04 May 2010

St. Luke's, Jolon, and a special baptism

Sunday I had the pleasure of joining the congregation of St. Luke's, Jolon (hoe-loan) for the Holy Eucharist. Jolon is a sleepy farming community on the Ft. Hunter Leggitt military base on the Central Coast of California. A couple of stone throws from St. Luke's is Mission San Antonino de Padua which is my favourite of the California Mission chain. It was at San Antonio that the first Christian marriage in California (and some say the U.S) took place.

I always enjoy being at St. Luke's. Of all the Episcopal churches in the Diocese of El Camino Real, it's the only place that one can "get a feel" for what the pioneers who built the church experienced. St. Luke's is beside a lonely road and is the only building left of a once thriving community. Except for the occasional car that passes, one could easily imagine one had been transported back to 1860.

St. Luke's was celebrating the 52nd annual bar-be-que. It is the congregation's major fundraiser. I was invited to be pastoral musician for the Holy Eucharist. To assist me were three friends, Carilyn Anderson, alto, Erin Ewart and Vicki Ewart, sopranos) .

The Rt. Rev'd Mary Gray-Reeves, Ordinary, was present as Presider and preacher. She brings a certain "grace" to the liturgy that is difficult to explain. There is a comforting feeling that emanates from her. It's sort of like going to your Granny's house - when you walk though her doors you feel the warmth and love that is there but you cannot explain it.

I've never heard Bishop Gray-Reeves preach and not taken something profound away from the sermon. She reflected on the Gospel of the day (proclaimed in Spanish first and then English). It was the events immediately after Judas leaves to betray Jesus. The bishop talked about "an eye for an eye" and the amazing fact that Jesus didn't do what anyone else would have done. Instead, he forgave Judas even before Judas acted.

She told us of a conversation she had with the Bishop of Gloucester about a painting of the Last Supper placed as the reredos of a parish in his diocese. In the painting Jesus is a black man and Judas is a blond white man. But what he disliked about the painting is that it shows Jesus and Judas dipping in the cup - together - just as the gospel says they did that night. He said he didn't want to go to communion and have to look at that. +Mary said, "After a lot of conversation about the painting, we decided that is exactly what it's all about - betrayal and forgiveness." As soon as her sermon is posted on the diocesan web site, I'll post the link. You really need to listen to this sermon.

She made us laugh when she said, "But if Jesus was truly human, there had to be at least one second of 'I'm going to get you, Judas.' And Peter would have been right there in the middle of that, sword in hand, wanting a piece of Judas, too. But Jesus looked at Peter and said, 'Ah, Peter, guess what you're going to do tonight." (All of that is my paraphrase of her comments.)

When the homily was finished, Erin, raised in the Reformed Episcopal Church, leaned over and said,
    That was good! I've never heard a woman preach before. I've never even seen a woman priest.

    She's not just a priest, she is a bishop.

    I know. I didn't know women could be bishops. I didn't even know they could be priests.

    We like gay people, too. We have a male bishop who has a husband and we just elected a partnered Lesbian to be bishop in Los Angeles. And we even like atheists.

    Dang, Uncle Jimmy! I really like this church!
But it is the baptism of Juliet that I want to tell you about. It was the most spiritual baptism that I have ever witnessed.

Sunday was Juliet's second appearance at St. Luke's. Her first appearance was on 11 October when she came to St. Luke's in her mother's womb. The family came forward that day for a special blessing, and the mother was blessed by Bishop Gray-Reeves for "an easy and quick labour." Sunday, the mother thanked the bishop for that and said, "it was really quick!" Now, here we were, less than six months later, gathered to baptize the week-old Juliet.

The parents and god-parents (compadres) were called to the font (in the front of the nave) where they were met by the bishop, Deacon Robert Seifert, the Rev'd Carl Hansen, and young Mr. Mason Seden-Hansen, the acolyte (Fr. Hansen's grandson).

The baptism proceeded as usual until it was time to bless the water. Bishop Mary looked at the three youngsters who were in the front pew and said, "The ewer holding the water is kind of heavy, we need some help. Would you help us? We really need you to help." The oldest boy said, "Who? Me?" and looked like she'd just announced tomorrow was Christmas.

