Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
If you haven.t seen the movie "The Help," it's one of the few movies I would highly recommend to you this summer. It is one of those great movies that introduces or re-introduces folks to a period of our history that many would like to forget. But this is a history—of racism and injustice—that older generations need to remember and newer generations need greatly to understand, if they are to know more fully who we are as a nation.
There is much more to be said about the lessons to be learned from this engaging and moving story, but I want to focus on something else that stayed with me from the film. It was the costumes. The sets too, but I want to lead into today's scripture by commenting on the clothing.
I won't give anything away about the story by simply noting that the manner of dress served to heighten significantly the messages about distinction and prejudice, thoughtlessness and racism that permeate the movie. "The Help"—that is, the African-American maids, depicted in early 1960's Jackson, Mississippi—are restricted to their uniforms. Yes, there are slight differences, but they are all very similar in their muted colors (gray and blue) and simple cuts.
The white folks, on the other hand, dress almost regally. The women—it's mostly the women we see—are nearly always bedecked in their finest, bright, and multi-colored dresses. The adornments many of us will remember from the era of the Kennedys are all in evidence—carefully coordinated accessories, tasteful and expensive jewelry, carefully coiffed hair, white gloves, and a constant air of formality.
It takes no more than a glance in the direction of a person—even at some distance—to be able to identify their station in life, even if the color of the skin be obscured. Each was clothed in the accouterments of their status, either high or low. And there was, as was intended, no visible means of escape—from either place. And both held many of the characteristics of a prison.
Today we witness a baptism at St. Thomas. Today Emma Jay Laros puts on the symbolic clothing of a new station in life. She is marked permanently as a child of God, although this uniform is not so easily identifiable as it might be.
I'll come back to this in a bit.
As those of you who have had children baptized here know, it is my practice to meet with families prior to baptizing a child. It has always struck me as a "teachable moment," mostly because it was at the birth of my first child that I felt the need to understand as fully as I might what baptism was all about. I learned much from that study that I still teach—especially to remind people that God loves children whether or not they are baptized. We baptize in order to be faithful to scripture, which commands it. We baptize to affirm the grace of God communicated through water and the Word. And we baptize to welcome children of God into the fellowship of Christ.
The conversation I had with Emma's parents was one of the more remarkable I have had over the years. I suppose I feel that way principally because of the commitments of Emma's family both to the faith we share and to the importance of caring for God's good creation.
Emma's father, Chris, is an environmental scientist and energy consultant. You might imagine that we made lots of connections, given the increasing centrality of creation care for me and my understanding of faith. Chris was trained in things I'm only beginning to understand. And both of our families are working to apply principles of sustainability, resilience, permaculture, and stewardship. I'm ashamed to say I didn't know until recently that these kinds of expertise and commitment run in the family. I found it inspiring to learn that Mike is now a candidate for the board of the South Central Indiana REMC—the company we get our energy from at home (well, not so much now that we've installed our solar array).
We spoke about aquaculture, which we are just now beginning at our home and which was the focus of Chris's undergraduate work at Purdue. I told him about the changes at our home, including geothermal heating and cooling, the greenhouse, our solar array, and our expanding gardens. Chris and Suzy hope to get into some similar projects.
I share some of our conversation because it strikes me as very relevant to the important event that takes place this morning—the baptism of Emma Jay Laros, child of Chris and Suzy, grandchild of Mike and Jaydene. Emma, today, is welcomed and graced as one of God's splendid creatures, blessed by the Holy Spirit, and called to a life of care, compassion, love, and service. Her birth into a family imbued with understandings of the best ways of working alongside God's creation puts Emma in an enviable position as she grows in grace. She will have unusual opportunities to know how to live gently on God's fragile Earth and to nurture a deep love for all things.
Today Emma is clothed in Christ. And that phrase I borrow from today's second lesson and it is illustrated by the uniforms of the movie "The Help." The entire passage from Romans seems particularly appropriate for the day of a baptism, with its reminders to love and to honor God's commandments. But here's the part that particularly caught my attention:
Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Paul speaks here of "putting on" the armor of light and of "putting on" the Lord Jesus Christ. That is one of the more powerful metaphors for baptism. In baptism, we say, we are clothed in grace. We put on Christ, invisibly but indelibly. Not like a uniform, but yet perhaps discernible.
You see, the passage goes further. When we put on Christ, we are to "make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires." I take that to mean that we are not to go overboard in satisfying the often huge desires that we generate in ourselves (and are generated in us by advertising), coveting what others have, and greed. This direction from Paul strikes me as a call to simplicity—one that squares beautifully with the kinds of conversations and values that I have been talking about and that were part of our baptismal conversation. We lay aside darkness and put on light. We put aside excess—noted by Paul as the excesses of reveling, drinking, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling, an jealousy—and put on the Lord Jesus Christ. In faith and in our Lord we learn what is truly useful, important, and life-giving; and we learn about abundance and sufficiency, the appropriate lavishness of loving and the appropriate limits of gratifying personal desires.
Emma's father suggested that I work in a reading this morning that is pertinent to baptism and our spiritual walk. I came this week to believe that my most constructive response to that request was to point out how appropriate the text that is part of our three-year set of rotating readings, in fact, is. I want to communicate by this choice that it is in living into worship and by living into the rhythms and routines of our church and our faith that we are best able to grow in baptismal grace and in our walk with Jesus. I invite Chris, Suzy, and Emma—and every family—to make this weekly spiritual practice central to their Christian lives. For I believe that it is only in doing so that the fullness of faith and its good expressions in the world are made possible.
It is only in doing so that the symbolic clothing of grace at baptism may become the obvious signs of who we are as others view us even from afar. This clothing isn't about the uniforms of maids or the finery of the women of high society. It is, rather, the embodiment of the love Paul speaks about so eloquently here in Romans and elsewhere.
Although I have always considered that old song I learned in Sunday School somewhat troubling, there is something basically right about it. Perhaps you know it—"They'll Know We are Christians by Our Love." One does not need to be a Christian in order to be loving, of course. But I have always imagined and hoped that we Christians might at least aspire to be so loving, in the ways that we understand God to be loving, so that those who witness our behavior might at least begin to form the question. "I wonder what makes her or him so different?"
That is, I think, the intent of Paul's exhortations to the church at Rome. He wants them—and us—so to put on Christ that this invisible garment becomes visible in the actions of the one so blessed.
Through our baptismal cloak, the Holy Spirit works to make us holy, molding us into conformity with Jesus Christ throughout life. The Holy Spirit molds us through practices of the faith, such as weekly worship, daily prayer, confession, Holy Communion, love of the neighbor.all of these, and many more. These are the clothes we put on, like the armor of light. In all of these activities, it is not that we do something that makes us better persons. Rather, it is the Holy Spirit working in us, making us holy, conforming us (individually and as a community) to Jesus Christ.
All of this activity is framed, by Paul, as baptismal activity. "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ." We are clothed in Jesus Christ. At our baptism, we were clothed in the robe of forgiveness and love for the neighbor. The Christian life is a daily practice, a continual exercise, of our baptism until the day we die.
Today, Jesus says to Emma and to all of us. "You're putting me on."
That may sound like the tagline to a joke. But this is no joke. It is a serious—and delightful—business.
May we all live cloaked in Christ, remembering our baptism and the love that surrounds us at every moment. Amen.
And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord, unto eternal life. Amen.