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.