This is the night.
Insofar as any one service can encapsulate the Christian mystery, the Easter Vigil is the one. The whole arc of God’s work in the world is represented here: from creation to resurrection, from birth to rebirth, from beginning to beginning. In between these two generative events comes the great and beautiful and hard story which we know as life. It is a perfect time to be baptised.
Tonight, at this Vigil, three people – Melissa, Mia, and Timo – are entering into that mystery which we call baptism. That sacrament which, like all of the sacraments, is a paradox: it does not call into being something that was not already there. And yet it transforms you. Something is different after you encounter the waters of baptism.
Back in the time of the early church, the church that existed in the first generations after Jesus, baptism was not just spiritually but also socially transformative. In those days, being baptised meant consciously moving onto the margins of society. It meant risking persecution, it meant entering into a long period of study and discernment, it meant having to give up certain jobs – you could not, for instance, be both a Christian and a soldier.
All of that changed, however, when the Emperor Constantine decided to become a Christian. In that instant, baptism ceased to set the individual apart from wider society, it ceased to mark her as a member of a minority group. To the contrary, baptism became evidence of conformity. The baptism of infants became normative. Under Constantine and those emperors and kings and presidents who followed him, baptism ceased to be purely Christian initiation – it was now also a life-cycle ritual and, for some, simply legal or political requirement. In one form or another, that model lasted for centuries.
Today, baptism is shifting again. I am optimistic enough to think that it is shifting for the better. Here in Cascadia, that region which stretches from British Columbia through to northernmost California, that region in which so many of our neighbours are “spiritual but not religious,” the reflexive baptism of infants is increasingly uncommon. Baptismal candidates are, as often as not, people like Mia and Melissa – people of the age of reason who have discerned a call to the Christian life. And, while choosing baptism certainly does not hold the risk of prosecution that it did for our ancestors, it does, for the first time in hundreds of years, set you apart. In many of the circles in which I move, the word “religious” is shorthand for describing someone who is irrational, who is in denial about the work of science, who is obsessed with and terrified of sex, and who has a generally poor sense of humour. To publicly identify oneself as a Christian, as we do in baptism, is to take a risk. I have gay and lesbian friends who say that it was easier for them to come out as queer than it was for them to come out as Christians.
But in spite of this risk – and, in a funny way, maybe even because of this risk – baptism continues to hold great gifts, both for the person who chooses this sacrament, and for the community into which she is baptised.
What I’d like to do with you tonight is wonder together about those gifts. In doing so, I’d like to draw on three themes as interpreted by three authors. Now, maybe I’m setting the bar high here, because not one of these authors actually speaks directly to the subject of baptism. But all of them, in one way or another, speak to the mystery which we find in the baptismal waters. My hope is that, as we walk with these three writers for a time, we might, in some small way, deepen our understanding of this foundational sacrament. The three themes I’d like to share with you are vulnerability, beauty, and possibility. The three authors are Brené Brown, Viktor Frankl, and Mary Gordon.
First, Brené Brown and vulnerability. Brown is a big deal on the internet today. If you are on Facebook, there is a good chance that one of your friends has linked to her online lecture, her TED talk. Brown’s talk has been viewed more 4,000,000 times; if you’re not one of those 4,000,000, give yourself a treat and Google her when you get home. Brown is a researcher who set herself a Herculean task: she wanted to quantify what makes people happy. Inspired by a professor of hers who told her that “if you can’t measure it, it’s not real,” Brown set out to measure the things that are work in of people who report lives full of meaning and satisfaction and love and contentment.
Her research didn’t go how she expected. Far from finding that if you do X then you will be happy – if you eat a certain way or jog a lot or have the right kind of friends or stay away from scary movies you will lead a life full of happiness – she found that the happy had done something a lot more amorphous, a lot more unquantifiable, and a lot more inspiring than that. Brown found that the happy had refused to be limited by shame – both their own, internal shame and that imposed upon them by others – and they had embraced uncertainty. They had chosen, in short, to become vulnerable.
