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Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Baptismal Love Letter for Ella Ann


A Baptismal Love Letter to Ella Ann on the Occasion of her Baptism
July 19, 2015 – St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE
(the Rev’d Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

Dear Ella,

I am writing this to you on the day of your baptism in the hopes that your parents will tuck this away in your baby book, along with your birth certificate and the certificate from the hospital with your footprints and cards and other mementos.

I’m hoping you’ll take this out and read it as you prepare for your Confirmation – that day in the church when you take for yourself the vows that were made for you at your Baptism into the Body of Christ.

There are five vows, actually. (Look at page 304 in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer)

The first vow asks if you’ll continue to read and follow the teachings of Jesus the way the apostles understood them and the way we have come to understand their meaning for us today in our day and time. It also asks if you’ll continue to receive communion and say your prayers.   

Others may try to tell you differently but these three things are the basics of what it means to be a Christian who is an Episcopalian and an Anglican. 

There’s more to it than that – lots more – but these are the basics. If you do these things, it will make the other vows, especially the last two, a whole lot easier to fulfill.

The second says something that makes a whole lot of people uncomfortable. It asks, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

Not a whole lot of people like to talk about ‘evil’ much less ‘sin’ and ‘repentance’. That’s because a lot of people like to define ‘evil’ and ‘sin’ as the things they think are wrong or that they think you shouldn’t be doing. 

Some people get really carried away about that stuff. You can always tell when people are going overboard because those very people will be insisting that you ‘repent’.

So, let me say this much about evil. It’s not a thing to be joked about or fooled with. It’s serious business. 

Sometimes, evil is cloaked and disguised in many deceptive forms but, for the most part, you’ll know evil the minute you see it - or, at least, as you look at the damage it has done. It hits you right in the middle of the stomach. It looks a whole lot like the world did after 9/11 (Look up that date and see the pictures). 

Or, you’ll see the effects of evil on faces of starving children. They are not evil, but what has been done to them is. The effects of war also bear the face of evil. 

Evil is often about the abuse of power.

And sin? Well, I think sin is whatever it is that separates us from God. There are some things that pretty commonly separate all humans from God. Some say there are seven. They also say they are deadly. They include things like greed and gluttony and laziness, but mostly they are about abusing or not using what God has given you, or taking things from others that don’t rightly belong to you.

Sin can be different for different people. Take the sin of pride. For some people, pride is something that blinds them from seeing the goodness in others. 

But, you know, for other people, not having enough pride can blind them from seeing the goodness in themselves. And, believe it or not, that can lead to wanting and taking things from others that don’t rightly belong to you, which can be pretty deadly to your soul.

That said, just remember this: You may have a hard time forgiving yourself, and others may never forgive you, but there is always plenteous redemption, absolute forgiveness and unconditional love with God.   

You can trust in that.

I like to remember something author Anne Lamott once said, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” 

If you remember nothing else, try to remember that.

The third vow is “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” 

Well, I like to remember something St. Francis of Assisi once allegedly taught his brothers, “Preach the Gospel always. Use words if necessary.” 

Supposedly, St. Francis also said, “Your life may be the only gospel anyone ever gets to know.”

The fourth and fifth vows, as far as I’m concerned, are where the rubber meets the road. 

They are: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” and 

“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

That’s the Big Kahuna of Christian life, right there. It’s not about judging other people or telling them how sinful they are. 

It’s about you. YOU! How you live your life. How you not only seek the divine spark in others but how you serve the divinity in others.

The gospel appointed for today (Proper 11B) is from Mark (6:30-34, 53-56). Oddly enough, there are a lot of good miracle stories cut out – Jesus walking on water and feeding five thousand people after the beheading of John the Baptist. I’m not sure why that’s so because they’re great stories, but here’s a few things I hope will be helpful to you in living out your Baptismal Vows – especially the last two.

The first is that Jesus is speaking to his disciples after they’ve just returned from their first mission trip. They’ve done some good work and he is well pleased. So, he tells them to “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.”

Here’s the thing, Ella. The world is often a dark and broken place. Sometimes, it seems the face of evil is all around and it is inescapable. The needs of the world will sometimes seem overwhelming. 

Even Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you.” That is so from generation to generation. Sometimes we can shut down and close our eyes and be tempted to say, “Well, that’s not my problem.”

As important as it is to do the work of God and follow the teachings of Jesus, it is also important to take some time for yourself. An important lesson of the universe is this: You cannot give away what you do not have.   

I don’t know what air travel will be like when you are thirteen but today, flight attendants always say at the beginning of the trip, “In the event of an emergency . . . put the oxygen mask on your face first and then tend to any dependent children or adults sitting next to you.”

That’s not a bad rule to follow in life. Yes, you must take care of others. Yes, you must “seek and serve Christ in all persons”, but listen to the rest of that vow, “… loving your neighbor AS YOURSELF.”   

First, you gotta love yourself and let the love you have for others flow from that place of love in you. Let it be real. Authentic. When you do that, God will replenish that love, sevenfold, pressed down and overflowing.

The other thing I want you to know about this gospel passage is something that is absolutely key to understanding what it means to be a Christian – before you take these vows for yourself at your Confirmation.

Jesus heals. That’s what he does. That’s who he is. He is Love Incarnate and love heals. It always has. It always will. 

It may sound pretty cliché but it’s really what this world needs more of. The love that heals. 

Unconditional love heals unconditionally.

I hope, 13 years from now, we have ended racism. I hope we have ended sexism and ageism and classism and homophobia. I hope I don’t sound too cynical when I say that I don’t think we will. 

I think we human beings have been judging people by the color of their skin and the shape of their bodies and the houses they live in and the cars they drive and the school they went to and that will probably be so when you are growing up.

Which is why today is so important. And, your baptism is so important. It’s important that your parents and grandparents and godparents do everything they can to make sure you become a good Christian woman who takes on the vows made for her at baptism and lives them out for herself.

Don’t worry if your parents haven’t yet found a church that they like or feel comfortable attending. Find one for yourself. 

I would love for you to find an Episcopal Church but, bottom line, that’s not what’s most important.

I pray you may find a faithful community which takes your baptismal vows seriously enough to help you find your own way to live them out. 

Not their way. Your way.   

But, mostly, my hope is that the prayer we all pray for you today will find its way to be true for your life as an infant, a child and as an adult. It’s on page 308 of the 1987 Book of Common Prayer. And, it is this:

“Sustain her, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give her an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”

And let all of God’s people here today and throughout the ages in the great Communion of Saints into which Ella is to be baptized, say together, “Amen”.

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