We Baptize Our New Grandson, Sebastian Nels

Last Sunday, we had yet another baptism in our family — this one of our new grandson, Sebastian Nels. And what a beautiful event it was!

Our daughter, Maggie (Sebastian’s mother) was the MC. Sebastian’s godmothers were outstanding. One, Eden Werring, gave a beautifully sung Jewish blessing; the other, Claudine Maidique read the Gibran classic “On Children.” Rob Silvan, the music minister at our new church here in Connecticut (Talmadge Hill Community Church) led us in singing “Down to the River” (from “O, Brother, Where Art Thou”), “Swimming to the Other Side,” “The Prayer of St. Francis, and “This Little Light of Mine.”

Our son, Patrick, was here with his lovely girlfriend, Michelle. And later, we all retired to Maggie’s beautiful home here in Westport for the after-party. It featured a bluegrass band, a hot-dog food truck, and lots of good conversation and laughter. What fun!

As I remarked to Maggie, it was all perfect in its imperfection. The star of the event, however, was little Sebastian Nels. I’ve never seen a more tranquil baby. His quiet demeanor made the remarks I share below (my homily on the occasion) even more relevant. Please allow me share them with you. To begin with here are the readings:

  • LK 3: 21-22: When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
  • LK 3:21-22: So, in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
  • MK 10: 13-16: 13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

And here is the homily:

“Sebastian’s First Sermon”

Here we are yet again, gathered for yet another baptism. Having done this with Eva, Oscar, Orlando, and Markandeya, it’s now Sebastian’s turn. These experiences are always so memorable.

Of course, Sebastian knows nothing of why we’re doing this. After all, as my good friend, Guy Patrick (also a former priest), reminds us, religion really isn’t for children, much less for babies. It’s an adult thing. And when children express boredom or rebellion against going to church or religious practice, we should patiently tell them, “Don’t worry, if you’re lucky, you’ll one day ‘get it,’ maybe when you grow up. And if you don’t get it then, perhaps you will in some other life.” (At least, that’s what Guy says. I think he’s right. He usually is about these things.)

So, what’s here for adults to “get”? Today’s readings and that beautiful song, “Swimming to the Other Side,” suggest an answer. Baptism, they tell us, is about personal transformation. It’s about navigating from the world’s way of thinking to God’s way, which lies on the other side of the Jordan, where Jesus himself was baptized. It’s about swimming against the world’s current to what Jesus called the “Kingdom of God.” God’s way of thinking is 180 degrees opposed to that of the world. It’s the very definition of “the other side.”

Think about Jesus’ own baptism. As a 30-something adult, he has evidently reached a decision point about the direction of his life. As a disciple of John, he’s seeking a new course; he wants to “swim to the other side.” So, like so many others (Luke tells us “all the people” were being baptized) he presents himself for a rite of conversion performed by John the Baptist whom Luke describes as completely counter-cultural in his dress, diet, and way of speaking. [Jesus will later describe him as the greatest person who has ever lived (MT 11:11).]

Anyway, Jesus goes down to the Jordan River, is pushed beneath the water, and emerges with a new vocation. He hears a voice that tells him “You are my beloved Son.” Evidently puzzled by that revelation, the next thing he does is to go out into the desert to discover what those words might mean.

He’s on a vision quest. And there, in the desert’s heat and cold, in the company of wild beasts and scorpions, the visions come to him. Fevered from 40 days of starvation and thirst, he sees angels, devils, and fantastic possible futures. He imagines stones as bread. He’s taken to a mountain, and to the pinnacle of the temple. The thought of suicide crosses his mind. He’s shown all the kingdoms of the world. He’s presented with unlimited possibilities.

In all of this, his question is the same as ours. Which will he choose? Will it be the world’s ways of pleasure, power, profit, and prestige? Or will he instead swim against the current and live out his identity as God’s beloved son?

We all know Jesus’ decision. He chose poverty over wealth, non-violence over violence, and identification with the poor, oppressed, tortured and victims of capital punishment. Those were his decisions. They’re what his followers claim commitment to.

What a challenge to us!

Sebastian, quite naturally, understands none of that.

But that doesn’t mean that he’s disconnected from Jesus’ vision quest or that his role here is entirely passive. Quite the contrary. By merely acting like a baby, Sebastian is preaching a sermon – his first one. He’s reminding us of what Jesus discovered in the desert. He’s showing us who we are as we come from the hand of God. He’s reminding us of what’s important in life. And it’s not what the world says. 

It’s not borders or of being American. Sebastian knows nothing of such things – nothing of male privilege, or white privilege, of war, lust, politics, or the power of money.

What he does know is love. He knows that he’s entitled to food and warmth, to the simplest of clothing. He’s aware of his entitlement to care from his mother, father, siblings, grandparents, and from all those strangers who are constantly fawning over him, picking him up, and making all those strange happy sounds. In our adult language, we’d call all of those human rights.

