Monday, January 10, 2022

Certificates, Certificates, and More Certificates


Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Epiphany 1 / Year C

If you read what I wrote in the E-News this past Friday, you already know one of the greatest occupational hazards of being clergy is the tendency to collect a lot – and I mean A LOT! – of certificates.  I have framed and hanging on the wall of my office the following:

·    A certificate from Virginia Theological Seminary indicating I earned a Master in Divinity degree.

·    A certificate from the Diocese of Ohio indicating I am an ordained Deacon in the Episcopal Church.

·    Another certificate from Ohio indicating I am an ordained Priest.

·    A certificate from the Diocese of Virginia know as a Letter of Institution giving me the authority to serve as the Rector of the Church of the Epiphany in Richmond.

·    A certificate from Union Theological Seminary indicating I earned a Doctor of Ministry degree.

·    And finally, a Letter of Institution from this diocese giving me the authority to serve as Rector of St. Paul’s.

And, as if all this isn’t enough, I also have framed invitations to both of my ordinations.  The diocesan certificates for ordination and institution are each signed by the bishop who presided at the service.  Each bears the mark in wax of the bishop’s signet ring, which is a nice, quaint little touch.

I’ve started to wonder what will happen to all these certificates when I retire and no longer have an office.  Will I want to display them in my home?  Probably not.  And even more, what will happen to them when I am called to my heavenly home?  Will anybody want to hang them anywhere?  Again, probably not.  At best, someone might want to recycle the frames and matting, but who knows.

These certificates seem to be designed on the premise the bigger the document the more prestigious the thing it proclaims.  How interesting then the two most important certificates I have are not framed, not on display, and not very large.  They are my birth certificate (an achievement I had little to do with) and my baptismal certificate (again, my part involved being held and getting my head wet).  The birth certificate indicates the date and place of my birth, but fails to record my parent’s surprise that after the birth of a daughter a son was in route just two minutes behind.  The OB had not shared with them his hutch my mother was carrying twins.  The baptismal certificate again mentions the date (December 29, 1959), place (Sheridan Community Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh), and officiant (Rev. Alfred C. Peterson).  It does not indicate my mood or behavior at the ceremony, but I am confident I was “the cutest baby EVER!”).    

My birth certificate indicates who I am and to which family I was born.  My baptismal certificate indicates whose I am.  I am God’s! 

I am not the first preacher to observe if we had this right the baptismal certificate would be the size of the ordination document and the ordination the size of the baptismal.  The Lutheran theologian Gordon Lathrop states ordination merely gives a clergy person a place to stand in the assembly and a function to perform.  To be in the assembly one must be baptized, and this, he says, is foremost, primary. 

From the catechism of the prayer book we learn several things happen when we are baptized (page 858):

·    We join with Christ in his death by dying to the old life of sin.

·    We rise with Christ in his resurrection to a new life of grace.

·    We receive the forgiveness of sins.

·    We are filled with the Holy Spirit.

·    We are spiritually birthed as members of God’s family, the Church.  It conveys upon us full and complete membership in the household of God.

Notice nowhere in the catechism does it indicate baptism means you will go to heaven when you die.  This sacrament is not primarily about next life life insurance, although this is how many treat it... “I am so relieved to have the baby done.” 

Foremost in baptism we are named and we are claimed.  This is what happens to Jesus as he rises out of the water.  God speaks, “You are my Son (naming and claiming), the beloved, with you I am well-pleased” (being known and being loved). 

Did you pick up on how these themes are present in this morning’s reading from the prophet Isaiah? 

·    I am the God who created you.

·    I am the God who formed you.

·    I am the God who redeems you.

·    I have called you by name.

·    You are mine.

·    You are precious in my sight.

·    You are honored.

·    I love you.

This is what your baptismal certificate proclaims about you.  Can any other document, description, or accolade be more significant than this? 

Perhaps, like me, you were baptized as an infant and have no recollection of the day or its meaning.  For people like us, Confirmation serves as a sacramental moment when we have the opportunity to make a mature profession of faith by stating we embrace the vows, promises, and beliefs made by our baptismal sponsors. 

Again, many a youngster has been pushed into and through Confirmation as a rite of passage or as a graduation from Sunday School.  If this is your story, has there been a moment since then when the Christian faith became your own?  Has there been a time when you realized you have been named and claimed, known and loved?  It would be nice if this all fell neatly in line in our life with the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, but it often doesn’t (in spite of our best attempts).

Still, this morning I invite you to revisit your own baptism.  Do you have a certificate or any other item documenting the occasion (a picture, a candle, a cross)?  Compare you understanding of baptism with what the Catechism teaches.  Ponder to what degree you embrace being named and claimed by God, being known by God and being loved.

“You are mine,” says the Lord, “I love you.”