Category Archives: Baptism

The One Down God: Sermon for the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus

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TEXT: Matthew 13:13-17

Not every story about Jesus made it into the gospels. And not all the gospels tell the same stories. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary only in the gospel of Luke. Jesus turns water into wine only in John. And only Mark ends his account of the resurrection on a note of fear. Different communities prized different stories. So when a story shows up in all four gospels, you know it represents an early Christian memory that everybody thought was too important to leave on the cutting room floor. Jesus’ baptism is one of those stories.

We always read it at the start of the Epiphany season between Christmas and Lent. It’s a season of insight and revelation, when hidden things are made plain. All the gospel passages assigned to Epiphany’s Sundays shed a little light on the mystery of who Jesus is. As we watch him speak and act in these stories, our picture of him clarifies, and we catch glimpses in him of who God is and what God is up to in the world.

And sure enough, in Matthew’s version of the baptism story, we get a big revelation about who Jesus is. It comes right after Jesus wades out of the Jordan. The heavens open, the Spirit alights, and a voice declares, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I delight.’

But we also learn a little more about who God is and what God wills. There’s no thunderclap, bright light, descending bird, or James Earl Jones voice accompanying this revelation, however. To see it, we have to go back to the flustered conversation John has with Jesus in the opening lines. Did you notice it?

Jesus presents himself for baptism, but John doesn’t seem pleased. He doesn’t say, “Good morning! No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” He says, “I know who you are. Please go away.” He tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized. “Me?” he says. “You want me to baptize you? You should be baptizing me!”

Why does John try to keep Jesus out of the Jordan?

The clue is in the kind of baptism John was offering. John was baptizing ‘for repentance.’ He believed the messiah had come. That’s why he’s preaching a message of urgent change. And, we read, crowds of people were coming to him, ready to repent of their sins, change their lives, and receive the appointed one.

They symbolized their willingness to change by immersing themselves in the river. They washed away their sins, they sloughed off their old lives, they left all that sorrow, hurt, and regret in the Jordan, and went away to live clean in the new age that was already dawning.

And now, here is that new age in person—Jesus of Nazareth, the messiah, the sinless one, God’s chosen person. But if that’s who he is, what’s he doing here lined up with sinners? Why is he asking for a washing? Isn’t he already clean? Besides (and here’s a second clue to the revelation), isn’t it humiliating for someone ‘high up’ like Jesus to be baptized by someone ‘down low’ like John?

John is the opening act, not the main event. The understudy, not the lead. The bridesmaid, not the bride. So how can an inferior baptize a superior? That’s not the way the world is arranged. You know that if you watch Downton Abbey.

‘Why you?’ John wants to know. ‘And why me?’

“Because,” Jesus answers, “in this way we do God’s will.” In this way everyone sees what God is up to. And what God is like. I go down in the river below you. You stand above me. You go one up. I go one down.

Ah! The revelation dawns. We know from the voice that speaks after the baptism that Jesus is God’s dear Son. But it’s when he submits to the baptism in the first place that we discover what kind of Son this Son of God is.

Who and what is the Son of God? He is one down, immersed in the river of human frailty and sin, turgid with tears and suffering, malice, carelessness, indifference, failure, and endless regret.

Why is God pleased with him? Because he gets into that water with us, side by side.

“Me, baptize you? God forbid,” says John. “You’re the messiah, the big shot of God. You should baptize me.”

“God forbid,” say all of us who spend most of our lives doing everything we know how to go one up, who fear being one down like we fear quicksand and the dark.

“God forbid,” says everyone who expects their god to act like one and lord it over the cosmos.

“No,” Jesus says, “we’ll do things God’s way. I’ll go down. With you. Where you are. In the deep. In the dark. Where all your hard stuff is swirling around. Where there’s the danger you could drown, the danger you could get lost and succumb to your despair. That’s where I’ll go, a sibling in your own flesh. That’s where I’ll always be. That’s how you’ll know that God is not against you. That’s how you’ll know you’re not alone.”

And so, Matthew’s story says, John consented and Jesus was baptized.

There’s another story in another gospel that sounds a lot like this one. We read it on Maundy Thursday every year. Jesus gets up from the table, pours water into a basin, and wraps a towel around his waist. Then, on his knees, he moves from one foot to the next, washing the dirt away.

He comes to Peter. Peter recoils. He tries to prevent Jesus from washing his feet. “Wash me? Not you! Get up! You’ll never wash my feet.” He’s frantic with embarrassment. Jesus is the Teacher, the Lord. Peter is the follower, the idiot disciple. This isn’t proper. It should be the other way around. Peter watches Downton too.

But Jesus says to him, “If I don’t wash you, you won’t have a place with me.” If you don’t let me serve you, you won’t ever really know me, or God. If you insist on proprieties, you’ll miss the gospel. If I don’t kneel before you, you may never know the converting grace of love.

And so, the story says Peter consented and let Jesus wash him.

‘The King and I’ is an old, dated movie. I’m showing my age just by mentioning it. And you’re showing yours if you remember it. But there’s a scene in that movie where Anna, the English governess of the Siamese king’s children, learns the protocol for being in the royal presence. No one’s head must ever be higher than the king’s. If he’s in the room and you’re taller than he is, you have to lower your head or stoop down so that his remains higher.

