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.
When I was a little girl growing up in Virginia, I went to the Baptist church with my mother, the church her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother had belonged to, going back to the founding of the church. My father went a block further to the Methodist Church, where his family history went back even longer. The biggest difference between the two, as far as I could see, was this. The Methodists stood with their babies by a bowl of water that sat atop a wooden column; they called it a Christening, a word I thought for a long time was a synonym for sprinkling. But we Baptists did something that seemed more serious and mysterious. In the middle of the platform that held some chairs and a pulpit there was a circle coming out from the wall with a marble rim and a wooden top over it. Even when I was very little, I knew that under that polished wood, there was a pool of water.
I remember sitting in the pews of that church watching people I knew get baptized, peering up as best I could. With our minister, Mr. Kersey, each one would come through maroon velvet curtains that hid a doorway. The wooden top had been removed. You could hear the sound of the water moving as they descended the stairs together. I mostly saw teenagers baptized, but also some grownups, including a young man who sang in the choir and was much taller than the minister. I couldn’t understand how all that worked. How deep *was* that water? Mr. Kersey laid him back in that water and brought him up again like it was nothing. Except that it was clearly very much something.
We lived away from my home town for about six years, in what was the Presbyterian period of my life, and so I only saw baptisms if they happened to occur while we were visiting. One Sunday, a girl younger than I was came through the curtains. She looked tiny up there with Mr. Kersey. She was only 8 years old, but my grandmother said she was “spiritually mature.”
When the little girl came up from the water, she beamed, like a person with a holy light shining from the inside.
John the Baptist laid people back in the waters of the River Jordan and brought them up again. We read his story every Advent because he is an important part of this season of preparation. He comes to prepare the world for Jesus, to bring a word of hope and peace in a world of unspeakable violence and cruelty. Yes, that was their world, too. The Roman occupation of Jerusalem created a climate of fear, manipulation and betrayal. Revolutionary groups within the people of Israel targeted the leaders who had sold out to the occupying forces. It was hard to keep track of allegiances; and there was always some new person claiming to be the Messiah.
John made no such claim. He came to prepare the way for another, for the true Messiah.
I wonder who were the first people to notice John baptizing in the River Jordan? We don’t know their stories. We don’t know if they just happened to be going by, or if they heard a report he was living there, a wild-haired man dressed in skins, known for eating locusts, a hermit preaching repentance. It’s a word that means turning away from your sins and turning toward God. John baptized people in the river as a symbol and sign of that repentance.
The ritual use of water for cleansing body and spirit wasn’t new. It came from John’s Jewish heritage. But instead of being a ritual people would undergo for certain reasons and from time to time, it became a once-and-for-all marker of membership in God’s family.
In those first days and weeks beside the Jordan River, however, no one thought about joining something new. There was no church. Jesus hasn’t even appeared yet in the story! There is no birth account in Mark’s gospel, no imagining of the circumstances of Jesus’ infancy or what happened to his mother. We simply start with John, baptizing, which continues to leave me wondering, what did the people who came out to the river want?
How did they understand what he was doing?
He claimed a kinship with the messenger described in Isaiah:
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3-5, NRSV)
As much as we want things to be better in the world, the literal imposition of this prophecy might upset those of us who like our hillside views. We don’t so much want things turned upside down and inside out as we want things set right. The people who came to John wanted the Romans to go home and simply leave them in peace. They wanted relief from the turmoil of revolving monarchs and corrupt priests at the Temple. Most importantly, they wanted some assurance that God still cared about them.
As we read the story of John’s ministry in the wilderness each year, we are preparing, too. Advent has echoes of pregnancy and its phases. In the first trimester, most women keep quiet and wait to share the news, just as we worshiped in a sanctuary last week adorned with only minimal indications of what is to come. Now as we look around the sanctuary on this second Sunday of Advent, there is no question that Christmas is coming.
Last night some of us gathered to have dinner and decorate the church with banners, ornaments, candles and a crèche. We searched for all the needed pieces, made decisions about which versions of certain things to use and repaired broken but beloved figures. I heard stories about how things have been done before, and also heard some places where there might be wiggle room to do things differently. It’s all part of our preparation to welcome Jesus as we celebrate his birth.
