If you are familiar with liturgical traditions and are visiting today, you may be a bit surprised to find that we are draped in white with the Pascal Candle prominently displayed. No, you did not miss Christmas, and, no, we don’t celebrate it today and not gather tomorrow night and Tuesday to celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation. Similarly, if you came today wanting to hear some mourning about Watertown, you might be a bit surprised that we are lighting the candle of joy and proclaiming that joy is now within us.
Our life together as a parish today is interesting for a number of reasons. We will be celebrating the baptism of one of our younger members. Yes, traditionalists, it is customary for the Church to wait until Epiphany 1 to baptize new members at this time of the year. But we have a bit of a unique situation. We have a soldier on leave. We have a baptismal candidate who wanted dad to see him get baptized. It was an easy call for me and the bishop once I asked him for permission. This was the only weekend we could baptize Logan and have dad here. I’m not a big fan of private baptisms, but this one is a bit more deserving of a public service. As Terry has been deployed, it is you gathered here who have helped Logan figure out his way around here. As a group, you have already helped Logan begin to grow into the full stature of Christ. His being here today is evidence of your witness and prayers. But more about that in a minute.
If you are a visitor this morning, and not part of Logan’s family, it may seem a bit weird, a bit early, for us to be celebrating while a few families still must bury loved ones as a result that tragedy that has caused a nation to mourn. In truth, the baptism was not planned with the events of Watertown in view. This was planned well in advance as dad was scheduling a leave from the military. As it turns out, though, there could be no better response by a church in the aftermath of such events. In fact, this is the response of the Church. This sacramental act, combined with the Eucharist, is the worship which reminds us every time we gather that, in the end, God wins.
Last week, in the immediate aftermath of the shootings, we talked a bit about the world into which Jesus was born and the world to which He said He would return. If I did my job well last week, I reminded you that the world into which Christ was born was very much like our own. Economic issues plagued the Empire just as they plague us; there were questions about taxes; wars and what Romans would call acts of terrorism were a common experience; diseases turned into plagues like our flu’s; natural disasters were every bit as deadly as today. I could probably go on and on, but you get the idea. All of those evils, we know, were the result of sin. The sin of humanity impacted creation as well as humanity.
Just as today, humanity tried to rise above the conditions it found itself in. Like us, they tried to control nature; like us, they tried to “fix” themselves. Like us, it might have seemed for a while that they were making progress. Then tragedies would strike which reminded them of their impotence. To be sure, some were blind to the fact that in many areas they made no progress. Thankfully, and mercifully, our Lord did not leave us to our own salvation. I often ask people who, during pastoral conversations, admit that they find the idea that Christ died for them offensive how they would atone for their sins. Keep in mind these are not evil people who think the world was made for their pleasure. There are people who are trying to live lives worthy of God, who want to believe that God died more for others than for themselves. The problem for such people is how to measure the effects of their sins and what to do in response.
We don’t know the full effect of our sins. We just don’t. I might insult you and later come to realize that I need to seek your forgiveness. Once I do that, have I fully atoned? What if you left here and went home and yelled at your friends or family because I had put you in a bad mood? Isn’t that a consequence of my sin? Am I culpable for your sin? And if they, in turn, bite the head off another, is that not another consequence of my sin? One of the problems with sin is the ripples? Where do they end? How do we account for them all? For people trying to atone for their own sins faithfully, it can drive them nuts. To put it in terms of our national discussion in light of Watertown, what was it that caused the shooter to storm a school and kill 20 kindergartners? 20. I admit, I am the parent of 7, and our 7 can drive people nuts from time to time. There have been times where I’ve used Bill Cosby’s threat -- I brought you into this world and I can take you out! -- but killing 20 kids is unimaginable. Was it mental illness? Was it a fight with his mom? Was it the divorce? Did he play too many violent video games? Was he mad that the death star did not have enough signatories on the White Petition page? Was it a combination? What? And if you were a faithful Jew, or a Jew who had converted to the early Church, you can see how the torah might be misused to place the emphasis of your salvation on your sacrifices. The author of the letter to the Hebrews picks up on that understanding quite well in our readings.
God understands that we cannot figure it all out. There really is, in many cases, no ways for us to atone for our sins against other humans. Then, just when we think we may have that problem solved, we are reminded that all our sins against others are sins against Him. How do we atone for our sins against Him? What do we offer in exchange for our sins? All that we have is His. Anything from this world is His. Anything we would offer is already His. What good is that? Fortunately for us, what He demands of us is not burnt offerings. The sin offerings and burnt offerings are not what He wants of us. No matter how many we would offer, we would still need to offer more as we would continue to sin. What He wants, instead, is for us to repent, to allow His Son to stand interposed between our sin and His wrath, and go about life in humble service and thanksgiving. That is the answer to the problem of our sins. He came not to judge but to save. While the world scrambles to assign blame and make up for or get away with mistakes, He comes and loves and saves.
