Remember Your Baptism
A sermon related to Matt 3:13-17
Rev. J.T. Smiedendorf
That baptism represents an immersion, a rebirth, into the living, loving Way of Jesus.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
For the Word of God in Scripture
For the Word of God among us
For the Word of God within us
Thanks be to God
Inspired by the presence of water in this morning's scripture story, I'd like to share with you one of my favorite stories of water.
In southwestern South Dakota there is a First Nation reservation called Pine Ridge, the home of the Oglala band of the Lakota Nation. On my first visit there a number of years ago, I was privileged to meet Duane, a middle-aged Lakota man. As a part of our day’s work with Re-Member, a nonprofit group on the reservation started by some UCC people in Michigan, we were sent to help Duane garden.
But Duane was no ordinary gardener.
He had three large gardens that covered more than an acre. And the garden’s produce of beans, squash, corn, and melons was meant for the elders in the nearby village of Porcupine. Knowing the scarcity and the preciousness of water on the reservation, Duane had written a successful grant proposal to purchase drip irrigation equipment. We were there to help lay it out and to plant. Duane showed me how it worked and how to repair it. I even planted corn for the first time, a novelty for a city kid like me.
Duane was utilizing the gift of water, wisely, for the greater good and life of the Lakota people.
Our sacred story of water this morning comes from Matthew’s early Christian community.
For Matthew, the story of Jesus’ baptism certainly helps accomplish his purpose of showing Jesus as a true Jewish messianic leader. Jesus, like so many Jewish leaders and the Jewish people before, entered the waters of the Jordan River and was deeply affirmed by God’s Presence there in an experience of the Holy Spirit. The esteemed Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann noted that this scene is a kind of endorsement reminiscent of those of the Davidic kings and that the Matthew story affirms God's blessing for the coming rule of Jesus.
It is that coming rule of Jesus or the Realm of God that Jesus proclaimed that is the deeper purpose of baptism. Baptism is a kind of initiation and immersion into that Divine Realm, a transformation into a new way of life where one experiences one’s true Divine affirmation and blessing and, like Jesus, leads a life guided and sustained by Spirit that serves Life, a life of love and integrity and service and generosity and community. Indeed, in Luke’s version of this story, John the Baptist’s call was to prepare for a new age, to become part of a movement to prepare the way for it, and when people asked, ‘What then should we do?’ John said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ he told tax collectors to collect no more than was proper and soldiers to give up their racket of extortion and simply do their jobs.
Baptism in the water of the Jordan certainly celebrated and sealed this new way of living for the individual, but it clearly had a goal of changing society, redeeming it from its ills of selfishness, poverty, violence, and corruption. John’s invitation called people to prepare the way of God by changing one’s life, preparing the way within, seeing and acting differently, living in the world and with others differently. Baptism meant there would be relational and social change leading toward the fullness of God’s Realm and that we each would need to choose, to act to immerse ourselves in this new reality.
Do you remember your baptism?
I don't remember my baptism in late 1963 because I grew up in a family in the Methodist Church and Methodists do infant baptism. While I do appreciate and truly love the welcome and the blessing that comes with celebrating a new life in our community through infant baptism, baptizing babies does miss a profound adult experience of consciously choosing faith not just in Jesus and in the God of Jesus, but in living into the Way of Jesus and toward the vision of the Beloved Community. Baptism is meant not only to be a profound reorientation of the inner world, but to be a profoundly countercultural choice. Baptism is a big deal, change of direction moment for youth and adults.
In fact, for the apostle Paul the ritual of baptism was such a big deal that it was imaged as a form of death, death of the old and rebirth into a new life in Christ. Indeed, there could be no better symbol than that of water for baptism, the waters of birth. And, despite the common church practice of sprinkling water on babies and sometimes adults, there could be no better symbolic act than full immersion into the water to re-emerge anew. It was not uncommon in the early church for those wishing to follow Jesus to study for months and then to be stripped of their clothing before experiencing a full immersion baptism, often on Easter, to initiate their new and full life in Christ, rising from the water to clothed anew in all white.
This morning I'm not here to propose a change in our practices of baptism, but I am here to call us again to immersing ourselves in the Way of Jesus, to be in the practice of becoming beloved community.
