It’s good to be here today and it’s been awhile. Since the end of October I’ve been taking a kind of sabbatical marking the start of official retirement: time to listen, to rest and renew, to consider and reconsider where life might be going from here on. So I’ve slept late and napped often, I’ve read old books that used to mean a lot and explored new authors I’ve recently heard about. I’ve taken room to be surprised and refreshed, and what I’ve found so far — with at least seven more weeks to go — is that nothing really changes!
I’m ending up in a place very much like where I started when I was baptised in Northern California in late 1967 at the age of 21, so many years ago, and, it’s somehow still brand new! In those days I didn’t know what I was getting into, and I still don’t. But I take that as good news, for the journey of faith takes us on to new ways, by new paths, to become new people and that means we don’t know where we’re going until we get there, and sometimes not even then!
Baptism is odd: you might not even remember your own baptism, but every time you come to church, receive communion, say your prayers, bless yourself, ask God to remember you, you can renew your baptism. It is one of those doors that is always open, inviting us to come into larger life. We might have made it a fairly tame occurrence, but at heart it is a wild gift.
It has to do with turning around, beginning again, seeking a new life with new eyes as a new person born by grace after all that has gone before is dead and gone — and we forget that. In the liturgies for baptism used in the first few centuries of the church the Baptism was generally full immersion and when the Bishop or Priest or Deacon put you under the water they kept you down for awhile, so that when you rose up, and took that breath of fresh air you knew if was fresh and very new! “For” as Paul writes, “if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation,” and we can forget that.
Years ago, the poet, Whystan Auden wrote a Christmas Oratorio called “For the Time Being” and I’d like to use the last three stanzas to highlight three ways I believe we are called to live as newly baptised persons, no matter where we are on our journey with Jesus. Auden starts like this:
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
The Land of Unlikeness can sound like a very scary destination unless we keep remembering that God is always bigger than we think. In my early twenties I remember an English Benedictine named Dom Aelred Graham quoting a Zen Buddhist Patriarch and telling me I didn’t need to keep such a tight rein on my faith and to cherish my opinions quite so tightly. “Can you just trust,” he said, “that God is taking you on a journey and that you can trust God? - You don’t need to control the road or even always know where it is going, can’t you just follow?”
I took a breath then, and said yes, and that enabled me to loosen my ego, my grip, in some ways, just a little, and allowed God to be God anew and let me be new in some ways as well. Then ten years later while visiting a monastery chapel on a quiet evening I had the gift of a wider sense of how God loved me. I used a fictional monk to tell the truth I discovered on that pilgrimage. That monk said:
Allow the possibility that God is not only loveable, but that he is likeable, and since he is, so are you, St. Paul says that we are hidden in Christ, and the reverse is true as well. Christ is hidden with us; the wedding feast, the last supper, crucifixion, resurrection and pentecost are all hidden in our lives as well. We are the life of God acted out in time and space, the grace of God happening outside eternity, God dancing God's dance in perfect time, the epiphanies of God in process of happening, the eyes of God in the process of seeing.
Just let God be God and watch what happens! “You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.”
So Auden goes on to write:
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
And that reminds me of what a friend told me a very holy woman, famous spiritual adviser and writer, said to him in the early 1980s. “If you want to know where God is,” she said, “go where the tension is!”
And it was in the late 1980s I started to believe that the Eucharist and Baptism are patterns and living parables like so many other sacramental moments in life where God says, “Where do you find me here?” It might easy to find holiness and hope in the times when God says Yes, but it can turn into a different and difficult and sometimes more valuable journey when life says No. For I am convinced (and most days I believe) that it is in the Kingdom of Anxiety, or Fear, or Depression — in the moments where hope falls short and life falters — where God can best lead us beyond everything we know into a deeper embrace of that eternal love which will renew us. Some thirty years ago after a youth group meeting I remember talking to a suicidal teenager who felt like he had hit a wall. I said, “Please don’t give up, God has larger living answers to things you’ve never even questioned yet; just hang on, and let life get bigger!” Just honour anxiety or fear, desperation or depression as doors open to a new creation, to a hitherto unknown great City, a wider world of wonders, than you would ever have expected.
And finally Auden finishes:
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
In the Fourth Century Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria wrote, "The Son of God became man so that we might become God… He became what we are, so that He might make us what He is.” And that’s where it all gets tied together.
Baptism washes us up, makes us fully human as Jesus is fully human, so we can live as he did, as honest and fragile flesh and blood in the ephemeral shadowed journey between life and death; in good times and bad, with all the broken endings and tentative beginnings, in all the moments that hope like heaven and all the times that hurt like hell; in tears and in glory, walking all the way with Jesus: that’s exactly where our lives and God’s love meet here and now and always.
So, over 47 years ago I was baptised and that’s what I’ve learned on the way: that Baptism and Eucharist and our very own God-given lives are gifts we are given for the journey, as well as the place where we start.
May you always know that God is with you on the way.