This sermon is why I'm an Episcopalian

Photo by  Rob Holland

Photo by Rob Holland

This is the sermon delivered by The Rev. Richard Paxton on April 26, 2015, the date of Felix's baptism at Grace Episcopal Church.

Whenever I begin to formulate a sermon, I often start by consulting Bible commentaries. I like to see what biblical scholars are saying as I ponder their meaning myself.

In the case of today’s readings on this Good Shepherd Sunday, I consulted a few commentaries, and a recurrent theme kept cropping up—in fact, a recurrent adjective:  “superfluous.”

Repeatedly, scholars apologized in advance that their commentaries on these bible passages were superfluous. You know what that word means:  “superfluous” describes something that is so unnecessary that it could easily be done away with, like a fifth wheel on a car.

The image of the LORD as the “my shepherd” in the 23rd Psalm, and the image of Jesus as the “good shepherd” in today’s Gospel, are so well known, are so belov’d, are such powerful imagery, are such powerful metaphor, that to comment further on them would be superfluous, or worse:  my preaching might compromise the abundant power found right at the surface of these Bible passages.

Sometimes I wonder if savvy priests haven’t considered such matters when they decide to assign preaching away to the deacon on Sundays like this!

I do believe we pew-dwellers get this idea of the LORD being our shepherd -- a shepherd who leaves us neither wanting nor lacking any single thing, who gives us gentle rest, a refreshing nap in the grass beside a gentle brook; who serves a marvelous banquet for us, right here in front of our enemies; who shepherds us right through those dark shadows of the deadly valley; who brings us home to our safe dwelling in the same way any caring shepherd would.

And I furthermore believe that we get the image of Jesus as the good shepherd. For me, it’s always the banner or stained-glass window bearing the image of that bucolic scene showing Jesus, shepherd’s staff in hand, bearing a sheep draped over both shoulders--gently carrying the once-lost creature back to its fold.

So, lest I become superfluous, all I’d like to say about today is that this seems like a really great Sunday to get baptized! --particularly for a little baby who hasn’t the first clue what is about to happen.

Thinking of Jesus as shepherd is also a great way to think about Baptism, particularly Baptism of an infant.

We might raise the question (and believe you me many people definitely do raise the question): Why would we rush infants into this sacrament?  

Many of our brother and sister denominations actually reject the practice.  They argue that Baptism should be entered into only by those who make a conscious, mature decision to reject Satan and to walk with Christ. It’s a valid argument—an argument that understands the role of faith in Baptism.

On the other hand, some other traditions justify infant baptism as a means of ridding the child of what they define as “original sin.”  They argue that all humanity is born into a natural state of “sin” stemming from the “fall” of Adam back in the beginning. The baby needs to be washed of this sin, and ASAP.

I have a tough time with that concept.  It is perhaps well thought-out theology; but who among us, viscerally, can look down at the miracle of a newborn child and honestly say,“Aren’t you a precious little lump of original sin?”

So, why baptize an infant?  Well, it is important to understand what the sacrament is all about in the first place.

The BCP definition (on p. 858)—expound on Catechism (p.845)

Q: What is Baptism?

A: It is the sacrament by which God adopts us as God’s children, And makes us members of Christ’s body.

Q: What is required of us at Baptism?

A: It is required that we renounce Satan, repent of our sins, and accept Jesus as our Lord and savior. Since clearly an infant can neither renounce nor repent, --much less accept Jesus-- the Catechism asks the next logical question: Why then are infants baptized?

A: They are baptized so that they can share membership in Christ, and redemption by God. But knowing the reader won’t be quite satisfied by this, The Catechism asks the next logical question: How are promises for infants made and carried out?

Answer: Promises are made for them by their parents and sponsors, who guarantee that the infants will be brought up within the Church, to know Christ and be able to follow him.

But after all the arguments for and against infant Baptism, after all the theological wrangling and disagreement, after the Catechetical reference and the questions and answers contained therein …

It all boils down to this:

You cannot escape the overflowing waters of grace that come from the LORD our God.

Whether we choose to be baptized or not,

Whether we decide to reject Satan or not,

Whether we decide to accept the Jesus story (or not), the floodwaters of God’s grace inundate us nonetheless.

And so we baptize Felix.  We flood him with the grace of God’s love, we symbolically drown him into the death of Christ, and we raise him out of Noah’s floodwaters into the new world, a restored world, a resurrection world.

A world in which, yes, the LORD is his shepherd, and a world in which, yes, Jesus Christ is his good shepherd. But also a world in which this entire community of faith becomes a shepherd to Felix— in such a way that he will never recall a time when we were not his shepherds.  

There’s a great reason to baptize a baby: He will never recall a time when, you, Church, were not his shepherds.

Sarah and Nicholas, Griffin and Amos and family, godparents, you religious educators, and you--each and every member of Christ’s body in this room—you now take on Christ’s role as Felix’ Good Shepherd.

Let us all be mindful then, that this Baptism in a few minutes is not some magic act; that the waters are not some supernatural potion that will protect him from all harm in this life.

In time, Felix will learn what sin is.

He will sin himself.

He will suffer disappointments and hurts, and be subjected to many injustices, a few bad teachers, maybe some bad friends, and as Murphy as my witness: even a bit of rotten luck here and there as he comes up in the world.

But Felix will never remember a time when the grace of God was not there for him.  

He will never remember a time when he had to choose whether to avail himself of God’s love.

No, for Felix, God’s grace came unconditionally,

Without price,

Without condition,

Without a doubt,

Without a beginning, and 

Without an end.

God’s love was always there for Felix…let’s acknowledge that… starting right now!