I am calling us to remember our baptism, to remember that life we are initiated into and who goes with us on that journey and how important it is. If you have not been baptized, I invite you to consider a conscious choice to follow the way of Jesus and to consecrate that choice in the ritual of baptism.
Remember your baptism.
The Way of Jesus is a profound way of love where there is a deep intention, a free will choice to love in a way that brings healing and justice that moves us beyond cycles of despair and bitterness, of violence and revenge. Baptism is acknowledging the choice to love in a way that goes beyond a judgment as to whether others deserve love, goes beyond simple tit for tat and eye for an eye, goes beyond the focus on what the other did or did not do. It goes beyond a reactive reality about the Other to a creative reality of the Self that simply asks, “How can I manifest love here and now? Love for myself and other, love for community and the whole earth? What form of love would serve the life in me AND the other now and moving forward?”
Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount summarizes the vision of what baptism initiates us into, the Realm of God, life in the Beloved Community where cycles that drain life are replaced by intentions and actions that give life.
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you
Turn the other cheek
Blessed are the merciful
Blessed are the peacemakers
Blessed are the humble
Store up treasures of the Spirit
Seek first the Realm of God and do not worry
Treat others as you would like to be treated
Remembering our baptism is remembering that we are called to choose this kind of love.
The fact the you and I often fall short is not as important as remembering our baptism and choosing again the Way of Jesus.
Remember your baptism.
And remember you are not alone on that imperfect journey after baptism to live into this kind of love and service of Life.
I think of Duane still as someone who inspires me on that journey after baptism.
Some years later, I asked about Duane, and found out that he had died.
It was a sad reminder that like many on the Pine Ridge reservation, living to your late fifties is actually better than average. Measured by certain statistics, Pine Ridge is the second poorest place in the Western Hemisphere (after Haiti). In a land area the size of Connecticut, there is one grocery store and one hospital. Alcoholism and diabetes are rampant. Duane knew that most of the food that Lakota people can get is of poor nutritional value so he tried to do something about it.
So when I remember my baptism, and what I am to live for, Duane is one of those in the communion of saints who goes with me. Duane goes with me and helps me remember my baptism not simply because he was a kind and delightful man, but because even amidst the wilderness of poverty and discrimination, amidst a system of injustice and oppression that creates conditions for despair and death, Duane chose to love, to embrace a vision of life, to have a faith in action, to commit to the life of the people. He chose care for the elders and the children. Maybe he found his transforming sacred waters in the sweat of the prayer lodge, but I believe Duane was a baptized human, whether he ever did a Christian ritual of baptism or not, because he immersed himself in a higher sacred purpose beyond himself, a purpose to serve compassion and justice, a lifegiving purpose in the Realm of the Great Spirit.
Who can help you remember your baptism and what baptism is for?
Who in your communion of saints can whisper in your ear, when life for you or your family or this church is difficult, “Remember your baptism.”
Later in worship, during the passing of the peace and the last hymn or even after worship is ended, you are welcome to come forward to the bowl to dip your fingers into the waters and touch your forehead or back of your hand to remember your baptism.
Whether we are at life’s end or closer to its beginning or in the middle, it is wise to pray to God, “May we know Your Presence, May your longings be ours.” This is what Jesus sought and experienced in baptism and this is what we seek when we Remember our Baptism.
First Sunday in Epiphany
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Luke 3.15-17, 21-22
15The people were filled with expectation, and everyone wondered whether John might be the Christ. 16John replied to them all, "I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I'm not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can't be put out."18With many other words John appealed to them, proclaiming good news to the people. ... 21When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened 22and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness."
“Take me to the water, take me to the water
Take me to the water to be baptized.”
How many of you remember your baptism? How many remember stories of their baptism? Any one remember confirming the baptismal vows their parents made for them at a confirmation ritual? How many of you –- baptized or not -- wonder what the heck IS this baptism thing? And why is it so important anyway?
Is it essential to your faith?
