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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Bella Gail's Baptismal Love Letter

Image from Theology Kung Fu
A Baptismal Love Letter for Bella Gail
Pentecost VII – July 11, 2011
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

Dear Bella Gail,

When it is at its best, the church provides a place for complete strangers to meet in a moment of importance wherein lives are changed and transformed.

You and I have never met before today and, by the time you read this, hopefully, as you prepare for Confirmation, we may never have been in each other’s company again. Such is the way of our fast-paced world.

The church is no different. Because of this moment, however, you and I and everyone here – and some who are not, along with those who are here only in spirit – will always be connected in the mystical ways of our understanding of Baptism.

This morning’s gospel story (Luke 10:25-37) gives us a little glimmer, a hint of an understanding, of how that works.

A lawyer stood up to test Jesus by asking him a question about eternal life. And, in the way of Jesus, he tested him right back, asking him, “What is written in the law?”

Of course, the lawyer knew the law: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

But, this was to be a test for Jesus, so the lawyer pressed the issue one more time. “And who is my neighbor?” he asked. Jesus did what Jesus often does: he told a story.

This particular story is one about a man on a journey from Jerusalem to Jericho who was beaten and robbed and left on the side of the road to die. He was passed by three people: A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. The first two crossed the road to avoid him, but it was the Samaritan who stopped to provide assistance.

You have probably already figured out, Bella, that the world is not a fair place.

I suspect that at least several times in the past few years, you have put your hand to your hip, stomped your foot and said to your parents, “But, it’s not fair.”

And, I suspect, you may have been right – especially for the youngest child in the family. If you ask your older sister, she’ll probably say the same thing about being the oldest.

If you ask your parents . . . Well, never mind. If you’re a normal teenager, you won’t ask them anything. I have learned that you have to wait to be grandparents for kids to ask you important stuff.

Life is not fair. Nothing is fair. We can only ask ourselves, "Is it fair?" and try to be as fair as we can in the face of the gross injustices of life.

Levites were a tribe of Israel who served particular religious duties for the Israelites and had political responsibilities as well. In return, the landed tribes were expected to give tithe to the Levites, primarily because they were the only tribe to receive cities but no tribal land.

In fairness, this particular Levite may well have been on his way to Temple and, if the man on the side of the road were, in fact, dead, ritual law would require him not to function until he had undergone ritual cleansing. That could take days. Can’t miss out on Temple for a dead man. It wouldn’t be fair.

Likewise, the priests were also a class of people set apart for specific duties in the Temple. This priest may also have been on his way to Temple and while his duties were different, he was also bound by the same purity codes as the Levite.

Besides, he would be leading the services. It was simply not fair to expect him to take up his time tending to someone who might already be dead.

The Samaritan, however, was bound by no such purity codes. Samaritans, being a people from Samaria, an area of great diversity of cultures, were known to engage in intermarriage. Because of this, they were considered the ‘mongrels’ – the ‘outcast’ of ancient Israel – and so they were already considered “unclean.” It was only fair that he, of all people, should tend to the man.

Never mind that the man who lay dying was the one who suffered the greatest injustice. Never mind that it was not fair for an innocent man to have been robbed and beaten nigh unto death. There are rules to keep and scripture to be followed.

My dear friend and fellow colleague, Tobias Haller, recently wrote: “God is the foundation, who gave us Reason before he gave us Scripture, and when the written word was shown to be plainly insufficient, gave us the living Word of his son Jesus Christ."

Life is not fair, Bella. You walk down the street and suddenly, you are beaten and robbed, the value of your humanity reduced to the content of your wallet or purse. It's not fair.

If your grandmother Gail, for whom you were named, were here, she’d be one of the first to teach you that and make sure you learned it. Good people often do bad things for what they believe are all the best reasons. Bad people sometimes seem to do quite well, gaining all the outward and visible signs of success and respectability and honor.

