That which we are baptized into
Updated: Jan 7
All Saints, it is so good to be with you this morning. My name is Ethan, I serve as the college and young adult missioner at a cluster of churches in Fredericksburg Virginia, and my mom lives like a mile that way.
I've known Penny for more than a decade now, which is crazy to say. We were at Bruton Parish together in Williamsburg while she was the associate rector and I was in college at William & Mary and serving as the warden of our Canterbury campus ministry. I moved to California after college to serve in the Episcopal Service Corps and then just never left, and in the eight years I was there, I worked as a youth minister, I entered the ordination process, I went to seminary in Berkeley, California, got ordained, and have only just finally moved back to take this job. I'm so glad to have reconnected with Penny, and to be back in Virginia.
It's funny to have come back to Virginia, now in my thirties, after having left as a 22 year old, and to now be ministering to folks all along the spectrum of the decade I've just lived -- what were, to be frank, some of the weirdest, messiest, most angsty and uncertain years of my life. Don't get me wrong, I loved being 18 and 20 and 22 and 25 -- it was also a fun and beautiful and exciting time, but it was hard. And it's hard for all kinds of reasons -- how do you make friends? how do you furnish and take care of an apartment, how do you load the dishwasher, why do all of my clothes keep shrinking in the dryer what am I doing wrong, wait I can't figure out turbotax, um hello Dad what is this light that lit up on my dashboard, how do plane tickets cost that much, wait how does rent cost that much, who am I as a person, what do I want to do with my life. Who am I as a person, and what do I do with my life. It's a lot.
It is a special privilege to be tasked with this ministry to college students and to young adults and to the people that love them -- young adults have been categorically hard for the Church to reach for quite some time and it's kind of, like, a simple matter of math that if we don't reach them soon, we're in trouble! I wish I had some kind of silver bullet to share with you all, but I don't, all I have is my testimony that Church was the place and the people who got me through college, through my twenties.
I was actually raised Episcopalian, but followed the typical course for a teenager -- I hit probably fourteen or fifteen and Sunday morning church started to feel like the last place I wanted to be. I didn't want to put on my polo and my khaki pants, I didn't understand the sermons, I didn't understand the liturgy, it seemed like church had nothing to do with my real actual life. It seemed like church was just something to be endured, much like school, but at least at school I was surrounded by people my own age. (I wonder if my own experience sounds familiar to the experiences of young people in your own life that you love and know.)
It was not until college that I founded my footing again in the church, the campus ministry to the College of William & Mary at Bruton Parish issued an invitation to entering students to join them for brunch the first Sunday of the semester, an invitation that was basically "free friends and free food." If there was a church service, I don't remember it. Just brunch. How scandalous.
And what I experienced over the months and the years that followed was something unlike anything I had experienced before in Church -- maybe that's just because I was older, maybe it's because I felt a sense of freedom and agency being away from my parents and my childhood church, maybe it's because it actually was different. Church was suddenly a place to hang out. Church was a place where I could share my problems and expect that everybody else in the room was probably dealing with something similar. Church was a place where the priest let us set the agenda of what we talked about, of what we worked out together, what we studied, what we built. Church was the place where the most important thing was the friendships that we shared -- and worship, mission trips, retreats, dinners, committees, everything was pointed towards that work, the work of friendship. Church was the place the taught us about friendship that was mutual, self-giving, non-judgmental, reconciling, and fun, and it was those friendships that sustained all of us through some of the toughest stuff we could have gone through.
I was already baptized and confirmed, but it was in that college ministry that I experienced my conversion to Christianity, this realization that the real communion is the friendships with made along the way, and the lives that we live and the problems and joys and hopes that we bring to the table are the tools and the objects of ministry. That same dynamic is what I experienced in the Episcopal Service Corps when I moved into a house with eight other new college grads who were right there with me in the "what do I do with my life?" existential crisis. It's the same dynamic that I experienced among my seminary friends and classmates, and is the dynamic that I witnessed happening at Episcopal summer camp, and over time it's a dynamic that I slowly learned to recreate myself in my leadership with young people.
It's kind of wild to look back and see how my sense of this vocation of the priesthood and this vocation of The Church has shifted, how my thinking has shifted since I was 12, 13, 14 and squirming in the pew about what we are doing here at Church. And so I offer my thinking to you:
What if the way we make Communion here is making friendships, self-giving, sacrificial, non-judgmental, mutual, reconciling friendship, fun friendship?
What if that friendship and that communion and that care was something that we gave away freely to everybody who comes through those doors?
What if the agenda of the Church was set by the problems and struggles and longings that folks brought with them and the gifts and skills and joys that people brought with them? What if we stopped thinking about Church as a place that we decide whether or not we belong, whether or not we like the priest, whether or not we like the programs and classes and offerings, what if we decided that everybody that was here belonged and everybody that visited here belonged -- and they were all puzzle pieces of a beautiful picture that we can't quite see clearly yet but that we get to figure out how to put together, together?
What if the most important thing we were doing here was showing real genuine care and friendship to one another, and what if we decided that everybody deserved it just because they were here?
You see, in all my time working with youth, college students, young adults, hey even real adult-adults, I just don't think it's true that they don't like Church. I think what they really don't like is being made to feel like their problems don't matter, or that their problems aren't important, or that the things they love or enjoy have no place here. I don't think it's true that young people don't like Church, I think it's just that they don't coming to church and feeling alone, that nobody wants to know them or be friends with them, I think they don't like thinking that if community is what they're longing for then it really might be easier to do it somewhere else, like brunch. I think if Church was a place where young people knew they could find community, people of all ages to see them and love them and support them, if Church was a place where the most important thing that was making friends and showing care because that's what Jesus taught us to do, well, then, I think Church would actually be really quite an easy sell.
It's really important in my ministry to always be saying that what we're doing here is we are trying to care for one another better, and always in bigger and deeper and better ways, and always trying to draw the circle of care just a little bit wider, and a little bit wider, folding people in as we encounter them. I think that' what Church is, and what Church is for. And I think that Life Ethic, that Ethic of Care is what we are baptized into.
I think it's really quite sweet in the Gospel reading this morning, how Jesus goes to John the Baptist to be baptized by him and John says "oh no no no, I'm not baptizing you, you're baptizing me" and Jesus says "NO, me too." As if to say, I'm not here to give you this Gospel as a preacher from across a pulpit or a teacher across a lecturn. I am here to join you in. I'm here too, baptize me too.
We are not baptized into an organization that we feel a sense of responsibility to endure every Sunday, or to pay tribute to on Christmas and Easter. We are baptized into the Gospel, we are baptized into a new way of thinking and living, we are baptized into the challenge: What if everybody that walks through those big double doors is to be treated like they are your friend already.
I know that I'm asking you to cast a very big net Church, but I wonder who you might just catch in it, and be happy to find themselves caught. Maybe a young adult or two.