Sermon for January 12th.Why baptism matters. With some help from William Blake

Vicars sometimes ban the singing of Jerusalem at weddings because they are not sure it even qualifies as a hymn, but its general popularity is immense.

It is shouted out at rugby matches but also Conservative party conferences and Labour party conferences.

English patriots love it and so do English radicals.

It is well known that along with the famous tune by Parry it became the official anthem of the Women’s Institute in 1924.

What is less well known is that six years before that Parry agreed that Millicent Fawcett could use it as the official anthem of the women’s suffrage movement.

So it was a feminist anthem.

That this poem by an C18th radical, who admired the French Revolution and thought that Churches and Universities were dark satanic mills, throttling all impulses to free thought and emotional honesty, has become so treasured would have surprised its author.

It was requested today so I, being one of those vicars who love it, decided to use it.

Today we celebrate the baptism of Christ and there are two reasons that make Blake a perfect fit.

Firstly because he was a visionary. Not only because he had visions of angels in the farmland, as it was then, around Peckham Rye, but because he saw the world in a unique way.

As I noted, he was not very fond of the established church, but he was undoubtedly a person of deep experiential faith.

In the Gospel reading about Jesus’ baptism St Matthew describes Jesus own private and personal vision of God the Father’s blessing of his ministry.

Just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove… and a voice saying this is my Son, the beloved..

One of those with Blake when he died wrote, soon afterwards, what he has witnessed.

‘He said he was going to that Country he had all his life wished to see and expressed Himself happy, hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ- Just before he died His countenance became fair.’

Whenever we celebrate baptism we are drawn to ask ourselves what our fundamental beliefs, and motivations are- where is our vision?

One particular misconception about Blake persists because more is known about his art than about his character and life, and actual opinions and behaviour.

 The distinctiveness of his art makes him seem more other worldly and removed from normality than he actually was.

But if we recall that he was primarily an engraver, working in tiny, exacting physical detail. That he grew up in a house with a workhouse next door.

That one of his other famous poems, Tyger Tyger, is accompanied by a plump beast because it was inspired by a visit to a local menagerie.

And that his most successful art exhibitions didn’t happen in an art gallery but in the equivalent of a sock shop, you get a sense of a person working creatively with the matter at hand, and the ordinary world he was part of.

Another of his poems was turned into a hymn- I don’t know anyone who has sung it sung it, – it is from Blake’s Songs of Innocence.

Here are 2 verses.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love

Is God, our father dear,

And Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love,

Is man his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,

Pity a human face,

And Love the human form divine,

And Peace the human dress

Here Blake picks up the central theme of Christmas; that in Christ, his beloved son, God stepped down into our ordinary world, to transform it, redeem it-out of profound love.

Into the Middle East of Jesus’ day- a mosaic of small states living, usually run by despots, living in the shadow of a super power.

Into the London of Blake’s where great wealth and poverty lived side by side and new industries threatened disruption.

And into our own, which has been changed by technology and politics into one of great opportunity and blessing, but also of unique inequalities and dangers.

Which we have to face- whatever age we are and whatever role in life we have.

Those dispositions of the heart that Blake alluded to and described as deeply human but also profoundly divine- mercy, pity, peace and love- were ones he had absorbed from the teaching of Christ- and it seems to me, that they are always needful, and must never be mislaid.

Indeed, I would argue that we should work hard at practising them, to stop our hearts growing cold.

Inevitably all baptisms involve water.

A symbol of refreshment, of live giving, of birth, of new starts.

But we sometimes forget that it also a sign of danger and necessity.

The floods in Indonesia and the drought in Australia, might bring that home, as well as reminding us of the deep connections between all of God’s children.

A baptism, particularly the baptism of a child, does not let us escape from the ramifications of being both beloved by God and being invited to love.

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