There is an old, old story that deserves a new hearing today as we reflect on the meaning of the baptism of Jesus – and why it matters to us in the 21st century. It seems that a young musician carrying her violin case is frantically rushing around mid-town Manhattan nearly out of breath. Not only does she keep looking at her watch but also at the numbers on all of the buildings as she races by. In desperation, she finally stops an old man on the street who is walking his dog and asks, “Please, can you please tell me how I get to Carnegie Hall?” To which the old timer smiles, pauses and nods and says quietly: “Practice, my dear, practice…”
Over the years I have come to sense that baptism too is a spiritual practice with multiple layers that takes a life time to celebrate:
· Baptism always begins with God – who blesses us with a new identity as beloved of the Lord without our having to do anything – and nothing we can do can change this. We can neither earn nor purchase this blessing because we don’t own it. It is pure grace. At the same time, however, we can nourish and honor God’s gift of unconditional love – nourishing it with humility and respect – by how we live.
· In this, baptism becomes both a calling and a destination – a way of living that we practice and embody every day as well as a spiritual resting place by grace that relieves us of the frenzy of trying to prove ourselves worthy of the Lord’s blessings.
Baptism, you see, is one of the ways we enter into and experience the rest that Jesus promised his beloved when he told us: Come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy laden and I will give you rest… I will show you the unforced rhythms of grace so you might be free. And in an era as frenetic and confused as our own, in a time:
…when so many of the traditional elements of identity-construction have been diminished – we change jobs and careers with frequency, most of us have multiple residences rather than growing up to live in a single community, fewer families remain intact (and all the rest) – there is a craving to figure out just who we are. In response to this craving and profound human need, baptism reminds us that we can discover who we are in relation to whose we are – God’s beloved children – for we belong to God’s family and baptism is a tangible sign of that. (David Lohse, Working Preacher.org)
So I would like to take a little time today and talk together with you about this blessed gift that is also a life-long spiritual practice. And to get ready, I would ask you to join with me in prayer:
Precious Lord, your voice moves over the waters. Immerse us in your grace, mark us with your image, and raise us to live our baptismal vows empowered by the Holy Spirit and the example of Christ our Lord, in whose name we pray. Amen.
Let me begin with a hunch: unless I’m mistaken (and I could very well be) my hunch is that many of us are confused about why baptism really matters. One of the truths of church life in the 21st century is that more and more people don’t see a connection between what we do here for about an hour each Sunday and what is expected and required of them for the other 167 hours of the week. One writer put it like this:
Most of our people don’t understand the basic elements of our faith well enough to find it interesting or useful, let alone apply it to their daily decisions and life. Countless surveys, for instance, show that most believers think that, counter to the cry of our Reformation tradition that we are “justified by grace through faith,” (that is, that God’s love is given to us as a free and unconditional gift that we can embrace by trust), most of our people believe that we must “do something” in order to be made whole… that we must earn God’s love and act in ways that are worthy of the Lord. (Lohse)
Now please hear me correctly: I’m not saying this to blame or judge, ok? There are a variety of reasons for our confusion: in just our own short life time the world of work, family, faith, media and politics has changed so much and so fast that most of us are doing the best we can just to show up, right?
· So let me ask you what you think about my hunch that most of us are confused about why baptism matters for our lives in these wild and crazy times?
· There are no wrong answers to this one, ok – so does anybody have a response or thought?
Let me offer you three broad insights about baptism that have become touch stones for me about why this sacrament matters in our era – and then one suggestion about a spiritual practice that might be as valuable to you as was our one minute of silence during Advent. One of the great Roman Catholic theologians of the last century, Hans Urs von Balthasar (isn’t that a killer name?) wrote: "The Church does not dispense the sacrament of baptism in order to acquire for herself an increase in membership but in order to consecrate a human being to God and to communicate to that person the divine gift of birth that comes from God."