Yes, by simply being a baby, Sebastian is preaching us a sermon. He’s saying, “Be like me.

Set aside what the world values, because those values are categorically opposed to life as those closest to its origins experience it. Swim against the current. Swim to the other side to what Jesus called the God’s Kingdom. At your deepest level, live the consciousness I experience and exemplify.” Become as little children – or as St. Paul puts it: live in a world uncontaminated by race, class, or sexual orientation. In God’s world, Paul says, there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.”

Of course, we don’t know if any of this will stick for Sebastian. We don’t know if in this lifetime he’ll choose to follow Jesus’ teachings. We pray that he will. But at this moment – before he forgets –  his silence couldn’t be more eloquent in reminding us of the nature of life as it comes from the hands of God! This is his first sermon. Let’s all take it all in, remember it, – and now get on with his baptism.

A Baptismal Homily: Markandeya Lehnerd-Reilly, May You Be Like Markendeya, the Mystic; May We All Be

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Last Friday (July 3rd), our family had the joy of baptizing our daughter’s and son-in-law’s fourth child, Markandeya Jackson Lehnerd Reilly. I had the privilege of performing the baptism – as I have for each of Maggie and Kerry’s children:  Eva (6 years old), Oscar (4), and Orlando (3). I performed the baptism (with its readings, songs, litany, profession of faith, and rich symbols of water, oil, fire, and new clothes) just off the dock in front of our house in Canadian Lakes, Michigan.

Twenty-five people (all relatives from Peggy’s side of the family) were present. The event was part of a mini-family reunion for Peggy’s siblings and their families. We were all together for about a week celebrating the Fourth of July.

It was great fun.

Here is a brief reflection I gave after reading about Jesus’ own baptism at the hands of his cousin, John,  as described in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark:

Today we celebrate the baptism of Markandeya Lehnerd-Reilly. He has that name because he comes to us from India, where he spent his earliest moments of in utero life.

I first came across the name, Markandeya in the writings of my meditation teacher, Eknath Easwaran a native of the Kerala State in India – which many of us here visited not long ago.

Easwaran says that each morning, his grandmother – his spiritual teacher – would go to the temple for Morning Prayer and return with a flower. She’d put it behind her grandson’s ear and pray, “May you be like Markandeya.”

Markendeya is the legendary mystic from ancient India who achieved enlightenment at the age of 16.

Mystics, of course, are spiritual masters. They have realized that: (1) we all have within us a spark of the divine, (2) that spark can be realized (i.e. we can live from that place of divinity); (3) it’s the purpose of life to do so, and (4) once we’ve realized the divine within ourselves, we’ll see it in every other human being and in all of creation.

In any case, Markandeya was one of those mystics. His story goes like this: His parents longed for a child and prayed to God (under the name Shiva) for a son.

Their prayer was granted.

But they had a choice, they could either have a son who would be a great devotee of Shiva and live a short life, or have a less-devoted son who would live a long life. Markandeya’s parents chose the former. As a result, they were told their son would achieve enlightenment, but would die on his 16th birthday.

Markandeya, of course, became a great devotee of Shiva whose name he lisped from his very first days in his cradle. Early on he became enlightened – capable of reaching uncommon depths of meditative unity with the divine.

But then his 16th birthday came.  His parents tearfully told him of the conditions of his birth. Yama, the king of death would soon come for him. On hearing this, Markandeya sat down and entered into deep meditation.

Soon Yama came seeking his victim. But when he entered the room, Shiva rose up from within Markandeya. With one hand on the youth’s head and the other pointing his trident at Yama, he commanded, “Don’ you know that I am Mrityunjaya, the conqueror of death? You have no power over me or over those devoted to me. Markandeya will never die!  Be gone!”

Trembling like a leaf, Yama returned to the underworld.

Today we baptize Markandeya Lehnerd-Reilly. With baptism he enters the community of those who would follow another great mystic, Jesus the Christ. According to our faith, Jesus is our Mrityunjaya, the Great Conqueror of death. Death, we believe, has no dominion over Jesus or over us, his followers.

Jesus’ teaching included the mystical truths that, like him, we are all daughters and sons of God and that the Kingdom of God is within us. His disciple, Paul of Tarsus taught that we are all temples of the Holy Spirit – that Jesus’ Spirit lives within each of us. It is our purpose in life to be channels of the Holy Spirit and bring about the kingdom of God in this world.

Today we’re here to embrace that vocation on Markandeya’s behalf and to re-embrace it for ourselves.

So our prayer for this child today is that he might be like Jesus with whom he is identified in this baptismal ceremony.

May he be like Markandeya.

May we all be like Jesus and Markandeya.

Orlando’s Baptismal Homily: “Welcome, Kingdom Boy!”

