Sermon for Georgia’s Baptism (August 31st, 2014)
I am a terrible swimmer. I can tread water for about 10 seconds before I’m gasping to stay afloat. And yet I’ve married a man who is basically a fish. Tyler loves the water. And so earlier this month when his grammy took us all to Hawaii, he convinced me to put on a snorkel and to wade into the Pacific with him.
Now, you may or may not know this, but the Pacific is wild, filled to its brim with dangerous stuff. Over the course of our family’s 10-day stay on the island, we had all kinds of scary run-ins with the water. So, by the end of our time there, irrational though it may seem, I had the sense that the ocean was trying to kill us. So I was pretty scared as I strapped on that snorkel!
We make our way out; I’m gripping Tyler’s hand for dear life as he teaches me how to float with each wave. And then lo and behold, after a few minutes of this, my body starts relaxing. I even start enjoying it. Perhaps you can see where this is going…so just as I get comfortable, just as I think, “huh, I could see why Tyler likes this so much” – I see the expression in his eyes change.
“Ok, Natalie,” he says, trying to keep panic out of his voice while looking over my shoulder, “there’s a really big wave coming…you’re going to have to dive right now! “I don’t know how to dive!” I scream, as he is forced to push my head directly into the wave to save me from it. The force is so immense, it tears us apart from each other – and with no lifeline, I am, for a moment, alone, no idea which way is up and which is down as the ocean covers and thrashes my body about in the surf.
For just a moment, I wonder if I’ll ever see the surface again. For just a moment, the water takes me – and it’s as exhilarating as it is terrifying. For just a moment, I think I’m sinking, before I realize I’m actually in flight.
That’s the thing about the water: it surprises us with vulnerable and dangerous flight. It’s terror and it’s beauty. It’s death and life; loss and hope and sacred light.
Moses knew something of this terror and this beauty. Our Old Testament passage this morning starts simply enough. Moses is toodling around the desert with his sheep when an angel of the Lord suddenly leaps out of a miraculously burning bush, basically serving as the warm up act for the main event. Moses turns around to see what’s going on, and here’s the bit I love – the passage says, “When The Lord saw Moses had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush.” “When” the Lord – It’s basically like God’s been chilling out, waiting patiently – humbly even – in the bush for Moses to stumble upon and see him.
It’s a beautiful picture of how the mundane nature of everyday life can all of a sudden turn terrifyingly holy with very little warning. God is always waiting patiently in the water, in the fire, in the bread and in the wine, in everything around us, really, to be found and then to speak, to call us to attention. God can make ground holy in an instant and, then, as Moses shows us, it’s time to take off your shoes.
God can make ground holy in an instant, and then we lose track of what is up and what is down. We become terrified…not because God is bad but because God is so good. We become terrified because when God speaks out of the water and the fire, the bread and the wine, or any little thing around us, when God speaks to us then the life to which we are called far exceeds any we can imagine.
When the ground all of a sudden becomes holy, we find ourselves doused with purpose; in the holy water our lives are changed as we become utterly disoriented and launched into the life of faith.
Because the same thing that’s true of the water is true of our God: she surprises us with vulnerable and dangerous flight. She’s terror and she’s beauty. She’s death and life; She’s loss and hope and sacred light.
This morning we’re baptizing Georgia. We’re taking her into that water to meet our God. And as I see her sitting there in the dress my grandmother made for my and my sister’s baptisms, I’m struck by just how impossible it would be for me this morning to offer you anything like a formal churchy theology of this ritual.
I think that instead what I have offer you this morning really are the theological musings of a mum and soon-to-be co-disciple in the life of faith with my daughter who’s struggled really to figure out how to give that daughter back to the God who gave her to me.
It’s one thing to choose the life of faith for yourself, and an entirely other thing to try to choose it for somebody else. So as I prepared my heart for Georgia’s formal entry into the church today, I felt anew my grief at just how broken and sinful the church that I love really is. As I imagined baptizing her into the glorious communion of saints across space and time, I felt anew just how unsaintly we as Christians often are.
And so the first reason I struggled to bring her to this water was the once again palpable realization of just how self-serving and power-grabbing the church has, in different times and different places, been. And I wasn’t sure if I really wanted her to be a part of all that.
As Christians we’re utterly complicit in and beneficiaries of global colonization projects that are not just facts of history, but which are an ongoing reality. And we don’t even need to look to India, the devastating legacy of Apartheid in South Africa, which hits close to home in my own family, or the role played by European Christian colonialism in setting up today’s violent mess in Israel/Palestine.
