Weave me the sunshine

Weave, weave, weave me the sunshine out of the pouring rain
Weave me the hopes of a new tomorrow and fill my cup again...

These were the words we prayed and sang over my daughters, Jesse and Michal, when they were baptized as infants. While working and living with the farm workers movement in California – filled with an innocent quest for social justice in the spirit of Jesus – our daughters were baptized when the community of faith gathered for evening prayer – and as they were dunked and blessed we sang: Weave, weave, weave me the sunshine out of the pouring rain, weave me the hopes of a new tomorrow and fill my cup again… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FBGRKYIaO4w&feature=related

Today, as we take some more time to think about baptism and its significance for this community of faith, I found myself singing that old folk song over and over again for in it is the sweet paradox of this sacrament: we die and we rise, we acknowledge both sin and forgiveness, joy and sorrow, our wounds and our healing to say nothing of commitment and grace. Baptism is so rich and so deep that it doesn’t surprise me that there is often confusion about it in the church – there always has been and always will be – because there is so much going on all at the same time! St. Paul told us:

When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land! That's what baptism into the life of Jesus means. When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus; when we are raised up out of the water, it is like the resurrection of Jesus. Each of us is raised into a light-filled world by our Father so that we can see where we're going in our new grace-sovereign country. Could it be any clearer? Our old way of life was nailed to the cross with Christ, a decisive end to that sin-miserable life—no longer at sin's every beck and call! What we believe is this: If we get included in Christ's sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection. We know that when Jesus was raised from the dead it was a signal of the end of death-as-the-end. Never again will death have the last word. When Jesus died, he took sin down with him, but alive he brings God down to us. From now on, think of it this way: Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word. You are dead to sin and alive to God. Romans 6: 1-11, The Message, Eugene Peterson

Before I go deeper into this, however, let me ask you if you any thoughts or questions came up for you over the course of last week that we should think about now or try to clarify? Ok, first let’s review the three essential theological insights our tradition affirms about baptism and then consider how we might reclaim a deeper and more mystical understanding of this blessed sacrament. You may recall that at the heart of my message last week was an emphasis that baptism is not really about what we do, but what God shares with us. To be sure, we must walk the walk of faith, but baptism is grounded in the Cross – in the power of God at work within and among us – which leads the Reformed theologian, Howard Rice, to conclude:

Our baptism is an engrafting with Christ… in this union his Spirit strengthens us and transfers his power to us… (so) the central meaning is that the blessing is accomplished without any cooperation on our part… (just) as it was on Golgotha at Good Friday and the empty tomb on Easter.

Are you with me here? In baptism, we are joined to God’s love in Christ by grace, not any effort on our part, but purely out of God’s loving heart – which means that all the blessings of baptism begin and end in the Lord. Our new lives are to be a reflection of God’s kingdom as made visible in Jesus Christ, but remember: God’s grace is never earned, purchased or deserved. It is always a gift freely given and gifts evoke… gratitude, not obligation, right?

That’s what all of Christ’s disciples discovered the longer they followed the way of the Master. Peter, once so hard-headed and stubborn, spoke of learning how to cooperate and bear one another’s burdens. John “in the twilight of his life wrote only about love.” (Manning, Ragamuffin Gospel, p. 35) And that crusty old fundamentalist Paul became a champion of grace: “Where sin abounded, grace has trumped it; and just as sin once reigned wherever there is death, so grace will reign to bring eternal life thanks to the blessings that come through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 5: 20-21)

That means no more shoulda/oughta words or thinking in this place! No more guilt trips or scolding or wagging those fingers or looking down your nose at another in the church of Jesus Christ either. We live by grace in gratitude: Our old way of life was nailed to the cross with Christ… and what we believe is this: If we get included in Christ's sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection and never again will death have the last word...

That is why, you see, we make no distinction between infant and so-called believers baptism. “The baptism of infants and the baptism of believers is one and the same sacrament… and the two are alike in all necessary respects: the person is baptized and incorporated into the body of Christ” whether that happens when we are young or old. (Rice, p. 58)

Because we trust that God’s grace is not dependent on us, we joyfully baptize babies. But let’s be clear: we do not baptize out of a superstitious fear that the unbaptized will go to hell! No, that is a tragic remnant of the worst aspects of wooden Roman Catholic theology and we reject that lock, stock and barrel. Do you know how infant baptism came to be normative? It seems that adult baptism was the general rule in the early days of the church – although it is also clear that sometimes whole households were baptized including the children – but by the 4th century of the Common Era Augustine of Hippo had brought his considerable wisdom to the question of original sin – and one consequence has been that infant baptism became mandatory for believer’s children.

In an overly simplified way, St. Augustine concluded: first, that original sin – the alienation from God introduced into creation by Adam and Eve – was passed on from one generation to the next not spiritually or symbolically, but through the birth canal. That made women the primary bearers of sin for all of humanity. Now a case can be made that lack of medical wisdom was partly to blame for Augustine’s theological curse – and that would be true – but it is equally true that his misogyny and commitment to neo-Platonism also advanced the case that sin was passed on to all creation by women as it was in the beginning. NOTE: now is not the time to unpack all of the problems with such thinking but be forewarned that we will do so at a later date!

Well, can you see where this is all going? If women pass on the stain of original sin to all humanity during birth – and if the consequence of sin is damnation to eternal suffering in hell – than shouldn’t believers do everything possible to save babies who cannot act for themselves from this horrible fate? Of course, the church universal replied, and promptly made certain that before 10 days had passed all babies born to parents of faith needed to receive the sign and seal of salvation in baptism. The first theological insight of our tradition is that God’s love is freely given to all – infant and adult alike – and we seek to honor God’s generosity by welcoming all into the faith community.

