Archive for January, 2018

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Epiphany 4, Year B                                             January 28, 2018

Holy Baptism of Beau Sterling Graham

“Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?”[1]

This morning, we welcome family and friends who have gathered to celebrate the sacrament of Holy Baptism for Beau Sterling Kirby. For those of you who do not know, Liz Newcomb Kirby grew up at St. Philip’s. Graham hails from Virginia, and I had the joy of officiating at their marriage a few years ago. Like many here, the circle of life continues, and today is a joyful day.  I would also like to note, for visitors and newcomers, that we have been doing a special message series during this Epiphany season—a Harry Potter series. While I generally focus on scripture readings for a sermon, today, there is only one verse among the four readings that really apply to today’s reflection: Psalm 111, verse 10:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.” [2]

So an awe of God, who creates us all, who redeems us all and who sustains us all, is something that I believe we are born with. The evidence for that is that not every time, but many times, in the moments just after I have poured water on a baby’s head three times in the sacrament of Holy Baptism, that child gets a faraway look in his or her eyes, and looks past me. Not at me. Past me. Sometimes I have looked over my left shoulder. No one standing there. So say what you will, but I believe that child remembers, maybe actually see, some recent, mysterious connection to God and to Home—that eternal and true Home from which we all come. To which we will all return. I believe that when we baptize an infant or toddler, they still understand the Psalmist’s mystery and awe. In fact, I suspect babies or toddlers still carry more than a little of God’s wisdom in their tiny bodies.

I turn now to the Book of Common Prayer, because today, I want to emphasize the truth that what we do here today in this sacrament is not a casual matter, not just a photo opp for baptismal gowns, delicious cake, and a family dinner. Holy Baptism is serious business. We do not “manage” it. We do not wave a wizard’s wand and proclaim, “There. Baptism managed. The Christian faith managed. Now, what’s next?”  No.

unnamed            Baptism is a serious—even dangerous—act of faith that we embody for ourselves or for our children. If we take baptism seriously, we must understand that words matter. Actions matter. In this service, we “renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” We “turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as [our] Savior.” We “promise to follow and obey him” as our Lord. Those are strong, courageous words. Those words, spoken out loud, heard and witnessed by a community of faith, are also potentially dangerous, because they signal that this child is transformed. Changed. So we never know what might happen next in God’s kingdom when God transforms people. Expect the unexpected, I say.

We Christians believe that when we follow the example of Jesus of Nazareth into the waters of baptism, that changes us. From that moment on, we belong to Jesus. We follow Jesus. We no longer ask “What would Jesus do?” We learn what Jesus did with his own light and love. Then we just go out and do the same thing—in our own broken, human ways, of course.  How we learn to follow Jesus is, of course, not contained in the few moments of Holy Baptism. It is a lifetime journey that requires practice, nurture, support, challenge. Not just by parents or grandparents, either. Godparents play a critical role here.

Best-Dumbledore-Quotes            One of my clergy colleagues and friends has written an excellent book entitled Teaching Faith with Harry Potter. In this book, Tricia Lyons notes that there is a crisis of godparenting across all denominations in the United States.[3] What does she mean?  Example: If you are, or have been a godparent, please raise your hand. Next question: “Are you proud of how you have godparented? Is it an active part of your faith life?”[4] If the answer to those questions is a rather shame-faced “No,” then do not fear. Tricia insists that the church has let you all down, because we have no ongoing formation for people in the pews about how that happens. More on that in a minute.

For the moment, I turn to Harry Potter for some amazing examples of godparenting. Did you realize that “the word godparent is mentioned over fifty times in the seven [Harry Potter] books”?[5] J.K. Rowling never mentions anything resembling a religious connection to this role; however, many people are godparents to Harry.

benjamin-dickerhof-290634          The first, very negative, example, is the Dursley family. Because Petunia Dursley is Lily Potter’s sister, this family has become Harry’s “Muggle”guardians, and he must live with them during holidays. However, the Dursleys are unloving, negligent, and abusive. For example, in Book Five, The Order of the Phoenix, we read this description of Harry: “He was a skinny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who had the pinched, slightly unhealthy look of someone who has grown a lot in a short space of time. His jeans were torn and dirty, his T-shirt baggy and faded, and the soles of his trainers were peeling away from the uppers.”[6] Hardly a description of a child who is loved and nurtured, right?

Nimbus_2000_1          Who are Harry Potter’s true godparents—the ones who are faithful, strong, courageous, and present to him, no matter what? In the Chamber of Secrets, Harry finds out that Sirius Black is his official godfather. In the Prisoner of Azkaban, Sirius sends a Firebolt racing broom as a Christmas present. At that point, Sirius sends it anonymously, yet it is just what his young godson most wants, if Harry is to become a successful Seeker in Quidditch matches.  Later, when Harry does learn who his godfather is, he depends on Sirius to show up, to give him good counsel, to be dependable and loving. Yet Sirius Black is not the only godparent Harry has. It takes more than one person to help support, nurture, and teach young Harry.