As we gather around Plymouth’s baptismal font this morning we are unified in our remembrances and in our questions. I remember my baptism. I was ten. I was fully immersed in the baptistery of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. It was at the beginning of a Sunday evening service. Dressed in a white robe I had come to this moment after a significant amount of earnest prayer during the times of silence in our worship services. I had walked down the middle aisle of the church during the final hymn of a morning service to signify that I wanted to profess Jesus as my Savior and join the church officially through baptism. A week or so later I had a private conversation about my understanding of this with the kindly, older pastor. Then came the evening of baptism. I remember the instructions in detail. I remember the moments of immersion and being led out the other side to dry off and get dressed. I remember entering the worship service already in progress wearing my wet hair slicked back in a pony tail as a badge of honor. I was one of the newly baptized. In times of doubt I have remembered this ritual of commitment as one might remember marriage vows. I made this decision at 10, and even though I may be confused, discouraged and despairing, even mad at God, the commitment pulls me back into mysterious relationship with the Holy One known in scripture, worship prayer, in Spirit and in the person of Jesus. Any details of your baptism story coming back as I share my story? Any remembrances of a time when a hot shower felt literally life-saving, or the plunge in a cool pool or a bottle of water? When has water brought you new life?
Baptism per se does not make you a Christian. Baptism is a visible and outward sign of an invisible and inward faith commitment made by a person or on behalf of a person. It is a sign, a marker on the journey that we begin at birth towards wholeness in God, maturity of faith and our soul’s search for meaning. The water is not magic. Yet we know the power of water in our everyday lives. We all have experienced water how cleans dirty hands and faces, how it revives a dying plant, how it can quench our thirst. With these sense memories, the ritual act of baptism holds the vivid imagery of being cleansed, of beginning again, of new life and revival from the dead. Potent imagery we can hold on to throughout our lives as a foundation for starting anew time and again in faith through confession and forgiveness, through immersing ourselves deeper in prayer during times of dryness or despair, through sensing a call to spiritual growth and new work in ministry which is the provenance of every Chritian.
I suspect that Jesus needed the ancient Jewish ritual of cleansing from sin that was the meaning of baptism in his time as a marker for himself, for his own faith, as he began his formal ministry. It was also a sign to the people on the riverbank that were followers of John. And I’m sure the story of John’s announcement of Jesus’ ministry spread rapidly throughout his followers and beyond. How could you forget the words of the your teacher, who has brought you to new faith, when he says, "I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I'm not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Each year in the church season of Epiphany we celebrate Jesus’ baptism by John in the water of the River Jordan. As we have remembered together, it’s imagery is rich and palpable.....however, the gospel writer of Luke tells us that Jesus didn’t baptize with water. John did, and we are united with Jesus in the experience of this powerful ritual. Yet according to John, Jesus came to bring the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. I don’t know about you, but those sound a lot more dangerous than the ritual of sprinkling or pouring water over someone’s head or being intentionally and carefully immersed in water. A lot more out of our control!
John’s description of Jesus’ baptism of Spirit and fire as a winnowing process could be interpreted as separating the good people from the bad people, in the present or in the end times. During Jesus’ time the religious establishment would have thought it was separating the Jews from the Gentiles....fortunately our earliest Christian sisters and brothers discovered this separation did not need to be kept. Jesus broke that barrier himself as he healed Gentiles in several stories throughout the gospel of Luke. And the story of Pentecost in Acts (brought to us by the same writer as Luke) shows that Spirit has no prejudices! God’s spirit is for all!
So what if John was not invoking such a literal meaning as separating people good from bad? What if the imagery of winnowing is about a kind of baptism in itself? John says of the one who is coming, “The shovel –- the winnowing fork -- he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can't be put out."
The action of winnowing is separating the wheat seed where all the growth potential, the nutrition, is stored from the outer protective covering of the chaff which is not necessary for food or planting after the wheat is harvested. Winnowing involves wind and fire. The seed is thrown up into the air with the shovel and the lighter chaff blows off while the heavier seed falls to the ground to be gathered. The waste product of the chaff, the unnecessary protective covering which would prevent the seed from sprouting or being useful in food, is eventually gathered and thrown in the fire.
