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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Jesus and Pinocchio

Those who died in Sandy Hook Elementary, Newtown, CT 2014

Jesus and Pinocchio
A sermon preached February 18, 2018 - Lent I
St. Martin in the Field, Selbyville, DE

Some of us come to church this morning with very heavy hearts.

One of my homiletics professors used to say, “Your call, as a priest, is not to preach the New York Times but the Gospel. Sometimes, however, there is no avoiding the two.”

There is no escaping the headlines of 17 young lives – students and teachers – cut down in Parkland, FL. And, in our grief, we struggle to come to terms with the unthinkable that has happened. Again.

As a priest and as a Hospice Chaplain, I am fascinated by the way the whole spectrum of grief files past our eyes: Denial and isolation. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. These do not happen sequentially and different people will experience them differently and at different times.

If you listen to the radio or television, no matter what station, you will hear anger in the cries for “Someone – anyone, please – to do something to stop this madness!”

We hear bargaining in "If/Then" statements like “If the teachers were armed and trained this never would have happened.” (Despite the fact that there were security guards and a police car on that school campus).

The same folks who say things like that are not aware of their own state of denial when they also make statements like “Well, guns don’t kill people. People with guns kill people.” Umm, right. And the point of that is, what? Don’t let people touch guns?

Or, they want to blame it all on “mental illness”. Except, these same people voted to end a law that would have prevented people with mental illness from purchasing guns. They also support cuts to Medicare and Medicaid which fund clinics to treat people with mental disorders.

And, don’t even get me started on “thoughts and prayers” and how it’s not time to talk about gun violence in this country.

I’m not here to argue for or against gun control. That’s preaching the New York Times.

I am here to point out the obvious: We are a nation in deep grief over the loss of seventeen more lives to the senseless violence which has our nation in the iron grip of the cycle of anger, denial, senseless bargaining, isolation, depression and resigned acceptance which allows the foundation to be laid for yet another horrific, evil incidence of gun violence.

Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

And, in this particular community, we are grieving the unexpected and tragic death of Christine N***, the daughter of Sunny and the sister of Joe B****. 

Parents are not supposed to lose their children. Children are not supposed to die before their parents. So, when children die – no matter how young or old or how or whose they are when they die – there is a kind of indescribable grief that cuts through to the heart.

And so, here we are this morning. The first Sunday in the penitential season of Lent. The cross and shining objects are covered or removed. The liturgical color is a somber yet regal and dignified purple. The hymns call us to remember repentance and the cross. This morning, we began with a Penitential Rite and read the Exhortation and Decalogue, to help us keep in mind who we are and whose we are, and what it is we are doing here in church and why.

Today’s Gospel reading calls us to remember the Baptism of Jesus of Nazareth in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. And, when Jesus came up out of the water he saw the heavens torn apart and a Spirit descending upon him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

Every child longs to hear that statement from their parents. Every parent longs to say that to their child. And then, their child grows up and, as we all did – every last one of us in this church today – has to test the limits of what it means to be human; of what it means to be a member of this family; of what it means to be who they are. 

As one of my colleagues once said to me: Adolescence is the time when every child has to cut the umbilical cord for him/herself. And they have to do it by themselves – with their teeth if necessary.

And, they have to draw blood.

And, most importantly, it has to hurt.

I've come to know that having grandchildren is the reward you receive for not having done murder to their parents when they were adolescents.

But, here’s the thing about baptism: It does not make us more divine. Indeed, it makes us more human. 

And, of course, this would be the time I tell you a story about that:

When I was rector at my last church, a young family with two young children – a boy named Gibby who was 9 and a girl named Grace who was 11 – became members of the church. They had never had their children baptized and the kids were curious and asking questions.

Finally, the day arrived when they, themselves, asked to be baptized. I met with them in my office several times after school to explain baptism to them in the simplest possible terms. I mean, they were only aged 9 and 11. 