He came and stood beside Deacon Seifert and helped him hold the large ewer. When it was time to fill the font the they raised the ewer, together, and filled the font. They held the ewer high enough so that the tiny church was filled with the sound of the waters of baptism. It sounded like a waterfall - a holy waterfall.

+Mary read the prayer of consecration over the water and it became holy.

Then she did something that made my heart skip several beats. She looked at the the god-mother's young daughter and said, "I need you to help me bless this water." She picked up the wee lass, took the child's hand in hers and put the child's hand into the baptismal water and helped the little girl make the sign of the cross on the water. It was the holiest moment of the service as far as I am concerned. It was a sacrament. Remember that our catechism says a sacrament is "an outward visible sign of an inward spiritual grace." There was plenteous grace in that act.

The bishop gently took Juliet from her father's arms and as she held Juliet, I could visualize Jesus taking the little children in his arms. I also got a small glimpse of how the Blessed Mother must have looked when she held her baby, Jesus.

The love that flowed from +Mary to Juliet was palpable. At that moment there were only three people in the church, Mary, Juliet, and God - no one else existed. I thought, "That's how God looks at us!"

The bishop tenderly baptized Juliet "In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" and the tiny church's rafters shook as the congregation responded "Amen!" And Juliet became the youngest member of a family stretching back all the way to Jesus himself. I could almost see all those pioneers of St. Luke's crowded around the font, looking at Juliet, and welcoming her into the family.

Those familiar with the Western Catholic baptismal tradition know that anointing with the Oil of Chrism takes place at this point in the baptismal liturgy. The priest sticks his thumb into the "oil stock ring" gets his thumb just barely "oiled" and then traces the sign of of the cross on the person's forehead.

But not this time. Deacon Seifert poured a good amount of the Oil of Chrism into the palm of the bishop's hand and the bishop rubbed it onto Juliet's forehead and scalp (shades of the Eastern Orthodox practice) and then traced the sign of the cross on her forehead while telling Juliet she was "sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own forever." I've heard those words hundreds of times, but Sunday those words completely gob-smacked me. That mark is irrevocable. Nothing can separate Juliet, or us, from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

After the Pax, the bishop explained that the Episcopal Church practices open communion and God welcomes all of his children at the table. Then she added, "and as you come forward, there is the baptismal water. You know, it's nice just to splash it on yourself. Play in it as you come by and just remember that you are God's child and he loves you. So enjoy it!"

I lament the loss of, and want to return to, the Episcopal Church of my youth when things were "the way they should be." But I'm also glad that those days are gone (I hope you didn't all faint). The holy moments of last Sunday would never have happened twenty or thirty years ago.

Can you imagine one of those male bishops of yesteryear inviting everyone to splash in the baptismal water, or asking the young people to assist with the baptism, or picking up a toddler and asking her to help him bless the water of baptism? It would never have happened.

Yes, I miss those days. But if we still had those days, I would not have stood in the presence of of God last Sunday witnessing and participating in one of the holiest moments of my life - and all because God used a bishop who happens to be female, to teach me.

There is a "praise song" (yes, I know a lot of praise songs) that says,
    What a mighty God we serve
    Angels bow before Him
    Heaven and earth adore Him
    What a mighty God we serve.
And that is true. He is mighty enough to forgive our betrayals before we do the deed. And he is mighty enough to force a member of the Society for the Preservation of the Book of Common Prayer (1928) to realize we have to change. If we don't change - and grow - we will miss all the holy moments that are coming - and they are coming.

One of the Fourteen Articles of Faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says, "We believe all that God has revealed, all that he does now reveal, and all that he will yet reveal." So does the Episcopal Church. We are living in the "now" and stepping into the "yet."

I'm sure no one noticed, but as the events of the baptism began to unfold,I slipped off my shoes. Although my faith was not strong enough to see them, my brothers and sisters, there were angles present at St. Luke's on Sunday, and we were, indeed, standing on holy ground in the presence of a holy God and a godly woman.