The same is true in our Christian faith practices. For example, in the baptism service in our Book of Common Prayer[7], I ask parents and godparents for specific answers to specific questions that involve repentance, turning, following. Then I turn to the faithful who are gathered and ask: “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this child in his/her life in Christ?” Hopefully, when we get to that place this morning, I will get an enthusiastic response.

It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a Christian village to raise a Christian child. In Harry Potter’s village, he has many significant people who are faithful and loyal to raising him.

Minerva            One is Minerva McGonagall, the stern, not-to-be-fooled-with Transfiguration teacher who finds subtle ways to support Harry. Another is Professor Albus Dumbledore, the Headmaster of Hogwarts. In a scene in the Chamber of Secrets, Lucius Malfoy is about to take Dumbledore away from Hogwarts. Dumbledore pauses just before leaving Hagrid’s cottage. He looks towards Harry, Hermione and Ron, all hidden under the Invisibility Cloak. Dumbledore says, slowly and deliberately: “You will also find that help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.”[8] Throughout Rowling’s books, Dumbledore is a wise, dependable father figure for Harry. Yet there are more people in Harry’s village who love him, who are “stand up” kinds of people.

In the book I mentioned earlier, Tricia Lyons writes about a powerful godparenting scene that is not one we would ordinarily think of as godparenting. In chapter Four of The Deathly Hallows, Harry needs to be transported to a safe house before his seventeenth birthday. For upon the date of his seventeenth birthday, the rare protective magic that has surrounded the Dursley home will expire. Harry’s life is in danger. One night, a group of friends—members of the Order of the Phoenix—show up at 4 Privet Drive. Their plan to protect Harry during transit is that six of them will drink Polyjuice potion in order to turn into Harry Potters. Then there will be seven Harry Potters, not just one, and hopefully, Voldemort and his followers will be fooled.

856f3e68-e32c-4419-b9c1-a62bc6eb3959_560_420            Mad-Eye Moody, one of these six, and the eldest, warns that “the dangers are real and lives could be lost.”[9] Ironically, in the ferocious battle which ensues, Moody himself is killed, as is Harry’s beloved owl, Hedwig. George’s left ear is irreparably wounded. Hagrid is knocked out. When the group finally reaches safety at the Weasley home—stunned, weary and injured—they are all greeted by yet another of Harry’s godparents:  Molly Weasley. Molly has not physically been with the group as they rescued Harry.Instead, she “is waiting breathlessly, faithfully, hopefully, and prayerfully at the Burrow,” She has kept the light on, left the door open, kept nourishing food ready, and watches the horizon, “ready to run toward anyone walking toward her, not unlike the father of the prodigal son.” [10]

“Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?. . .Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?” These questions are critical questions to raising someone in a life of faith. What is required of us—all of us—is doing specific things for the children for whom we take responsibility—whether we are official godparents or not.

We may give them presents, but we must also give them presence.[11] We give them presence by teaching them. Parents teach them by making a commitment when you wrestle sleepy children out of bed on a Sunday morning—despite protests. You grab a quick breakfast (or eat in the car), get them dressed, trying your best to get them to Sunday School by 9:00. That may not look like a gift-present, but trust me, it will be over a lifetime of faith development.

Parents, grandparents and godparents can commit to teaching children the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm. Both are pieces of scripture. You can teach them—by example—how to hold hands and say a prayer of thanksgiving before a meal. You can sit with them as they go to bed, encouraging them to say a prayer before going to sleep. Children learn by doing, and by supporting them in these faith practices, we help nurture, strengthen—yes, even challenge them in a life that says yes, I am committed to following Jesus Christ.

No one waves a magic wand and becomes a good Christian person. That is not some magical moment. It is a lifetime journey, one that calls us to practice, as you would practice a sport or as you would practice the skills you use in your daily work lives.

Remember how clumsy or slow you were when you were just learning a new sport—like baseball or lacrosse? Remember the number of wrong notes you hit as you practiced a musical instrument? Or how, just out of your degree program, you took halting steps in your chosen vocation? You aren’t supposed to be perfect at this Christian life either. You practice. Over and over and over again. And none of us gets it “right” until the moment we get Home.

AlbusDumbledore           In the meantime, we ask for help, and we get help. For Albus Dumbledore spoke Truth in at least two different places. First he told Harry, “You will also find that help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.” At the end of Part Two of The Deathly Hallows, Dumbledore meets Harry beyond the point of earthly life. Both are dressed in white. They face each other on a white train platform at Kings Crossing. Dumbledore changes the quote now, telling Harry, “I would amend my original statement. Help would always be given, at Hogwarts,

to those who deserve it.” Then he continues, “Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living. Above all, those who live without love.”[12]

On this day of Holy Baptism, live with love. Unconditional, nurturing, courageous love. Remember that in God’s eyes, we are all God’s beloved sons and daughters. We all deserve God’s love, because we are part of God and God is part of us.

Now, all godparents, please stand up. Now, even if you are not an official godparent, please stand up.

