There’s a definition of what it means to be a priest that has always daunted me. A priest it has been said is “a keeper of the mysteries; a keeper of the sacred mysteries of our faith. People often confuse the idea of mystery with the idea of secret. But I can assure you that as a keeper of the mysteries of the faith it is not my job, nor is it any other priest’s job, to keep the mysteries of our faith a secret. Yes, as an ordained pastor, one of my responsibilities is to be a keeper of the mysteries of our faith. As a keeper of the mysteries I am responsible for ensuring that the community I serve holds those mysteries sacred. We do so, by remembering that the reality that we call God works in, with, and through those mysteries.
Baptism is considered to be one of the mysteries of our faith. Baptism is a sacrament of the church and by definition a sacrament takes ordinary stuff – water – mixes that ordinary stuff with the Word and in the combination of water and the Word you have a tangible means of God’s grace. God’s grace is revealed in the sacrament of Baptism by the act of our gathering together and mixing the stuff of the earth with the Word. We have only two sacraments in the Lutheran church Baptism and Eucharist, and both of those things are sacraments because we gather together take ordinary stuff – bread and wine, or water and mix it with the Word of Jesus the Christ and in the water, the bread and the wine the means of God’s grace is made visible to us.
So, there you have it the technical definition of the sacraments, the mysteries of Baptism and Communion, in which the reality that we call God works in, with, through and under. But like all technical definitions of mysteries, these definitions fail to capture the essence of the mystery that lies at their very heart; the mystery of the reality that we call God. As a keeper of the mysteries, one would think that a priest, a pastor, ought to be able to reveal, by way of definition something of the nature of the reality of the Divine. The truth is I have no real definition to offer you of this reality that we call God. I read once, I wish I could remember where the wisdom of a priest far more skilled than I who declared that he’d given up trying to explain God to anyone because in the end, he said, “I cannot lead you to God, anymore than anyone can lead a fish to water.”
The most important thing I learned in seminary is that “I don’t know is an answer.” The truth is the more we learn the more we know that we don’t know. But this unknowing can be so unsatisfying, precisely because we believe that God is the one in whom we live and breath and have our being, we want to know the very nature of the One who is the ultimate Reality.
Now, if these words haven’t already become so vague that the veil of unknowing has begun to make any tangible means of God’s grace seem invisible and so beyond our grasp, let me leave the theology behind and tell you a story. One thing I do know for sure is that the shortest distance between the questions of what it means to be human and understanding our humanity is a story.
It happened on a Thursday night. All week long I’ve been thinking about what I would say about the Baptism of Jesus and I wasn’t getting very far. It had been a busy week, with lots of things to do as programs around the church geared up after the lull of the holidays. After teaching Confirmation Class, I arrived home at about 9:30. The house was empty because my wife Carol was off visiting the grandchildren. It had been a long day, and I quickly got into my pajamas, switched on the fireplace, and settled into my recliner in front of the television. The PVR was full of shows for me to watch and the opening scenes of Grey’s Anatomy dragged me into the complications of lives I would never have to minister to and I began to relax. The drama of medical emergencies mixed with the complications of various love affairs pulled me into a world where there was absolutely nothing expected of me and I was loving it right up until the moment that the telephone rang. Modern technology means that the name of the person calling usually appears on right there on the TV screen so that I can decide whether or not I’m going to answer the call. When the phone rang I expected it to be Carol calling to say goodnight, so I’d already pushed the pause button, expecting that after a quick goodnight I could get back to my shows. By the time I realized that there was no name on the TV screen but only a phone number, it was too late and I was already saying hello. The caller was someone I’d heard from only once before. They were already halfway through a very nasty tale of woe when I realized that they were asking me to come out into the cold dark night.
It was a call for help. It was a call that I had every right not to respond to. I mean the caller wasn’t even a member of the congregation. It was late. I was already in my pajamas. I was annoyed. I mean really. Couldn’t this person have called me before I left the church? What gave them the right to think that I would come out so late, in the dark, for someone I’d only met once before? The audacity. The sheer audacity of such a request was enough to make you scream. Give me a break.