It’s also a time to consider what needs setting right in the world now. Each year we repeat familiar rituals and examine our life as a community waiting on God’s arrival. Each year we begin the cycle again, considering the ways we need to revive our individual relationships with God.
I was baptized when I was 13. Here are the things I remember vividly from that day. I had been shown the way to the room behind the curtains and the door, where I prepared by putting on a white robe. I knew by now that the pool only had water when it was to be used that day. Exhilarated but a little frightened, I walked down the steps the water rising up around me. I peered up and over to see the church filled with people I had known all my life. The moment came. I answered the questions, and Mr. Kersey dipped me back into the water. There was almost-silence and near-stillness, my senses muted like a babe in the womb. I had a feeling of deep peace followed immediately by a moment of total panic, and then the rush of the water as the minister pulled me up again.
It happened faster than I can describe it. I can’t tell you if it looked like I was beaming, but I felt that way.
At the River Jordan, John baptized a few people, who told a few people, who told a lot of people about that feeling. More and more people came, to experience something their friends and neighbors told them about – a sense that there can be a fresh start, that the mistakes of the past can be left behind, that old wrongs done and injuries received need not cling to us, and that God is the one with the power to make those things happen.
The waters of baptism gave people a renewed relationship in reconciliation with God and prepared their hearts to meet the one who was coming, Emmanuel, God-with-us. John came to prepare the way for the ultimate evidence of God’s care, the appearance of God’s own self in the person of Jesus. In this season of Advent, we await his birth once again.
“Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
In the name of the Creator, the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There’s a quote you see around the web about being careful how you talk to your children because they will remember the things you say to them. Anyone who has been a parent knows we don’t always say things perfectly. I have one of those children, actually more than one, who let me know when my words weren’t appreciated.
To whit, #1 Son, age about 5: “Mommy, I don’t think you should talk to me that way. I just got home from kindergarten.” He saw himself as being in the school bubble, doing his important work, and that bubble needed to be respected. His young mother, tired out dealing with the toddler in the household, lacked both reserves and reserve. I don’t think my impatience on that day scarred him. We had a good relationship, one of trust and love, and we withstood it. Well, I did. He’s 26. He can write about it someday if he wants.
I know there are other moments of parenting I don’t recall as shining. There have been heated discussions (that’s putting it nicely) with LP, probably well within the range of mother-daughter relationship norms.
But I hope I never said anything personally insulting as my mother did to me. It was apparent that she thought I was unattractive, not meeting the standards she had for me. I was heavier than she liked at times, and she did not hesitate to let me know this was unacceptable. It would give my husband a reason to cheat on me, she said.
I wish I could tell you that story is made up.
There’s another story that sticks in my head, my heart, my gut. In the two months before my wedding at age 22, I had been living at home preparing for the big event, eating almost nothing but salads and oranges. I looked good. I was slender enough to please anyone.
When the wedding pictures came, my mother named the thing I cannot help, my height. “Martha,” she said, “you look like a toadstool in the forest.”
I am still trying to unstick it.
Preparing yesterday’s sermon offered a reminder of the truth that no matter the facts of our appearance or abilities, we are created by God with purpose and possibilities. As my dear one frequently reminds me, in her preaching and in her life, we are all Beloved Children of God.
A few months ago, Young P came up for the Children’s message and asked, “Rev. Martha, can you baptize me?” She is 9 and a complete sweetheart. Yesterday was the day. I told people all last week I was as excited about this baptism as I had been about my own children’s. In the liturgy we speak of Christ’s own baptism, and the dove descending, and the voice from Heaven declaring, “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” In those moments, I felt the rush and the heat of the Spirit of God. I felt them in my short, imperfect body. It’s not a concept that applies only to other people. I, too, am a Beloved Child of God.
This is the way the Heavenly Parent speaks to us.
Maybe I can get that to stick, instead.
I hope Young P will always remember it, too. She is a Beloved Child of God, and God is most assuredly pleased with her.