Baptism with water is about new life, about coming into the community of Christian faith, about turning toward the ways of God as a new direction on the journey in life. What if baptism through the winnowing process of wind and fire can be seen as a baptism of liberation for individuals as well whole communities of faith? After his baptism by water, Jesus entered his ministry of proclamation and healing and calling people into relationship with God and one another. Jesus’ earthly ministry was a dynamic movement to reclaim and build God’s realm of justice and love. According to John, Jesus’ baptism brings the cleansing wind of Spirit that blows away protections and obstructions that are no longer needed so we may see clearly the realm of God. Jesus’ baptism of Spirit and fire takes our communal and individual protective habits of scarcity, fear, greed, and pride that separate us from our fellow human beings and throws them into the fire of God’s forgiveness! They are toast! Trash that we no longer need. And the Spirit not only blows them clean away, but also burns them up so we can’t even reclaim them. We are rid of all the old stuff, the chaff, that weighs us down. We are new, fresh, seeds of God’s power and growth in the world.
In Jesus’ baptism through the Holy Spirit and fire, we are invited into the whirlwind of God’s love, a process of winnowing that will literally change our lives, forever. And just as we can remember the church’s sacrament of baptism by water every year and all that it’s life-changing meaning, we can also remember that Jesus’ invitation into the winnowing of Holy Wind and Fire. We can join anew the movement of building God’s realm of justice and love here and now.
Here at Plymouth baptism signifies participation in God’s Movement, God’s realm. The movement Jesus remembered and re-established in his times, the movement of God’s refining Love blowing through our lives, ridding us, cleansing us, of all that is not an essential part of who we are created to be in God’s image. Reminding each one of us as Jesus was reminded through the message of the dove.... "You are my Son, you are my Daughter, my Beloved One, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness."
God finds happiness in you, in us! Isn’t that amazing! And isn’t it something to witness to and share with the world!
Take us to the water, Let us feel your Holy wind.
Bring us through your cleansing fire
So we may be baptized.
Amen and amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2019 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
1 Corinthians 11:17-26
World Communion Sunday
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1 Corinthians 11:17-26
17 Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. 19 Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. 20 When you come together, it is not really to eat the LORD's supper. 21 For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. 22 What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!
23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the LORD's death until he comes.
The apostle Paul, who wrote our scripture text as part of a letter to the church in Corinth, was a tough-love pastor. He didn’t pull any punches with the churches he founded and served. Lovingly and firmly he instructed them, calling them out on their misbehaviors, their false piety and their injustices. Tough love is what we hear in the opening passage of our scripture reading today. Just before this passage he has been commending them on some good church practices...now he brings the hammer of justice down. “I do not commend you on the way you are celebrating the Lord’s Supper. You are NOT remembering relationship and you are not remembering the Christ who died for you.” Boom!
The problem the Corinthians Christians were having stemmed from the Roman culture and hospitality practices in the first century. The church was meeting in the homes of its wealthier members. In these homes, there was the central dining room which could hold about 9–10 people reclining on couches. So, traditionally, the most important people ate there. Then there was an outer atrium where another 20 or 30 people could gather. Important, but not the inner circle. And then there was another room for the servants and slaves. So the church was not truly gathered together for the Lord’s Supper meal. It was separated in terms of status and class. Some ate well; some not at all. When the early Corinthian church gathered to celebrate the Last Supper or Lord’s Supper there was no distinction between the actual meal and the ritual or eucharist or communion. It was all of a piece in one dinner, a “love feast" or “agape meal.” So if the church is scattered across at least three different spaces eating different foods, how can they celebrate communion in unity? And the group with no food or drink? How could they celebrate at all?
The church was meeting... but they were not really in relationship! And this was the big problem that Paul had with them!! Being out of relationship across class and economic spectrums, they were not remembering that Jesus had died a sacrificial death at the hands of the Romans for all of humanity. Or that God had conquered death in Jesus’ resurrection for all humanity. The Corinthian Christians let their comfort zones and unexamined habits get in the way of their commitment to the love of God in Jesus the Christ.
Thus, the stern reprimand from Paul. And his repetition to them of what he had been given about the Last Supper. We often hear the second portion of this passage at Maundy Thursday services because it is the earliest historical written reference to the Last Supper. Paul wrote down the instructions in this letter 20 or so years after the death of Christ. Most likely he had been taught them verbally -– perhaps by a disciple who was at the supper. This is just about as direct a report as we get from that pivotal night in the life of Jesus. All the gospel reports were written twenty to forty or fifty years after Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. This is a very beloved and historical passage in Christian history.