I hereby challenge you, in the sacred Order of Jesus Christ, to renew your own faith this day, to step up, to be present to all who need your godparenting skills and love. If you do that, I promise that not only will someone else’s life be transformed. So will yours. Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] From the service of Holy Baptism in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, 302.

[2] Psalm 111:10.

[3] Patricia M. Lyons, Teaching Faith with Harry Potter: A Guidebook for Parents and Educators for Multigenerational Faith Formation, (New York: Church Publishing, 2017), 130.

[4] Ibid., 130.

[5] Ibid., 132.

[6] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, (New York: Scholastic Press, Inc., 2003), 1.

[7] From the service of Holy Baptism in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, 302-303.

[8] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets, (Scholastic Press, 1998), ch. 14.

[9] Idem, Teaching Faith with HP, 137.

[10] Ibid, 139.

[11] Lisa Kimball, “Being Godparent: A Dialogical Hermeneutic Study of Godparenthood” (PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 2007), 84-88. Referenced in Lyon’s book Teaching Faith with Harry Potter.

[12] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Part II (Scholastic Publishing, 2007), ???.

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Epiphany 3           Mark 1:14-20

7b908b_32867cc52dfc4643a56d9aff61a96768~mv2            How do you know the Chosen One? How do you know which leader to follow? Jesus of Nazareth is not the first person in scripture to be a chosen leader. God chose Samuel to be a prophet. God chose Saul to be king. Then God apparently thought better of that decision, and chose David instead. At one point in Israel’s history, God chose a Persian king, Cyrus—a foreigner—to lead God’s people.

Then John the Baptist strides out of the desert, calling people to repent, turn around and walk a new way. Be baptized. Live differently than the ones who think they are chosen, the ones who live in the centers of power. Yet John is clear that he is not THE one. No. He points to Jesus. Scripture never tells us just when Jesus understands that he is God’s Chosen One. God’s Anointed One. God’s Messiah. I have wondered about this for years. Was it when he was twelve years old, arguing with the teachers and elders in the Temple—so lost in his passion for God, he forgot to go home with his parents? Was it at the Jordan River, in that moment when the Spirit ascended on him like a dove and he heard God say “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”? Was it during those forty days and nights after his baptism, while he was out in the desert being tempted? We do not know the answer to that. We know that Jesus asks people “Who do people say I am?” “Who do you say I am?”

However, in the beginning, he takes up John’s work. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Just how sure Jesus is of his own identity in these early days of ministry, we do not know. My own sense of this question is that as Jesus lived more fully into his calling, and that calling was affirmed in many different ways—either by people supporting him, or opposing him so strongly—he knew.

Identifying someone as the Chosen One can be tricky, of course. Early in the Harry Potter series, Harry has no clue who he is, really. He knows he is James and Lily Potter’s son. He knows they were killed in some mysterious way. Yet when Mr. Dursley takes the Dursley family to a remote island in one final attempt to get away from the increasing barrage of all the invitation letters to Hogwarts the giant Hagrid arrives. In the middle of a horrible storm, Hagrid breaks down the door of the cabin, and calmly lights a fire with his umbrella. Hagrid offers Harry a birthday cake for his eleventh birthday, then tells Harry exactly who he, Harry Potter, is. He is a wizard, like his parents. Harry had no clue, because the abusive Dursleys never wanted him to be special. Yet Harry was special. Somehow, as a baby, he had miraculously survived a murderous attack by Lord Voldemort—an attack that had killed both of his parents. When word spread about this, the wizarding world knew he was special. They hoped he was the Chosen One—the one destined to destroy Lord Voldemort.


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The Baptism of our Lord   The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton@St. Philip’s in Laurel

07 January, 2018                                     Baptism of PMAB

Readings:  Genesis 1:1-5    Psalm 29               Act                      Mark 1:4-11


Preaching Series:  “Down the Hallway of Faith with Harry Potter”

January 7 – February 11, 2018

 If you are a Harry Potter fan, you know that there is no overt rite of Holy Baptism in any of the books or movies. In fact, although J.K. Rowling is a Christian—in fact, an Anglican Christian—she never writes explicitly about the Christian faith. Rowling has drawn millions of people into a magical world. Yet her Christian connections to wizards and Muggles. . .(a Muggle is someone with no magical powers and doesn’t know about the world of wizards)[1]—her connections are subtle.

Yet while “the Harry Potter scenes do not have a direct religious or spiritual aspect. . .they [do] focus on ‘rebirth’ or renewal, taking characters (and readers) to new places, plot, and conflict. . .[This is] similar to how baptism brings Christians into a new life of Christ.”[2]

Baptismal watersWhat does the sacrament of baptism mean? Is it important? Is it just a sweet ceremony that gives us a chance to coo over babies and enjoy cake with family and friends? Even other traditions have some kind of rite for babies. The Jewish faith has the bris ceremony, performed on an eight-day old male, either in a home or synagogue. More evangelical faith communities don’t do infant baptisms. However, many have adopted a “naming” or “dedication” ceremony, to recognize babies in their congregations. (more…)

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