The king enters the room. Anna lowers her head. Then playfully—but also to show that he can—he lowers his. She lowers hers again. He stoops down. She stoops even lower. Finally he drops to his knees, and she has to go flat out on the floor. The point is made.

But now imagine that scene the other way around. Imagine a completely new protocol—the king has to go one down. No one’s head can be lower than his. He’s the one who ends up prostrate before the governess.

This is Jesus. And this is his God.

Over the centuries, many Christians have been embarrassed by this revelation, put off and dismayed by a God who stands in the sinners’ line, who bathes in our messes and kneels at our feet. We’re always trying to turn the one down God into a one up God, and when we do, we justify all sorts of pompous nonsense and bloody mayem in the name of God’s one up-ness.

But sometimes, some blessed times, we’ve managed to love the one down God. We’ve let ourselves be drawn into the sweetness of Christ’s humility, swept up into his kindness, his refusal to lord it over us, his eyes that look up at us and not down.

The have-nots have never had much trouble loving him, but even some of the privileged and powerful have fallen hard for his humble, hidden majesty. And when they have, they’ve found themselves in the Jordan, over their heads in human empathy and solidarity, immersed in a mystifying kind of joy.

I think of Francis of Assisi, the dissolute son of a wealthy merchant. He had an epiphany about the one down-ness of God while he was gazing at the figure of the abandoned Christ on the cross. It took Francis a long time—don’t believe all that medieval nonsense about instantaneous conversions—but eventually he fell head over heels in love with the poor and humble Christ. And out of that powerful attraction, he began giving away everything he had, and most of what his father had too.

This profligacy did not endear him to his proud and influential father, who was apoplectic at the sight of his privileged son one down among the leprous poor. But Francis was smitten by the one down Christ. He ended up a beggar among the beggars, a disowned and displaced man. He waded into the Jordan with Jesus and never looked back.

But Francis is probably too extreme an example. Not everyone who’s attracted to the one down Jesus ends up disowned and begging. There are many ways to have your heart broken open and your life re-humanized by the revelation of God’s humility. We each have to find our own way downward, as individual disciples and as a community of disciples. But one thing is true for everybody—if we feel even the slightest attraction to the one down God, we’ll eventually find ourselves in some discomfort, torn between the life we have now and the joy we sense is waiting for us down in the river with him.

I once had a testy discussion with a woman new to our church about the foot-washing that was part of our Maundy Thursday service. She was aghast at the thought of it. “Why do you do such a weird thing in this day and age?” she demanded to know. “We don’t wear sandals. Our feet don’t get dirty and need washing like they did in Jesus’ day.” Apparently she’d never distributed clean socks to homeless people. When she said ‘our feet’ she meant the clean healthy feet of people like her. “Furthermore,” she declared, “foot-washing is unhygienic, awkward, servile, and embarrassing.”

I said, “Your point?”

She said, ‘Well, all I know is you’re not touching my feet.’

But she surprised me. And maybe herself. She showed up, got her feet washed, and washed other people’s feet, too. Later, she confessed to a deacon that she’d wept when one of the oldest members of the congregation got on his knees kind of creakily to dry her feet. She also confessed she’d gotten a pedicure earlier in the day. I guess foot-washing is okay if your feet look good. I guess you can go one down as long as your feet are still one up.

But I’m not knocking her, believe me. It wasn’t a small thing for her to dip her beautifully lacquered toes into the Jordan with Jesus. Even a faint light in a great darkness is light. Even a slight unveiling can illumine the world, and maybe save it.

It was something, her little embrace of the distinguishing mark of a disciple: kneeling, one down. It was something, her beginner’s acceptance of the inescapable paradox of Christian faith: down is glory, lowliness is joy. It was something, that start, that little falling in love, that little baptism, that epiphany.

And on this day of Jesus’ baptism, I wish something like that for us all.

My Baptism(s)

There’s a family story about my birth that, like a lot of family stories told and re-told over the years, is probably only tenuously true, but it’s a good story all the same. This is how it goes:

My parents had decided that if they had a girl, they would name her Janice. This was a merciful way of naming a child for my grandmother without actually saddling the child with my grandmother’s name, which was Janetta. But my mother’s labor was long and my head and shoulders were big, and her pain was great, and at a particularly difficult moment, she—who had never been particularly devoted to the Mother of Jesus—was heard to scream, “Get me out of this and I’ll name her Mary!”

But there’s another story about my birth that I cherish more than this one. It seems that when I finally did come out, I came out yellow. I must not have looked very strong, because one of the nurses, who was Irish and devout, took me quietly to the far side of the room, dipped two fingers in some water, traced a cross on my brow and baptized me in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Now, in Catholic theology in 1947 this was known as a provisional baptism—an emergency baptism in case of death. Had I expired in the delivery room that morning, what that nurse did to me would have been a real live valid sacrament, and I would thereby have been spared an eternity in Limbo—a state of being in which the unbaptized soul of an infant enjoys all the natural happiness one could possibly enjoy, but where God is not present, and never will be.

But I didn’t die. I pinked up! And so I was baptized officially a month later with an honest-to-God-priest and a big baptismal font. My provisional baptism had indeed been provisional. It didn’t ‘count’ in the end, and so it became simply an amusing story about the way I came out yellow, but not a story about the day I became a Christian. That happened, according to my baptismal certificate, on January 21, when my family brought me to St Mark’s on Dot Ave in the Ashmont section of Dorchester.

