When I was sixteen years old, I went on a trip to Washington DC, called Close Up. It promised a closeup encounter with our nation’s government, a week filled with touring national monuments and departments, speaking to politicians, and getting a close view of how things work. Our group was paired with a group of high school students from Texas.
On my very first evening there, I got into the elevator and one of the Texas students followed me. He was, perhaps, the most breathtakingly handsome boy I had every seen (bearing in mind that I attended a girls only high school). He seemed to be staring at me. I stood there wondering if I should say hello or introduce myself or something. Then he gestured toward the cross hanging around my neck and said: “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”
I had just been confirmed at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church by Bishop Swing just a few weeks before. I knew the right answer…so I looked at him and said, rather lamely, “Uh, yeah….” Then the doors opened and we went our separate ways.
I have thought a lot about that question since then. It’s specific and yet hard to define. And it’s not one we ask too often in the Episcopal Church…at least not in that exact way. At our baptism, we or someone who is standing up for us does answer three similar questions:
Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
Answer: I do.
Question: Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Answer: I do.
Question: Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
Answer: I do.
And at this moment, I regret that I didn’t have the presence of mind to give Shawn (for that was his name) that answer: I do.
At our confirmation, there is one question:
Bishop: Do you renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?
Candidate: I do, and with God’s grace I will follow him as my Savior and Lord.
Those “I do’s” point to a personal answer and a personal relationship. But what does that really mean? How do we live that out?
Today’s readings have a them that stick out like a golden thread: God loves us like crazy. God loves us in ways that invite us to respond back.
From Isaiah: Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.
From the Psalm: The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.And from Jesus’ own baptism: The heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
God is inviting us into a personal relationship through Jesus Christ (to use those uncomfortable words from the elevator) and our job is to respond in personal ways. Our job is to respond in ways that use our gifts and talents. Our job is to love God and know in a deep and abiding way that God loves us, with our faults, failures, and stumbling efforts, without limit. Knowing that God loves us allows us to love each other… to live out our baptismal promises:
- to continue in the apostles’ teaching,
- to persevere in resisting evil,
- to proclaim by word and example the Good News,
- to seek and serve Christ in all people,
- to respect the dignity of every human being,
- and to strive for justice and peace among all people.
These promises, lived faithfully, transform us and put us in relationship with God and each other. It gives us a different way of loving. These promises allow for unexpected and profound things to happen.
I saw a movie last week called the Green Book. The movie is based on a true story. Set in the Deep South in the 1960s, it follows a tour between African-American classical and jazz pianist Don Shirley and Tony Vallelonga, an Italian-American bouncer who served as Shirley’s driver and bodyguard. The title refers to a travel guide published in that era that listed the motels and restaurants on the road that served black people.
The movie breathtakingly chronicles how two men with completely different experiences, both talented and yet fallible, learn from each other and become lifelong friends. (As an aside, I came out of this moving wanting to see it again and take everyone I know along with me…It was that good.)
What they have in common is that each lives by a clear set of principals, a code. (At this moment, I am thinking that would could call our Baptismal Covenant our Baptismal Code and not be far wrong.) The musician is living caught between two worlds—accepted by neither the black community nor the white. He works to respond by always focusing on dignity. And yet he is lonely, and he drinks too much, and he lives with hard secrets. The bodyguard, meanwhile, works to take care of his family and is angered by injustice when he sees it. At the same time, he is uneducated, crass, and sometimes myopic. In the end, both become better men, truer versions of themselves because they know each other.
That is what true intimacy (which literally refers to closeness and familiarity and having a personal relationship) does. When we are intimate with God, we become the best version of our best selves. When we take that faith into the world we help each other remember who we are and to live into that. We see things in new ways. We focus on how we are alike—in deep ways—rather than how we are different in superficial ways. We see each other’s humanity and also the grace that fills each one of us. We see each other with the eyes of Jesus Christ.
And, when we finally hit that moment, we are unable to do anything but love each other. Not care in spite of who they are but because of who they are: A beloved child of God. We won’t be stopped by the color of their skin, their politics, their gender identity, their sexual identity, their ethnicity, their financial profile, their educational experience or anything else. We will care because God loves this person as much as God loves us. We then must love them as much as we love God. It’s a new kind of synchronicity that happens when we get close up with God.
Preached by the Rev. Hailey McKeefry Delmas at the Church of the Epiphany, San Carlos, on January 13, 2019.