What Does Baptism Mean to You?

Homily for January 9, 2022
First Sunday After the Epiphany
The Baptism of Our Lord

simone_weil_04_28cropped29Were it possible to invite St. Luke the Evangelist and the early twentieth-century French social activist and mystic Simone Weil to dinner, I would. For while St. Luke and Simone Weil share much in common—both were committed to “lifting up the lowly,” as Luke puts it, to the care of the poor; both had great appreciation for the Holy Spirit—it was Luke who gave us the Feast of Pentecost, and Weil once wrote of the Holy Spirit that she “ felt… a presence more personal, more certain, more real than that of a human being”; and both loved poetry—Luke gave us Mary’s “Magnificat,” for example, and Weil tells how once, when meditating on George Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome…” that “Christ himself came down and took possession of me”—they also have stark differences.

For example, some describe Weil as an anarchist, but Luke was a lover of order: “I…decided…to write an orderly account for you,” Luke writes of his Gospel (1:1). While Weil’s writing is uneven and somewhat impetuous, Luke was a master of his craft who “investigated everything carefully,” he says (1:3). While Weil expressed solidarity with the poor by eating no more than the government’s daily allowance of food for the unemployed, Luke filled his Gospel with feasts and eating (e.g., 14; 16:19–31; 24:30). And while Luke was a “company man” through and through, devoted to the Church, Simone Weil wanted nothing to do with the Church—“I have never for a second had the feeling that God wanted me in the Church… God does not want me in the Church,” she insists.

Which brings us to what might be Luke’s and Weil’s most significant difference, which is: Luke believed Baptism to be extremely important, while Weil despite repeated invitations refused to be baptized. I wonder how the evening would unfold, were they to discover this difference. I imagine Luke, story teller that he is, might regale those present with tales from the early Church, of how “those who welcomed [Peter’s] message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added” (Acts 2:41), or sharing his story about Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch (8:26–40). And I can hear Weil respond, “But, Luke, I know from my time working with people in factories and laboring alongside them in vineyards that many consider themselves to be unworthy of the sacraments.” “Indeed”—and here I quote—“I consider myself to be unworthy of the sacraments…. [for] I recognize within me the germ of all possible crimes.” To which I can hear Luke respond (quoting from his Gospel), “But, ‘The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost’” (19:10) and then maybe telling us his story of how the father welcomed home the Prodigal. To which I can hear Weil say (and here I quote), “[But] I cannot help still wondering… if God does not want there to be some who have given themselves to Christ and who yet remain outside the Church.” And then Luke—for whom (as we can see in today’s lesson from Acts) the gift of the Spirit is connected to Baptism—might say, “But we are both committed to bearing witness to Christ, and without the help of the Spirit, which is received at Baptism, how can one bear witness?” And Weil—reportedly never one to back down—might respond (and again I quote), “[But some of us, like me, might] have the essential need… the vocation… to merge into the common paste of humanity and disappear among them…” so that there may be no “marked barrier…between a practicing Catholic and an unbeliever,” the better to witness to them.

To host St. Luke and Simone Weil for dinner would indeed make for a memorable evening. And I’d like to think that, despite their differences, they might each recognize and appreciate that, for both, Baptism is important, something either to do or intentionally not to do.

Baptismal fontBut enough about St. Luke and Simone Weil; what about you? What does Baptism mean to you? Today of all days—the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, a day on which we renew our Baptismal vows—is a timely day to ask. What does it mean to you (as we will say shortly) to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” What does it mean to you to “persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” Or what does it mean to you to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” What does Baptism mean to you?

