Wednesday, July 18, 2012

from On Baptizing Hadden

by John Shelby Spong

It is a rare treat in the life of a bishop in general and in the life of a retired bishop in particular to participate in a pastoral act like a baptism. It normally has to come at the invitation of a family member or a very close friend. Seven years ago I married a couple, the groom of which had been such a friend, growing up together with my stepson Brian and, therefore, very close to my wife Christine, close enough indeed that all of his life he had called her “Mom.” When he became engaged to a lovely young woman named Cushman they asked if I could perform their marriage ceremony at a summer chapel, named All Saints by the Sea on the coast of Maine. I accepted this invitation and so I shared in that transition moment with them and their respective families. When this couple’s first baby arrived it seemed important to them for me to baptize this young lady at the same summer chapel in Maine.

Preparing for this baptism I read over the baptismal liturgy from my church’s prayer book, and I embraced once more just how antiquated and even offensive some of its language still is. With my imagination engaged I decided that for the sermon at this service I would try to frame just how this baby might react and respond to the words being used in the church’s baptismal liturgy. The result of that exercise follows:


Dear Friends:
Today, July 1, 2012, I was baptized in this church. My family and friends gathered from as far away as Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, Vermont and New Jersey to be present for this occasion. It was a happy day for me – and I hope it was for others of you who attended.

Let me tell you, however, that it was also a strange day in many ways. In that baptism service you said some words that sounded pretty weird to me. You asked my parents and godparents to renounce some things in my name. They had to renounce the world, the flesh and the devil.

How can you renounce the world when it is July in Maine – the sky is blue, the sea is calm, the temperature is moderate and the world seems to be wonderful?

How can you renounce the flesh when it is through the flesh that we experience the world – our fleshly eyes see its beauty, our fleshly ears hear its sounds, our fleshly taste buds enable us to savor the wonders of the sea? With our fleshly arms we embrace one another and with our fleshly lips we kiss those we love. Who among us really wants to renounce the flesh?

Let me suggest to you that what you have done in the baptism service is to literalize some ancient biblical stories and you have drawn some conclusions from those stories that I suggest you might want to revise and even to challenge.

That story states that when the work of creation was ended, God not only pronounced it good, but also complete – so complete that God could take a day off, and that is how the Sabbath was created. It is hard to understand why one should be asked to renounce the world that God pronounced complete.

There is a second story in the book of Genesis, however, in which the biblical writers sought to account for the presence of evil. It was out of this story that we developed the strange idea that human life is fallen, sinful, evil, distorted and broken. I must tell you that it sounds very strange to me to listen to a worship service in church that tells me over and over again how evil I am, that I am a miserable sinner, that I am not worthy to gather up the crumbs under the divine table, that there is no health in me and that I must spend lots of time in church begging God to have mercy on me. How many times does one have to beg God to have mercy in a Sunday service? How many times do you have to tell me that I am fallen, infected with original sin? Have you ever known anyone to be helped by being told how terrible they are? Why do you think God’s greatness is affirmed by denigrating our humanity?

I do not think that Jesus came to make us righteous either. People who are very, very moral and very, very righteous seem to know a great deal about judgment, but almost nothing about loving.

Jesus also did not come to give us the “True Faith” – to make certain that our religion is better than any other, that my faith is the only true faith, my church the only true church and that no one can come to God except by my pathway. People who think that they have the “True Faith,” always seem to put their wagons in a circle and start shooting at those with whom they disagree.

In John’s gospel Jesus suggests a very different purpose that perhaps the framers of the baptismal liturgy somehow missed. Jesus says: “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly.” That is, I believe, what Christianity should be all about – giving life. So as I identify with this faith tradition today in baptism, I ask you to help me to become fully human; help me to live fully, to love wastefully and to be all that I can be.

Thank you for listening to my letter and thank you for loving me just as I am.
Hadden Charlotte Brinegar

And because she is a good little Episcopal girl she ends her letter with AMEN.

Has the time to come to bring the liturgy of baptism into dialogue with all that we now know about human life?  I believe it has.


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