July 15, 2012
We are at an exciting time in the life of our church. It’s not just that today we are again celebrating a baptism—which we are doing. Baptisms are always wonderful joy-filled occasions when we share in the happiness of the one being baptized and her family. They are also a time when we remember other baptisms, those of our children or loved ones, for some of us, we can even remember our own baptism. They are also occasions when we recall, and reaffirm the vows we made in our baptism, when we reaffirm the baptismal covenant, which is something of a job description for Christians.
We are at an exciting time in the life of Grace Church. As most of you know, for the past year a group that has come to be known as the Master Plan Steering Committee has been talking about ways of renovating and adapting our space to the ministry and mission needs of the twenty-first century. They have been asking the question, How can Grace Church truly be sacred space for our community? In the past few weeks, members of that committee have been visiting churches across the state that have been renovated and adapted for mission in the twenty-first century. In the coming weeks, that committee will recommend to the vestry the hiring of an architectural firm to help us imagine what our space might become.
We are at an exciting time in the life of the diocese. On Tuesday, I will participate in a conference call with several other clergy and laity across the diocese as part of a strategic planning process that Bishop Miller called for at our diocesan convention last October. We are asking on the diocesan level the same questions we are asking here at Grace: How can we re-imagine and restructure the diocese of Milwaukee for ministry and mission in the twenty-first century?
We are at an exciting time in the life of the Episcopal Church. As most of you know, the triennial General Convention of the Church just ended. It was an historic convention. Perhaps most noticed was the decision to permit liturgies for same sex blessings, but in the long run it may be that other decisions will have a far greater impact on the future of the church. Among the most important decisions was to authorize a task force on restructuring. So here too, across the whole church, encompassing almost 2,000,000 members in 16 countries, we are imagining how to adapt and restructure the church, to equip it for ministry and mission in the twenty-first century.
There are outside factors that have brought us to this place at all levels of the church. For Grace, the master planning process that we now envision began a year ago when a few people began talking about ways of making the undercroft more attractive and appealing. On the diocesan and church-wide level, the process is partly driven by a rapidly changing culture in which people relate very differently to all institutions than they did a generation ago. The process is also driven by the realities of demographics and finances. But these are not merely reactive movements; they are driven by the underlying desire to envision what it means to be the people of God in the Anglican spirit, in this new age.
It’s important to acknowledge that rapid change and restructuring on all levels of the church can give rise to anxiety, worries about what the future might hold; whether the things we believe, hold dear, even our worship will persist into the next decades. There are other reasons for anxiety—articles in major media outlets that paint a dire picture of the church’s present and future. In these anxious, uncertain times, we need to hold fast to what gives us life and meaning—our faith in Jesus Christ.
Today’s gospel may seem an unlikely text to shed light on our current situation, but looking at it in the context of Mark’s gospel and overall purpose, we may come to understand better where we are and where we are going. This is the one story in Mark’s gospel in which Jesus plays no role. It is the story of the death of John the Baptizer, the prophet who baptized Jesus and spoke truth to the religious and political establishment. An outsider, a rabble-rouser, John was arrested for criticizing Herod’s marital status. But Herod seems to have wanted to keep him around. The text tells us, “he liked to listen to him.” Was he treated like a court fool? Did Herod find something meaningful in what he had to say? Might he have kept him around indefinitely? We don’t know. His wife, however, wanted him dead and when she saw an opportunity, she took it.
This salacious story has given rise to many treatments in art and popular culture. Probably hearing it read, some of you thought of scenes from old Hollywood movies, were drawn back to plays or opera, or even a painting like that of Caravaggio. The scene is familiar to us because it fits with what our popular culture likes—there’s sex and violence to titillate us. But then comes that final verse that brings us back to the gospel, and to Jesus Christ: “When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
And so our thoughts move away from a sumptuous banquet, John and Herod, and toward Calvary, the cross, and Jesus’ death. Mark wants us to interpret John’s death in light of Jesus. He wants us to compare the two men, their deaths, and their meanings. For John died because of what he said, the evil intent of Herod’s wife, and Herod’s own fecklessness. He died like so many others through the centuries. Jesus died, not because of whim or personal vendetta, but because of who he was and what he preached.
We might think of those two deaths in light of their world-historical meanings. John the Baptizer was killed like so many others who have died at the hands of capricious and evil rulers, crushed under the weight of tyranny. Jesus died in much the same fashion, but his death was not meaningless. Through his death we and the world have life. Through his death we and the world have meaning.
And that brings us back to our starting point today, to our church and this baptism. We are baptizing Mia this morning, bringing her into the people of God, marking her as Christ’s own forever. We will also reaffirm our own baptismal covenant, reaffirming our faith in God and Jesus Christ, and committing ourselves to do God’s work in the world. For our church to have meaning on any level, whether locally at Grace, on the diocesan level or even the Episcopal Church as a whole, our focus needs to be on that which has given meaning and purpose to our lives and all that we do. Our focus needs to be on the gospel of Jesus Christ, sharing the good news of the reign of God, through our words and with our hands, in all those places, and with all those people, whose lives are lived in hopelessness, fear and despair.
We need to share the good news with all those whose lives are broken in suffering and pain, broken on the evil and inhumane structures of our world. We need to create a community of love and hope, here in this place, and wherever God’s people gather. When we do that, all the rest will take care of itself and we need not worry whether God is with us. For we are God’s people, marked as Christ’s own forever.