But it was not originally written for us to revere with sentimentality. It was written to emphasize why and how to celebrate this founding ritual of Christian faith. On the very night he was betrayed Jesus revealed new significance to the bread and the wine of the ancient Passover ritual of deliverance and liberation from oppression. Both Jewish and Gentile Christians in the early church would recognize grapes and grain offerings as typical sacrificial elements prayerfully offered in Jewish and Greco-Roman temple worship. They are first fruits sacrifices given to God in thanksgiving.
In the tradition passed down through Paul, Jesus says to the first century church and to us, “Remember me when you eat together. Remember that as grapes and grain give their lives to be transformed into wine and bread, I give myself for you so that we may all be transformed in God’s love.” Paul adds to Jesus instructions “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the LORD's death until he comes.” Why proclaim Jesus’ death? Because it was through Jesus’ sacrificial giving of his whole life to God even unto death that revealed the unifying power of God over the divisive powers of humanity in the life-giving power of resurrection.
So what do with do with all this besides fondly remember these metaphors and meanings as we celebrate communion? What about Paul’s reprimand of the first century Christians? Is there anything in the reprimand for us? Surely we would meet with Paul’s approval in our ritual of communion. We do it right now....all in one room....all at one table. Everyone invited.
Yes....and..... Paul’s instructions and admonitions call us to examine the bigger picture of our lives as Christians in our 21st century world. We all know we live in a world of extreme divisions and divisions among the Body of Christ are not new. Like the first century Corinthians unconsciously following the patterns of Roman culture, 21st century Christens are separated into different rooms by class, political and religious affiliation, theological interpretation and practice. Is Paul’s admonition a call to reach out across our Christian differences to celebrate in communion God’s gift of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection?
If so, that is a daunting call. How can we possibly heal from the 2000 years of abuse of one another in the Christian faith? We have fought viciously over theology and ethics, persecuted one another even to the point of death, deeply shamed one another because of differences in biblical interpretation. And many of us gathered here today are the walking wounded of these divisions, as well as hidden sexual abuse in both Catholic and Protestant churches. Is there any hope for reconciliation between Christians? Any hope for breaking down barriers to listen deeply and with compassionate hearts to one another as we listen together to God?
I wish I could say I had a plan for this grand scheme of healing! I have not been divinely gifted with one. The only way forward that I see is to come together in this local body of Christ and seek healing through prayer, through service and through the unifying ritual of communion. I firmly believe that as we acknowledge our wounds, tell our stories to one another in appropriate settings, here in this gathered body of Christ, we begin and further our individual healing. As we risk vulnerability with one another here, we gather the wisdom and strength to reach out in vulnerability and compassion to those in our families, our neighborhoods, our work and our schools who come from what seem to be opposing forces in Christianity.
Vulnerability is not weakness. It is the strength of standing in the authentic being of your soul. It is the joyful and arduous journey to know yourself in all your gifts and wounds. It is the ability to speak your truth in love with diplomacy and compassion, rather than wielding words as weapons. Vulnerability is reserving the right to self protect and have boundaries even as we take risks in sacrificial love to reach out to others. It is knowing that each of us is wounded and seeks healing even as we know that we have most likely wounded someone else and want to seek their healing as well. It is laying down our lives for one another in love through the very living of our lives. It is asking for the grace to forgive and be forgiven.
Forgiveness is not easy. I know from personal experience that sometimes it is just doesn’t feel safe to forgive a person or a system who has abused you. That is when I ask God to do the forgiving that I cannot do. When we feel too wounded to forgive, we can still take the risk of a baby step. We can in vulnerability let go of just enough hurt to trust God has a bigger picture of suffering, healing and forgiving than we do. With God nothing is impossible.
Jesus was and is our supreme model of the strength of vulnerability. He vulnerably offered himself as a vessel of God’s love in all his teachings, stories, healings, miracles and ultimately in sacrificially giving his life in non-violent resistance to a system of false power. God sustained him through it all. How can we respond to Paul’s call to be in relationship and union with all our Christian brothers and sisters? By following Jesus to this table. Here in this core ritual of our faith we remember the strength of Jesus’ vulnerability. Even as he was being betrayed by the political powers of his time he said, “This is my body given for you. This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood. As often as you share this meal remember me.”
May it be so. Amen.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be good, pleasing, and whole to you, O God, our rock and our swim coach. Amen.