The church I belong to these days does not teach that baptism is necessary for salvation. In this community of faith, we don’t baptize babies because we believe they need to be baptized. Baptism for us is the cool forgiving river through which we are swept into the church. It’s a sign that we belong to the family of faith. It’s the way we pledge allegiance to the new polity we call the kingdom of God. It’s the act by which we are called to follow Jesus, and it’s the moment when we are given a ministry to carry out with him in the name of God’s compassion.

It isn’t a cleansing of original sin, but a promise that if we do sin, we will not be left in our sin; there will never be a moment in all our lives when we will be bereft of the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord—for God’s is a love that is incapable of holding our sins against us. No, we do not baptize in order to snatch people from the jaws of hell. We baptize in order to bury them deep in the heart of Christ’s life.

God knew me and loved me from the day I was formed in my mother’s womb, as psalm 139 so beautifully sings. Some scriptures say that God knew us even before we were formed in the womb. The point is that there was no place on the day I came yellow into the world, nor is there any place now that I’ve gone completely gray, that is devoid of God’s presence. Catholics have finally come around on this conviction too. You never hear talk about Limbo any more. That nurse need not have worried about my being cut off from God on the day I came weakly into the world. I was never in danger, mortal or immortal.

I do not, of course, remember my baptism, either one of them. But I like to imagine the day I was baptized because it is a source of comfort and courage and hope for me to know that, once upon a time (well, twice upon a time), the God who is always kind and merciful was merciful and kind to me in a very specific way, by enrolling me in the company of the faithful, making me a member of the body, a daughter of the church.

But a strange thing happens when I imagine my baptism. In my mind’s eye I never see the sanctuary of St Mark’s on Dot Ave. I always see a delivery room at the Boston Lying-In. I always hear a capped nurse murmur the trinitarian formula. I feel her fingers trace a watery cross on my head. I see me, pathetic, in her arms, a new creation in Christ. And I have to tell you that I always well up with affection for her. As far as I’m concerned, her baptism of my jaundiced little soul was anything but provisional. If I am indeed a Christian by baptism today, I believe that it was at that moment in that place and by her hand that baptism “took.” 

I don’t believe what she believed about baptism. But it doesn’t matter. What moves me so much, and the reason I prefer her baptism to the priets’s, is that on the day she baptized me she was worried sick about what would happen to me. She didn’t want me to get lost. Baptizing me was her way of making sure that the little creature she held in her hands who was created by God for God and destined for the divine vision, would in fact see God. What she intended for me was the fullness of temporal life in the church should I live, and the fullness of eternal life in God should I succumb.

I was in no danger. Baptism was not required. Even if I had been in danger, it still would not have been necessary. But that is not to say that it did nothing for me. Her baptizing of me has given me a way of thinking about the church into which the sacrament ushers us. She has become a prototype of the church at its best in my mind, the assembly of graceful people who care about what happens to you, today and tomorrow and forever. People who would move heaven and earth to help you get free of every danger, mortal and immortal. People who do everything in their power to set you safely on the Way and won’t let you get lost.

The church is about a lot of things, but if it isn’t at least about this kind of concern, we may have missed the point.

Some Quick Notes on Some of Baptism’s Ethical Edges

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–Birmingham Civil Rights Institute Photo

We do not vaguely follow Christ, or imitate him generally. Our discipleship has a distinctive shape, individually and collectively—a “baptismal” shape. Baptism packs an ethical punch that stamps the spirituality of the church with distinctive markers. Among them:

  • Baptism is a radical equalizer (Galatians 3:27-28, 4:6)—There is now no Jew or Greek, male or female… All who are baptized are one in Christ, all have the same “father,” all are equal heirs, all are a royal priesthood, a people set apart; all have complementary precious gifts (charisms, graces) that are all necessary for the building up of the Body of Christ. The baptismal answer to all questions of distinction, discrimination, and subordination is ‘no.’ The Church that practices a baptismal spirituality is truly alive in diversity of every kind and in profound mutual regard. And the Christian who is living out his or her baptism every day is a person who rejects the normativity of one group over another.
  • If baptism is “an immersion in Christ’s death,” which death was an act of barrier-breaking, as Paul says, baptism is also therefore an act of radical reconciliation, bringing together those who were once far off and those who were already “in.” The gospel tells us that Jesus died “outside the walls.” That is where baptismal life must unfold, beyond all the walls and barriers erected to keep some of us safe, tidy, clean, and apart from others. The Church that practices a baptismal spirituality will be a church always working to break down whatever walls continue to separate us from the most dreaded “them.”
  • The equality of the baptized (or priesthood of all believers) is subversive of all clericalism and hierarchy. There may still be offices and roles for the sake of the Church’s unity and order, but the Church that practices a baptismal spirituality will show forth in every way the essential equality of all the baptized, and each one will take on his or her priestly role with grateful gladness.
  • Baptismal renunciations of Satan: we abjure ‘him’ and his kingdom (all his minions and all his powers)—we reject  not only individual sin but also all the systemic structures of evil and injustice (Christians in the civil rights movement called baptism the “sacrament of integration”). The Church that practices a baptismal spirituality will be an engaged and resistant community, risking everything for the sake of justice.
  • Immersion or dunking (as well as anointing of the senses and extremities in some traditions) and even sprinkling, if done generously, consecrates the whole body for God and underlines God’s commitment to flesh and materiality (‘body’ is as central to the baptismal rite in some traditions as it is in the communion rite). Solidarity with real bodies is at the heart of the Christian life…implications? The Church that practices a baptismal spirituality will engage the “corporal works of mercy” assiduously, honoring all bodies (implications for ministries—health, healing, visitation, prisons, addiction, shelter, food, accompaniment, etc.)
  • Water (and oil and salt and flame…)—The natural elements “mediate” God’s promises in some way/doctrine of creation/the creation truly matters… Ecological concerns are infused in us at baptism just as much as the “charisms.” The Church that recovers a baptismal spirituality will be “green”!
  • What would you add to this list?

