God’s Free, Loving Gift: The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
In the name of God who loves you more than you can possibly ask or imagine. Amen.
What is your earliest memory of being initiated or inducted into a group that, as you were joining, also involved some sort of ritual or ceremony? I invite you to journey back to your childhood to consider those earliest memories. For our choristers, it may be when you were inducted as a Cathedral chorister. For our acolytes, maybe when you were inducted to be a Cathedral acolyte. My earliest memory goes to the Girl Scouts. I don’t remember a lot about it, but I know I got a pin and I know I worked zealously to earn badges—and who is surprised, those of you who know me!
Moving on, my first real induction that I remember was in high school to the National Honor Society, and frankly, that was mostly about scholastic achievement, and they threw in leadership and character and service for good measure. I remember that we wore robes, it involved a candle, and I got a pin. Knowing this group before me, I know that there are some outstanding alumni amongst us and probably “hall of famers” in various disciplines, as well. Accomplishments along the journey of our life that were incredibly important to us at the time, and we probably have drawers full of pins, badges, buttons and so on to mark those occasions.
But for many of us, I suspect our very earliest initiation is one that we don’t remember. It was our baptism and that, my friends, undergirds everything—the very most important one, when parents and godparents or perhaps we, if we were old enough, proclaimed that we wanted to be members of the household of God. This is such a major part of what we will participate in today when we baptize five beautiful children following the sermon.
Part of what distinguishes those other initiations or inductions in our lives was they represented particular achievements, earned or perhaps gained through recognition from our peers. Baptism is God’s free, loving gift. You can’t earn it. You don’t have to take a test for it. You don’t earn badges for it. It’s God’s gift. John Westerhoff described it this way: “The truth that Holy Baptism reveals has to do with God, God’s love for us, and our relationship with God. Baptism makes us aware that God loves each and every one of us with a love that is unmerited, unconditional, and never ending. There is nothing we humans can do, or need to do, to make that love available to ourselves or anyone else. Baptism is not necessary for a child or adult to be the subject of God’s love. But it is the means by which we become aware of a love we might not otherwise be able to appreciate or benefit from.” God’s gift, for you and for me—freely, graciously, lovingly given.
In the gospel lesson today, Jesus takes the initiative to be baptized by John, and despite John’s protests, Jesus persists and in so doing becomes a part of our human experience of the household of God. Upon rising from those waters, for all to hear, God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” My dear friends, each and every one of us is beloved by God. We don’t earn it. We don’t have to achieve it. Or test for it. It’s God’s gift to you and to me. I think that’s such an important lesson to be repeated and understood and to claim for ourselves because the world that we inhabit would give us so many different messages that would cause us to doubt our belovedness—our being a part, an important part, of the household of God.
I was reminded of the necessity of repeating this truth when I remembered a story that was told in one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors, Rachel Held Evans. She wrote a book called Searching for Sunday, Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Each chapter covers one of the sacraments and sacramental rites because she revealed that it was really the sacraments that brought her back to church. She was a brilliant spiritual writer taken from us way too soon. She died a few years ago at the age of 37, and I miss her voice and I miss her writing.
In her chapter on Baptism, she tells the story of Andrew, and she says that Andrew was more excited about his upcoming baptism than anyone she had ever known. She was with him at a conference where she had been a presenter and met with him after her presentation. She knew him because he was a faithful follower of her blog, and so she wanted to know a little bit more about why he was so excited about his baptism. He even invited her to come to his baptism! She replied that it would be a long drive from Tennessee to St. Louis. But she essentially said, tell me your story. What church did you grow up in? Andrew pulled out his phone—at this point in his life, he was 19 years old and in college. He started to scroll through his phone, clearly looking for a photo. He finally landed on it and handed her his phone. She enlarged the image, and she could clearly see that it was an editorial in a church newsletter, and it was an editorial about same-sex relationships that called them an abomination and sickening.
The man’s photo to the left of the column looked vaguely familiar. She handed the phone back to Andrew and Andrew said, that was written by my father, who’s a pastor, after I came out. Then he told his story. He’d grown up in a very conservative church that he loved and felt loved him. But he started to encounter problems when, as an adolescent, his friends were starting to notice girls and he was starting to notice boys, and he’d been taught that that was a horrible sin. He struggled and prayed and begged God to take it from him, but it wouldn’t go away. His father had never baptized Andrew because he told him he wasn’t good enough; he wasn’t holy enough because he hadn’t manifested enough of the fruits of the Spirit to be earning the rite of baptism.
Well, Andrew went off to college and he found a wonderful church that embraced him and welcomed him in as a beloved child of God. He felt that support and that love that he’d been longing for. In his freshman year at Thanksgiving, he made the decision that he had to be honest with his family. His church family was praying for him as he made this journey. When he arrived home, he came out and it didn’t go well. The last thing his father said to him was that he was going to hell. His family cut him off.
Andrew went back to college, embraced by this community, and now he was just on the verge of experiencing his baptism. Rachel Held Evans then understood why he had invited her because, you see, his church family—that household of God—was the only family he now had. As she wrote, “Sometimes the church must be a refuge even to our own refugees.” Well, the big day came for Andrew’s baptism and although she wasn’t able to be there, she prayed for him. His church taped the service and she saw that he gave a little testimonial before his baptism, and he said this, “I put off baptism because I felt like I was in a state of sin, like I wasn’t good enough or fit enough to be baptized. But then I realized that baptism is done at the beginning of your faith journey, not in the middle or the end. You don’t have to have everything together to be baptized…you just have to grasp God’s grace. God’s grace is enough.”
My brothers, sisters, and siblings, if I convey nothing else to you today, it is that you are not only enough, you are beloved, a beloved child of God, precious in God’s sight, no exceptions. God loves you and so do we. Amen.