Two birthdays celebrated, two birthdays remembered. Two birthdays very different from one another, far separated by time.
The first birthday was celebrated and remembered yesterday morning. Many gathered here to grieve the passing of one beloved by so many; who had died way too young. Members of her family repeatedly noted that Gloria was baptized close to a year ago.
September 30th would have been her first “new birthday.” It was the day she recognized and claimed for herself the presence of God in her life. Baptism is the act of marking that presence – a moment that she’d treasured and that strengthened her in her illness. It had been a moment that changed her forever.
This morning we celebrate as a church family--along with all these strange people sitting down front--another “new birthday.” But as we’ve gathered again around this font, I recall another birthday, now about 4½ months ago.
It was mid-afternoon, featuring two exhausted people who’d been up for 24 hours. Within the span of a few seconds, everything changed: one moment, there was nothing, and then suddenly, there was a new little person. The exhaustion evaporates because complete awe takes over. There wasn’t life, then suddenly there was life. It’s a moment that changes you forever.
These are the types of moments that mark you, and that you want to mark somehow. They’re moments when you know nothing is going to be the same again: not the way you live your life, not the way you think, not the way you relate to others. They can be moments of clarity, or joy, or peace. They’re moments that you can name later on. You can tell the story as if it just happened – it’s that vivid and powerful for you. You can speak of them with that same sense of clarity or joy or peace each time you tell it.
And at times, we have our own ways of marking these moments – not just memories, but at times real actions. We mark birthdays by throwing a party, being with friends, eating too much. We mark anniversaries by throwing a party, being with friends, eating too much. We mark other important milestones – graduation or retirement, the beginning of school.
These are the well-known ones, the easy ones. There are others, too – others that may be more personal; more unique.
The day you were cleared of a critical illness. The first day of a new job. Your first visit to a storied ballpark. The first time your partner said, “I love you.” A moment you experienced God – claimed faith as your own. The moment you said goodbye to a dying loved one.
They are moments that will mark you, have marked you. And they’re moments that you mark for yourself in the future. They, too, may be marked through celebrations with friends and family. They may be marked through photographs or some other artifact that somehow represents a person or a place. They may be marked through revisiting where it happened. They may be marked through scars or tattoos.
These moments have changed us, have defined us – we in turn mark them for ourselves.
Moses, for instance, is told to take off his shoes. It seems like a weird gesture. Here he stands in front of a bush – a flame burning from within, yet not appearing to even singe a single branch. You don’t see something like that every day – of course Moses stops to look. Maybe he’s fallen asleep or hallucinating.
No…it seems pretty real.
A voice speaks to him from the flame. It calls him by name, even. It tells him to take off his shoes – this ground is holy. It’s holy because God’s presence is so imminent – is right in front of him, around him, and under him.
He’s told to mark this moment by removing his sandals – told to let his bare feet touch this holy ground. He should fully experience this moment of clarity, of peace, of call.
That’s what this is about. This holy moment, this moment that he marks and that will mark him, is a moment when he will be told to do something incredible. He will be told to lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt. He will be told to begin the Exodus. And while we can read ahead and see just how hard all of this is going to be (and he already seems to know, judging by how much he tries to resist), it may be that he’ll need to remember this first moment. He may need to look back on this first shoeless moment, his feet one with holy ground, and remember why he’s doing any of it to begin with. But again, in this first moment, marked by bare feet while experiencing a moment of divine presence, he is forever changed.
For centuries, baptism has been the church’s “shoeless moment.” Whether named a “second birthday,” it is a moment that marks us. It marks the child in the sight of the church as one of God’s treasured ones. It marks the parents just as that first moment had months ago. It marks family and friends as witnesses to the divine presence in one child’s life. It marks the entire community of faith as partners in reminding him of this shoeless moment, praying that he will one day claim it for himself.
It also provides the opportunity to remember our own “shoeless moments.” It provides opportunity to remember when we ourselves have been marked by God along the way; to remember when God spoke to us out of the fire, called us by name.
We can remember when God provided reassurance through a doctor’s care, or when we could hear God speaking in between someone’s “I love you,” or in a moment of forgiveness or the struggle to forgive, or when we experienced a moment of grace and peace in a loved one’s final moments.
Oh yeah...God was there. God IS there.
We can remember moments that marked us and how they may have been infused with the divine. And what is it about our own "shoeless moments" that provide reassurance for us? When we're at our weakest, our most vulnerable, our most hopeless, how can our "shoeless moments" serve as ways to remind ourselves who we are and whose we are; to remember that God was somehow present in the fire?
Just as Moses may have needed to recall back to his being called out of the flame in the harder moments of his upcoming journey, we need these moments simply because revisiting them can provide comfort and strength. Baptism can be remembered as a "new birthday" by one suffering. One can remember the first glimpse of one's child and fall in love with him all over again. We can remember times before and since - times of clarity, or joy, or peace, or knowledge of oneself, or knowledge of God's closeness.
We experience something like this the first time, and it marks us. We mark it, and then revisit it out of a sense of longing or a need to renew our spirits. And we always must remember to take off our shoes and become one with the holy ground.