I admit that these questions we are about to be asked are not questions I ask myself on a daily basis. And, like most of us, I was baptized as an infant with no choice in whether or not to be baptized. But having been baptized—and having discovered (as Pope Francis says) “that with Jesus life becomes richer” (Ev. Gaud., 264)—here is what my Baptism means to me: I am going to keep coming each Sunday for the Eucharist, which is the “repeatable part of Baptism.” I am going to keep on being here, among us in this ἐκκλησία, because I need the help of a community. I am going to keep asking God for a felt, interior knowledge of Jesus’ love for me because I’ve discovered that I do better when I feel his love for me. I am going to keep asking for forgiveness, because I know I need forgiveness. I am going to do my best to pay attention to the many gifts God gives and to be grateful for them, for I do better when I recognize and thank God for God’s gifts. I am going to keep on giving to God and God’s work, because I’ve discovered that such giving orders not merely my finances but life in a healthy way. I am going to keep looking for opportunities to serve, because I’ve learned that serving Christ is deeply satisfying. That is what my Baptism means to me. What does your Baptism mean to you?

George_HerbertBecause it was significant to Simone Weil, and because it expresses many of the dynamics of Baptism, I am going to leave us with George Herbert’s poem, “Love (III)”:

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                             Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

If we but have eyes to see…

Homily for January 2, 2022
Christmas 2
Luke 2:41–52

When his parents saw him, they were astonished;
and… his mother treasured all these things in her heart.”

deadly-copy-copySome say James Joyce’s “The Dead,” from his collection The Dubliners, is not only his finest short story but the finest short story ever written. Some say, too, that its conclusion is the greatest example in English literature of an “epiphany.” Set in 1904 during the twelve days of Christmas, the protagonist Gabriel attends with his wife Gretta a recurring holiday party given at the Dublin apartment of two elderly aunts. Joyce begins his story slowly but masterfully with detailed descriptions of the arrival of the guests, the snow shaken from hats and shoulders, the arrangement of the china and cutlery on the table, the food served, the dances danced, and in conversation who said what to whom.

The story’s leisurely pace gathers momentum as the guests prepare to leave. Though the others all have gone to the door, Gabriel cannot find Gretta and stays behind to look. He finally finds her. Joyce writes,

[Gabriel] was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase. A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, also in the shadow. He could not see her face but he could see the terra-cotta and salmon-pink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife. She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. But he could hear little save the noise of laughter [ ] on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man’s voice singing. He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the [tune] that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife.

Joyce then turns to what is going on inside Gabriel and Gretta as they are in the cab and finally back in their hotel room: Gabriel is flush with memories from their youth and is wanting to make love; Gretta is distracted and withdrawn. Gretta finally discloses to Gabriel the reason for her distraction: a teenaged love had sung the very same song to her under her window many years ago in Galway; but that young man singing to her on that rainy, winter evening caught consumption and eventually died. “I think he died for me,” Gretta said. Gretta’s revealing a previously undisclosed love led to a series of emotions for Gabriel (and several paragraphs of great writing from Joyce). Here is an excerpt from the final lines in which Gabriel comes to a place of acceptance: As Gretta slept,

Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully on her tangled hair and half-open mouth, listening to her deep-drawn breath. So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her…. He watched her while she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair; and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange, friendly pity for her entered his soul… Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love.

_________________

Here we are during the twelve days of Christmas; here we are in Luke’s Gospel with another story of a party in which guests have left though one has stayed behind; and here we are in today’s Gospel with another epiphany: “When his parents saw him, they were astonished,” Luke writes, “[and] his mother treasured all these things in her heart.”

cj837lgI wonder if the emotions Gabriel experienced upon learning of his wife’s first love, were some of the same emotions Jesus’ mother experienced upon finding the young Jesus in the Temple: surprise, astonishment and wonder; anger and confusion; perhaps fear and even inadequacy. For though the angel had told Mary of the extraordinary nature of her son, their encounter had been some thirteen years ago and was now a distant memory. And today’s incident in the Temple may have reminded Mary, not only of Jesus as an infant but also that Jesus was growing up, that he would someday leave home, and that—as Simeon once told her—this child was “destined for the rising and falling of many in Israel” and would be “a sign that will be opposed” (2:34). This moment in the Temple in today’s Gospel is a moment, then, not only of beginnings but also of endings; it is a moment not only of memories but also of the realization that someday death will come. “Snow was general all over Ireland,” as Joyce metaphorically says of death in one of the “The Dead” ‘s more famous lines. And “a sword will pierce your own soul, too,” Luke writes (2:35).

