Updated: Jul 31, 2021
The Rev. Dr. Deborah White
I want to tell you about my first and only altar call. It happened at about the last place you’d expect – The Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin in San Francisco. I was performing a wedding for a couple with whom I’d done some extensive pre-marital counseling. I liked them very much and we had some great talks about what it meant to be married in a church as opposed to somewhere else. This was especially important for the groom to understand, as he was not a Christian and was only getting married in her childhood church to humor his bride. Fortunately, he was a smart and curious guy and by the day of the wedding he was totally sold on the idea of God, Jesus, and Christian community. He loved the idea that everyone shared their vows with them and would be invested in the success of their marriage – that the whole community was in this together – for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or in health.
Ironically then, it was the bride who got cold feet on the big day, and I had to spend a bit of time talking to her through the bathroom door prior to the service until, as is usually the case, she remembered why she wanted to get married. While she put herself together again, I went back downstairs to where the groom was beginning to wonder what was going on to offer some calming reassurance – only to be immediately hit with this unexpected question: “Can you baptize me today”?
Now, as most of you know, The Episcopal Church has rules about baptism – well, more like recommendations – but still, strong recommendations. Among them is the suggestion that the person being baptized, or the parent or godparent if it’s a child, are to receive formal instruction in the meaning of Baptism… and in their responsibilities as members of the Church.” We also have other “suggestions” – like it is best to have baptisms on certain feast days (there’s a list) and, if that’s not possible, to at least schedule it for a Holy Day. Non-negotiables include the fact that at least one parent must be a Christian and we have to be pretty sure they haven’t been baptized before (although there’s a contingency for if we’re not sure). And, of course, we now have pandemic baptism, which is a whole new ball of wax.
So, you can imagine my reaction to this sudden and unexpected request for baptism showing up in the middle of an extremely well-planned wedding at one of the more formal parishes in the diocese. His question was, of course, the same one that the Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It’s hard to tell if that situation was more or less astounding than mine. In the Acts reading, we are led to assume that that the Eunuch is a Jew, as he is returning from worship in Jerusalem and reading the prophet Isaiah -so he has that in common with the followers of Jesus – but there’s not much else. First of all, he’s rich and powerful. Secondly, he’s a eunuch. Eunuchs were people born with male genitalia who were castrated before puberty so that they would be considered “safe” to serve as servants in the royal household. Oddly enough though, despite their castration, eunuchs “were stereotyped as sexually immoral.” Oh – and he was an Ethiopian – a foreigner. So, when he asks what prevents him from being baptized there were quite a few things that might have given Philip pause – at least if Philip was focused on the ways rules can keep us apart rather than how the Holy Spirit brings us together.
It wouldn’t have been strange if he had. Christians do it all the time and have for centuries. Instead of looking at our holy scriptures and pulling out the passages that emphasize God’s desire for us to love and forgive one another – which, by the way, vastly outnumber the ones in which God appears to take sides in human disputes – we like to find places where it looks like our job as Christians is to narrow down the fold until only a chosen few are left. (I guess because it makes the odds better for those of us who think we’re getting it right). Today’s gospel is frequently treated in just this way. I have heard preacher after preacher use this gospel threaten their flocks that they had better bear fruit or else. “Jesus” they say, “warns us that those who do not bear fruit are thrown away and burned – so you better watch out or you will be feeling mighty warm come judgment day.” We recently watched the film “Minari.” In it, the main characters, a Korean family, attend a Christian church service in which they are warmly welcomed by the congregation. Immediately following, the pastor begins his sermon by warning his flock to be sure to ask their dear friends, neighbors, and co-workers to come to church because “when they look around in heaven it will be sad to wonder, ‘where is that nice Adelaide from work? Where is that lovely Mr. Drewer from the store? Where is my dear friend Hannah’ and to know that they are burning in the fires of hell.”
The sad thing is that John’s gospel is absolutely not about exclusion. First of all, that would be completely inconsistent with everything we know about Jesus, who ate, lived, and healed numerous people that the rest of his society rejected. Secondly, if you are a gardener, or have ever gone wine tasting, you know that pruning is necessary in a vineyard to bring more fruit, and it is the grapes closest the main vine that grow best. Thus, it is the branches that wander or, in human terms, the branches that grow away from the vine, that are pruned. The passage does not say that God cuts them off because they do not bear fruit. They choose not to abide in the vine, trusting in their ability to grow on their own, and they wither and die as a result.
God wants us to live together. In fact, God created us to live together. I don’t know how anyone could make this any clearer than in the section of the letter of John we heard today. “Beloved let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Or, as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry puts it: “If it’s not about love then it’s not about God.” Bearing fruit then, is not about performing individual acts of “blessing” so that you can outperform your fellow Christians and be one of the few left standing on judgment day. Bearing fruit means contributing to the growth of the vineyard, bringing people closer to Jesus, the vine, and helping others grow.
Anyone who can condemn nice Adelaide from work to hell with a quick, sad shake of the head because she won’t go to church, then, I’m sorry, but that is not love and it’s not about God. And if there’s someone sitting in front of Togo’s who looks like he weighs about 90 pounds but is ranting about how he killed Bill Gates and you are afraid to offer him some food, don’t worry. Just remember, there is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear. So, go ahead, feed him. And if you get the idea that any person that is different than you in any way is not worthy of the love of God, keep in mind that it is those who most need Jesus’s unconditional love that understand it best, are first to adopt it, stubbornly hold onto it, and are most passionate in sharing it.
It was to one of these truly spiritually ready individuals that the Holy Spirit directed Philip and continues to direct us – if only we can sort between the human rules and rituals that draw us closer to God, and those that can distract us from hearing the sometimes-wild call of the Spirit. So, when that groom asked me if there was any reason he might be not baptized that day, I saw none. Nor did I see any when his Best Man joined him, kneeling at the fountain in the courtyard where an underground stream of living water flowed, and the wind of the Holy Spirit blew around and through all of us – together. AMEN.
Book of Common Prayer, p. 298.
Karen Baker-Fletcher, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 456.