Life is not fair. We all live busy, important lives. It's not fair to ask us to go out of our way to help a perfect stranger. Yet, even the lawyer who was trying to trick Jesus understood the importance of mercy and justice.

We can only ask, “Is it fair?” We can only try to be ‘fair’ – to act justly and fairly and with mercy – in the face of the gross injustices of life.

Indeed, when we engage life fully, when we care for those less fortunate than ourselves - even total strangers - when we take the risks of the gospel, applying our God-given intellect and reason, we can overturn the unfairness of life and make this place – this world – indeed, even the church – a place where mercy and peace and justice roll down like an ever-flowing stream.

The truth is, Bella, the world is full of scoundrels and thugs, liars and cheats. It is also filled with good people who sometimes do bad things, all with good intention.

You may find, as you journey through life, that both kinds of people can drive you right round the bend. You may move from your childhood stance of saying, “It’s not fair!” to crying out, “What’s the point?”

What's the point of relationships? What's the point of church - of sharing important moments in your life with perfect strangers?

I’m reminded of the ending of a great movie called, “Annie Hall.” It will be considered ancient by the time you read this, but I’m sure your parents can help you find it in a film library somewhere. The character, Alvy Singer, says,
“I thought of that old joke, y'know, this... this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, "Doc, uh, my brother's crazy; he thinks he's a chicken." And, uh, the doctor says, "Well, why don't you turn him in?" The guy says, "I would, but I need the eggs." Well, I guess that's pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y'know, they're totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and... but, uh, I guess we keep goin' through it because, uh, most of us... need the eggs.”
Life is not fair.

The church is often not fair. It is often filled with totally irrational, and crazy and absurd people. You know. Just like most families. To be in relationship with them can be maddening.

But, that’s what you’re baptism does today.

It places you in a mystical, deeply important relationship with total strangers – some of whom are like the Levite and the priest who put their own needs before others, but many more of whom are like the Samaritan.

Either way, I’ll tell you what, Bella: more often than not, the eggs you get are totally worth it.

Welcome to the church, Bella. May you grow in awe and wonder of the mystery of life as you grow in your relationship with God in Christ. In times of trouble, know that you always have a spiritual home here.

As Robert Frost once said, “Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

That place is here.  Flawed. Faulted.  Not perfect. It's the church. And, after this morning, it will forever be your spiritual home.

When it is at its best, the church provides a place for complete strangers to meet in a moment of importance wherein lives are changed and transformed.




Kirkepiscatoid said...

Honestly, Elizabeth, I think your baptismal love letters are the finest thing you do, in terms of expository preaching. I am just so jealous I don't have one. I just have that little piece of paper in my safe deposit box of an event that is not in my memory banks!

But I do like knowing my little piece of paper connects me to every baptismal love letter you've ever penned.

Michelle said...

I hear the reassurance,wisdom and voice of God once again in your words Elizabeth....So glad I've found a way to receive His word through you again.
God's Grace&Peace,
Michelle in Williamsburg,VA

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirkey - Thanks so much. I'm thinking it won't be too long before you're asked to preach at a baptism. And, I fully expect you to write your own Baptismal Love Letter.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Michele - great to hear from you. Now that I've seen your picture, I do remember you from Redeemer. Your blog is a difficult read, but I love your honesty. Know that my prayers are with you as you heal from this terrible loss.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

You know the Holy Spirit already weighed on Lisa's head to do it. I think that wily old girl Shekinah had Lisa do it first b/c she really likes to have all her bricks and concrete blocks in place before she puts the job on me!

And I bet you can just see me squirming, going, "ME? A LOVE LETTER?" and that old Shekinah grinning at me like the Crocogator at Padre Mickey's. "Yep. Heh heh."

With pressure like that, I will have no choice!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, goodie. You'll have to tell me when this is going to happen.

Love, love, love Shekinah!

Kirkepiscatoid said...

She posted it here:

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, THAT Lisa. Sorry I misunderstood. Good sermon. You're next, hon.