I don’t know about you, but I connected with Brown’s research immediately. As a child, I coped with the bullies of my schoolyard by becoming distant and detached. I understood that those bullies wanted to get a rise out of me, they wanted me to rage or to cry, and I wouldn’t give that to them. Deprived of that satisfaction, they soon left me alone. But here was the problem: I found that it was hard to turn that distance and detachment off when I no longer needed it. It was hard for me to become vulnerable. Later on, when I was a young man – and I don’t know if I should admit this, but it’s too late to change my mind now – I exclusively dated girls whom I didn’t like. In some respects, that worked very well: I was insulated from getting my heart broken. But it sure didn’t make me, or anyone else, happy. When I met my now wife Phoebe, a person whom I actually really liked, I understood that the possibility of happiness would mean taking a risk. I really wanted her to say “yes” to going out with me. And I understood that I would have to risk her saying “no.” I had to become vulnerable. I’m sure glad that I did.
Baptism is a sacrament of vulnerability. It is a choice to imitate a vulnerable God. A God vulnerable enough to in trust John’s arms as he lowered him into the Jordan and brought him out again, to trust in his friends, even when they were tax collectors and prostitutes, even when more respectable people told him he should be ashamed to eat with them, to trust in his Father even as he hung in the loneliness of the cross and as he was lowered into the silence of the tomb.
Second, Viktor Frankl and beauty. Frankl was a psychologist – he was the third big name in the Viennese school after Freud and Adler. And he was a survivor of Auschwitz. Frankl wrote a memoir which detailed his time in the horrors of that camp. The memoir went through quite a few titles as it was published and republished over the years. Frankl finally settled on the title Man’s Search for Meaning. But I actually think he should have stuck with the second to last title which he employed: Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything.
The pivotal moment in that book comes as Frankl stands in a ditch outside of Auschwitz. He is being forced to work as a slave, he is slowly being starved and worked to death. Behind him stands the camp, the most appalling example of evil. Frankl does not know whether his wife is living or dead – it will not be until after liberation that he finds out that she has been murdered.
In the midst of his digging, of his slow dying, in the midst of a world that looks hopeless, Frankl sees a light going on in a distant farmhouse. A light that shines in the darkness. And, as it goes on, Frankl experiences what he calls a “victorious yes” – abruptly, he knows that existence has an ultimate purpose. Frankl experiences, then, what I can only describe as a moment of communion with his wife. He talks with her as though she were beside him. A bird flies down, then, and perches on the mound of soil before him. It looks steadily at him. Even in this place, there is beauty.
Baptism is a sacrament of beauty. It invites us into communion with a God who took delight in life, who saw the art in creation, even in the midst of poverty and suffering and injustice. Of a God who enjoyed partying with friends so much that his critics called him a glutton. Baptism invites us to look with wonder at something as simple and as everyday as water. To understand that it is holy.
Finally, Mary Gordon and possibility. This is far and away the shortest one of the three. But it is no less important than the two which precede it. In her book, Reading Jesus, Gordon says that the resurrection proclaims the possibility of possibility. Now, Gordon is being deliberately circular, deliberately enigmatic here. But I think what she means is this: if the tomb is empty, as we will find it today, if Christ is raised, then what else might be possible? All of the limits, all of the rules, everything that imprisons you is called into question by the resurrection. The resurrection proclaims like thunder that you are free.
Baptism is a sacrament of possibility. In it we are invited to die to one life, to be born into a new one. In it, we find love even in loss. In it, we are invited to ask, if God is at work here, in me, in this water, where else might God be at work in my life? In it, we are invited into an act of imagination. Where could call be God calling me? What else is possible?
Vulnerability, beauty, and possibility.
Melissa and Mia and baby Timo. Tonight, at this vigil, you will enter into the mystery of baptism. In which you will not be changed but you will be transformed. May you be brave enough to enter its waters vulnerable to the God that you will find there. May you be hopeful enough to discern the beauty that you will find there. May you be imaginative enough to embrace the possibility that you will find there. May you be surprised, tonight and always, by love.
 I added an aside here when I gave this sermon about the choice that Phoebe and I were making to baptise our infant son, Timo. We didn’t choose to baptise him to keep his grandparents happy or to buy him cosmic fire insurance. We did so because we are raising him within a Christian community and we want to name him as full member of that community.