Thinning Memory, Ethical Wallop and Other Questions about Baptism

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I. Excerpted from, “Long-Term Memory: Anamnesis and Christian Worship,” An Anniversary Lecture, First Church in Cambridge, Congregational: 375 Years on the Way, February 15, 2011

…I see the loss of the church’s deep experiential memory play out, among other examples I could cite, in the thinning of the baptismal ritual in many of the churches I’ve worshiped in during the last couple of years. Baptism in those communities is understood mostly as the symbolic act whereby we welcome a child (or occasionally an adult) into “the Christian family.” Even though most of the baptismal liturgies in use in those churches include bracing promises to renounce evil and engage in a life of demanding discipleship; and even though most retain all the scriptural references to mystical dying and rising with Christ, and some ever refer to the radical egalitarianism in which the rite implicates believers, the emphasis in many of these services remains laser-focused on family and welcome.

Now, I would be more content with this single focus if I thought, for example, that “welcome to the family” was widely understood in congregations as a “welcome to The Family that challenges families as the world understands them”; or if it carried within it the deep imperatives to be new creatures that relate to one another as original siblings, kin in the Sprit, that our ancient forbears found so immensely convincing about the Christian message. I wouldn’t mind it so much if what was being proclaimed in that welcome were the good news that there is a family for everyone, even for you; the grateful knowledge that without this new forgiving, healing, incorporating family born of water and the Spirit, we would all be profoundly homeless; and the urgent mission (therefore), the “thirst for souls”, that impels the baptized Christian to the side of the neighbor to extend to everyone God’s generous adoption. That kind of welcome I could be glad about. But most of the time the child is welcomed only to the Little White Church on the Green—which is not bad, of course; but it is niggardly. It withholds. It conveys only an infinitesimal fraction of the grace of the great Christian memory that baptism is, and not even its most saving one.  And if baptism is not about saving in some sense—choose your theology—it has nothing to tell us that the world can’t also say.

Were we remembering more deeply as the ritual unfolds, we would find ourselves thrust into the experience of Moses at the Red Sea fleeing for his life with his people, heading down in terror between walls of water, down to the seabed, to the very bottom of things; and there and only there, in trust and self-surrender, in a kind of death, finding liberation just as God promised; and then coming up alive and whole on the other side. And that shore then would be a shore here and now. It would be us standing on it with Miriam, ready to dance and praise in the face of every tyranny. It would be us who, with our own eyes now, see oppression’s inevitable future played out. It was, it is now, and it always will be washed up, broken, and destroyed.

Were we remembering more deeply, we would find ourselves in the presence of Jonah, so unwilling and so despairing over God’s love for Jonah’s enemies, swallowed by the big fish and taken deep, but not left to languish in that watery death. Hauled up, spit out, made new, he goes to preach mercy, almost against his will. And that same fish would swim right in here and gobble us up too. It would be us in that belly, us spit up on the shore newly gasping for air, us bringing mercy to an improbably repentant people, us weeping under a bush as we come to terms with the unpalatable good news that God will do anything to save.

And we would see Naaman, too, the proud general washed clean in Israel’s unprepossessing river; and the man born blind (the newly-baptized in the ancient church were called “illuminati”, and the story of the restoration of his sight was often read at baptisms); and our dear brother Jesus at the Jordan, unembarrassed, as he always is, to be found smack in the middle of a line of sinners on the bank, ready to undergo a baptism he didn’t need but passionately desired. All this would all be happening in and for us too, right now, as with water we baptize.

Mighty stories, dangerous rituals, deep memory… these are the things that makes for communal transformation and human joy. If they have grown pale and weak in our churches, how shall we go about recovering them? …

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II. Excerpted from “Just Praise, The Ethical Wallop of Worship,” Keynote Address for Christians for Justice Action, UCC General Synod 28, July 4, 2011

…. What would happen if the sacrament of baptism were celebrated with greater and more creative attention to the sign value of its characteristic elements, gestures, and words? Take away the teacup and candy dish fonts that are in use in many congregations where child baptism is celebrated, for example, and replace them with generous pools that can accommodate great volumes of water—so much that you might finally believe it when you’re told that baptism is a watery grave, a healing bath, a cataract of grace. And stop sprinkling little dainty drops over foreheads, but instead plunge the child or the adult into the water and get everyone good and wet in the process. Then watch what happens bit by bit over time as a congregation begins to see and hear and feel the risk and danger of it, the extraordinary joy of it, the healing peace of it. Watch what happens when you marry the mighty water stories of scripture—the flood of Noah, the swallowing of Jonah, the parting of the Red Sea, the Woman at the Well—to the dangerous ritual of water; what happens when the Christian imagination does its work. It may not be long before someone asks whether to baptize like this, drenching people with abundant clean water, is not only a sign of God’s abundance and of God’s will to heal and save us in the water’s depths (thanks be to God!), but might also be a counter-sign of privilege and wealth, as it is in all those places around the globe where people die for want of water. Then let someone wonder why it is that water, which should be free to all, has become a capitalist commodity. Then let your immersed people wonder what, as baptized Christians, they should be doing about that. Then you’ll know that worship is slowly working justice into the marrow of the bones of that church.