We only need to look to the ground on which our own feet rest in this moment, ground that will hold up the baptismal font where Georgia will enter the family of God; ground that is holy for us, but which was holy for the Anishnabek people, specifically but not only the Mississaugas of New Credit first, and which remains holy ground for them to this day, despite their exile from it.
Christian mission projects have wiped out indigenous practices, languages and peoples here in Canada and across the world, and far too many of our well-meaning service projects continue to do so today. Most days it feels to me like the only thing keeping pace with the structural racism in the church is our structural sexism, which is so intimately wrapped up with our structural homophobia it’s often difficult to tell them all apart.
So I pause, I really hesitate at the idea of baptizing Georgia into a worldwide communion of Christianity that is just as likely to hold up and sanctify her ethnic and cultural privilege as it is to ask her to give it up or give it away. At the same time, I pause, I really hesitate at the idea of baptizing Georgia into a worldwide communion of Christianity that in various insidious ways is going to teach her over the course of a lifetime that as a girl, she matters less. And I pause, I really hesitate at the idea of baptizing Georgia into a worldwide communion of Christianity that draws lines around its capacities to celebrate whomever she loves.
It’s one thing to choose commitment to the life of faith for yourself – it’s another thing entirely to choose it for someone else. So as I struggle to carry my child to the font this morning, I realize that’s what we’re baptizing her into – we’re baptizing her into THE STRUGGLE.
Because the life of faith, the struggle for faith, requires vulnerability. It’s flight is dangerous. Faith is terror and beauty. It’s death and life; it’s a constant struggle with loss and hope and sacred light.
Like Moses in the desert, these waters call Georgia to choose a harder path, to teach us how to walk that path as we teach her, as we all walk it together. The passage we heard read from Romans sets Georgia, in her baptism, and all of us in ours, on a lifelong struggle in a faith that exceeds what Tyler and I or any one of us can wish for her alone. It calls her to a way of living that is bigger than her own preferences, and bigger than mine and Tyler’s or any of ours too.
As her mother, I’ll want Georgia to be safe, to be comfortable. As her fellow disciple I pray she’ll experience danger and discomfort, that suffering will make her squirm into action, that injustice will make her rage for what’s right.
As her mother, I want her to be whole. But as her fellow disciple on the road of faith, I pray that her heart will be broken, broken enough to be able to weep with those who are weeping so that it can big enough to rejoice when others are rejoicing.
I pray that through this baptism, as a disciple of Christ, Georgia, and all of us alike, will love beyond the borders of the acceptable so that she and we can show hospitality to strangers and bless our enemies wherever they arise.
And I pray that through this baptism, as a disciple of Christ, Georgia will develop the humility and wisdom to actually recognize evil so she can hold fast to the good, that she’ll never lag in zeal for justice.
As her mother and her fellow disciple, I pray that the ardent spirit of God in Georgia will teach me through her and her through us how to be patient in suffering, how to persevere in prayer, and how to have the capacity for hope that the sins of the church can be repented and be healed.
I’m her mother by her birth, but in her re-birth this morning I pray that Georgia will choose to be a fellow disciple of Christ with me, so that we’ll be able to struggle, to labour together in the Spirit to bring into being the goodness that I know the church has to offer the world.
The second reason I struggled to get Georgia into the water this morning actually relates to this distinction between birth and rebirth, and to this idea that the life of faith is struggle, that it’s a kind of labour.
In the months after Georgia was born, I found myself puzzled – and by puzzled, I probably mean really, really angered – by the idea that her first birth was somehow less than or not as good as the second. I suppose I’d been rejecting the idea that sin enters the world through birth, and grace through rebirth in baptism for a long time in my faith already, but birthing Georgia really clinched it – because her birth, to me, was pure grace, an act in which she and I and grace were one.
Preachers don’t often take on the topic of childbirth from the pulpit, and there are some really good pastoral reasons for this. There’s a solid chance on any given Sunday morning that someone in the pews wants or had wanted to be a parent, and for various medical or life circumstances, can not or could not be. For the eight-year-long journey Tyler and I experienced with infertility, that was us. People who spoke about parenthood as the one true window onto Divine things made the exclusion I felt from such mysteries even more painful.
So I want to tread very carefully this morning with this story: pregnancy, labour, childbirth and childrearing can provide powerful experiences of God; they can provide rich insight into what it is to be human. But they don’t necessarily provide such experiences and insights – and they aren’t the only or even the deepest paths to the same lessons.
And yet, they’re worth talking about from the pulpit in part because such patently woman-centered experiences aren’t typically spoken about from the pulpit, even as they also aren’t the sum of what it means to be a woman.
