Let us pray.
Take our lives, and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
Today we baptize four beautiful infants and welcome them into the Church of God, and as I was thinking about what I would say to you all this morning, it occurred to me how deliciously appropriate it is that on baptism Sunday we hear from Isaiah and Revelation that God will wipe away all tears and that all crying will cease. For while these babies are all truly marvelous creations of God, they also serve as formidable opponents to the preacher. It’s temping on this day, perhaps more than any other, for the preacher to wish that simply that by saying so he can make it so. But alas, the preacher never has such authority, so unfortunately the babies and I will just have to spend the rest of the sermon duking it out.
Yet, in mentioning the all-to-real threat these babies pose to me, I think I should also acknowledge that, while our soon-to-be-christened friends may impede slightly on the delivery of my sermon this morning, I think there is something brave and refreshing about their impassioned cries and panicked faces. These four gorgeous beings are not yet burdened with the social conventions that insist on shoving emotions back into the closet along with everything else that is unpopular or inconvenient. These infants’ tears are generous and plentiful, naked and strident, un-self-conscious and unashamed—pleading to be answered, demanding to be heard. These babies know how to recognize their own sadness and anxiety, how to express what they really feel, and how to get the attention of others when they need help.
Over time, many of the rest of us have lost these abilities. We’ve become afraid and anesthetized. We’ve shielded others from the full truth of our emotional life in order to protect the sterling reputations we’ve worked so hard to uphold. We’ve convinced ourselves that we alone can handle the challenges that come our way. It’s been a long time since most of us have cried out simply because we were hungry or made a mess or just needed a good long hug.
Our reluctance to cry is particularly interesting because crying seems to be such an essential part of the human experience. All of us cried as babies—we too implored for food and yearned for attention; we too interrupted important speeches for the most trivial of reasons. And we continued to cry as we grow older—as we skinned our knee during our first attempts to walk, when the cool kid made fun of us at school, after the person we thought we were in love with told us “no,” and in response to being forced to leave the only home we ever knew. We cried when we lost our job or received a horrific diagnosis or said goodbye to someone that never deserved to die. We never stopped crying, but we grew ashamed of our tears, postponing our release until we were abandoned or alone, surreptitiously sneaking a cry in the anonymity of a darkened movie theater, weeping cautiously behind the closed door of a therapist’s office or in the corner of a silent church.
But when Jesus arrives at the tomb of Lazarus, he is not ashamed; he betrays no desire to banish tears. He cries without reserve so that everyone around him can see how much he loved his friend. He reacts to all of those whose cries preceded him not by censuring them or leaving them alone to give them some privacy, but by becoming greatly disturbed and deeply moved and by joining in. Jesus aims not to clean up the situation rapidly so that everyone can cheer up and move on, but instead to allow proper time for others to grieve and to grant space even for him to grieve himself.
It makes sense that baptisms take place today, on All Saints Day, because All Saints Day is the day on which we recognize all the faithful people of God, from the tiny creatures who join God’s company today to those elderly souls who ran this race many years ago and have long since departed. Melding together these two alternate stages in the Christian journey—recognizing both birth and death together at once—helps us see how ubiquitous tears are in the totality of the Christian experience. At every stage of the Christian journey, there are tears: from the tears of the infant who cries when splashed with the water of God’s own tears, all the way to the tears shed by so many of us when another bold warrior ends their earthly journey and joins the company of all the saints in a reality far greater than anything we can currently know.
For most of Christian history, baptism has been seen as a kind of magical protection against the terrors of the world, as a practice that ensures that the baptized will never suffer any lasting, meaningful pain. At certain points, Christians postponed their baptisms until old age so that they could receive the gift of salvation right before any judgment they would face at the end of their time; at other points, Christians urgently baptized newborns just in case a child died prematurely before baptism would otherwise take place. The thinking in all cases was that baptism saved you from pain and suffering—if not now, then for all eternity. Yet if you ask me, baptism promises no such thing. Both Isaiah and Revelation tell us that God will wipe away all tears, but to state that God will wipe away all tears presumes that tears must first exist so that later they can be wiped away. Even Jesus weeps; even Jesus knows what it’s like to have someone he loves die.
No, baptism does not promise that we will not suffer or that we will never be sad. But in grafting us to God, in making us God’s own, baptism does promise that God will be with us in our suffering—that God will make God’s home among mortals, that God will weep when we weep and wipe away the tears from our eyes, empowering us to live through and past our sadness. Baptism does give us hope that the dead will be raised, that tombs will be opened, that nothing we do and nothing that is done to us is beyond the eventual redemption of God, that all things will be made new. And baptism does offer us a mission—a mission to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers; a mission to persevere in resisting evil and to, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord; a mission to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; a mission to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; a mission to strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being; a mission to cherish the wondrous works of God and to protect the beauty and integrity of God’s creation–a full, complicated, glorious mission that all of us begin again today and every day when we answer God’s call with these words: “I will, with God’s help.”