You have to be careful with this stuff, though. In one congregation, the Deacon who habitually assisted with baptisms got tired of reading the same few lines about little children being allowed to come to Jesus every time the sacrament was administered. He figured there was more to the story. So he began reading from Galatians 3 instead—‘for those baptized into Christ, there is no longer Jew nor Greek, male nor female, but all are equal in Christ.’ One year months and six baptisms later, he went to his pastor with a question about why the font was located so far away from the people, why only ordained deacons and ministers got to say anything, and why only the clergy could pour the water. He’d noticed that the Word and the ritual seemed to be contradicting each other, and thus he also noticed for the first time the subtle reality of hierarchy and clericalism in his supposedly non-hierarchical, non-clericalist church, as well as the potential of baptism to be subversive of it just by being baptism. That question caused trouble in his church. Either they had to stop baptizing, or they had to change the way they did things so that the sign value squared with their practice.

And take those baptismal promises we ask people to say. What if we were to stop trying to find inoffensive, progressive ways to say what the baptismal liturgy has traditionally named unflinchingly: that Satan and all his minions really are roaming the world seeking the ruin of souls and employing every wile to seduce us into evil’s kingdom, and that without the shield and strength of our baptism, we are easy prey, and that our subtle and overt compacts with this death-dealing cohort must be broken and renounced once and for all? What if we stopped laughing at that quaint language and re-appropriated those bold and bizarre images as straight talk that pulls no punches about what we are actually up against in this world. Over time, baptism and after baptism, what if our communities were to experience the power of the ancient act of abjuration, the determined swearing off of evil, the costly renunciation of the deeply satisfying rewards of sin, growing thereby a sharp consciousness of our vulnerability and a holy confidence that we can do all things in Christ, who claims us through these waters?  Over time, ritual act by repeated ritual act, might it happen that the baptized community becomes a disciplined and resistant community, increasingly detached from everything that could distract, allure, and encumber us when the time comes to choose up sides, increasingly daring in its death-defying confrontation with evil in themselves, in the church, and in the world? …

Contemplating Jesus’ Baptism: An Opinionated Opinion

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–Haskovo Historic Museum, Haskovo, Bulgaria

On Baptism of Jesus Sunday, one of the most important commemorations of the season of unveiling we call Epiphany, we are often quick to turn the ancient Christian memory about Jesus at the Jordan into an intra-psychic contemplation of ourselves. Rather than focus our religious imagination on the various texts’ revelation about Jesus as God’s child and chosen one for the work of redemption, and on what sort of redeemer he is, we move quickly from Jesus’ experience to our own. We make Baptism of Jesus Sunday all about our own baptisms and our own naming as ‘beloved’ by God.

Now, this is true and well done insofar as we believe that in our own baptisms God accepts and adopts us in Christ. We are indeed God’s beloved, God is indeed pleased with us, and we can indeed move confidently into our own ministries, and towards our own suffering and deaths, secure in this necessary knowledge.

It is also true and well done insofar as this powerful and transforming message of our belovedness is desperately needed by so many in our pews (including us who preach this message) whose lives are overwhelmed with experiences of inadequacy, isolation, rejection, and shame; or for whom God has always loomed too large as judge and antagonist. It is a message to be preached repeatedly and perseveringly, yes, even on Baptism of Christ Sunday.

But the fact remains that Jesus’ baptismal experience is his own, not ours, and it is unique: we are not the messiah or the chosen one, no matter how often we may mistake ourselves for him; and it is not through us, except by the divine grace of incorporation and extension, that healing comes to the world. The voice at the Jordan was for him, not us; it addresses him and his identity, character, and mission, not us and ours; and it effectively grounds his loving, sacrificial ministry in ways only he could know and with graces only he could draw upon.

No matter how much we may wish to appropriate Christ’s baptism, we have to acknowledge some difference and allow some distance between him and us so that we can contemplate with awe, as the ancient festival intended, the mystery concealed and revealed in this striking event.

Our tendency is to assume that everything in scripture has an obvious, immediate, and necessary application to our own experience. And we are, in my opinion, also quick to assign ethical imperatives to everything the gospels say about Jesus. It makes us just a little nervous to let a story just hang out there without interference and manipulation from us. I’m not saying it isn’t useful or good to think this way. I’m only wondering what else there may be for us to discover by means of a more imaginative look at Jesus himself in these stories. What would we see that we haven’t seen before because we took our eyes off him too quickly in order to focus on ourselves, our own needs, and our own morality? What is hidden here that a more steady gaze might unveil? I am only wondering what we might experience over time were we to permit the stories to be the stories of Jesus first, before we hasten to make them our own; what might happen were we to focus our attention on their main character as the only protagonist worth thinking about — the one in whom we too are learning, by patient contemplation and wide open hearts, to be well pleased.

Four Sermons on Baptism: 4. Have You Been Saved?

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–Edward Hicks, Noah’s Ark

Luke 15:1-7

Baptism of Bryn M.