Like the water, like our God, like our faith – childbirth too takes vulnerability, and it’s dangerous flight. It’s terror and beauty, death and life; loss and hope and sacred light.
For just over 38 weeks my body grew Georgia’s body, my soul grew her soul – and we existed together as something between one and two creatures, contiguous, continuous, fused in spirit and flesh. I knew she knew I loved her because my blood carried that message into her blood. I remember realizing how insufficient words would always be to the task of carrying that message of love to her once our hearts no longer beat as one and I remember how excited I felt when I realized I’d get to spend my life trying nonetheless.
As the days and nights grew close to Georgia’s arrival, I felt her distinguishing herself from me – felt her movements from inside as a message that I wouldn’t be doing this alone, but that we’d be partners in her birth together…that soon we’d labour together to bring her into this terrifying yet beautiful world.
Days of being induced led to that pivotal moment – when the waters broke. And then we began – rocking, and screaming, and at one point biting (I’m so sorry, Tyler!), finding that rhythm and pulse of life, animalistic in the sweat and blood and shockingly unidentifiable bodily fluids, realizing in fact just how close the animal is to the Divine, as we transcended ourselves to some new plane of pain and existence.
With Tyler by our side as midwife, literally, in fact, because it all happened too fast for the actual midwife to get there more than a couple of minutes before the pushing began – I felt the abyss of lifelessness – a simpler word here may be death – I felt the abyss of death in the pit of my guts as I wrenched Georgia from it. That abyss was present and real and contained in my flesh as Georgia and I tamed it together.
And as she ripped forth from me – and rip she did – as the weird math of us being somewhere between one and two became fully two, two bodies, two souls, two animating breaths…For the first time the water, the blood, the idea of life coming directly out of death, creation out of nothing, were so true in the depths of my own being, in that pit of my gut from which she’d come, that it was like I’d never really known that truth before.
We make a misogynist mistake if we think the second birth of baptism somehow erases or, worse, fixes, the terror and the beauty of the first – a type of theological mistake all too common in the history of the Christian faith. The re-birth of baptism doesn’t erase the first; rather, it only makes sense in light of the first.
We clean it all up for the ritual, but the agony and ecstasy of childbirth are present in this moment too; we just can’t see them as clearly because noone’s screaming and noone’s getting bit. The struggle against death for life, and the aching, screaming labour that accompanies it are in this water too. In this water, God is the mother, and she and Georgia labour together to bring Georgia to new life.
The broken waters and the grace from that cold night back in December when Georgia arrived, vulnerable into this dangerous but beautiful world, flows into the broken waters and the grace of this moment now, as she arrives, once again, vulnerable into this dangerous but beautiful faith.
Georgia entered this world, and spent her first days in it, surrounded by her family who loves her – and now she re-enters it, expanding her circle to be surrounded also by the church, the family of God. Grace bore her into this world and today we hope together that grace will see her through.
Baptism is this act we do to say we know that Georgia is not just mine; she’s not just Tyler’s; she’s not just any of ours to hold on to, but she’s God’s, and she’s called now into a way of life that will be dangerous flight, that will be terrible and beautiful, death and life, loss and hope and sacred light, and always, we hope, always more than any of us can hope or imagine for her.
You know, I’m a terrible swimmer, but I am learning to love the water with a little more wonder and a little more joy. I spent my birthday in Hawaii, on that trip when I thought the ocean was trying to kill us all. As the sun rose that morning, I went down to the beach to do some yoga at the water’s edge. My goal was to repeat a particular set of poses 36 times, one for each year of my life. And as I counted those years, I recalled what made me grateful in each. 1978, I was born, 1982, my sister was born, 1989, my family moved from England to Canada, and so on…
My heart grew full as I recalled all the moments over the course of my life that had contributed to the faith I now have – moments that created it, shattered it, revived it, complicated it – and I expressed gratitude for them all. Births, deaths, celebrations and losses, gratitude, gratitude, gratitude. 2005, I married Tyler. 2011, I moved back to Canada and my nephew Will arrived, 2 years later his brother Danny. An hour, an hour and a half in, I reached 2013 and I whispered, “Georgia arrived.”
And as the words left my mouth, and as I lowered myself to the ground, the ocean rushed up the shore and covered me. God had been waiting, waiting patiently for me in the surf to reach that final year, and at God’s arrival the ground, with no warning, turned holy – the current and Georgia and grace all as one, lapping the belly that had grown her; the site where her soul grew out of mine and became her own; where I breathed for her till she could breath for herself…The water surrounded me as it will surround her in a moment and I realized: just as the midwife caught Georgia as she exited my body, so too will the church now as it becomes her new body – so she can be given back to the God who gave her to us.