Baptism, Baptism of Christ, If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

Baptized Beloved

At the corner where the transept met the nave of Faith United Church of Christ sat an armchair with an embroidered pillow and an afghan draped neatly over the back. Just before my first service as their Interim pastor started on an early September Sunday, I caught a flurry of activity out of the corner of my eye. A delicate elderly woman sat there, with the afghan over her lap, while whoever had helped her get settled had quickly disappeared out a side door. I made sure to greet her during the Passing of the Peace, and over the next few months I learned her story. Maisie was 93, and her husband had died the year before. The mystery helper was a son faithful in making sure she got to worship. I learned about her childhood in Scotland and the death of a beloved daughter. I met the married son who lived in another town. She trusted me with the committal of her husband’s ashes in a country cemetery. Maisie, both fragile and strong, held her family together. 

In the New Year, I decided to mark Baptism of Christ Sunday with a remembrance of our own baptisms. It surprised me that the idea was new to the congregation, but the elders agreed we could make the ritual part of the service that week. I brought a large glass bowl from home, so we could see the water. Everyone who could came forward; their faces held a tender curiosity that moved me. Then, with an elder’s help, I carried the bowl to Maisie’s armchair. I remember the expression of surprise and delight on her kind face as I offered a blessing and laid a handful of water on her head. 

Eight days later, I spoke the words of that blessing again at her hospital bedside, as death approached: “Maisie, beloved child of God, remember your baptism.” 

Remember your baptism, we say, relying on memory beyond reason.

For the practical members of that historically German Reformed UCC congregation, the notion seemed almost funny. “I was six weeks old,” one said, “how could I remember that?” A few had stories about being baptized as older children. “My mother called the pastor, I think he was Lutheran, and he came to our house and baptized all five of us in a row,” an older lady told me, and the story sounded like one she had heard over and over from her mother, rather than a material memory of her own. 

The passage from Isaiah this week is a “servant song,” and as Susan Ackerman writes in the notes of the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, “The identity of the servant, chosen by God to bring justice to the nations, is debated.”* We can cast back to Jacob as a representation of Israel, or to Moses, or forward to Jesus, but rather than going down the road of supersessionism, I think we can make the case that all the baptized are chosen for and called to a servant identity, to work for God’s kingdom that will establish justice, bring release to prisoners, and offer a light to all nations.

Sometimes it’s hard enough to offer that light in our own small circles of influence, a congregation, a workplace, a home, and that’s why we look to the ones who do it so well. Maisie’s sons told me she was the light at the window for their family. Even in seasons of deep loss, she held onto her faith and helped them hold onto theirs. If I could go back to that Sunday and stand by her armchair, I would speak those words of blessing differently, I think, as a benediction on her faithful life. 

“Remember that you are baptized, and you are a beloved child of God.”

Baptized Beloved, chosen servants, I hope you remember it, too. 


*New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Abingdon Press, 2003), my favorite one volume go-to, p. 1012. 


Do you want reflections and images like this one in your inbox? Subscribe to Reflectionary, my Monday morning email for Revised Common Lectionary preachers. All new subscribers between now and Wednesday, January 15, 2020, will be entered in a drawing for a copy of my book, Denial is My Spiritual Practice (and Other Failures of Faith).

Abingdon, Baptism of Christ, Revised Common Lectionary

Amazing Words

A blessed and beloved baby
A blessed and beloved baby

When we go to church we hope maybe, just maybe, God will have something to say to us, that God will put something we need to hear into words we can understand. Psalm 29 tells us God speaks in things we can see and hear and feel, but does not promise words. The Gospel gives us a God who speaks, but it’s not clear if anyone but Jesus hears the Voice.

John is there, baptizing him, perhaps a little warily. He knows the relationship ought to be the other way around, that Jesus has something to give him that he cannot give back in equal measure. So even though it’s not clear whether John saw the heavens open up around Jesus or heard the voice of God proclaiming Jesus as a beloved child, John’s hesitation tells us he knew this wasn’t some ordinary guy coming out to the River Jordan for a cleansing dose of repentance.

It’s a funny little conversation they have, an awkward acknowledgement that they stand at the edge of more than a river. They stand at the edge of incarnation, of God’s knowing habitation in human flesh.