Our tradition also rejects both Augustine’s starting point in original sin as well as the superstitious reactions of popular medieval culture that continue to survive even into the 21st century. And let me tell you, dear people, they are alive and well for when I ask folk why they want their baby baptized, you wouldn’t believe how many times I hear these two replies: I want to keep my baby outta hell – or – I want to make sure my baby has all the blessings he or she can have to get a good start in life!

Don’t get me wrong, there is much to learn from Brother Augustine, and I believe that there are still important spiritual nuances yet to be explored when it comes to sin and its origins, nevertheless, be clear about this, too: we do not believe that unbaptized children are condemned to hell – or limbo – or any other place of spiritual purgation any more than we believe that people outside the Christian faith are condemned to hell. As Peter Gomes, Minister of Memorial Church at Harvard University has written about such nonsense:

The notion that God may know more about the salvation business that we do is often more that a true believer can bear… When devout Christians believed that only those of a particular doctrinal stripe have access to God, that, for example, God hears their prayers only, they stand in cosmic immodesty. The Christian Bible more than once makes the point that God’s ways are not our ways and the mind of God is vastly different from our own minds. Thus, when Christians state categorically that Jews or Muslims or believers in other faith systems are outside the provisions of the Lord, they utter arrogant nonsense. If God is the God of all, and not just a tribal deity, then God has made provision – not necessarily known to us – for the healing and care of all his creation and not simply our little part of it.

And so when a child is presented to us in baptism, we see first a rainbow not a sinner escaping hell – a sign of covenant and promise – one more clue that God has not given up on us yet. We think of Noah and the blessing of covenant. For, you see, covenant – or spiritual vows between the One who is Holy and creation – guides and inspires our tradition, not superstition. Is that clear? Do you have any questions?

We begin with God’s promise in covenant that grace comes from above: all are welcomed and all are equal. The second theological insight builds upon this commitment to grace by making the symbolic connection between circumcision – Israel’s sign of the covenant – and baptism which is our sign of the new covenant. Again, Howard Rice is helpful:

(In Judaism) circumcision meant reception into the covenant community that God had established on the basis of the promise to Abraham and Sarah and their children’s children. Similarly, for Christians, baptism meant reception into the body of Christ… the church – the covenant community established through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus…One becomes holy by participation in the fellowship of the saints – whether that is the people of Israel or the body of Christ – the crucial difference between baptism and circumcision being that in baptism the distinction between men and women is erased… Christian baptism by its inclusiveness erases gender distinction so that Paul can declare in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ there is no longer male and female. Rice, Reformed Worship, pp. 57-58

Are you still with me? First, grace – second, no superstition – and third, a radically inclusive covenant that welcomes children and adults, women as well as men, those who have been born into the tradition as well as proselytes as equals. One of my favorite writers, Martin Copenhaver, puts it like this in his delightful explanation of our spiritual tradition, To Begin at the Beginning:

We are welcomed into the church (at baptism) not because of our faith, but because of God’s actions. In baptism we claim not that we have grasped God but that God has taken hold of our lives. We put our trust not in our love of God, but in God’s love for us. So we baptize any who stand in need of God’s grace. There is, therefore, no right time to be baptized. God’s unqualified gift, of which we stand in need at every hour, is available to us at any time. Children and their grandparents can be received into full membership in the church through the same baptism because we all stand before the baptismal waters as new born children of God. p. 160

In this commitment to baptism I find something of Christ’s call to become vulnerable if we are to enter the empire of the Lord. There is a sense of his admonition that unless children become our rabbis we will miss the blessings of the Creator as well as St. Paul’s reminder that there is no room for childishness, too, for when I was a child I thought and acted like a child but now I have put such things away. And throughout there is the awareness that now we see as through a glass darkly, only later shall we see face to face.

Now there is one thing more I have to tell you – and then I will be done (for now!) While all of the spiritual insights I have just shared with you are important, there is one practical commitment God asks of the church: we have to take our vows seriously – and all too often this is where the contemporary church falls down and works against the Lord.
We are asked to live as the body of Christ with the one being baptized.
Specifically, we are asked:

1) Will you who witness and celebrate this sacrament promise your love, support and care to the ones about to be baptized?

2) That is and listen extra carefully: will you make the radical grace and extravagant love of God as expressed by Jesus Christ flesh in ways that the one about to baptized will see it and understand what it means to bear another’s burdens? Will you weep when they weep and laugh when they laugh?

3) Will you care for this one as a part of your new spiritual family – living into the demands of the prodigal son, the good Samaritan and even the Cross – so that the one about to be baptized never has to face the harshness of life all alone?

4) And will you go the extra mile – whether you think they deserve it or not –so that they sense in the heart of hearts that you are a servant with them on the journey of faith?

Anything else, beloved, is cheap grace and not worthy of our Lord and his Cross. And I put it to you like this because for generations, we Congregational intellectuals have cultivated a relationship with God that is “impersonal, cerebral and a part of the cosmic mystery.” Brennan Manning notes this always breeds a “religion that is noncommittal and vague… But trust in an intimate God who loves consistently and faithfully nurtures confident and free disciples (and) this fosters a deeply loving people.” (Manning, p. 39)

And more than anything else, we need more free and loving disciples – for those who are baptized and those who are not. “Don't think I've come to make life cozy. I've come to cut—make a sharp knife-cut (that) cuts through cozy domestic arrangements and frees you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies. If your first concern is to look after yourself, you'll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you'll find both yourself and me.” (Matthew 10)
Oh... weave, weave, weave me the sunshine...


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