I arrived at college in Plattsburgh, New York, an eight hour drive from home, excited and petrified. I was a small town boy, fairly naïve about the world and its ways. I was assigned to a dorm room with two other roommates, both from Long Island. I had never even been to New York City, much less the other side of it.
I had come from a world where I knew I belonged. I knew how the world worked and my family had been an important part of its working for generations. Since the first Hopkins arrived in my hometown around 1850, none had ever left, even temporarily.
I remember watching my parents drive away after having moved me into the dorm, and feeling like I had been cut off from everything familiar. To a lot of the kids around me, that was clearly being experienced as freedom. I felt a sense of deep loss, the deep loss of the context in which I knew who I was.
Perhaps that is why on my second Sunday in Plattsburgh, I walked downtown to Trinity Episcopal Church to go to Service. I had been to the Episcopal Church in Bath with my great aunt several times. I think I was reaching out for something familiar.
My first Sunday there I, in fact, did feel familiarity and it felt good, calming. I said a couple of hellos but got out of there as quickly as possible. I went the next Sunday, however, and they were ready for me. Someone had heard my singing and dutifully notified the choir director who was waiting for me. And the mother of a family in the parish invited me to dinner. College students need a home-cooked meal once and awhile. I couldn’t argue with that.
Thursday of that week I was picked up for choir and Friday for supper. In both instances it was crystal clear to me that I had a place that was mine by right and did not have to be earned. This was both delightful and disconcerting. I knew how I had belonged in my hometown. I belonged because of I was part of a family that belonged. This was different. I belonged just because this group of people wanted me to belong.
I had no words for the experience until, after a few months, in a conversation with Janet, the mother of the family, she said, “If God delights in you than so do we.” And so I learned from experience a theology that has carried me through to this day. Some might say that Ii have been preaching Janet Youngmann’s sermon ever since that day.
I was checking our database to make sure we had all of little Avery’s particulars correct in it, when something caught my eye. There are two pieces of data you can enter: “Date joined” and “How joined.” No doubt I’ve seen those entry points dozens of times in the past few years, but, for one reason or another, they leapt out at me this time, and I thought, “That is the wrong word.”
“Join” is not a very good word for infant baptism at all, and if you think of the church as something you “join” than I can see that the baptism of children makes no sense at all. Why do we baptize babies who cannot themselves make a conscious decision to do something like “join”? Because they belong. Because we believe that if God delights in them than we do also. And, we further believe, this belonging can never be taken away from them.
I will point out what I have pointed out many times before. When you see the words in the Prayer Book that we shall soon say—“Avery, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever”—there is not an asterisk leading to fine print at the bottom of the page that says “unless the following circumstances arise…” For ever means for ever. That is the kind of belonging that goes on here.
The church is not some kind of exclusive club. It is not a place for “our kind of people” unless you mean “every kind of people.” This is the glory of the church and its challenge, because it is human nature to divide people up and label them so that they can be understood and treated accordingly. But the voice from heaven did not say over Jesus at his baptism, “This is the one I understand to be my Son.” It said, “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
And our challenge is to be “well-pleased” not only with this child from this family with whom this body is easily and beyond-the-telling well-pleased, but also and equally, with anyone present with us who is a stranger to us. “Well-pleased,” after is “well-pleased,” with no degree to the God whom the apostle Peter came to experience was the God of “no partiality.”
The church is a place to belong, and the breakdown of that word is important also. The church is a place to be, and the church is a place to long, and both in freedom. They are two fundamentals about our life. Every one of us is and every one of us wants. But it is often difficult in this world to both be and long in true freedom. Nearly everyone, from family members, to television advertisers has an idea or two for how we should be and for what we should long. But they shape us in ways we often do not recognize as authentically us even if they are at times enjoyable.
If the church is a place truly to belong, than we must be a school for each and every person, within their God-given createdness and freedom, to discover their authentic being and their authentic longing, in the context of a community whose ultimate values are faith, hope, and love.
So let us not celebrate little Avery’s joining the church. Let us celebrate his belonging, both to God and to us, and to proclaim God’s delight, and ours, in him. And let us inaugurate for him a journey of discovering who he is and for what he longs, a journey he will never be on alone.