 One of the most ancient words in the Christian vocabulary is the word “salvation.” It shows up in practically all our hymns and prayers. We think we know what it means, sort of, but a lot of us would be hard-pressed to define it. It is like beige. Or wallpaper. It’s a background word. We hardly notice it.

There are other Christians, however, for whom “salvation” is not a wallpaper word. It is a foreground word, a word always on their minds. Given half a chance, these brothers and sisters will confront you with “salvation” whenever they can. And wherever they can—say, on the bridge over the Mass Pike as you’re heading to Fenway Park for a ballgame.  They accost you, wearing sandwich boards that are painted with flames (signifying hell, where they believe we all deserve to be). A picture of Jesus on the cross is superimposed over the flames (signifying the way to avoid hell. The only way). As they hand you a tract, they ask, “”If you died tonight, would you wake up in heaven or in hell?” And then, “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?”

They believe that “saving” you is the most loving thing they can do. After all, if there is a God, and if God means business, and if God’s business involves assigning eternal reward and punishment, and if there is a divinely-appointed way to avoid the punishment and get the reward—namely, affirming with your lips that Jesus is your personal Lord and Savior—then it really would be in your best interest to listen to them and do what they say.

Hardly anyone does. Especially outside Fenway Park. There’s no hope that they are going to have much success with Sox fans anyway. Most of us have already sold our souls to the devil.

Have you been saved?

The typical theologically-liberal reply to that question is not yes or no, but “it all depends.” It all depends on what you mean by ‘saved’—saved from what? Surely not from damnation. Not too many of us believe in damnation. It flies in the face of our conviction that God is all-forgiving and utterly gracious. We say things like, “Well, maybe hell exists, but that doesn’t mean anyone’s in it.” When pressed, we include even Hitler and Pol Pot in God’s mercy, and if God can redeem those monsters, God will certainly redeem us, who are much smaller potatoes.

If “getting saved” basically means “going to heaven,” then, with hell out of the picture and no purgatory to worry about (Protestants don’t hold to a doctrine of purgatory), all we mainline Christians have to do to “get saved” is to die. Which takes no special talent. Sooner or later we all die. Our somewhat wan theology about all this salvation business is neatly summed up by 19th century German poet Heinrich Heine who once wrote, “I love to sin. God loves to forgive. Really, the world is admirably arranged!”

But surely salvation is about more than where you end up when you die. Our parable today is all about salvation, but it has nothing to say about what happens after death. That’s not to say that nothing happens; it’s only to say that Jesus is not preoccupied with that in this story. He just wants to find that one lost lamb.

When we tie our notion of salvation too narrowly to the matter of our fate after death, we always end up also narrowing the grand complexity and thickness of Christian life and faith. That one might be saved simply by affirming that Jesus is Lord is a case in point. The odd case of limbo is another. Recently it was reported that the Catholic Church is going to abolish limbo. For the clueless, I’ll explain.

Traditional Catholics believe that everyone inherits the “original” sin of Adam and Eve and that we are therefore born into the world in a condition of radical separation from God. Only baptism can take that sin away and restore the human friendship with God. If you die unbaptized, you can’t go to heaven.

Where does an unbaptized soul go? If it’s not its fault that is has not been baptized—say, in the case of a newborn— it goes to a “place” or state of being in hell called “limbo.” There the soul is “punished” by being deprived forever of the vision of God, which is the greatest joy of the saved. But it is mercifully spared the eternal torment of those who are in hell through their own damned fault. In limbo, there is no active suffering, only the deprivation of God’s presence. If a soul is in limbo, it is simply, well, in limbo. Avoiding limbo is the reason that Catholics tend to baptize their babies as soon after birth as possible.

The idea of limbo was meant originally to be a consolation in the face of a very strict doctrine of original sin and a very narrow idea of salvation-as-fate-after-death. At least an unbaptized child is spared the pains of hell. But this teaching about limbo was in fact a source of terrible anxiety for parents. And when a child did die before being baptized, it caused them unspeakable agony. On top of the grief of losing a child, grieving parents had no hope of ever being reunited with her.

The current Pope Benedict is on record as saying that the doctrine of limbo is not “pastorally useful” any more. Many Catholics doubt it ever was. They can’t wait to see it go the way of fish on Fridays.

Now, I know that this internal Catholic discussion about original sin, baptism, salvation, and our fate after death has little to do with us as Protestants of the more open, y’all come, God is merciful to everyone variety. We have a very different view of original sin and a very different view of baptism. We are in no rush to baptize babies! We do not worry about their eternal fate if, God forbid, they should die without the sacrament. Washing away the stain of original sin is not the first (or the second or the last) thing on our minds when we baptize.

And yet when you look closely at our baptism service, you can find traces in it of a concern about sin and salvation. There is language that alludes to cleansing and rebirth. We make promises renouncing evil and turning towards the things that make for eternal life. We mention forgiveness.

Why do we keep that kind of talk? Isn’t baptism more about welcoming people into the Christian family? Isn’t it the moment when we hear God say to us, “You are my beloved”?

We keep traces of the language of sin and forgiveness because the family of faith into which baptism ushers us is not just any old company of people. The church of Jesus Christ has a specific character. More than anything else it is a company of the pardoned, a congregation of the redeemed, a new kind of family characterized by a life-long and life-giving dependence on forgiveness—God’s and each other’s.