First baptism gives us a unique identity: we are God’s beloved. We are not garbage – we are not robots or cogs in a machine – we are not chattel to be used – or trinkets to be discarded – we are not alienated nihilists searching for a crumb of meaning in the darkness of life – and we are not fools. We are God’s beloved…
· Out of the blue – literally in this story as well as in our hearts – there comes a voice announcing that we, like Christ Jesus, are the beloved. Not sinners – although sin is real – nor creatures – although that is true, too – but beloved.
· Our identity – given to us by God since before there was time – is beloved: in our flesh, in our humanity, in the complexity of real life and beyond life – we are the beloved of the Lord. What do you think about that?
During the time between Christmas and New Year’s – a little bit of down time for me that was deepened by the wonderful snow and the gift of snow shoes from our children – I had the chance to read a few books including All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. It is subtitled Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age and I found it exhilarating, insightful, troubling and clarifying. And here’s why: their review of the contemporary world of the arts in our land paints a bleak picture saturated with nihilism and childish vanity alongside sentimentality and confusion about what leads to a good life. Like the late Paul Tillich, I believe that the arts offer us a window into the soul of a culture – and ours is troubled and bewildered.
Take their chapter that reviews the writing of David Foster Wallace – clearly one of America’s most creative artists – but also one of the most tragic. As you might know, Wallace took his own life in 2008 after gaining great notoriety with his enormous novel Infinite Jest, “1,079 pages, including almost 100 pages of weighty endnotes, that now stands as the principal contender for what serious literature can aspire to in the late 20th and early 21st century.” (Dreyfus/Kelly) Throughout all of Wallace’s brilliant writing – his wickedly biting satire as well as his aching pathos for the human condition – there is a palpable sense of sadness and loneliness. Wallace himself puts it like this:
… there is a real sadness to the America I live in. I was white, upper-middle-class, obscenely well-educated, had way more career success than I could have legitimately hoped for and was sort of adrift. A lot of my friends were the same way. Some of them were deeply into drubs, others were unbelievable workaholics. Some were going to singles bars every night. And you could see the sadness played out in 29 different ways… (so) I came to see that a lot of us privileged Americans… have to find a way to put away childish things and confront stuff about spirituality and values. (p. 25)
But apparently he couldn’t do it – he couldn’t find anything to help him beyond an identity filled with sadness and loneliness - so Wallace surrendered to suicide. The authors then add these words of careful and cautious clarification. What is perhaps most tragic about Wallace is that:
… his vision of the sacred was so impoverished… There is no sense whatsoever in Wallace that the sacred moments of existence are gifts, so there is no place in his world for gratitude… everything ecstatic for Wallace must be generated solely by the individual will… and this divorces Wallace’s notion of the sacred completely from its traditional support… within the divine.
· What a life-giving and life-saving alternative is ours when we accept that our identity is first born of the Lord – in grace – not our own doing: we are the beloved of God.
· Am I saying anything to you? Do you grasp the enormous difference this makes for us all?
First, baptism grounds us in an identity as God’s beloved. Second, baptism celebrates that this identity is not something we must carve out for ourselves, but it comes from God. I hope you can discern that I am not being redundant by saying first we are named as beloved and second that name comes from God. The blessings of our identity are sacred – not secular – born of God’s work – not our own. They are of grace and evoke gratitude not groveling or groping.
· And here’s why I underscore this: in the story of Christ’s baptism as recorded in Luke’s gospel we aren’t told who baptizes Jesus. Did you know that? The other gospels stories in Matthew, Mark and John tell us it was the wild man of the desert, John the Baptist – and Luke’s own story includes references to the Baptizer – but when it comes down to the deed the details reveal that John the Baptist was already in prison when Jesus was baptized.
· Did you ever notice that before? I don’t think I did – mostly because the appointed reading omits part of this chapter – but like they teach us in seminary: when the reading leaves something out, you better take a look because it is likely really important. So listen to the whole passage again:
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prisonThe Baptism of Jesus. Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;with you I am well pleased.