We have just finished one calendar year and begun another, and I wonder about you. I wonder what memories you might have of the year that is past. I wonder what goes on inside when you consider the future and what it might hold. And I wonder if we, as we live our lives, are aware of God’s epiphanies happening all around. It was at something as ordinary as a holiday party that Gabriel discovered a new depth of feeling for his wife. It was at something as ordinary as a holiday festival that Mary became astonished at her son. If we but have eyes to see, it is in the everyday that God seeks to make God’s self known.

holy-family-iconI pray that, as we on this New Year’s weekend consider the year past and look to the year to come, [I pray that] (to borrow from this morning’s lesson from Ephesians) the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened. That we may see God’s epiphanies all around. That we may recognize in them God’s voice. God’s voice speaking to us words of forgiveness, hope, encouragement and love. God speaking words that—if “snow was general all over Ireland,” and “a sword will pierce your own soul, too”—nonetheless let us know that God is working always and everywhere to heal, raise up, and to bring new life.

God with us

Homily for December 24, 2021
Christmas I

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo Credit: Martha Bancroft

In his recent New York Times piece, “What Do You Say to the Sufferer?” (Dec. 9, 2021) columnist David Brooks tells how earlier this fall after giving a lecture, questions from the audience arrived to him on notecards. “Most of the questions were about politics or society,” Brooks writes, “but one card read: ‘What do you do when you’ve spent your life wanting to be dead?’” “I didn’t answer that card,” Brooks wrote, “because I didn’t know what to say. But [that question] has haunted me, and I’ve kept the card on my night stand ever since.” Brooks continues: “I wish I’d said that I don’t have answers for you, but I do have a response.” Which is: “You are not alone.”

Brooks goes on to describe how in his own moments of suffering, he is tempted to self-isolate and to rob himself of the human contact he needs. He cites the example of Viktor Frankl, who tried to help his fellow prisoners in the concentration camp find a reason to live: “Those who have a why to live,” Frankl said, “can bear with almost any how.” Brooks invokes Jonah and Job from the Old Testament and points to them as “cases where suffering didn’t break [them] but broke them open.” Brooks quotes Thornton Wilder: “Without your wound, where would your power be?” And Brooks says that suffering gives us the gift of solidary: those who have tasted desolation, he writes, “powerfully sit with others in their desolation.”

Brooks eventually comes to the story of Rabbi Elliot Kukla, who serves a congregation in Los Angeles: Continue reading

The Means by Which…

Homily for Sunday, December 19, 2021
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Luke 1:39–55

d4b25ffee1cb3b6268279ebe24774db0-celebrations-iconsBefore we get to this morning’s Gospel lesson from Luke chapter 1, I want first to go to the book of Numbers and then also Genesis.

If this morning’s Gospel tells of Mary’s Visitation to her kinswoman Elizabeth, rabbinic midrash, or commentary, on Numbers chapter 20 tells of another “visitation,” that of Moses to his brother Aaron. In the following passage, from a medieval collection called Yalkut Shimoni, (“The Collection of Simon,” (I, 764)) God asks Moses to help him with the difficult task of telling Aaron he is about to die: Continue reading

A Dazzling Surprise

Homily for December 12, 2021
The Third Sunday of Advent
Luke 3:7–18

saint_luke_the_evangelist_-_iconThose who have been here at Trinity for some time likely will know that, so far, I have not been a fan of Luke. So far, I would have said that Luke’s Gospel and its companion book, The Acts of the Apostles, together present a glossy tourist brochure version of the early Church. So far, I would have said that in Luke all is simply too “orderly” (Lk 1:1). I would have said that in Luke, stories from the earlier Synoptics, Matthew and Mark, are edited and tweaked just a little too much in order to fit Luke’s rhetoric (e.g., compare 9:18–22 with Mk 8:33 and Mt 16:23). So far, I would have expressed skepticism about Luke for either miraculously finding material unknown to these earlier evangelists, or simply inventing stories because he thought they might sound good (e.g., Lk 15:11–31; Lk 19:1–10). So far, I would have said that I experience Luke to be relentlessly cheerful, skewing toward the dramatic, unscrupulous in exaggeration of fact, and willing to “spin” source material however needed so that we his readers might “buy” into his “trip,” as it were. So far, I have not been a fan of Luke.