In our UCC tradition, baptism does indeed speak primarily of our unconditional acceptance by God as God’s beloved children. But the amazing and precious thing about this gift of acceptance and adoption is that God bestows it on us “just as we are, without one plea.” God gives it to human beings who may come into the world free of sin, innocent, fresh and clean, but who never stay that way. And don’t you think God knows that we won’t stay that way? And yet, knowing what God knows, God embraces us anyway. Baptism’s waters plunge us into an ocean of forgiveness in which we will need to be swimming all the days of our lives.

You do not have to believe in original sin transmitted almost genetically from generation to generation in order to be persuaded that sooner or later actual sin plays a disruptive role in every human life and in every human society. No one and no society escapes its ravages—the revolting headlines of the last week’s carnage in Iraq are proof enough of that.

You do not have to believe that we come into the world already infected by sin to acknowledge that it isn’t all that long afterwards that each of us fall sin-sick in our own way, secret or public, great or small.

You do not have to believe that at our birth original sin radically separates us from God in order to take seriously the common human experience of estrangement, alienation, and loneliness that are like a persistent undertow, dragging our longing to be whole out into a vast sad sea, and against which we feel helpless to resist.

I don’t believe that the simple affirmation that Jesus is my Lord and Savior guarantees me a place in heaven if I should die in the night. In the same way, I don’t believe that left unwashed, the stain of some inherited original sin will damn me to hell at worst, or at best perpetually suspend me in a limbo of futility between my worst fears and my best hopes.

What I do believe is that I need and desire mercy. I need assurance of mercy. Assurance that my own real and deliberate sins will not cause me—now or in the end—to be forgotten or lost. Assurance that I will not—now or in the end—have nowhere to call home.  Assurance that I will not ever—now or in the end—vanish like a dream from the heart of God.

So far, Bryn, our newest little sister in the faith, has not hated anyone, started a fight or a war, or decided that she’s more righteous than the rest of us and started treating us that way. She is the very picture of God’s pleasure, holy and innocent. It’s hard to imagine her sinning when you look at her now, but even her besotted parents know that it won’t be long before she’ll be needing mercy just like the rest of us.

And so today we have done the best thing we could do for her. We did for her what loving hands once did for us. And loving hands before them did for them. We presented her to God, who is the mercy we crave. And by water and the spirit God made her part of this great, wide and embracing family of Jesus where it is always and everywhere simply a given that our need for daily saving will always be met by his endless need to save.

We have made a preemptive strike on Bryn’s life, moving it out of the lost column into the found. And by the vows we made to her today, we have become for her, with Christ, the shepherd who will track her down when later on she gets lost for real—as often as that happens, and as long as it takes to find her.

Every time we do this, we glimpse the meaning of Christian fellowship, and the nature of the Church. Every time we do this, we exercise the debt of love we owe each other because God first loved us. Every time we do this, we create and re-create the blessed tie that binds. Every time we do this, a window opens on the character of God, and what we see in that window overcomes us with a joy no circumstance can alter. Every time we do this, the ancient hope for a new world and a new way of living in it together materializes among us.

If salvation is anything, this is it.

If it is to be found anywhere, it is here.

Four Sermons on Baptism: 3. Joseph’s Tears

Bourgeois_Joseph_recognized_by_his_brothers

–Joseph Recognized by His Brothers, Leon Pierre Urbain Bourgeoise, 1863

Baptism of Oliver Magnus L.

Genesis 45:1-15; Luke 6: 27-38

If you don’t know the story of Joseph, you owe it to yourself to read it from start to finish. It has everything: jealousy, violence, sex, power, money, suspense, God — and a happy ending.  It begins in chapter 37 of Genesis when Joseph is 17 and a shepherd in the land of Canaan. It ends in chapter 50 (the end of the whole book) when Joseph dies in the land of Goshen at 110. In between, Joseph is transformed from a spoiled little Hebrew kid into a shrewd Egyptian potentate, and his pack of jealous brothers into men of honor.

The plot of this convoluted story has a large historical purpose: it is meant to explain the manner in which the Israelites whom Moses led out of Egypt got down to Egypt in the first place. But it has a theological purpose too: it is meant to demonstrate the character of Joseph’s God. This God has a plan, and everything that happens to Joseph happens for a reason.

God’s reasons become clear only in hindsight, of course; but to Joseph, the divine method in the madness makes even attempted fratricide meaningful. Joseph says to his brothers, after finally revealing his identity, “Don’t be distressed or angry with yourselves about what you did to me: it was not you who sent me here, but God, in order to preserve life” [45:5].

Now, the providential worldview that makes such a crime meaningful does not remove the need to resolve the nasty old family secret. The business of forgiveness is still pending, and it won’t be simple. Joseph will subject his brothers to a series of tests, some bizarre, before he finally reveals himself and absolves them.

But absolve them he does — through his tears. In the short passage we read this morning, Joseph weeps only once, but if you read the story from its beginning 3 chapters earlier, you’ll see that this encounter-reunion narrative is drenched in Joseph’s tears.

The first time Joseph weeps is after he has terrified his brothers by accusing them of espionage. When the brothers realize that they are in deep trouble with this powerful and enigmatic man, they can only think that their crime has returned to haunt them: “We’re about to pay the price for what we did to our brother,” they all agree. “Joseph pleaded with us, but we turned our backs. Now we will surely answer for his blood…” [42:21-22]. And Joseph, who has pretended he can’t understand their language, is overcome — he hurries from the room to weep.