So what’s going on here? What’s Luke trying to tell us? I think it has something to do with the fact that it is God in an encounter with the Holy Spirit that baptizes Jesus. Not the Church, not John the Baptist and not any particular denomination or spiritual tradition. And if it is God as Spirit that baptizes Jesus, then it is this same Spirit that baptizes us, too!
· Are you with me? Do you see what I’m trying to make clear here?
· So why does that matter? Why is it important to grasp that it is the Spirit that brings us our identity as God’s beloved?
Could it have something to do with knowing and experiencing and trusting that in God we share a love that we can’t screw up? Could it be that we can rest in the certainty that with God no matter how broken we become – no matter how many failures we experience – there is nothing we can do that will remove the gift of being the Lord’s beloved from the core of our lives? Preacher David Lohse said it with verve when he wrote: “We can neglect this relationship, we can deny it, run away from it, ignore it, but we cannot destroy it.”
For God loves us too deeply and completely to ever let us go. And in an age when so many relationships are fragile or tattered, it may come as good news that this primary relationship remains solid and intact no matter what. In fact, trusting that this relationship is in God’s hands, we are freed to give ourselves wholly and completely to the other important relationships in our lives
And let’s not forget the third essential truth about baptism: to quote one of the great contemporary American writers of faith, Marilyn Robinson, from her masterpiece, Gilead: baptism doesn’t enhance our sacredness, but it acknowledges it. Baptism takes our flesh and blood sacredness and honors it, bathes it in respect and awe and pleads with us all to do likewise.
· It is an act of embodied reverence: flesh touches flesh with respect and admiration – water and spirit are splashed around in awesome abundance – song and silence surrounds our senses because we really can’t help ourselves. When we acknowledge the holiness within our humanity and let ourselves feel the depth of gratitude, words are not big enough to express this blessing.
· I love how Kate Huey Matthews puts it in retelling the story of Christ’s baptism: after seeing and hearing and experiencing the Spirit at work in John the Baptist, the people out in the desert don’t sit down for an intellectual discourse concerning the relevance and meaning of his words. No, they get down in the river and feel the water and the mud and John's hand upon them. They bring their whole selves, to be washed clean and made new, not just on their own, but again, as part of a new people – a new community – and Jesus took that same plunge along with them – and us, too!
In this fleshy, incarnational and embodied act of reverence Jesus not only identifies with our wounds and fears and even shame – our aching hope for a fresh start – but he also celebrates what our hearts and bodies know even when we don’t have words big enough: God brings us joy and sets us free to live as beloved servants in a world that is dry and afraid and deeply confused. And that is why baptism matters, beloved, in our day and in his:
· First, baptism gives us an identity as beloved – not rejected, abandoned or empty – but beloved.
· Second, baptism pours this identity into our hearts by God’s spirit – not our actions or beliefs, not our worthiness or doctrinal purity – simply by grace – and what God begins cannot be undone.
· And third, baptism acknowledges our sacredness in a culture that is obscenely utilitarian and abstract: we matter – to God, to one another, to all of creation.
Every day the culture we live in challenges our beloved identity born of God’s grace and joy: Every day we are reminded that we are worth only what we produce and create – every day we are shown that we are not attractive enough, strong enough, rich enough, sexy enough, smart enough or thin enough – every day the image of God within and among us is tarnished.
· So here’s a practice we might try everyday: whenever you wash your hands – or take a shower – let the water remind you of your baptism by saying: I am God’s beloved child sent to make a difference in the world.
· It is like the one minute of silence, right? Simple, earthy and potentially powerful – what do you think? I am God’s beloved child sent to make a difference in the world.
There are five weeks in this Ordinary Time season – about 50 days before Lent – what do you say we try this one together, too? Are you with me? Let’s take a few minutes for quiet reflection to let the possibilities sink in: Most Generous God, like the sun draws water from the earth so that it may return as rain and snow, so your love moves us to return to you what has been given to us…