

When the integrity of anyone is compromised anywhere, the integrity of everyone is compromised everywhere.

We who claim to be citizens of a civilized society as well as citizens, through baptism, of the Realm of God can claim nothing less. This is especially true for those of us who dwell in the Communion of Saints.

Today is the day you are being baptized into this mystical, sweet communion of saints, Michael. As you read this, 13 years later, your individual citizenship needs to be claimed by you, as a conscious, bold statement of what it is you believe and what you hold as valuable and precious to your heart and soul.

But for today, I join with all the saints who are here present, all who are yet to come, and all who have been before and welcome to the household of Christ, Michael. Put on the ‘crown of righteousness’ in baptism and serve God in the priesthood of all believers.

My baptismal prayer for you this day is that you may be as humble in your prayer as the tax collector. May you be at peace within yourself, that you may bring peace to the world. May you always know that you are deeply loved and need never be afraid.

May you serve always as a vehicle of liberation and not of oppression – your own and that of others. You have been blessed so that you may be a blessing. May the blessing of your baptism make you a blessing of and to the church, your family, and the world.



Jeffri Harre said...


I really look forward to these "Baptismal Love Letters." Thank you for sharing them with us.

Peace & Hugs,

June Butler said...

Beautiful, Liza. Your "Baptismal Love Letters" are a fine tradition.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Elizabeth, for this hopeful vision of the future.