On Sunday we baptized Leo. This month, I decided I’d share with you a blessing I wrote for him that also speaks to my time in Croc last week.
Leo, I spent some time last week in Mexico with both of your namesakes, Leo and Josefina. These two people have meant a lot in our lives. Leo was one of my best friends in Croc. I could trust him with anything. Maybe more than anything, I could count on Leo for a joke. He was always telling me some story about Pepito, a crass character who makes a cameo appearance in every reputable Mexican joke worth its frijoles. It was in those days that I became particularly astute at reading the punch line on Leo’s face because I hadn’t the slightest chance in actually understanding it. But I laughed along riotously anyway just from the sheer mischievous delight I found in him telling it. Leo was in a bad car accident last year. Before, Leo was a strong man, a man with fingers so think and calloused by concrete block that he could fling a rock from his finger and it would audibly zing through the air. Then last year, I saw him shrunken down to a wheelchair, unsure of when or if he’d ever get back to work again. But last week, he was back in true form, turning over reams of steak on his grill with the speed and dexterity of a textile factory worker, masterfully rolling and cutting yards of beef to exact specifications. Meat, a good carne asada, is Leo’s love language. In a male, machista culture in Mexico, there aren’t many ways to tell someone that you appreciate and love them. But meat is the one safe way to tell another man you love them without having to use words. Or without getting punched in the face in return. Inviting someone to eat carne asada with you is a kind of way of taking these very real, but invisible sentiments that have no shape and no form and making them tactile and substantive. Something you can sink your teeth into and consume. For Leo, that’s what love tastes like.
Josefina is a wise, irascible, but likable old woman. She’s the only person I’ve ever met whose spiritual gift is scolding. Leo, if your brothers are any indication of your own future, you’ll easily live up to the receiving end of that name as well. Josefina has lived a difficult and hard life, but one in which she has learned–as the Apostle Paul spoke of–the secrets of being content no matter the circumstances. The lives of your mother and I have been up to this point marked by blessing after blessing. Our experience of the world has been so starkly different from that of Josefina’s. While we too were sprinkled and splashed with the water of baptism as we cooed and kicked as you do today, our lives have been shaped by nothing less than a full immersion in the gospel, a forward, 2 ½ pike dive off of a 3 meter springboard into a pool of God’s grace. So sometimes we forget, as you might lapse a time or two as well, just what it is that makes Jesus so special. So I asked Josefina what it meant for her to come to know Jesus. What was it about Jesus that so profoundly changed her life? Josefina responded by recounting a conversation with her son. He had been snidely deriding her and all of this churchgoing that she had been attending to. “Ever since you started going to church”, he began to sneer. He was swiftly and summarily interrupted by his mother who responded quite unshaken. “No. This isn’t about ‘when we started going to church’, this is about when we learned to live. Don’t talk to me about religion, because religion has nothing to do with it.” Josefina’s response silenced me with its simple, plainspoken elegance. Her words sunk me even deeper into her wire rocker. When we learned to live.
Josefina’s words carried the unmistakable echoes of a confession that Peter one day gave to Jesus. On that day crowds of people were gathered around Jesus. It was a circus really. Jesus was talking to the crowds about what it meant to really live and to not just survive one more day content with handouts in a breadline. He wasn’t there to perform magic tricks nor to offer an opiate that pinned their hopes in the ever after. Jesus was offering them a life so real, so embodied, so fully human that the only words he could find to invite them into this life that was so real, but invisible was to give them something they could sink their teeth into and consume. Something tactile and substantive. A taste of real life. ‘For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.’ But the metaphor came off like an invitation to a carne asada gone cannibal. And upon hearing it, his disciples said in proper Galilean dialect, “ ‘sta loco”. Like Josefina’s son, they’d had it with religious quacks. This just proved Jesus was another. As Jesus watched them go, he turned to his twelve friends and said, “Are you going to leave me too?” And Peter in a moment of rare brilliance says, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Go? Are you kidding me? When we started following you, that’s when we learned to really live.
Leo, this baptism that we’re celebrating today is no mere ritual devoid of any real, earthy substance. We don’t sprinkle water on you today out of religious rite. Today, we celebrate as a covenant people when we learned to live. Following Jesus isn’t about coming to terms with an angry God who is distant and formless and lives in this other place called heaven that is so far away that we can only hope that one day we’ll leave all of this to be with him. No, following Jesus is about receiving a life and learning to live a life so rich, so deep and so filled with wonder that it can only be called “eternal”. It’s a life of such weight, such substance and permanence that what Jesus has begun in you and in us here on this earth will carry on and be completed in all eternity. This baptism, this water that we mark you with is that place where the space between heaven and earth becomes thin and blurry, where the physical and spiritual are wedded to one another. We use these symbols of water and bread and wine–we touch, we eat, we drink–because God is a God who comes close, a God who himself was baptized, who himself asked for food, who himself asked for a drink, a God who walked among us in the world he himself created and called ‘good’. And it is this water by which you enter this promise yourself. In this water, God takes this very real, eternal life and makes it tactile and substantive. Something we can touch. This water is what real life feels like. It’s a symbol of when you and we learned to really live. Leo, remember your baptism. Remember when you learned to live.