In many ways, today’s service serves as the perfect answer for the questions plaguing people in the aftermath of Watertown. As a society, we think we have figured out that we must blame and then work to eliminate the cause. We at St. Alban’s understand that because Logan’s father is still caught up in our effort to “fix” the problems unveiled by 9-11. Eleven years after those tragic events, Terry is “on the ground” protecting us and working to dismantle the forces of Al-Queda and the Taliban. Eleven years. Are we safer? Perhaps. Because of the heroic actions of men and women like Terry, you and I are safe here to go about our business with little thought about our solution to the problems our national enemies present. But, sitting here eleven years later, do any of you think we are truly any closer creating on earth what is in heaven thanks to those military efforts, particularly if our soldiers returned home tomorrow for good?
I am not speaking as a prophet, but my guess is that eleven years hence we will still, as a society, be grappling with the events of Watertown. There will be extended fights about the gun laws, about caring for the mentally ill, about the security of our schools, and any number of tangential issues. Will random violence be eliminated by 2023? Unless our Lord returns, sadly, no. Sin will still be present. Evil will still be permitted to seduce.
It is in that certainty that the Church goes about its business of growing the kingdom of God here on earth. The message that you and I are given is not just one of judgement, though the judgment of sin is certainly part of what the Gospel proclaims, but one of love. Christ did not enter the world to condemn it, but to save sinners. He did not come to call the righteous but the sinners. For God so loved the world -- that is our message! And, as a counterpoint to how the world and society behaves, we go and make disciples of Christ one individual at a time. And we baptize them, as our Lord instructed, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In this sacramental act, we are buried into Christ’s death and called to recognize our selfish failings and sin in the presence of that holy, righteous, loving God we rightly call Lord. Were the story and act to end there, we would certainly have some comfort, but our Lord’s instruction is not yet complete. We are raised from the water, as Christ was raised from the tomb, into new life, a life lived not for ourselves and our benefit, but for the glory of God! And in that raising, we are promised that we will share in eternal life with Him in the world to come, and we are gifted power to accomplish His will while we sojourn on this earth. And those gifts and powers are given not to make us gloat, but to serve and love others into that same kingdom.
Today, as a church family, you begin to see the fruit of some of your labors. For weeks now, Logan has been asking / nagging me if this was the week. Do I get to be part of the family today, Fr. Brian? For a while we have been saying “not today, Logan, but soon.” Logan is at that curious age where one cannot be sure of what he knows and what he doesn’t. I am certain, though, thanks to his grandmother’s efforts to get him here and your willingness to help teach him about God, that something significant has begun in Logan’s life. You, as his brothers and sisters in Christ have nourished this beginning. Though Logan has every reason not to really want this day, he has done nothing but look forward to its arrival. He might not be able to articulate the theology as well as some adults, but we have witnessed a child come to our Lord. Logan understands his Father in heaven loves him, that his Father in heaven wants nothing but good for him, and that this sacramental act makes his acceptance of that offer of our Lord complete. I have listened to him far too long not to have noticed that. And you, you sitting here about to remind yourself of your oath to offer him encouragement and instruction in his walk with Christ, have had the important role of also demonstrating your Father’s love in Logan’s life. You have put up with his, some would say boyish while others would say loud, behavior in church. Some have been gentle with his enthusiasm, while others have intentionally been silent for fear of accidentally putting out that spark. Each of you though, insofar as you hand in shepherding him to this day, has been a living testimony that God, that love, wins. No matter the forces of the opposition, no matter the apathy, no matter the complacency, no matter the fear, no matter the powers and principalities which draw us away, in the end love, expressed in the life and death and resurrection of our Lord Christ, wins!
It may seem insignificant to a nation or community dealing with such a tragedy as we see each night on the news. It may seem weak and powerless to a man or woman who is called by his or her government to risk his or her life each day on the battlefield. But to us in the Church, it is the hope to which we are called, the promised secured on our behalf by His flesh and His blood. We can face tragedies like 9-11 and Watertown and all kinds of more personal ones in our lives certain of our redemption, even if death itself rears its head to claim us or our loved ones. And that, brothers and sisters, is the promise and power of the Gospel! We can do nothing in ourselves, but in Him we can transform the world. Loving our Lord with all our strength, soul, and might and loving our neighbors as ourselves: that is how He calls us to live, through us living that life to which He calls us is how He reaches the world. Ultimately, it is that power of the cross, and the redemption it signifies, and the power of the empty tomb, and the authority to which it testifies, which will lead to no more Watertowns, no more 9-11‘s, no more sadness, no more tears.
Logan Mikel, I do not know how much you understand what you are doing today. There will come a time in your life, I hope and pray, when you confirm the oaths taken on your behalf when you are a teenager. Until that time, I would simply like to thank you. Thank you for reminding us of the enthusiasm for this life which you want to embrace, and thank you for sharing this special day with us. Take a quick look around. These are men and women and some younger ones, too, who are called to walk with you as you formally begin your relationship with your Father in heaven. Mark them well. From them you will learn of the stories of God’s saving embrace, and, God willing, one day you will share those same tales with others who come to Him in faith. Yes, Logan. You have a job in this family. In this family there are no observers. There are only disciples of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Now, the candidate for Holy Baptism will now be presented . . .