When you put it into words, it’s pretty amazing. And I wonder, did Jesus know what he was getting into when he went to John? If he was God, surely he knew, we might say. But he was human, too, and maybe he had a sense that something was up, and maybe he didn’t really know it all the way for sure until he heard the Voice put it into words.

You are dearly loved, said the Voice, on his baptism day.

We may not remember the details of the event.

Perhaps we were babies, gently held while a kind hand cupped full of water touched our sweet heads. Perhaps we were older, guided by a strong arm as the water rushed over us. Each baptized Christian has been acknowledged as a member of the same loving family in which Jesus is a dearly loved son. Promises were made, whether for us or by us, to renounce evil and oppression and to follow in the way he laid out for us.

At baptism, we put it into words. We name each baptized person as a child of God.  As members of God’s family, we have work to do in this life we live. It is a work of faith, a belief in the Christ who came among us and lived a human life, in the Spirit that lights the way we are to follow, and that even in the darkest times, there is a God—there IS a God!—whose Voice calls out that we are dearly loved, too.

*******

This is a week late – sorry! – but is the first in a series I hope will be helpful to preachers in 2014. I’m proud to be among a great group of writers who contributed to Abingdon’s Creative Preaching Annual for 2014 (also 2015 and just signed on for 2016). You can get a paperback copy at the link or buy it for your Kindle.

Baptism of Christ, Luke, Sabbatical

Winnowing

The waters of baptism wash over us cleansing and refreshing and re-birthing.

And even though the Baptizer was a wild sort of man, living in the wilderness, he must not have been drowning people. They kept coming, seeking … something. Reconciliation? Enlightenment? Or perhaps the thrill of a communal experience, like the charge we get in the crowd at a rock concert when something shocking happens.

Because he was not soft.

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.” (Luke 3:15-17)

Suddenly cool, cleansing waters are replaced with fire — unquenchable fire.

We’re far too inclined, in the institutional world of religion, to rest on the collective interpretation of this text, that it applies to who is in and who is out. Get baptized and you will be gathered into the granary; go the other way and you will burn with unquenchable fire. And the Messiah will be the one standing by the bonfire.

It sounds almost gleeful.

Not that, Lord. Not that.

John may be wondering about himself, too. Where will he stand when the real Messiah arrives? Will his work be judged worthy? Has he done his job well? Will he be gathered in, or set aflame?

When I was a little Southern Baptist girl growing up in Virginia, I had a very simple understanding that amounted to just about that. You had to be very good indeed to be part of the community of God’s beloved children. I couldn’t possibly be that good, no matter what I did. Oh, I tried! I wasn’t one of those people who just gave up and did whatever she pleased, nor was I one of those people who rejected faith because it sounded hard. I kept trying, but never with a sense that it would turn out well for me.

Later, I grew up. I became more psychological, even though I kept up the church part of things. I reflected on my life. I realized the things in the previous paragraph. I came to understand their root causes, intellectually.

But they continued to cling to me, even as I became a mother, a Sunday School teacher,  a seminary student. No matter how hard I tried, I was likely to end up in the flames. Not you, though. I felt sure all of you would receive grace and forgiveness. This was a very small, though unquenchable, fire I imagined.

I knew why I felt this way, but I couldn’t stop feeling it.

Let the wind rush ... in.
Let the wind rush … in.

The winnowing fork always sounded violent to me. I think when I read threshing I heard “thrashing.” But to winnow is “to free (grain) from the lighter particles of chaff, dirt, etc., especially by throwing it into the air and allowing the wind or a forced current of air to blow away impurities.” Winnowing isn’t separating good wheat from bad wheat. It’s letting the unnecessary bits fly off what is already good and useful.

When Jesus winnows, he keeps us and lets the bad parts go.

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.” (Luke 3:21-22)

Did it happen to him, too? I like that in Luke’s version it doesn’t happen just as soon as he comes up out of the water. When all the people were baptized, and Jesus, too, and he was praying, then the Holy Spirit came. Then the voice from heaven came. What did baptism winnow for Jesus? Did he wonder what he was doing there? What God wanted from him? Did he realize it fully only then?

In his life, in his human life, I find hope that the process of winnowing is not a one-time activity, a once-for-all choice for or against me or you by a fire-tending God. I find hope that the bits of chaff we have accumulated can be blown off by a Holy Breeze. I find hope that we can be free.