Children of God
Preacher: Canon Ralph Godsall, Precentor (2001-2008)
21 August 2005, 10:30 (Trinity 13)
The last baptism I attended was three weeks ago in Chichicastenango! Chichicastenango is a small pueblo in the highlands of Guatemala – some 8000 feet above sea level. Today it is the centre of a thriving Mayan culture that 400 years ago came into conflict with the Catholic Church during the time of the Spanish conquest of Central America. It was a violent and barbaric encounter as the gods of the Mayan Indians were dethroned by the missionary zeal of the Spanish invaders.
We gathered as dawn broke and the bright beams of morning sunlight sent shafts of light over the colourful assembly. Most of the group I was with (educators from 21 countries around the globe) had gone to shop in the market, but I stayed and joined the noisy crowd of flower sellers and worshippers around the fire that had been lit on the worn steps of the church. There at the entrance to the church we were censed by men in their everyday clothes swinging cans of incense and as we entered the church to the gentle singing of Mayan songs accompanied by simple flutes, guitars and drums so we gathered with the priest around the font to baptize two tiny Mayan children into the Christian faith. Nobody batted an eye-lid that a tall, grey-headed European had joined them and as we moved from the font to stand around the altar for the mass, Mayan hands took my hands as we shared the peace in Spanish and later received from the priest – a Franciscan friar – the body and blood of Christ.
That baptism in Chichicastenango reminded me of a baptism I conducted ten years ago in Lake Elementeita in the highlands of Kenya, close to the place where archaeologists discovered the first human skull. Gently lowing cattle were feeding near the lakeside and the lake itself was filled with thousands of flamingos and pelicans. A large crowd had gathered from all parts of the estate – Masai, Kikuyu, Luwo and a small collection of ‘Muzungos’ (as the native Kenyans affectionately call white Europeans). The women were singing in Swahili. Their whole bodies swayed and moved with the music as if in invocation to the Holy Spirit. The children to be baptized – one white Muzungo and two black Kikuyus – arrived in an old wooden cart drawn by oxen with huge horns!
We all walked together out into the lake and stood around the children up to our waists in the water as they were each named and baptized into the Christian faith, much to the amazement of the flamingos and pelicans!
Within the Kikuyu tradition everyone touched the newly baptized children, seeing in them a mirror image of their true selves – children like them formed from the dust of the earth and made like them in the image and likeness of God himself.
Like those who gathered in Chichicastenango and at Lake Elementeita, we are here today to baptize Joshua Hopper and Samuel Rumsey. I like the very simple statement of F.D.Maurice who said that ‘baptism is the proclamation by God that this child is a child of mine.’ Quite simply, Joshua and Samuel, that is what God is saying to each of you here this morning. Each of you is ‘a child of God’.
That’s a proclamation of who and what you truly are. And it puts God publicly and forever at the centre of your being. From the moment of your baptism we shall proclaim that both of you belong to God and to his Church forever.
Baptism and belonging go together. From the moment of their baptism Joshua and Samuel will be joined for ever to those Mayan children in Guatemala, to those African children in Kenya, and to all those (living and departed) who have been baptized in the name of Jesus Christ and marked with the sign of the cross.
Not all those I have baptized have been bouncy, healthy children. I remember a priest friend of mine (who is now Canon Treasurer of St Paul’s Cathedral) coming to me one evening from Addenbrookes Hospital when we were colleagues together in Cambridge. He came to say that his wife had given birth prematurely to twins and that neither child was expected to survive but a few hours. He asked me to come back to the hospital with him and to baptize their two tiny children. How that phrase, ‘Baptism is the proclamation by God that this child is a child of mine’, resonated that night. And so, it was not just in the name of a gentle Jesus that I baptized the twins that evening but in the name of someone, who, as the prophet Isaiah said, ‘in all our afflictions was himself afflicted’.
This morning Joshua and Samuel will both be signed with the cross of Christ. That signing is no empty ritual. It says that during their lives they will be confronted by the problem of suffering and evil. It is our prayer today for both of them that, when that moment of trial comes, they will remember that God said to each of them today, on the day of their baptism: ‘Joshua, Samuel, you are my child.’