Sermon: Sunday 23 August 2015
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
The Baptism of Noah Jacob Salt
The second and third Thursdays of August have become kinds of ‘feast days’ in the public calendar certainly for the past 30 years or so. These are the days for GCSE and A ‘level results. The days have a significant hand at determining the next stage of life for our young people. I am of the generation where the aspiration was to get to university as that was one of the best ways to find fulfilling work. As we know that equation no longer quite stacks. Life has become less certain for teenagers. It is not easy growing up!
This week also saw the publication of the latest incarnation of the Good Childhood Report. In particular it looked at well-being from the perspective of the child. Comparing results here with across the world resulted in England being ranked second from bottom out of 15. There were particular concerns about the children’s sense of self with particular concerns in girls relating to satisfaction with their appearance, body and self-confidence. Issues such as bullying emerged as a key issue in England with that experience leading to a sense of low levels of life satisfaction. Even quite small kids now live in the world of the internet with Facebook shaming, anorexia websites and sexting to name a few of the things I never had to negotiate.
It was the English writer Iris Murdoch who said that if we wish to understand another person, ask of what they are afraid. So when we begin to think of the lives of our children today, as well as many, many joys we too come up against many of our fears. So often when I was a priest in South London where I was very involved with church schools and articulate parents, I witnessed hidden behind much of the intensity of modern parenting, so many fears.
The playground never mind the Vicar’s inbox could be a cruel place with rivalries and fantasies about parenting – even great fictions could be created when it came to school admission time to bag that precious school place at the best local school. The very values which were named as those people wished for their children might be the very ones they couldn’t live out. Sadly they could rarely be either named or explored because of the weight of social stigma around being the best parent, the happiest and most successful family. Mums Net and all the rest of it have its place but there are significant costs as well.
Today we baptise Noah Jacob, a lively little chap whose family on both sides have been so intricately woven into the life of this place of faith. Baptism can never be demeaned to be some kind of magic bullet with the guarantee of eternity. But instead through this sacramental sign, which Jesus himself underwent, there is a connection forged deeper than words between our earthly life and the eternal life of God. Water, light and oil will be used. Each has their own symbolic meaning – cleansing and purification, illumination and wisdom, healing and salvation.
During these past weeks of the summer, each Sunday we have returned to chapter 6 of John’s gospel where Jesus, the new Moses offers himself as liberator and feeds the people with the bread of liberation. The waters of the Red Sea parted and a road was made to a new life out of Egypt and people were fed with the manna to sustain them. They left behind their old story and they took on the adventure of a new story or as our reading from Ephesians suggests, it is like getting dressed in a different kind of way with a suit of armour as unlike any military costume you can imagine. Becoming a soldier of Christ is not just wearing the same uniform but changing the badge. It is a completely new outfit.
Noah faces many challenges not merely the forthcoming watery moment but all the issues that now sit before our young people. His parents have already begun to learn to read his fears and as he grows and becomes more sophisticated in how he shows them or hides them, he will go on facing them supported by their love. But the gift of baptism to him today means that the biggest story which describes his life is not fear but instead love, liberating love, love which nourishes and nurtures and keeps on giving. As Peter says in today’s gospel of Jesus – you have the words of eternal life – they are already given!
Parents and Godparents have particularly responsibilities today in making real that love. Actually the reason why nearly all of our baptisms now take place in our main morning service is to make it clear that actually the responsibility belongs to the whole congregation – that’s why the first question I will ask is to you. So many of our fears and challenges cannot be addressed alone by our nearest and dearest but rather it has been the Christian conviction that we are shaped by God through being in relationship as brothers and sisters in the church. Where else in today’s society do people of every life experience, culture and class, age and background rub up against each other in one community? And since most of the brothers and sisters of Jesus are already dead over these past 2000 years, we become attentive to the wisdom of the past as well as being shaped by the Christian character of our contemporary church community. It was St Benedict who described his community as a ‘school for the service of the Lord’ and that’s a good definition for any church.
Today Noah, we are with you and God is with you. Whatever else happens in your life, the main plot of your biography is written – a story of liberating love. This school will not come to a conclusion on a second or third Thursday of August.
© The Very Revd David Monteith