I listened to the caller’s plight with precious little sympathy. I asked her to hold on for a moment so that I could try to think of a way to help. What I really meant was, “Is there anyone in Newmarket that I can disturb at this time of night and ask them to go over and help?” Some of members have offered to help in this way in the past. Their names went through my mind as I tried to avoid leaving the comfort of my warm snug. It was only the thought of how annoyed I was to be disturbed at such a late hour that kept me from disturbing a member of the congregation. So, I told the caller to hold on and I would be there in about half an hour.
I was cursing to bet the band as I went upstairs to get dressed. The air was positively blue. I was angry. I was going out in the middle of the night. It was ridiculous. Hell, it was dangerous. Yeah, we were going to meet in a public place. But why the expletive, curse, fill in the blank your self, why the ………blanket blank, should I?
I certainly wasn’t going out of love for my neighbour. I was ticked. I was going because it’s my job to go. Sure I knew that I had every right to refuse to go. But if I didn’t go, my shows would be ruined. How could I possible sit there and enjoy my shows when I knew that someone needed my help. If I didn’t go, I knew darn well I wouldn’t get any sleep.
Jesus was getting a real good tongue-lashing as I searched for something to wear. There’s a joke that some of my colleagues and I often share. Not a joke really, but a line that hints at the ridiculous nature of some of the stuff we are expected to do as clergy. All too often, I’ve looked desperately to the heavens and gasped, “The things we do for Jesus!”
I wasn’t going out there into the darkness to embody the love of God, I was going out there to avoid feeling guilty. I had absolutely no altruistic motives what so ever. I just didn’t want to be tossing and turning all night feeling guilty because I had very sensibly refused to go out on a call that I had every right to make wait until morning. I was in a foul mood and this person wasn’t going to get more than the motions from me. I had no compassion to give. I went into the bathroom to splash some cold water on my face and that’s when it happened.
I bent over the sink and something, someone, somehow, penetrated my self-righteous indignation. As I cupped the cold water to splash on my face I remembered a lesson that I’ve taught Sunday School students, Confirmation students and from this very pulpit. I looked down at the water and remembered the instructions of Martin Luther. Every morning, when you rise for your morning ablutions, as you splash the water on your face, do it three times, once in the name of the Father, again in the name of the Son, and a third time in the name of the Holy Spirit and as the cold water hits your face three times remember your baptism. Remember that you were baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Remember who you are. Remember whose you are.
As I watched the water leak from my cupped hands, I began to laugh at my own annoyance. As I splashed once in the name of my Creator, twice in the name of Jesus the Christ, and a third time in the name of the Spirit that breathes in me, I remembered who I am and whose I am as the water grounded me in the reality of my humanity.
I didn’t stop at three splashes. I went on to three more splashes. I cupped cold water three more times only these three times I did not repeat the words, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. With these three splashes I repeated my name. At our baptism we are named. And so remembering my baptism I said my name, the way my mother or father used to say it when they were annoyed with me, “Dawn Lesley Hutchings.” One of the strange things about middle names is that apart from legal documents, they are rarely used outside of church. Except when we are in trouble. For when we get into trouble, parents find our middle names very useful indeed. I always knew that I was done for when my mother called out my first and middle name.
To hear Mom call me, “Dawn Lesley” was all it took to strike fear into my heart. I hated to hear my parents call me “Dawn Lesley.” Dawn Lesley was the kid who is always getting into trouble. To this day, if my mother is annoyed at some part of my behavior all she has to do to indicate her disapproval is to say, “Dawn Lesley” and I am immediately a child, her child. Even though Dawn Lesley is indeed my “Christian” name, I never would want to hear any kind of god call me Dawn Lesley, cause if I hear that, I’ll just assume that Divinity itself not well pleased with me. What I want the Ultimate Reality to call me, is by the term of endearment that my parents used when they wanted to communicate just how much they loved me. You see my Dad’s Welsh and my Mom is Irish, and for them, the most endearing way to call someone was simply with the word love. Even though, they live thousands of miles away, I can clearly hear them call me, “Love.” On the phone, “It’s how are you love.” Or, “I miss you love.” “When are you coming home love?” Or, “Don’t worry love.”
