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.