Washed into Holiness

Jesus BaptismA sermon for the Day of Pentecost, May 20, 2018.  The scripture readings are Acts 2:1-21,  Romans 8:22-27Psalm 104:25-35, 37, and John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Listen to the sermon HERE

Some years ago I was at a Quiet Day (a mini-retreat) with a small group of people.  It was in late Lent, and Bishop Allen Shin (then, a priest and simply “Father Allen Shin,” or “Allen”) was leading the retreat. Near the end of the day, we were brought together and seated at a big table, like we were going to share a big meal—except there was no food.  Instead, there was just a clear, glass pitcher of water and a small bowl of salt.

Father Shin explained that during the day we had shared various stories.  We had been reminded of the stories Jesus told.  And in our meditations and prayers during the day, we had been guided by those stories and the ways they resonated in our lives.

Now, he explained, each of us would be invited to pass around the pitcher and the bowl of salt.  Each was to take a pinch of the salt, add it to the pitcher of water, and first, to share a “sad story.”  In other words, we were invited to share a story that had made us sad, or scared us, or hurt us.

We went around the room and did just that.  One person spoke of loss through death.  Another talked about her business going bankrupt.

Once we had gone around with a sad story, the Father Shin then asked us to go around again.  This time, we were to take a pinch of salt, toss it into the water, and tell a joyful story—a story that made us happy, or filled us with hope, or showed us a quick insight into the love of God.  Those stories flowed more freely and before long the room was filled with a different mood. There was laughter.  There were a few tears again, and there was gladness. When the bowl of salt and the pitcher of water came back to the priest, he very quietly stood up.  He placed a stole around his neck and invited us to stand and to pray.  He led us in old and ancient words:

O God, … who rulest the raging of the fierce enemy; who dost mightily fight against the wickedness of thy foes; … we beseech thee graciously to behold this creature of salt and water, mercifully shine upon it, hallow it with the dew of thy lovingkindness: that wheresoever it shall be sprinkled, with the invocation of thy holy Name, all haunting of the unclean spirit may be driven away; far thence let the fear of the venomous serpent be cast; and wheresoever it shall be sprinkled, there let the presence of the Holy Spirit be vouchsafed to all of us who shall ask for thy mercy.  Through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

At the conclusion of the prayer the Father Shin looked at us and said, “Your stories—your stories of sadness and of joy, your tears and your laughter, have all been used by the Holy Spirit to make this water holy.  This water will be used at our next baptism.  It will be used to splash people with as a reminder of their baptism.  And some of it will go in the small trough at the entrance of the church, where it will be used quietly by those who dip their finger in and make the sign of the cross with it.  Remember that the Holy Spirit uses US to make water and the world holy.”

The Holy Spirit uses US to make water and the world holy.”
The salt is made holy.  The water is made holy.  We are made holy.

Since its discovery in primeval times, salt has been used for its curative and preventive qualities.  Just as it keeps away bad things from invading food, so salt was early on thought to help in warding off bad spirits.  The Early Church used salt when a candidate began the catechumenate, the process toward baptism.  In some places it is still used around baptism and is known by the wonderful word, “exsufflation,” which included blowing the catechumen’s face, as well as putting salt on the tongue.

As salt is put on the tongue, the priest says, “Satisfy him or her with the Bread of Heaven that he or she may be forever fervent in spirit, joyful in hope, zealous in your service.”  Salt on the tongue symbolizes the prayer of the church that the faith that is infused at Baptism will be kept strong, distinct, and keep its edge, mindful of Jesus’ words, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matt. 5:13).

The theological word for God making us holy is a word we don’t hear much: sanctification.  But it’s a word that is still promised and made complete in God by the work of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification is like a woodworker who slowly, lovingly, carefully sands the edges off a rough piece of wood, eventually revealing the wood’s truest beauty and purpose.  Sanctification is like a cook who adds a little of this, has a taste; adds a little of that; has a taste; and on and on, until the food is just right.  Sanctification is like the slow, patient work of water that carves its way through rock over years, over decades, over centuries.

Sanctification happens as our stories—the sad, the happy, the embarrassing, the horrible, the sentimental, the mundane—our individual and unique stories are brought into the story of God’s saving grace for the world.  The story of God’s coming into the world in the form of Jesus, of his dying and rising again, of his living out what love can look like—this becomes mixed up with our story, so that as we grow towards God, it’s impossible to tell where one begins and the other ends.

On the Day of Pentecost, the predominant image of the Holy Spirit’s blast into the world is through fire and flame, as we hear in the Acts of the Apostles.  But also, we remember how at Jesus’s Baptism, the Holy Spirit was present.  At our Baptism, the Holy Spirit made her grand entrance into our lives, and so the bursts of flame or the rekindling of the flame within us are refreshers and jump starts to faithful living.

In just a few minutes, Skylar is going to be baptized.  Even though she’s only turning one year old today, she will soon have stories that she will bring to the baptismal font with her.  For now, her mother carries those stories, as well as her godparents and family. And in reaffirming our Baptismal Vows, we recall our stories and offer them for cleansing and sanctification.  One day, Skylar will add her own stories: both the sad ones and the happy ones.

With the Holy Spirit and with the story that is, and is to be Skylar, holiness will begin weaving her tale—extending the action, thickening the plot, adding characters, and developing new themes of love and faithfulness.

We and Skylar return to the baptismal font.  We can return every time we walk in a church, but we can return in our prayers, as well, to claim again and again “I am baptized.  I belong to God and God is making me holy.”

May God continue to draw us into the story of salvation, so that we may never forget that the Holy Spirit uses us to make the water (and the world) holy.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


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