We live in a shallow world that is scared of the deep-end of life! Our world these days is terrified of truths about death and mortality, about the emotions we all share as humans, about the deep places: rage, fear, frustration, joy, confusion, wonder. The real stuff is out there, friends, in the deep-end of life, yet culture, technology, even how we travel in our isolated cars in this country (how most of us got to church this morning), all drive us towards the shallow, self-centered-end of the wading pool.
Nobody really wants to dive off the high dive anymore into the mysteries of life, of love, and of wonder. We are scared of the water. It is just too dangerous to be real with each other. What if we don’t have all of the answers? What if we might be seen as vulnerable? What if we make a mistake somewhere between the diving board and the surface of the water? What if we embarrass ourselves with loud laughter, with tears, or with honest confessions in public? What if someone doesn’t like us? No… no, it is safer to just stay in the shallow, thin, barely moving waters of the easy side, shallow end, of the pool.
Learning to swim spiritually and emotionally in the complexity of life and death and real feelings isn’t even necessary anymore anyway. We don’t have to actually live life to observe it.
We let the characters on TV and on Netflix do that “Olympic swimming” work of “feeling” life for us on the screen instead. It is safer to be an observer of others in the pool than to jump in ourselves. We stay in the bleachers either cheering or booing. We can just watch the world swim by on Facebook, on Instagram, or from the safety of our couches—we can watch the world treading water. But is that a Christian response to the deepness and mystery and wonder and possibilities of the gift of living? No.
Christians, Baptism is a deep-end sort of promise to God as community. It is a promise that springs from the deepest founts of our souls. It is a promise to jump in the pool together. It is a promise for when life is way over our heads. It is waterborne promise to accompany, to provide the swimming lessons, and to dive off the high dive of life with each other. Moreover, we are the lifeguards for one another in times of struggle. As a community preforming and administering the Baptism, we likewise promise, to each other, and the children brought to us to share in this ancient rite, to stay with each other in hope and togetherness. Likewise, and most importantly, God through Jesus the Christ also accompanies us as our swim coach for this swim team called Plymouth and wider Olympics of the Church Universal. We are not alone in the deep-end or on the high dive. We can rest assured that Jesus is with us.
Baptism historically and in most Christian traditions represents being buried with Christ when descending into the water and then resurrecting into a promise of eternal life with Christ. While this can be seen as morbid of part of traditional theology, there is a kernel of something reassuring and beautiful in that image isn’t there? There is something worth keeping. We are raised with Christ in Baptism: This is why Baptisms traditionally happen on Easter Sunday. In our progressive tradition, we think of this in a broader sense than that older theology of a sacrificial atonement and burial. We think of it as a promise of God to be with us through every step of life and into death but also the community’s call to stick with each other through the good, the bad, the ugly. Amen?
It may not surprise you to learn that our denomination’s official statement on the question of, “What does Baptism Signify?” is only two sentences long! “The sacrament of baptism is an outward and visible sign of the grace of God. Through baptism a person is joined with the universal church, the body of Christ. In baptism, God works in us the power of forgiveness, the renewal of the spirit, and the knowledge of the call to be God's people always.”
This is one of the gifts and beautiful things about the United Church of Christ: our simplicity in explaining what we believe. We are sort of the United Church of Elevator Speeches. In Baptism, in joining each other and Christ in the waters of Baptism, we claim a new and deeper connection, an ongoing renewal, and an understanding of our sense of purpose to be God’s people and to do God’s work of justice and inclusion in this short life on earth. In Baptism, according to the UCC, we are given a promise of purpose, of hope, and of togetherness. This is indeed a great gift from God. [So many are looking for a sense of purpose these days, and Baptism really is the root of that sense for us.]
Why talk about this symbol like Baptism on a Sunday when so much preaching is needed on social justice issues in the world and in the news? What a deep-end time we live in!
Because we are in a time, friends, when words have failed us. We are in a time when it is hard for us to measure how deep, how VERY deep the waters have become around and under us. We are in a time when we seem to be treading water socially more than swimming forward in community and God’s call for liberation. In short, we are in a time when our Baptisms and the ecumenical, connectional, timeless, promise of Baptism is more important than ever. We are in a time when we can reach out for that reliable “floatation device”/ “life saver” of God that is hope, togetherness, and purpose. Baptism can be our buoy in the deep end. We are in a time when words have failed us. We are in a time when words have reached their limit of usefulness, so symbols must keep us afloat.
