So this past Monday morning it's the first Sunday of Lent coming up, and I'm excited, and I'm looking at the readings, and I'm wanting to get us off to a good start to this holy season of Lent. I figure I owe it to you, to us, to set us off on the Lenten journey with a good first step. So I sit down and turn to the Old Testament reading: Noah.
Eh... Hmm. We can work with this.
I scribble out some notes.
Flood. Bird. Rainbow. I remember that Archbishop Desmond Tutu, at the end of Apartheid in South Africa, joined Nelson Mandela in casting the vision of South Africa as a rainbow nation, a rainbow people, reconciled to one another and released from the sins, the racism, of the past. Did Noah see that coming, I wonder? I make some more notes.
Off to the gospel: the baptism of Jesus. That’s more like it. And cool, I think: the bird, the dove that Noah sent out, comes back with a branch and then doesn't come back at all had signaled to Noah, and us, the new creation. Now, lo and behold, at Jesus's baptism, the dove, the bird, is back. The dove descends, telling us that this Jewish man standing waist-deep in in the River Jordan is somehow also a picture of God's new creation.
And it's not just the water and bird. Noah had the rain for forty days; after his baptism, Jesus hits the wilderness for forty days. That's cool, I think. Maybe we'll talk about the number forty, the forty days in front of us on this first Sunday in Lent. The dove. The water. Forty. Some good connections, but as I'm scribbling my notes, I'm starting to get that self-conscious feeling you get when someone's looking over your shoulder to see if you are seeing the thing you're supposed to be seeing but you just don't see it yet.
Then sometime about Tuesday my face hit the wall of Peter's epistle:
"...God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigures, now saves you - not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ."
Duh! Of course! Noah and the flood prefigures baptism, St Pete says.
Now it's not just the dove, the bird, and some numerology. The whole of the Scriptures this morning is screaming at us: Lent is about being grounded in baptism.
This is obvious, I know, but what can I say? It had been a long week.
The invitation we heard on Ash Wednesday makes this connection clearly:
"Dear People of God," it says, "The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of Lord's passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism."
There's this wonderful church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which Rebekah and I attended in grad school. The connection between Jesus's death and baptism was literally built into the structure of the church: the font used for baptism was a large, stone cross - like a tank, for dunking, despite all Episcopal reputations to the contrary - and this large, stone cross was situated in the Nave such that it was accompanied on each side by one of the stations of the cross, the particular stations - eleven through thirteen - in which Jesus is crucified, dies, and is removed from the cross for burial. We are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Lent is obviously about Jesus's death. Lent should as obviously be about our baptism.
Raise your hand if you like baptism - if you think baptism is a good thing.
Raise your hands high.
Now. Hands down.
Raise your hand again if you will stand up right now and recite the five promises of baptism that take place after the Trinitarian pop quiz we call the Apostles' Creed?
What are we doing?
Lent is about baptism. We all like baptism. But the five questions of baptism... Do we remember them? Most of us remember the answers: "I will with God's help." (By which we mostly mean that if we drop the ball it's not all on us - God didn't do his part, either.) But what are the questions? The five questions we are all asked - that we all answer - at our baptism?
Our readings are what they are this morning because Lent is upon us and Lent is the season that teaches us baptism. Lent shows us the get-your-hands-dirty shape of lives that believe in God, lives that call Jesus Lord, lives that commit to follow him in the way of the cross.
So what are the questions? Grab your red book. Page three-hundred and four. First, the questions we answer every Sunday: Do you believe in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
And then, the five questions that tell you what the life of someone who believes in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit looks like.
Question number one: Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread (1) and in the prayers? In the letter to the Hebrews, this question gets explained. The writer says: "Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching." Do not neglect to meet together, but encourage one another. Did you know that you encourage someone else simply by meeting them around this table?
Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers?
Question number two: Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? You could preach a whole sermon on that question. We did, this past Wednesday. Whenever you fall into sin. Not if. On Wednesday I shared my awareness that my next sin won't be my first. Faithfulness in this life is not sinlessness, but availing oneself of the forgiveness of God; finding grace to say, “I’m sorry.”
In weeks after Christmas, after all the leftovers are eaten, or spoiled, the family is gone, or grumbling, and the lights are in some state of coming down, I occasionally find presents still left in the package. Unopened. Amazing gifts. Untouched gifts. Most of us know that God gives us the gift of forgiveness. But the truly wise among us take the time required to open it. Forgiveness is worth unwrapping.
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and when (not if) you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Question three: Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? At Council two weeks ago, Dean Travis of the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest told us that example is not the best teacher; it's the only teacher. Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you do more than commend this faith to others - will you model it for them? Wear it in front of them. I shared with some of you the other day my great embarrassment when Annie set up a makeshift altar in the play room. She had a soap bottle chalice. "Cup of salvation," she said. The altar guild will appreciate that she had a purificator and patens, too, made of rags and puzzle frames. Our children, our friends, the other people in our lives who watch us, they don't do what we tell them to do. (Have you noticed?) They don’t do what we tell them to do. They do what we do. What are you doing?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Question four: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? A week ago, we listened to Bishop Doyle of Texas, and he was talking about how Paul and other characters in and across the Scriptures always greeted one another “in Christ,” and that this was not just talk, but it represented a mystery that is essential for us, too: that we see Christ in one another. What does it change in me if I believe Christ can be found in you? In my neighbor? In my coworker? In the server who takes my dishes? In the beggar I pass beneath the underpass? In my spouse?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
And finally, question five: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? Justice and peace. Respecting, upholding the dignity of every human being. The revelation that Christianity is not a private possession but a corporate commitment. The realization that we have been given a voice to be used for the voiceless, that we have been given a hope to be shared with the hopeless, that the life we know in Christ is not for us alone. It is for sharing. Christ is for sharing. And sharing Christ with others means learning to love and stand up for others. Stand up for their dignity. In the midst of his march for civil rights, Martin Luther King, Jr. said this: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?
Five questions. I'd ask you if you're doing them, but we already established that we all (me, too) have a hard time remembering them. We need to come back to them.
This Lent, will you come together with me and:
Keep breaking bread,
Ask God's forgiveness,
Proclaim by word AND example,
Seek and serve Christ in all people,
Strive for justice and peace?
If doves and water and numbers like forty remind us of baptism, may baptism always remind us of these five questions. May remembrance of our baptism call us back to these questions meant to shape our lives; these questions signal our participation in the grace by which we are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ's own forever; these questions which are how we open the gift. May this Lent be for us a time wherein we recover, learn, and remember these questions, which teach us our dependence on Christ; Christ himself, who was baptized for us, crucified, and is risen.
(1) I like to ask children what will be different about them when they are baptized. Will they glow? Will they levitate or pray perfectly? Hear God audibly? Maybe, but no guarantee by virtue of baptism. The only visible difference promised them, and us, is the physical reception of the Body and Blood by Holy Communion. "Eat well and eat often," I tell them. In the breaking of bread, the Church receives the necessary grace to be God's visible People, deposits of grace made possible by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
[Sermon preached at St Christopher's, February 26, 2012]