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Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Baptismal Love Letter for Sabrina Yu Shan

“The Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” Matthew 9:35 – 10:8
V Pentecost - June 15, 2008
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham

My dear Sabrina Yu Shan,

By the time you read this, you will be on the brink of your adolescent years. Hopefully, you will be preparing to take these baptismal vows made for you today by your parents and godparents, and confirm them for yourself in the Sacramental Rite of Confirmation.

By then, you’ll be just another St. Paul’s kid. You’ll have been through training to be an Acolyte, Torchbearer or Crucifer and you’ll have had your ‘big debut’ in one of those featured roles. Your giggles and laughter will have been absorbed into the wood or these walls and pews, along with the tears you shed and the outrageous howls you’ll have made when your mother or father have tried to get you to behave because you don’t yet understand all that’s going on here. Or, perhaps because, on some level, you already do.

Ah, but today. Today. Right now, I want to savor today. I want us all to marinate and stew in it. Your very special day has been made even more special because you will be the 1,000th person to have been baptized in this amazing church. You are, in fact, the 65th person I have been privileged to baptize in my 6 years here as rector and pastor.

Looking back on that, on all the pictures and the videos, I’m sure you’re asking, in classic adolescent form, “Yeah, well, so what! Big hairy deal! I was the 1,000th baptism. Why did everyone get all excited and make such a big fuss? It’s so gross! So embarrassing!”

I’m going to try to explain that to you, Sabrina. You, and every person – infant, child or adult – that has baptized into this church takes her place in what St. Paul called, “the priesthood of all believers”. It is a royal priesthood, descendant as we are from the priesthood of Christ Jesus.

We are baptized into what we call ‘the communion of Saints’. That means that we take our place in a community of people who have been, who are now, and who are yet to come. And, not just in this place, but throughout the cosmos. We are baptized into a mystery, as deep and unfathomable as life, as mysterious as the constellation of atoms and cells that configure themselves just so, in the particular way that makes us unique, and at the same time, binds us together in a intricate web of connection and relationship.

That 999 people before you have been baptized into this mystery is a remarkable enough thing. That you are the 1,000th baptized person is a unique milestone, as precious and beautiful as coral and jade, which are your Chinese names: Yu Shan.

In the gospel appointed for this day, Jesus appoints the twelve apostles and we are given their individual names. In a way is their ‘baptism’, the sign and seal of their membership into an extraordinary community that set their hearts on changing the world by serving and teaching, healing and loving others in the name of Jesus. Jesus did this, we are told, because he “looked at the crowds and had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Your baptismal vows, which you will one day confirm for yourself, also makes you a disciple and places you, like the first twelve, into a community of laborers for the Lord of the harvest. You see, Sabrina, our baptism isn’t just about us, it’s about all of us. It’s about what we, individually, can do for the whole. It’s about what we, as a community, can do for the world. It’s about the change and transformation that will happen in our individual souls so that the very soul of the world and all the souls therein may be healed and changed and transformed.

Mother Theresa is a saint dear to the heart of your grandfather, Sam. She has said that we are God’s eyes and ears, God’s hands and feet in the world, and that the mission of God in this world can only be fulfilled though our help. She looked around the city of Calcutta in India and saw the extreme poverty and suffering of the people and had great compassion on them. So, she set about to get laborers for the harvest and began a religious order of sisters who would, like the apostles, have authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out and to try to find a cure for every disease and every sickness.

We all can’t be Mother Theresa. We aren’t supposed to. English play write, Oscar Wilde once said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” That’s really good advice from one who lived that philosophy almost to a fault. You are supposed to be Sabrina Yu Shan Wang, and, with God’s help, your parent’s love, the guidance of your family, and the support of this community, you will become the person God had in mind when you were called into creation – as unique and precious as jade and coral.

We all won’t do great, dramatic things like Mother Theresa. Today, on the day of your baptism, the sanctuary bays are filled with pictures. These are pictures of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Oh, it may not look to you like an extraordinary thing in that picture of those women gathering up knitting needles and yarn to be sent to Malawi in Africa. They were doing that because the women there didn’t have knitting needles. They were using bicycle spokes. So, a couple of the women in this community had great compassion and tried to change that for the better.

In another bay hung the picture of three little girls dressed up as angels. Very bored angels. They are dressed like that because they are part of the Annual Christmas Pageant. They help us to retell the story of the birth of Jesus. When they do that, they brighten the lives of their parents and this church family. They remind us of hope. They remind us of the great story of the even greater mystery that binds us all in the Incarnation of Love. It may look silly, but it’s a very important ministry.

In the back of the church, was the picture of two women in the sacristy. It may look to you like they are just polishing silver, but they are, in fact, polishing the sacred vessels which carry the sacred elements of bread and wine – the outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual grace we receive from of body and blood of Jesus in the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist. What they are doing helps to remind us of the great honor it is to celebrate Eucharist, that we are, in fact, worthy to receive and be received by Jesus when we get to heaven. In a world that will try to tell you that you are worthless, this simple, small act of service testifies against that.

And, that’s the thing of it, Sabrina. We’re all going to heaven. Others may wonder if they are, but by our baptism, we are assured of it. It is promised. In the meantime, however, there’s lots of work to be done. Big, important things and little, seemingly insignificant things, but all these things are a part of the whole. “ Everything works together for the good for those who love the Lord.”

Your job, as a newly baptized disciple of Christ, is to do whatever it is you are called to do – very small things, sometimes, and very big things at other times – with an awareness of the gratitude that God has already placed in your heart. You are always to have an awe and wonder of the glories of God’s creation as well as the will and the strength to protect and preserve it. You are to become a fierce, bold warrior for the dignity and justice of every human being as well as a kind, compassionate healer of the souls and bodies broken by the darkness and burden of the world.

It’s a very tall order, Sabrina, but it is a task you have been called to do – to lift up your head and see the suffering in the world and feel the compassion that calls you to change things for the better. Like your elder brothers Simon, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James Thaddaeus, Simon and Judas, the original twelve, before you.

Like your elder sisters, Mary and Mary of Magdala and Mary and Martha of Behtany, before you. And like those who we will honor today, Erin, David, Sarah, Bryan, Billy, Stan and Max, who are graduating from high school and are going off to do even greater things then they have already done. You won’t do it exactly like them. You’ll do it in the unique and particular way God needs you to help transform the world.

What is so special about today? Well, Sabrina, it comes down to this: today, in your baptism, we are privileged to enter into a holy moment. Time has been marked as sacred. Today, Sabrina, the kingdom of Heaven has come near, that we may be inspired and nourished for this day, so that we might persevere to do God’s work all the days of our lives. Amen


JimMollo said...

What a glorious, glorious day at St. Paul's. You can read this wonderful sermon and see the pictures, but you had to be there.

You had to be there to see the packed pews adorned with white dresses, white crisp shirts and white linen pants. You had to be there to see the white balloons lining the aisle. You had to be there to see the glistening silver holding the body and blood of Christ. You had to be there to see our eyes well up as Sabrina joined our halls. You had to be there as we joined our beloved Priest as her voice cracked and the tears flowed.

Have you heard the Good News?

He is risen indeed.

FranIAm said...

Simply extraordinary.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Busted. Jim's right It was a most glorious day and I did get all girly-burbly.

Something happened - something deeply profound - as I looked out over the faces in the congregation and saw all the beautiful faces of those souls I had baptized to Jesus - those present and those who have been and gone - and I simply lost it. Couldn't finish the benediction except to crack through the trinitarian blessing at the end.

I'll write more about it later - when I can stop crying just thinking about it.