The Rev. Matthew William Kozlowski
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
The following sermon was preached at several services, on the weekend that Ross and Liz Kane presented their son Stephen for the sacrament of Holy Baptism. The sermon, as one might expect, contained various personal touches related to the family and the occasion. These have not made it into the text below, for as they say: one had to be there.
What is Baptism? Baptism is, of course, a sacrament. And like all sacraments, it involves a gift of grace from God. Now what is so exciting and fascinating about all sacraments, and especially Baptism, is that the gift of grace from God does not happen all at once. It unfolds.
To be specific, we believe that there is grace given at the moment of Baptism. We believe that God really is moving and active. When the water is poured. When we invite God in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. When we make the mark on the newly baptized persons forehead, “You are sealed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” There is grace in the moment of Baptism.
And, there is also grace in what happens next. That is to say in what happens tomorrow, and the next day… and in the days and weeks and months and years to come. As the people around the newly baptized person begin to teach, and to nurture, and to model, and to help that person grow into the Christian faith, to become a disciple of Jesus Christ.
So, grace at the moment of Baptism, and grace in the unfolding process that follows. And as it turns out, we believe that most of the grace actually occurs in that second part – in the long unfolding process. That’s where most of the grace is given by God.
A wise priest named Franc Wade has a different way of explaining up this whole concept. He simply says: “Baptism does not work like penicillin.” Now that needs some explaining. What he means is that penicillin works all by itself, regardless of what we think or believe about it. So if a person has an infection, and you give that person penicillin – assuming it’s the correct dosage and the bacteria is not resistant – then the infection is going to go away. You can basically walk away and the penicillin will do its job, all by itself.
Baptism does not work like that. Baptism works because we believe in it. Baptism works because we participate in it. Baptism works because we teach the newly Baptized about the Christian faith. Because we help them to develop ears to hear God, and a heart to follow Jesus. Baptism works because we model the Christian faith. In the case of children, because we tell them, as often as possible, the Jesus loves them more than they can ever imagine. We tell them, as I often tell my own two daughters, “If you had been the only person to ever live, Jesus still would come and died and rose again, just for you.”
These tasks are for parents, and godparents, and family members, and extended family members… and the whole worshipping community. You probably remember the part of the Baptism service, when the officiant turns to the congregation and says, “And you… you who witness these vows. Will you do all in your power to uphold this person in his or her life in Christ?” And we all say, “We will!” And in a very really sense, at that moment in Baptism, we all become godparents.
Now there is usually a two-pronged reaction to this. The first reaction is excitement. We say, “Wow, what a blessing. I have a responsibly for raising a person in the Christian faith.” And then there’s the second reaction. “Oh my word! I have a responsibility for raising a new person in the Christ faith??”
And so it is that we approach Baptism with both excitement, and a bit of fear. A fear in our heart of heart that we don’t, have, what, it takes.
And that is where the gospel passage from today comes in.
You know the story. Jesus on the hillside, the feeding of the thousands. It shows up in every gospel, and in several of the gospels, more than once. And notice the narrative thrust here. It’s not that the disciples say, “Jesus we don’t want to feed these people.” (Although that might be going on in their minds). But the narrative thrust is that the disciples say, “Jesus we don’t have the resources to feed these people.” In John’s gospel it’s Philip who says, “Jesus there’s no food, and even if there were a place to buy food, six months wages would not be enough. We just, don’t, have, what it takes, Jesus.”
This is so powerful, and it’s so human. Because we do this all the time in our own spiritual lives. We say, “Jesus I’ve love to be closer to you, but I’ve never had much experience with prayer…”
“God I want to be more in touch with your word and your truth, but I’m not a Bible scholar. I don’t have much expertise…”
“I’d love to be more forgiving, but I don’t think have the heart for it…”
“I’d love to do more ministry or inspire children, but I’ve never had that kind of dynamic personality…”
We come to Jesus with all the things that we don’t have. And what does Jesus say in reply? Well… I’lll tell you what he says to the disciples.
He says, “What do you have?” … “Whatta ya got?” … “You’ve told me all about what you don’t have. But what do you have?”
And here John includes that precious detail. That it’s a young boy who comes forward, and offers the five loaves and the two fish. And Jesus says, “Yea – that’s good! Give them to me =).” And he takes the gifts in his loving and powerful hands, and lifts them up, and blesses them (don’t forget that part, he blesses them), and then he begins to distribute. And lo and behold, there’s not only enough, but more than enough.”
Jesus says to us, “What do you have?”
“Do you have… a little faith?
That’s good! I’ll take it”…
“Do you have… a little hope?
Good… give that too”…
“Do you have…. do you have… a little love?”
I’ll take it!”…
And he takes all these gifts in his loving and powerful hands, and he lifts them up. And he blesses them. And then he gives them back to us, in ways that are more than we could ever ask or imagine.
When I was a priest in Florida, we had a partnership with a homeless ministry called LAHIA. That’s L-A-H-I-A, which stands for Love and Hope in Action. They were doing just tremendous ministry: feeding three meals a day, matching up folks with job placements, and housing situations. Even the little things: they would bring in hairdressers and barbers to give people haircuts.
Well when I met them, they had recently moved into a new facility; a new building. And it was great: they had more space, a bigger kitchen… even a yard in the back with a little pond. But they’d tell you that they really had no business getting into that property, because they couldn’t afford the rent. But they prayed about it, and they really felt that God was opening a door. So they went for it and thought, “Well maybe we’ll be here for about two months, and then we’ll have to figure something else out.”
Well two months went by, and they made the rent. And a few more months went by, and they made the rent. And a few more months went by, and they kept making the rent. They told me that on more than one occasion, the rent was due the next day, and they didn’t have it. But wouldn’t you know, the next day an unexpected donation check showed up. And on two occasions, the amount of the check was the exact amount they needed to make up the difference for the rent. Those were the times that they just looked up and said, “Ok God – we got it – we’re supposed to keep going here!”
I get email updates from LAHIA. And I’m happy to tell you that they are still there, and serving thousands of meals every week. Matching up dozens of people with jobs and housing. I’m also happy to tell you that they’re not writing those rents checks any more. Because God provided enough money for them to buy that facility: the building, the property, the whole thing. And they continue to do life-changing, transformative ministry in Stuart Florida.
So… I thought we were supposed to be talking about Baptism, right? Well, we are. We’re talking about the whole Christian life. As we approach Baptism; as we approach the Christian life… we come to Jesus, in faith. And we come to Jesus with whatever we’ve got. Even if that’s just a handful of faith, hope, and love. And Jesus will take it. And in the midst of the challenges of life, Jesus will do what he has always done:
provide… provide… he provides
…often in ways that are beyond what could have asked or imagined.
I want to close with a word of advice to the parents of the newly baptized. But it’s really advice for all of us, whatever our particular challenges or whatever our Christian path.
“Parents: I’m not telling you that you have everything you need to raise this child in the Christian faith. Because you don’t; no one does. But I am telling you that you’ve got… a good little bit. And if you give it to Jesus, he’ll make sure that it’s more than enough.”
Author’s Note: I am indebted to the Rev. Dr. Todd Cederberg for his wonderful description of how Jesus asks us for a little bit or faith, hope, and love.
Rev. Matthew Kozlowski is the CMT’s resident blog guru and homiletics master.