The Saturday evenings before I am the scheduled preacher are a time of considerable anxiety for me. I start preparing my sermon on the previous Sunday afternoon, researching, praying, holding myself open to God’s Word in the words of the appointed text. I live with them all week long; bits and pieces suggest themselves to me at unexpected times and I scramble to jot them down lest I forget. Almost always, though, it’s on Saturday evening that my message crystalizes, comes into the kind of sharp focus I need to speak from the pulpit. I concentrate and pray, and sweat more than a little, caught between clarity and fear I will run out of time to marshal my thoughts into some kind of coherence.
Last night was not different than others, this time with a little added pressure because this is the Sunday after. The Sunday after an articulate, gifted preacher and rector celebrated at our services one last time before heading on to his new congregation. We are in the process of finding an interim rector and for now, I’m the clergy person on staff. I very much wanted to do it right today.
At the same time, though, I had noticed how beautiful the light was out in the garden as night fell and we were free of rain. I had been able to go out and take some pictures of the patch of sunflower I planted early this spring. They’ve taken a pounding from all the rain we’ve had, but there are still plenty where our bees can feast.
Against that backdrop, first I got a text. Someone I know and care for immensely is very sick. This person will have tests tomorrow that probably will only serve to confirm much of what’s already known and the news is not good. The family is very private so I’m sure reaching out to me was not easy. I was grateful to hear I could bring my friend communion and visit with the family after church today.
Then the phone rang. This time, the conversation was in Spanish—a conversation I had pretty much figured I wouldn’t get to have with a young woman I’ve met a couple of times. A member of the Latino community has also been very, very sick. There had been some question about me stopping to visit him in the hospital. Then, some conversation about the possibility of a baptism. Then, nothing. Yesterday it all came together. This person has gone into renal failure and a kidney transplant is not an option. Friends and family have gathered the resources to pay for him to return to Mexico to spend the handful of days he has left with his family at home.
But he wanted to be baptized, and for reasons that are filled both with mystery and grace, he wanted to be baptized at Ascension. I asked for the basic information I need to fill out the baptismal registry and it was he who texted back. I was surprised because he has a quaint and old-fashioned name; I took for granted this was a person rich in years. He was born in 1994. He is 23 years old.
I did not see him at communion and I had not seen him come in earlier so as I went through our service this morning, I wondered if he would be able to make it. And then, as we processed out, singing “The Church’s One Foundation”, there he was. An achingly beautiful, achingly young man.
I was grateful for the members of our church who stayed and participated in a baptism that was in Spanish. Because literacy is an issue in the part of the Latino community I serve these days, I have modified the Rite of Baptism so what we normally say and the way in which we recite the Nicene Creed are now questions that can be answered with a simple, “Sí”. About 30 of us gathered around the baptismal font and around this young man. I want to believe that in that gathering, we held grace. We were a space of safety. We were a people willing to be present with someone who is dying and be there in solidarity and compassion, not looking away from what is harsh and painful about life.
When the baptism was over, the young man’s family took a number of pictures, he holding the candle we’d lit from the paschal candle—a small flame from the larger one that reminds us that the light of God’s love is stronger than death or darkness. There was weeping. At first, the young man was very distant, already far into his journey to a place he goes to by himself. Towards the end of the time after the baptism, there was some kind of connection, more recognition in his eyes. But there was also fear. I hugged him and made the sign of the cross on his forehead one last, wanting to beg God not to let this happen, wanting desperately to be able to offer him life as we know it, the health and wholeness we yearn for as people of the Incarnation. But as the famous prayer I draw from often reminds me: we are ministers, not messiahs. I had done what I was able to do.
Rufino heads home to Chiapas on Friday. I will pray for him and pray for a world where a young man does not have to die so young. If you are so inclined, hold him close in your heart.