There is no more tender way in the world for a parent to refer to their child. Except for boys. My parents rarely called my brother, “Love.” No, they have a different term of endearment for my brother. It too is uniquely British. Where Mom and Dad called me “Love” they called my brother, “Son.” “You okay Son?” How are you Son?” “Don’t worry Son.” “It will be all right Son.” “We love you Son.”
So, maybe it’s just my British heritage, but when I read about the Baptism of Jesus, I can’t help but marvel at the fact that when Jesus comes up from the waters of baptism, and the heavens open up, and the Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice from heaven is heard to speak, you don’t here that voice say, Jesus name. You don’t hear, “hey everyone this is my boy Jesus; Jesus of Nazareth.” What you hear instead are the words beloved and son, followed by the declaration that a loving parent is well pleased with a beloved son. “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I AM well pleased!”
“SON.” “LOVE” “I AM delighted with you!” What could be better than that? “SON, LOVE, you please me to no end.” What could be better than to hear the God who is love, call you LOVE?
That’s what happens each and every time someone is baptized. I may have gone into the waters of baptism as Dawn Lesley, but I came up out of those waters as “Love.” Each of you came up out of those same waters as God’s LOVE, God’s beloved with whom God is well pleased.
But it doesn’t end there, not for Jesus, and not for you or me. We come up out of those waters as God’s beloved children, and we have lives to live. Each of us has to lead the life of the beloved. And it doesn’t take very long for us to begin to doubt that we are God’s beloved. Some of us find it increasingly difficult to hear God’s voice. But let me assure you, that just as my parents never tire of calling me LOVE, God never tires of speaking to us. It doesn’t end with our baptism. It may be difficult sometimes to hear, but God continually says to each of us, “You are my beloved daughter.”
“You are my beloved son.”
“I love you with an everlasting love.”
“I have molded you together in the depths of the earth.”
“I have knitted you in your mothers’ womb.”
“I’ve written you name in the palm of my hand and I hold you safe in the shade of my embrace.”
“I hold you.”
“You are mine and I am yours.”
“You belong to me and I belong to you.”
“You are safe where I AM.”
“Don’t be afraid.”
“Trust that you are my beloved.”
“LOVE that is who you truly are.”
One thing that truly mystifies me is that the voice of God is so soft and gentle. Scripture calls it a “still small voice.” From the Hebrew “bat qol” which translated literally is the “daughter of a sound.” The daughter of a sound is an intimate voice. It comes from a very deep place. It is soft and gentle. Each of us needs to gradually hear that voice. It tells us who we are and whose we are. That still small voice, that daughter of a sound, is where the spiritual life begins. Our spiritual lives begin by claiming the voice that calls us the beloved. Once we claim that voice the relationship grows.
People ask me all the time, how to go about developing their spirituality. It begins with listening and hearing the voice and claiming what the voice says as our truth. Then we need to live the life of the beloved.
One of the marvelous things about the baptismal rite is that we declare to the baptized that they are ordained to the priesthood we all share. At your baptism each of you were ordained to the priesthood, the priesthood we all share with Christ. We are all keepers of the mysteries of the faith. We are all called to love as we have been loved. That’s the good news.
It was close to midnight when I got home on Thursday night. I hadn’t done very much at all, just offered a listening ear, a drink and a little food. I took far more from our meeting than I gave. I can’t lead anyone to God any more than any of you can lead anyone to God, anymore than we can lead a fish to water. For we are all just like fish in water, each of us live and breathe and have our being in God.
All that we need is to notice: to live fully, breathe deeply and to be all that we can be, for we are LOVE.