Mike reading the text for the day: Mk. 1:9-15    Kerry (holding Orlando) Maggie, Oscar
Well, here we are again at what’s becoming an annual ritual for our clan. This is our third baptism in three years. My first thought standing here is that “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.” Maggie and Kerry, see what you can do about that!

Just kidding, of course . . . The truth is we’re all so happy to be here to at this beautiful lakeside setting to welcome into our community of faith Maggie and Kerry’s third child and Peggy’s and my third grandchild. (We all feel so proud.) We have here another child of God filled with the original goodness we celebrated and are still graced with in the presence of big sister, Eva, and big brother, Oscar. We’re here to incorporate Orlando (“Peter Pan,” “Howdy Doody”) into the Body of those aspiring to live in the Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth.

Yes, we’re here to celebrate “original goodness,” even though since St. Augustine in the 5th century, the emphasis in Christian baptism has been on “Original Sin. ” That seems so negative, doesn’t it, in the presence of the innocence so evident in children like Eva, Oscar, and Orlando?  I remember speaking about that at Eva’s baptism three years ago.

However second thought has made me realize that there is some wisdom in the idea of Original Sin – that we’re born into sin even as infants. And here I’m talking about personal sin. Rather, I’m referencing the atmosphere of selfishness, greed, violence, and purposelessness that all of us are steeped in, and that we imbibe with our mother’s milk. We gulp all of that in with our first breath, and we grow into it getting more and more deeply mired as the years go by. As a result even for the best of us, any thought of other-centeredness, generosity, peacemaking and faith become marginalized as unrealistic, utopian, and naïve. That’s Original Sin.

Embracing it, living according to our culture’s hopeless convictions means we’ve forgotten our baptismal promises and commitment made for us vicariously when we were infants like Orlando. We’ve forgotten what we subsequently embraced consciously on the day of our Confirmation.

The grace and beauty of an occasion like this is that it presents each of us with an opportunity to remember those commitments (vicarious and conscious) and to reorient ourselves on the path that was trod so faithfully by Jesus of Nazareth. It was a utopian path, a prophetic path.  

Think about the Gospel reading we just shared. There Jesus presents himself for baptism at the River Jordan. He’s baptized. The heaven’s open and a voice reveals to him – or reminds him – that he is a beloved child of God, like Orlando here. He goes out into the desert for a forty day retreat – on a vision quest to find out what that revelation might mean. He gets the vision of angels and devils, of rocks turning to bread, of leaping from the pinnacle of the Temple, of all the kingdoms of the world that might be his. With those visions and possibilities in mind, he decides on his path.

The next thing we know, he’s in the Galilee preaching. Mark sums up his message in a single sentence: “The time has come and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.”

In other words, Jesus’ decision was to dedicate his life not to preaching about himself, not to his culture’s beliefs that some people were inherently clean and others unclean, not to the service of the Roman Empire, not even to the ethnocentric Kingdom of David. Instead, his focus was the Kingdom of God. His conviction that it is coming to this world in the here and now is what he calls the Good News. His message is a call to change the world accordingly.

And what is the Kingdom of God? In brief, it is what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. In that world everything would be reversed: the rich would become poor; the poor would be rich; the first would be last; the last would be first; prostitutes and sinners would enter before the priests and doctors of religious law.

Following Jesus means believing living and working as though that other world were possible here and now despite all evidence to the contrary.

So here we are at another baptism. And our presence on this lakeshore proclaims to Orlando the words Jesus heard on the banks of the Jordan, “You are my beloved Son; my favor rests on you.”  In the years ahead of him, Orlando’s going to try to figure out what those words mean. He’ll see those visions that Jesus saw during his forty day retreat. The world will speak the devil’s lines. “Live for pleasure, profit, prestige, and power. There’s really nothing else to life. After all, you only go around once.”

Today we’re saying “No” on Orlando’s behalf and for ourselves. We’re saying “No” to a life dedicated to pleasure, profit, power and prestige.  We’re saying “Yes” to the Kingdom – to the other world our culture says is impossible, unrealistic and naïve. Our hope is that Orlando will one day make his own the “No” and the “Yes” we speak for him at his baptism.  

By the way, did you know that Orlando’s name means “renowned land” – famous country? In the context of today’s celebration and our Gospel reading, his name can only be a reference to that renowned “Kingdom of God” that meant so much to Jesus. In other words, Orlando’s name, his very presence should be a constant reminder that we are Kingdom people. Orlando is our Kingdom Child, our Kingdom Boy.  As long as he lives, his presence and name should remind us of this day – that our guiding Kingdom vision makes us different in what we hope for, live for, talk about, and work for.

Orlando, Kingdom Boy, thank you for reminding us of who we are!

Now let’s get on with your baptism, beloved child of God.

Mike baptizing Orlando
Orlando’s baptism in Canadian Lakes Michigan, August 12th, 2012
Thursday’s Post: The highly edited Roman Catholic baptismal ritual we used for Orlando