Why these tears? Well, why not? Here he discovers that his brothers have come to comprehend the gravity of what they did. So it all comes back to him — the horror of being snatched and stripped and thrown into a well in the middle of nowhere, left for dead by your kin. When he hears them recall the crime, he also discovers that for all these years in a foreign land, he has not been altogether lost; he has been remembered by these brothers of his — their guilt has kept him near, and so has their grief, a grief not unlike his own.

Does he see a glimmer of possibility for a new relationship, one woven of regret and empathy for their mutual emptiness, their mutual sorrow? Does he weep, then, also in joy, because he knows now what he will do with his power over them — that he will use it to be kind to them, and that soon he will effect a reunion with his father and his mother’s only other son, the youngest of the brood, Benjamin?

Joseph’s tears fall again when, much later, the brothers return for another sojourn in Egypt, still unaware of who “the man” who so dominates their lives now really is. This time, they bring Benjamin. And again, tears force Joseph out of the room: “Then he looked up and saw his brother Benjamin, his mother’s son… He hurried out, for he was overcome with affection, and was about to weep. So he went into a private room and cried. When he composed himself and washed his face, he came out…” [43:29-31].

Joseph then plants evidence of theft on Benjamin, and when Benjamin is caught, Joseph decrees that he must remain behind as a slave while the rest of the brothers return to Canaan. This is the greatest test — whether they will abandon Benjamin just as they abandoned Joseph once upon a time. They do not. One of the brothers offers himself in Benjamin’s stead. His father’s grief would undo him, he says, if he were to go home to report yet another lost son.

Joseph is overwhelmed by the pain of his own absence and the genuineness of his brothers’ loyalty. He bursts out weeping, and this time there is no hiding his tears. His passionate weeping, the scripture says, echoes through the palace — an eruption of pain and possibility so intense that it compels him at last to drop the game and reveal himself: “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt…” [45:1-2].

Now you might conclude that Joseph was a sentimental fool prone to exaggerated displays of emotion. And maybe he was — no one else but Joseph weeps in this story, and he’s not done weeping yet. When his father Jacob finally comes down from Canaan, Joseph “weep[s] on his neck” a good long while too.

But I think Joseph’s tears are more than sentiment. I think he knows that the sin of human enmity is something that can only be grieved, and never quite fully repaired. He knows that human estrangement is something to be borne, and never quite completely fixed. I think he knows, in the words of another preacher, that with those who hate us and with those whom we despise, with those who have harmed us and those whom we have harmed, we share a single damaged heart, and for this common wound he also weeps. I think he knows that the great tragedy of the refusal to forgive is that at a certain point in that stubborn sustenance of estrangement, all you succeed in doing is erasing yourself from your own on-going history; and because the absence of anyone from a rich human life is unutterably sad — a waste — it is worth weeping over.

I think he knows that you can’t retrieve, relive or reconstruct the past, and you certainly can’t forgive on command. You can only hope, by the grace of God, to test and probe and dare the present to see if you can get a little closer each day to the empathy and regret that make reconciliation and new relationships thinkable — a bit closer to the experience, the knowledge that we are in truth each other’s Josephs, that all our enemies (and those who scare us) are kin in disguise.

So in that hope he also weeps — the hope for joy in solidarity, in eventual reunion, in a holy communion. He knows it is possible: after all: his brothers tried to kill him once upon a time, but now they refuse to sacrifice Benjamin. He knows it is possible, after all: for now somehow he who was their victim is now holding them in his arms.

Today we baptized Oliver Magnus. What did we do for him? We passed him through water into a Company of Forgiveness. We wet him down with tears — God’s ancient tears, the same ones Joseph shed over his brothers, the same tears Jesus wept over us — and ushered him into a Way of Reconciliation.

Now, we know he didn’t need those tears of mercy today, didn’t need to be wept over. So far he hasn’t hated anyone, started a fight or a war, or decided he’s more righteous than the rest of us and treated us that way. He doesn’t have any siblings he can throw into a dry cistern (although there is a pesky cat in the apartment…).

But even if it’s hard to imagine him sinning today, he will need these tears some day, for sure. We all sin, there’s no reason to think he won’t end up sinning too.

So what we did for him today was to give him the best defense and the best offense we have found. Led by the Spirit, the church has for centuries collected the copious tears of God’s grieving over our alienation and aimlessness; God’s tears of regret for our foolishness and anger, our need to kill (in one form or another) to protect our own lives and the life of our tribe; God’s tears of hope for our turnaround, and God’s tears of joy at our homecoming — the tears that bathe our wounds and water our growth and enliven our pleasure and refresh our loves; the tears we too learn to shed for others, whether they belong to our tribe or sojourn in foreign places. We collected tears in this cistern (which can never dry up) and plunged this baby boy down in it, bathed him deep.

He is drenched now, and sealed: no matter what he ends up doing, where he wanders or is carried off to, God’s tears can find him, reach him, wet him down again and again. God will never lose him or let him lose himself. He is entrusted to us, too, who are likewise bathed and sealed and are wept over daily. We are each other’s kin now, now and always, God hanging on our necks and weeping tears of love, pure love, always love, nothing but love for us all.

God bless you, Oliver Magnus. We are Joseph, your siblings. Don’t be afraid. All will always be forgiven: Welcome home.