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Today’s sermon is a letter to Owen and Taylor, which I hope they will get a chance to read 10 or 15 years from now, when they start to ask questions about faith and specifically, their baptism.
Dear Owen and Taylor.
Greetings from the past. I am Rev. Stephen Milton, the minister who baptized you on May 7th of 2023. If you’re reading this, I assume more than ten years has passed, and you are living in a very different world than the one you were baptized in. I have so many questions – is there a cure for cancer? Alzheimer’s? Is the Eglinton LRT finished yet?
The reason I am writing this letter, though, is to answer some of your questions. Why did you get baptized, what does it mean? Was that even a good idea? If you’re asking those questions, you may be old enough to know that Christianity has caused a lot of problems in the world. In school, you may have learnt about our difficult history– the Crusades in the Middle Ages, the forced conversion of Indigenous people when the Americas were settled by Europeans, residential schools in Canada. On the day you were baptized, Christians were still making life difficult. The Russians were waging a war in Ukraine, fully supported by the Russian Orthodox Church. In the United States, Christians were persecuting transgendered people, especially teenagers. All sorts of laws were being passed by states denying health care to them and making their lives difficult in high school.
One might conclude that Christians love to hate other people. We definitely have a history of persecuting people. There’s no denying that. Churches have often selected one group and portrayed them as outsiders, people who are shunned by God so we should shun them too or force them to convert. The choice of persecuted group changes over time. It started with Pagan people, then the Jews, lately it has been queer people, and people of other religions.
When Christians attack others, they often use the Bible to justify their hatred. They quote from the Bible, and a popular passage is one that was read in church the day you were baptized. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says:
‘“I myself am the Way—I am Truth, and I am Life. No one comes to God. but through me. “(John 14:6)
It sounds pretty clear: Jesus is saying unless you believe in me and Christianity, then you are lost. Condemned by God. You’re either with me or you’re out. That kind of either/or thinking has been pretty common in Christianity’s history, and I bet it is still kicking around in your time. But it would be a mistake to think that only Christians think this way. At the time you were baptized, Hindu nationalists were in charge of India’s government, and they were denouncing Muslims. In Pakistan, Muslim nationalists were also persecuting Christians, forcing them out of the country. This included a family of four which escaped to Thailand. Our church was sponsoring their refugee claim so they could come to Canada. In Europe, which is mostly secular now, it is immigrants who are persecuted. England even chose to leave the European Union to try to reduce the flow of refugees into their country.
This kind of us-versus-them approach is a way of thinking that humans often adopt when we are scared, or when our governments want us to be scared. It can be found in every culture in varying degrees, and shows up in each individual’s life, sometimes every day. Racism and sexism are fuelled by it – our group is good, those other people are inferior, dangerous, or both. This way of thinking isn’t just a Christian impulse, it can be found in every kind of human being, all over the world.
Jesus spent his entire ministry challenging this destructive approach to life. There were all sorts of religious people around him who divided the world into good people and bad people, the pious and the sinners. They found Jesus very frustrating. He spent his nights eating with sinners, women, sex workers, tax collectors, all the kinds of people a pious Jew was supposed to avoid. Jesus takes a neat, orderly religion and makes it very messy. He blurs the lines. And as he does this, he says that he is not just doing God’s work, but he is being God as he does it. So, in the same scripture passage we read today, we hear him saying.
Believe me that I am in God and God is in me, or else believe because of the works I do. (John 14:11)
He totally blurs the lines between himself and God, and he is saying, if you know me, you know God, and if you know me, then God is in you, too, - and other people will see God in you. It is like an old Beatles song your grandmother Martha grew up hearing: “I am he as you are he as you are me/ And we are all together.” Kookookachoo. It doesn’t make much sense logically. Logic is about separating things from each other and keeping them neatly apart. But Jesus is calling us to a different way of experiencing life, one where all those distinctions are shown to be delusions, a kind of mental shorthand that isn’t real.
Jesus teaches that God made everyone, and that God is in everyone. Our problem is that most of us don’t know it, or we don’t believe it. God isn’t like a separate being Out There but is the sacred force or presence who makes everything possible, every moment. You could no more be separate from God than be separate from your heartbeat. That’s why in the Genesis account of creation, it says God breathed life into us, because God is like the breath that keeps us alive. No breath, no life. God is in you, all the time, that is why you exist.
And we are not the only ones who teach this holy way. The Buddhists teach that the idea of separateness is an illusion, and that the only way to end human suffering is to recognize that we are all interdependent. Among Hindus, that idea is expressed as “Thou art That” – you and all that surrounds you, including the sacred realm, are interconnected. Among Indigenous people, this is known as all my relations – each person can only be known by recognizing their relationship with their human relatives, the animals, their nation, and the land they come from. These are all different ways of expressing this idea that human beings are deeply embedded in webs of scared relationships, and that aloneness is an illusion.
Christians are always wrestling with this. We want to feel special and distinct, so we say we’re number one, and everyone else is either inferior or an enemy. Yet Jesus shows through his life, what he calls his works, that this is not what God is about. God’s way is messy, it blurs the lines between all neat categories. God loves everyone and is waiting very patiently for us to wake up to our more sacred identity as God’s children. But since we are so often unaware or unwilling to take in that big, messy truth, we need help. We need regular reminders of that beautiful truth. That heaven has many mansions, not just one. That God encourages us to love each other even when, especially when, we are very different from each other. It’s not our job to judge other people or sort out who’s best. When we try to do that, all we’re proving is that we’ve lost sight of God’s way, and we should give that a rest.
We need regular reminders of God’s loving way because the world would rather, we thought in terms us of us and them, either/or. So, to help people with that, we have churches. Places where we read scripture to be reminded of God’s loving way. We sing about love, we talk about love, we pray in love. We greet each other with love. It is a sort of weekly vaccination that keeps wearing off, so we keep coming back for another dose.
So that’s why I think it is important that you were baptized. It is that first reminder of sacred love, given in the sight of people who love you, people who will be with you for years to come. And I hope in time you will sign yourself up for regular booster shots of this sacred loving way. How you do that, which church, which faith tradition, is part of your spiritual journey. But please know that on the day you were baptized, we all wished you the very best, and we hoped that you will come to know God’s love and our love for you. It is a light that can keep you going when things get rough, when rejecting the world seems like the best way to get by. For the strange truth is that when the world seems straightforward, that’s when we make the biggest messes. And when we embrace loving, messy sacred love, that when’s the world starts to sort itself out.
May you come to realize the blessing of God in you, and everyone else.
Rev. Stephen and Lawrence Park Community Church.