Sup Specie Aeternatatis: Baptizing Colton

A sermon preached at St Paul’s Church Bantam Connecticut on June 10, 2012, by Christopher L. Webber.  

At a point last week I thought about getting out the Parish Registers and counting up the number of Kilbourns  who have been baptized here at St Paul’s but it was a busy week  and I wasn’t sure I had time enough or could count high enough! I do know – most of you probably do also –  that there were two Kilbourns on the first Vestry over two hundred years ago and that it was a Kilbourn who built the first building in 1834. But of course Colton is only partly a Kilbourn  – and so are all the other Kilbourns for that matter – every one of them, of course, married outside the family  or into another family so lots of us are related who don’t share a name and in a larger sense we are all related anyway,  all, ultimately, children of God by baptism and Colton is now joining that family too, a family with millions of names and colors and languages.

So rather than think about that  let me ask you to look at what we are doing here from an even longer and larger  and deeper perspective. There’s a Latin phrase that sums it up:  “Sub specie aeternatatis.” I thought maybe Colton could study Latin someday  and learn what that means but do they even teach Latin in public schools anymore? Anyway, let me ask you to think about baptism and life in general: “sub specie aeternatatis” –  from the point of view of eternity,  from God’s perspective.

What we do today is not just a matter of two centuries or so of local history. Do you remember the story about how Zhou En Lai,  the first Premier of Communist China, was asked one day what he thought about  the French Revolution of 1789 and speaking from the perspective of thousands of years of Chinese history, he said, “It’s too soon to say.” Let’s not limit ourselves to the very brief record  of two centuries of St Paul’s Bantam  but take a broader perspective.  What we do here today has eternal significance.

“Sub specie aeternatatis,”  we are setting some very small feet  on a very long path. St.  Paul talked about that perspective  in today’s second reading when he wrote about:  preparing . . . for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because (he said) we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.  For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  We surely don’t remember that often enough  and it’s understandable. We have to do the dishes and put out the garbage and balance the checkbook  and it’s hard to remember that all of it, every minute of it,  Is being lived in God’s sight and as part of a journey  that has no end.  Transitions, yes: baptism and confirmation and marriage and death are all of them simply transitions, significant transitions into a future of which we have only the vaguest  and completely inadequate idea. But it is that eternal perspective,  “sub specie aeternatatis,” that matters and is why we are here.

It’s so easy to forget that, isn’t it? I’ve been involved in some discussions lately about the declining membership of American churches. It’s been years now that we’ve been worrying  about declining membership in the Episcopal Church but when we look around we see Roman Catholic churches being closed in Torrington and even the mega churches, the evangelical churches,  that seemed to have some answers even if not very good ones have stopped growing.  Why?  What’s happening?

An easy answer is technology:  with iPhones and iPads and Facebook and all that who has time for church anymore?  I heard last week of a church in England that conducted a cell phone service,  encouraged people to bring their cell phones and dial into some pictures related to the sermon.  I’m not sure that’s the answer.  Did you notice the Old Testaent reading this morning  that gave us another perspective, the story of the snake in the garden  that is always tempting us, drawing us away from God’s purpose for us.  The serpent does his best – or her best – to make us forget the eternal dimension, tempt us to sleep in,  go for the moment, and the serpent is having a lot of success these days.  Here’s a statistic I came across last week:  the average two- to seven-year old sees an average of almost 14,000 television ads a year, and the average eight- to twelve-year old sees over 30,000. And spends how many hours in church school? Maybe that explains something also!  Why don’t we see things “sub specie aeternatatis?” Well, how often do you get that perspective  on the shows children watch? on the shows any of us watch?

But if we have lost that perspective, I think we can also blame  our sense of security –  relative security. I grew up in the Great Depression and Second World War and I think it was a lot easier to see life  in more serious terms in those days. There was, of course, no television, no computers, no iPads.  But life was more serious anyway. My father was Rector of a church in a small town  in upState New York and I remember my mother giving a plate of food to an unemployed man on the back steps of the Rectory. There was no social security in those days.  When you lost your job,  you were reduced to begging for handouts. And I remember my father going off in the middle of the night to visit a family  who had just had a telegram from Washington that their son had been killed in Europe. Life was more serious, it seems to me,  in those circumstances. Life expectancy was much less.  There were no cures at all for cancer, no therapies for heart disease. Eternity was closer.  Maybe people went to church more often as a result. Maybe if we cut medicare and social security  and invaded Syria people would go to church more. You can vote for that if you think so.  That might be one way to take seriously the point of view of eternity.

But one way or another, that’s our challenge, it seems to me. To remember that we are created beings  setting out on a long journey and whether we spend fifty of it here or a hundred,  it’s very little “sub specie aeternitatis,” very little but very important. There’s great joy to be found in this life,  in celebrating days like today, but a serious dimension also that’s not to be forgotten.

We have a wedding later this month  and another in July and isn’t it curious  how baptisms and weddings,  intensely physical occasions, turn our thoughts so inevitably to the unseen, the spiritual.  Birth and marriage are about bodies, physical bodies: grooms get hugged, brides get kissed,  babies get picked up and held and hugged: bodies joining with bodies. Physical.  Intensely physical.  But deeply spiritual; all about love and joy. “For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”

We deal with both dimensions here.  We never try to escape or ignore the physical  as some religions, even some churches, do. We use water and bread and wine,  physical, material things,  to convey the spiritual, the eternal dimension,  because God created a material world and gave us bodies to use to reach out to other bodies  and work with them toward the future that is, in fact,  already here. The absolution said after the General Confession  most Sundays asks God to “keep you in eternal life;” not “bring you to eternal life”  but keep you in it. We pray in the baptismal service that the one baptized will “continue in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.”  Eternal life is not simply a future dream but a present reality.  We live lives transformed by the knowledge of God’s love for us. Transformed by the knowledge that life is not a dead end but a journey.

One of my favorite quotations comes from the English writer, Dorothy L.  Sayers, who said, “The best kept inns are on the through roads.”  They built some subsidized housing units  for the elderly in North Canaan some years ago  on a dead end street. But they didn’t like the sign at the corner of the road that led to it that said, “Dead End.”  So they replaced it with one that said,  “No Through Traffic.” Even the street department knows  that there’s more to life than three score years or four score or a hundred. Even the street department can’t help seeing life “sub specie aeternatatis,” not a dead end. We were made for something more.

Life is not a dead end.  “Life,” the Burial service tells us,  “Is changed, not ended” at death, and then it quotes Paul’s words from the reading  this morning, “if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”  And that makes a difference now.

Have we, as Americans, as Christians,  lost sight of that perspective? Are we too secure, too comfortable? I’m trying to stay away from politics in the pulpit  in an election year  but how can you avoid it!  Candidates ask us to agonize over the debt  we seem to be building up  to pass on to our children, but no one in politics seems to worry much about using up non-renewable resources, carbon-based energy,  the very air and water life depends on.  But all of it, all of it, especially our politics, needs desperately to be seen  “Sub specie aeternatatis” from God’s perspective,  from our perspective as stewards of God’s gifts: the very earth we live on, the very air we breath.

Well, this is a lot to put on some very small shoulders  but he has some time still to depend on us and the message, of course, today is for us. We are the ones who need to remember  tomorrow and the day after and the day after that  that we are all on a journey and that what we do now matters enormously in that perspective. What we see is temporary,  what is unseen is eternal, but the use we make of what we see –  the patience and thoughtfulness and caring  and love with which we act  toward Colton  and toward all God’s other children  prepares us now for an eternal weight of glory.

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