We are not communicating well in 2018 with words, so maybe it is a time when symbols, Holy Gestures of Blessing, like Baptism and Communion, matter more and offer us understanding in ways that words cannot right now. The Sacraments can help us keep the faith!
I am convinced that the least important part of a Sunday Christian service in 2018, not always but right now, is the sermon. This makes me a very VERY bad Reformed/Calvinist Christian—which is our UCC history. That is a difficult thing to admit as a minister, especially in the UCC where our hiring process and retention is measured by this sport of preaching, but it is what I believe for right now. [Imagine if you hired clergy based on sending a couple members into a mock pastoral care session and then had the congregational vote based on their experiences!?]
2018 is not a time for words because nobody is listening. It is a time for symbols. That is because we are talked at (not with but at) all week, all day, all night (if we let it). You are talked at all the time from the alerts on the phone, from the computer, from the TV, etc.
People can only hear so much of even a good sermon like love and inclusion and absorb it, BUT I believe that symbols like Baptism can be reclaimed and refocused to give us the meaning and feeling and truth that words are failing to provide. The problem, as my colleague The Rev. Sean Neil-Barron from Foothills UU once told me during a conversation about 21st Century Church Communications, isn’t that people aren’t getting information or communication or publicity—it is that they are sinking from the weight of too much information. As the church thinks people aren’t hearing, rather than retreat to our symbols of meaning-making, we talk faster and more.
When the words fail us or are drowning us, let us allow the symbols of buoyancy float us until such a time as we can swim again. I believe the progressive church and all church is drowning in words, in blogs, in newsletters, etc. We need our symbols like Baptism, the water, the waves of love more than ever.
Speaking of words, let’s look at the Word from Scripture this morning:
Our Scripture today, Psalm 24, is an ancient hymn that predates our Christian tradition by about some 1,100 years and comes from the Ancient Israelite Hebrew book of Psalms or songs. It also speaks to a community looking for the meaning of community and how to find truth in a confusing time. It is a classified by scholars a “Festival Celebration of Faith” Psalm regarding the question of entrance into the temple. It is a song of praise to God for God’s enduring presence and power in their lives, but it also has a specific purpose. It is intended to name what matters in community. Verses 3 and 4 have a question and response about this: “Who shall ascend to the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in God’s Holy Place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully [tell lies]. They will receive blessing from the Lord.” The word of God.
“Do not lift our souls up to what is false.”
Today, friends, we are being called to the deep end, to waters over our heads, to live life with fullness, with truth, and with togetherness in community and with purpose. We are not permitted by the Gospel to stay in the wading pool or walk around the shallow waters.
Together, we dive into the deep, real, true stuff. The Psalm for today tells of the importance of not giving in and giving up to what is false or untrue in the world. If we take it a step further, it would also mean that we cannot give into the easy way out of the water called pessimism. Pessimism isn’t learning how to swim… it is a submarine of deception. It is a faulty and temporary flotation device that guarantees an eventual floundering. Hope in our Baptisms is what keeps us afloat. In a time when lies seem more commonplace than truth, when words threaten to overwhelm us in confusion, backtracking, and deception we know that God is with us in the pool of life through the Baptism promise of Jesus Christ to teach us to swim and then to swim with us. We do not have a God who watched us from afar. God is with us in the pool.
Words might not be our salvation in this time, for words have proven to be unreliable at best. Symbols, however, offer us something to hold onto. In this deep end of the pool with Jesus and with each other, we can rely on the silent beauty, the assurance of hope, and the call to authenticity, realness, and truth that comes through Baptism.
We are Baptized with Christ into new life. We are baptized into lives of authenticity. We are Baptized in the deep end, over our heads, wild, emotional, real life we live together. This is what Church is at its best: we are a swim team moving through life together, following in the wake and the waters of the greatest one to ever live.
So, when my sermons get boring, as this one definitely did [joking], remember that what matters isn’t the words we share but the symbols we embrace as we swim forward in uncharted waters as this swim team of Christ.
 Bruce C. Birch, Walter Brueggemann, Terrence E. Fretheim, and David L. Petersen. A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2005), 119.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.