Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sermon for the feast of the Baptism of our Lord

“What’s in a name?”
The Reverend Patricia M. Grace
Mark 1:4-11
January 8, 2012              St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

Lonnie Cottrell.
That was his name when I met him.

He was a sweet little kid – but kind of pathetic, too.  
At age 7, he looked more like 5 –
with hands and feet and ears too big for his small frame.
His curly black hair was cut way too short … 
and he was legally blind –
his brown eyes seemed huge behind the thick glasses he wore.
Lonnie walked with a kind of side-winding tilt,
the result of scoliosis of the spine which he’d had since birth.
He was also mentally retarded
            and spoke with a slight speech impediment.
The only home he’d ever known
was the Polk State School and Hospital,
an institution for folks with mental retardation.

On his 3rd day of life.
Lonnie’d been abandoned there by his mother,
herself an overwhelmed, unmarried teenager,
already hopelessly addicted to heroin at age 15.

I met him when I was a caseworker
in charge of a new effort called the Host Home program.
We aimed to place institutionalized kids
into foster family homes in the community.

At first,
we judged Lonnie’s chances for placement
as slim to none.
That all changed when Dorothy and James Gardiner came into my office.
They were attractive, mature, highly educated –
            a very successful couple,
who had already raised two amazing children:
Angela, a lawyer, and Adam, a dentist.
But now, they wanted to reach out to a child with problems who needed them.

I gotta tell you –
it was love at first sight for them and Lonnie.
They could see, immediately,
the potential he had within.
Soon after we placed him,
Dorothy called asking for all the usual things –
birth certificate, medical records, and the like. 
I had to tell her what I considered, the sad and obscene truth. 

In my research, I had found not one,
but four possible birth certificates for the child;
with not one, but four possible names
and several birth dates. 
Lonnie or Ronnie or Ronald or Roland Cottrell  
was born sometime in the first week of July, 1970. 
You see, these kids were thought of as “throwaways” –
left in institutions for years, with no one to advocate for them –
kids so unimportant that no one had even bothered
to record their correct date of birth or their given name.
Dorothy responded with her usual no-nonsense attitude. 
“No way” she said.
“We’re going to fix this.” 
She called Angela,  
who talked with a judge –
who agreed to confirm Lonnie’s date of birth and name for the record.
He would court order this child into official existence.
Lonnie decided to keep his name  
But got to choose his birthday.
I choose July 4th , he said,
because he always wanted fireworks and hot dogs
on his special day.
Lonnie Cottrell,  July 4th, 1970 –
 now, that’s was what his birth certificate read,
which we hung in a frame on his bedroom wall. 
Whenever I visited,
Lonnie never failed to point to it and say,
 “Miss Pat – that’s me.  
I’m somebody now
and nobody can take that away.”

In the next 18 months with the Gardiners, 
both Lonnie’s build and his hair filled out nicely.
His speech improved with therapy and daily practice sessions.
James and Adam taught Lonnie how to swim,
to ride a bike and roller skate –
which really helped his balance and gait. 
Then we had cause to frame and hang something else on his wall –
 a certificate of adoption. 
That document marked the culmination of a process of
claiming that child as their own,
which started the minute Dorothy and James
looked into Lonnie’s eyes.
Lonnie decided to change his name, then,
from now on,  he declared,
after his new dad, he would be James Lonnie Gardiner –
or JL, Jr., for short.
Now, on my home visits,
he showed me that second document and said –
“Miss Pat, that’s me. I am really somebody now
and for sure, nobody can take that away! ”
Dorothy and James claimed Lonnie as their own –
their very own child by adoption.
And Lonnie claimed Dorothy and James right back, 
and Angela and Adam, as his real brother and sister.
And all those Gardiner aunts and uncles, cousins and friends –
well, they loved on that child as if there was never a time
he didn’t belong to them.

James told Lonnie that he’d thought long and hard
            before adopting him –
because adoption meant that Lonnie would now carry his name.
“As a Gardiner” he told Lonnie,
“now, what you do, how you treat other people,
            how you live your whole life,
well, that reflects on all the Gardiners –
it’s up to you to keep and add to our good name.”

What’s in a name?
For Lonnie – a whole new world –
a place, a people, an identity – a past and a future.
Now, I am really somebody, he said.
And Lonnie, the now infamous JL, Jr.
never took it for granted.
Because to him, that name told other truths about himself –
that he was a unique and special person in time, in place and in history…
that name told him he belonged,
that he would be known and loved deeply –
and could know and love others deeply right back;
that name meant that he was a beloved son,
in whom a whole family was well pleased.

And as James and Dorothy often told him
he had his whole life to grow into that name,
to make his name mean something good for the world.

Today in the Gospel
we hear the curious story of Jesus’ baptism by John.  
It’s a curious story,
            because Jesus,
a human being like us in all things, but sin…
did not need John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
But yet, there he was,
            submitting to John’s ministrations,
                        submitting himself to the prayers and the rituals
allowing himself to be drawn under then up,
out of the water.   
Lots of theological ink has been spilled
            contemplating why Jesus chose to be baptized.
For me, though, and I’m not alone in this notion,
the story of Jesus’ baptism has always been inspirational…
… a story told that reveals a truth about God and us.

Jesus submits to baptism to show us the way –
            as he was always doing with his life.
Jesus was baptized to show us,
that like him, we can be beloved children of God,
in whom God is well pleased.

God has been working the process of claiming each one of us
            as God’s very own, since long before our eyes were even open.
“God has known you since before you were formed in your mother’s womb”
the Psalms proclaim.  
“God can count the very hairs of your heads” says Jesus –
God loves us and knows us that well.

And baptism is the outward sign of this ongoing process
of God’s claim on us …
Baptism is the time for us,
when the heavens open up
                        and the Spirit descends like a dove,
            and God calls us son or daughter,
when God calls us beloved…
Baptism is the sign that nothing,
nothing in heaven or on earth,
can separate us from God’s claiming of us,
and that’s a fact.
In baptism, we’re given a brand new name –
                        Christian –
a name that provides us with
a place, a people, an identity – a past and a future.
We’re claimed for sure,
            and like Lonnie,
we can claim God and the entire family of God, right back.

what we do, how we treat other people,
            how we live our whole life,
is a reflection of our membership in the family of God
and our relationship to Son of God as well.
And, like Lonnie,
we have our whole lives to grow into that name, 
to make the name we bear –
Jesus’ name,
mean something good for the world.

So, don’t take that name for granted.
That name, Christian,
has been purchased at a great price,
for you, for me, for all of us.
…purchased at a great price through the death and resurrection of Jesus,
and the witness of countless others who’ve gone before us,
who’ve endured persecution, torture and even death,
so that we might live freely
and bear the name of Christ without fear of harm.

Today we remember Jesus’ baptism
and our own baptismal day –
the day we were given the right to call God our father,
to claim Jesus as our real brother,
and each other, as real kin.
Maybe, it’s a good idea for us
to frame and hang our baptismal certificates –
so that we’ll remember how important that baptism is for us.
Maybe that will remind us
that now, we really are somebody,
we’re marked as Christ’s own forever….
and nobody can take that away.

Today, in place of the Creed, I’ll ask you
to renew with me, our baptismal promises.
As we say those words together,
            And as you go forward from this place,
I invite you to consider how you might recommit yourself
to strive to use your everyday life –
to show by example,
that bearing the name of Jesus
means something really important
and something good for the world.
May we work to live our lives in a way
that will let everyone know
that we are both somebody
and somebody’s:
a blessed and chosen member of the family of God
who lives to love and serve in Jesus’ name.

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