Did anyone notice I say “So far?” Continue reading

Progress toward Joy

Homily for Sunday, December 5, 2021
Second Sunday of Advent
Philippians 1:3–11

st-paul-in-prison-1627-rembrandt-oil-painting-1If in last week’s lesson Paul asked the Thessalonians, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” in today’s lesson Paul writes the Philippians, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.” Though Advent may be a season of repentance, these two passages from Paul remind us that Advent is also a season of joy.

I have a hunch that you, like me, would like to know how Paul found the joy of which he speaks. Keeping in mind that joy is not merely the passive result of outward circumstances beyond our control but is the fruit of practice, the result of our practicing joy, I wonder what Paul practiced that we might practice if we would know the joy of which he speaks? And by the way, in these two lessons Paul was in extremis, in Thessalonians anticipating the end of the world, and in Philippians in prison and awaiting possible execution. If Paul’s experience is any indication, then, Continue reading

Advent of Christ in us

Homily for Sunday, November 28, 2021
First Sunday of Advent
1 Thessalonians 3:9–13
Luke 21:25–36

all-about-apostle-paul-writer-of-most-of-the-new-testamentThe Apostle Paul was a zealous, intense, often uncompromising and sometimes pedantic man who could write interminably long sentences, may well have spoken in the same, and who—if the Acts of the Apostles is any indication—had a gift for pissing people off. If any of this sounds as though I don’t like the Apostle Paul, let me correct that impression. I love the Apostle Paul.

I love Paul because of what he writes in passages such as today’s lesson from 1 Thessalonians. Paul writes,

How can we thank God enough for you for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?

In this passage Paul shows that (whatever else he may be) he is a man of joy and also of gratitude; he can’t thank God enough for the Thessalonians. Paul continues, Continue reading

King of Love and Truth

Homily preached by the Rev. James LaMacchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
November 21, 2021
Proper 29B – The Feast of Christ the King

Daniel 7:9–10, 13–14
Psalm 93
Revelation 1:4b–8
John 18:33–37

Here we are at the end of another Great Church Year, only to discover once again that our end is also our beginning. How odd it must seem to speak of—let alone to celebrate—a festival of Christ the “King” in the postmodern world, where monarchies of any kind are largely ceremonial and symbolic vestiges of the distant past. And yet, it just may be that this morning’s Gospel evocation of Jesus before Pilate’s judgment seat is a relevant and timely admonition of our own times. Continue reading

Safe from Destruction

Homily for Sunday, November 14, 2021
Twenty Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
Mark 13:1–8

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

part-bookSometimes here at Trinity Parish, I hear music like this coming from the church while I work in my study…

[music sounds in church]

Sometimes the Blue Heron Renaissance Ensemble rehearses here at Trinity Parish, and their music never fails to brighten my day. And I want to get back to Blue Heron and their music, but first, today’s Gospel lesson. Continue reading

A Great Life

Homily for Sunday, November 7, 2021
All Saints’ Sunday

Byzantine School; Icon of The Raising of LazarusIf an extraterrestrial suddenly were to fly into our liturgy this morning, they could be forgiven for assuming that what we are doing is a burial, for this morning’s scriptures are among the same as those as we use for burial. We just heard from Isaiah—“On this mountain the Lord of hosts… will swallow up death forever”—and from Revelation—“God…will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more.” And today’s Gospel is a portion of the Lazarus story from John chapter 11, which we often read at burials. If an Episcopalian extraterrestrial suddenly were to fly into our liturgy this morning, they could be forgiven for assuming that what we are doing is a burial. Continue reading