They both had a few good questions but Gracie’s biggest concern was whether or not she could have a big party and invite her friends. Oh, and could she also have a dress? Did it have to be white? Could it be, like, maybe blue? Like, oh, yes! Electric blue? With sparkles? And, could she please wear a tiara?

I think she ‘got’ that it was a celebration.

Gibbie, however, was much more serious. He said, “Reverend Elizabeth, my friend who goes to the Roman Catholic Church says that when you are baptized, you give your everlasting soul to the church. Is that right? Is that what happens? Because if it is, I don’t want that.”

At that time, I had in my office a lovely lithograph of that Disney movie “Pinocchio”. It was the moment when the Blue Fairy answers father Geppetto’s nightly prayer. She takes her magic wand and ‘baptizes’ Pinocchio, saying, “Little Puppet made of pine, arise, the gift of life is thine.”

I looked at Gibby and said, “And, do you remember what happened then?”

“I sure do,” Gibby said, excitedly, “All the strings fell away from Pinocchio and he could walk all on his own! But,” said Gibby, looking at the picture, “look! He’s still made of wood.”

“Right,” said I. “He didn’t change. He’s still who he is. He’s just alive, now. So,” I continued, “do you remember the story? What happens next?”

“Well,” said Gibby, “he became a real little boy. No strings to tie him down. But, he DID become naughty. He skipped school and went with some bad boys and he smoked a cigar and ran away from home and joined the circus. And, he told lies. And, when he did his nose GREW!”

“Right,” I said, “He didn’t have any strings to tie him down. In being alive, he had the gift of free will. He could make choices about how he spent his life. The gift the Blue Fairy gave him did not take away anything from him. That’s the same way with Baptism. It doesn’t take anything away from you. But, it DOES assure you of the gift you were given at birth: Free Will.”

“And, Jiminy Cricket,” shouted Gibby! “She gave him Jiminy Cricket to be his conscience.”

“Right,” said I. “And, if we follow the teachings of Jesus, we’ll have a conscience. Your parents and Godparents will promise at your baptism to be Jiminy Crickets for you so you can always “let your conscience be your guide.”

Gibby was quiet for a while as he let this all sink in. “So,” he said, in a voice much older and wiser than his years, “All the things that Pinocchio did wrong, they all just made him more and more human. Because, if you are a puppet and someone else pulls the strings, you can only do what the puppet master lets you do.”

“What made him more fully human, Gibby, was that he saved his father from the belly of the whale. Do you remember that part of the story? Pinocchio risked his life to save his father’s life. That’s true love. That kind of sacrificial love is what puts flesh and blood on our dry human bones."

"That kind of love makes us more and more human. "

"Baptism sets us free to be more and more who we are – free to make mistakes and learn from them – free to love so much we’d give our life to save someone else’s life.”

“So we can find our way home, back to God?” asked Gibby.

I looked at him and smiled and said, “I think you are ready for baptism, young man.”

In moments like this in our national and personal lives, when we come to church with heavy hearts, it’s important to remember that, after Jesus was baptized, scripture says, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

Baptism won’t protect us from the wilderness or help us not be tempted by Satan or shield us from the wild beasts. But, baptism means that there will always be angels to wait on us.

Baptism means that we are those angels for each other. We are here in this community we call “church” to wait on each other, to tend to each other in our grief and sorrow, to hold each other as we cry, to share the gift of laughter and joy, to come together to find ways that protect and defend each other from evil and adversity and to live lives of sacrificial love for each other. 

Baptism is where the gift of free will we were given at birth is reaffirmed and we are not only assured of grace when we fail but also the amazing gift of Life Eternal in Jesus. 

Baptism means that we are a community which knows that God loves us – freely and unconditionally because we have within us the "mind of Christ". 

As my friend Ed Bacon says, "To have the mind of Christ in us is to interrupt and dismantle whatever is crucifying anyone." 

Listen to that again: "To have the mind of Christ in us is to interrupt and dismantle whatever is crucifying anyone."

And the church, the Body of Christ, is the place where we say to each other - in word and deed - the words God said to Jesus, “You are my Beloved Child; with you I am well pleased.”


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