January 9, 2022: Sermon Preached by The Rev. Mary Lee Wile
Epiphany 1 2022 Baptism
In her book In This House of Brede, Rumor Godden describes how a famous sculptor asked some nuns for an old stone pig trough – because he could envision, within that old stone, an image of Mary as Our Lady of Peace. That story reminds me of Michelangelo’s answer to a question about his statue of David, “How do you take rough stone and make such beauty from it?” “I just carve away anything that isn’t art.”
This made me think about how, like imagining a beautiful statue contained within a stone pig trough, what God sees when gazing on each of us isn’t the outer layers, those layers of rough stone or false selves or tough shells that we build around ourselves as we grow up and grow old, but the heart of who we are, that essential self that God blessed at our Baptism. It’s been frighteningly easy during this ongoing pandemic for me to want to “toughen up” in order to avoid the pain of isolation and anger and fear by adding yet one more tough, protective covering. It’s been easy for me to forget that underneath all those layers is still that little girl who, in the summer of 1947, was “sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
There’s another story that helps me, one that in an odd way echoes what Michelangelo said. In C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a confused, spoiled, self-centered boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb accidentally ends up with his cousins on a remote island in Narnia. Rather than help with chores, Eustace sneaks off on his own, ultimately taking refuge from rain in an abandoned dragon’s cave. There, surrounded by treasure, his greed for gold ends up turning him into a dragon. Being a dragon, however, is lonely. Eustace discovers that he misses his cousins, and he weeps over his bad behavior and his lost self.
Only some time later, in the dreamland of night, when the lion Aslan – a stand-in for Jesus, for those of you unfamiliar with Narnia — tells him to undress and bathe in a deep well does Eustace begin to feel hopeful. He peels off layer after layer of dragon skin and scales, of sin and selfishness (think of Michelangelo removing anything that isn’t art), but his reflection in the well still shows him to be a dragon, not a boy. Finally, Aslan offers to help, and Eustace lies down flat on his back as the lion approaches and extends his sharp claws. Recalling this moment afterwards, Eustace says, “The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart…And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off … [until] there it was, lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker and darker and more knobbly looking than the other layers had been…Then he caught hold of me and threw me into the water.”
That image of the lion tearing away the thick, knobbly layers and then immersing Eustace (once again a boy) in water takes me back to the waters — and the fire — of Baptism. That scary part in today’s Gospel? where John talks about the “one who is coming” – meaning Jesus – carrying a winnowing fork that will separate wheat from chaff, good from bad, and then will burn the bad? That’s not about separating good and bad people, but about separating the wheat from the chaff within each of us, peeling off and burning those encrusted outer layers, then gathering us into his loving, forgiving embrace. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit — and with fire.”
I’ll be the first to admit that whether done with fire or a lion’s claw or an artist’s chisel, or simply by coming face to face with the dragon in the mirror, the process of transformation is frightening. As Eustace says, it hurts. For me, the hardest part is the lying still, letting go of my desire to be in control, trusting that the immediate pain of giving up all those things that distort my nature and draw me away from God can, in fact – should, in fact – be burned or chipped or torn away, even though nearly every fiber in my being is trying to disappear into the knobbly, scaly layers I’ve been building up over the years.
A recent example: I’ve been through the Sacred Ground program three times now, each time pulling off layer after layer of white privilege that I hadn’t even known I was wearing. So many aspects of my childhood, my education, my housing options, my presumption of safety were all predicated on my white skin – and at cost to my siblings of color. Was I really ready to see that reflection, to acknowledge it – to grieve it – and to let Jesus lovingly tear those layers off me? Some of them. In February, I will begin co-facilitating my fourth Sacred Ground circle, and I know there are plenty more layers left.
Giving up our protective, false, or sinful selves does hurt, and it can be terrifying, but it’s one of the reasons we come here Sunday after Sunday: to gather as a community that can hold and help and heal one another. We come to share the prayers, to hear the Scriptures, to offer the confession – a weekly attempt to peel off those layers – and to accept the absolution, which means to know ourselves beloved and forgiven. So whether we arrived at church today knobbly and scaled with sin and sorrow, or whether — wearied by politics and pandemic – we showed up feeling like discarded pig troughs, God looks beyond that into our inmost heart and says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine. [Beloved child, in you I am well pleased.]”