This morning’s sermon begins around 33 minutes in.
It was one of my first baptisms at Forest Hill. A family connected to this church – serving overseas with the State Department, they hadn’t found a church where they were stationed – asked if I would baptize their two-year-old daughter. I met with them, went over what baptism was all about. They were a good faithful family.
The Sunday came and the family came forward as families do and the parents answered the questions: Do you desire that your child be baptized? Relying on God’s grace do you promise to live the Christian faith, and to teach that faith to your child?
I took this child in my arms – and it all went sideways.
She didn’t want anything to do with me. She started writhing and wiggling and rocking back and forth.
I had her in my right arm and with my left hand I was trying to scoop up some water to mark the sign of the cross on her forehead – “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” I made three passes and I think I touched the back of her head twice – missed once – but the spray of the consecrated, holy water, hit her…. I think.
Honestly, it felt more like an exorcism!
I wondered for weeks: did the baptism even take? Thankfully my understanding of reformed theology comforted me: it’s not up to me, I perform no magic, it isn’t about our control of the moment. It’s about God – and God’s gracious act of acceptance – Whether we like it or not. That is the radical thing!
I remember thinking to myself “Darn it (I believe I used the other word), you are a beloved child of God whether you like it or not.”
But there was something profound about that little girl not being passive in the moment, not wanting to be part – maybe it’s good to come kicking and screaming to the fount of grace – because baptism lays down some promises and asks for changed life.
In baptism, God claims us and seals us to show that we belong to God. God frees us from sin and death – uniting us with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection. That’s what God promises to us. You belong to God. You no longer have to fearful of doing the wrong thing, death no longer has dominion. Let that settle on you.
And in response we choose to be part of a community that believes that –We are members of the church… joined to Christ’s ministry of love, peace and justice. What’s not to like about that?
So I have to be loving and peaceful and just because you and I are part of a community that welcomes one and all, that tears down the walls of oppression and separation, and acts justly– seeing where the inequity is, the imbalance is – and rectifying it, recalibrating things so that more people know of God’s love.
We tend to think that justice is about handing out punishment – but God’s justice is about radical re-adjustment. Not about separating the sheep from the goats but welcoming all – sheep and goats.
Now I know you biblical scholars will quote Luke 3:15-17 and particularly John the Baptist’s words in verse 17: “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.”
That may be what John believed Jesus’ mission entailed, but it is not what Christ delivered. Remember, Jesus’ first defining sermon was:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God appointed me to bring good news to the poor. God sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The Lord’s favor, not condemnation!
Baptism doesn’t set you apart as better than anyone else – rather it is an acknowledgement that you want to be part of a community for which this is true: God is love, God is present, God’s grace sways the future.
It is to be grounded in this conviction in the words of St. Paul: nothing separates you from the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Nothing. You can try and run away as fast and as far as you can run but you can’t get outside of God’s love for you.
Groucho Marx once said: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.”
I get that. But baptism not entry into a club – it’s a bold statement about how the world works, and how God is. It is not about who’s in and who’s out, who is worthy, and who is not, who is going to heaven and who is going to hell.
Baptism is a choice you make, or your parents made for you, to be part of a community grounded on a universal truth: God loves everybody: Christian, Jew, Muslim, those who worship at Starbucks and at the gym on Sunday morning, – God’s love is freely given.
Those of us who are baptized have chosen to accept this as fact and we orient our own lives to that pole star! And we move towards that direction!
So, the text from Isaiah is deep and amazing – God loves you, yes, even you. Even if you don’t love yourself. God even loves that person you can’t stand. But let’s not get distracted by the other person and what you think that person deserves.
God created you, God formed you, and the promise that God makes to you is that you are redeemed, God knows your name: “you are mine!”
That is truly wonderful. Don’t ever forget that.
During the final hymn I invite you to come forward to the fount and put a little water on your forehead and say to yourself “I am God’s.” Every day you should remind yourself of that “I am God’s beloved child.”
Repeat after me:
When I pass through the waters (repeat)
God is with me (repeat)
I will not be overwhelmed (repeat)
When I walk through the fires (repeat)
God is with me (repeat)
I will not be burned. (repeat)
God may not promise protection from floods, and fires, and exiles and exoduses – but God is in the midst. God created those waters and separated the waters and brought forth life.
I remember the great preacher and social activist William Slone Coffin suffered the death of his son in an auto accident. People asked him , “How could God let this happen?” And Coffin said, “I don’t know. But this I know, my son was a beloved child of God and God was there, God cried the first tear.”
None of you have escaped the floods and the fires – and I know for a fact that some of you are feeling underwater right now, that many of you are feeling the heat of adversity right now or are carrying a grief too deep for words – right now, every day is a struggle to get up and move.
But you are here, part of a community that trusts that God is with you, even if you are not quite sure…. Part of a community that trusts that you are beloved… even when you don’t feel loveable. Part of a community who is with you in the struggle…even when it gets too hard. We will walk with you and sometimes carry you – someday you may need to carry me.
Jesus got baptized and he experienced this identity moment: “You are my son, the beloved with you I am well pleased.” I say this at every baptism for every boy and girl, every he, she and they, every child or adult – you are a beloved child of God – now go forth and act like it!
You and I can change the world if we walk into the light of God’s redeeming love and grace – seeing all as beloved of God – it changes everything. Instead of “rapist, criminal, drug mule” – we name all “beloved children of God.”
It may not look like it at any particular moment, but I think that part of the spiritual journey is to take a step back, get a little objective distance and place yourself into something larger, a love deep and wide, for you.
This is why we come back to these words of Isaiah. That is why we re-read and re-interpret the story of Jesus. Because people have been in exile and are in exile,
people have been enslaved and are still being enslaved, people are filled with expectation and questioning about this Messiah.
But God created you and formed you – and is in the fire with you – proclaiming “You are mine! You have to go through>”
Can’t go around it, can’t go over it, can’t go under it – gotta go through it! Remember that children’s book?
Did you know that “to go through” is the definition of the Latin word “suffere” which has become our word “Suffer’ meaning “to go through,” “to endure” or “to carry the load?”
Christianity is the only religion that I know whose God suffers – goes through it all with you and with me. Emmanuel – meaning God with us – is with you and me, through the waters, through the fires, on the cross, and beyond!
When Jesus got baptized, he didn’t writhe around like my little girl. But we know from reading chapter 4 of Luke that he was driven into the wilderness, to be tempted to explore his call, to get some clarity, and that it was a struggle. Never belittle being tempted by the devil for forty days!
For the rest of his life, he clung to the claim: I am the beloved son, God is pleased with me.
It saved him when he doubted in the garden. It saved him when he felt the oppressive nature of being forsaken on the cross. And it will save you as well.
Because you are a beloved child of God – it will save you as well.
Whether you like it or not!