Sunday, January 10, 2010

Epiphany I -- The Baptism of Jesus

I preached today at the 12:45 service.

Isaiah 43:1-7
Luke 3:15-17; 21-22

There is so much I could say about baptism.
This ancient ritual is at the center
of who we are as Christians.
This water and oil,
and these ancient words,
have sustained our communities for two thousand years.
There are so many layers of meaning here.

I could give a history lesson.
I could tell you how the rite of baptism
has evolved in the church and before it.
I could talk to you about ancient Jewish ritual baths,
and of how the church picked up on the idea of initiation
in Jesus’ own baptism.
I could point out that we know absolutely nothing
about the adult Jesus before he was baptized in the river Jordan—
and every story the church tells
about the ministry of Jesus
comes after that dove descended on him.
How baptism obviously prepared him,
in some way,
for everything he did and taught and became.

I could tell you about the early Church—
the catechumenate periods that lasted three years
before you were allowed to be present for Communion.
I could tell you about the conversation on Facebook
that began when I said that baptism didn’t make me want to talk;
I only wanted to be.
How friends of mine wrote about existential faith,
living into revelation,
being loved because God is love.

I could tell you about the time
I fell out of a kayak into Lake Michigan,
held on to the boat in fear for my life--
really thought I was going to die if I let go--
and really understood that nature,
and God,
are bigger than me.

See? There’s just so much meaning here.
So much to explore about what we do,
and who we are.
But one thing caught my attention.
It got under my skin all week.
Did you feel uneasy too?

Isaiah writes this:

When you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.

It’s comforting, right? Reassuring.
God’s presence is stronger than any suffering.
We have nothing to fear, ever.
You hear him say, “Stay calm. I am with you.”
It’s going to be okay.

And here’s John the Baptist:

“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.”

Yikes. Doesn’t that just scare you silly?
I want to go hide under my bed.
Wake me when the Apocalypse is over.
I don’t want to be burned up.
What could the Good News possibly be?

I confess that I don’t really get our friend John.
I know a lot of people who camp by the river, in Sacramento.
Sometimes they have dinner here.
They’ll be sleeping in our Great Hall, tomorrow and Tuesday.
They all have wilder hair than I do.
They wash their clothes when they can.
Some of them know the Bible inside out,
and sometimes they preach to me.
But I think of them as my friends.
None of them have ever yelled at me;
much less threatened me with holy fire.
John is just a little too out there.
He sounds unstable.
He’s not someone I think I could talk to.

But maybe I haven’t been paying attention.
There’s another way to hear the Baptist’s words.

Wheat is healthy, and life-giving.
Wheat is the foundation of bread.
Bread that the Israelites baked in a hurry,
and carried out of Egypt, ahead of Pharaoh.
Bread that fed the five thousand.
Bread that Jesus broke for his disciples.
Bread that has been broken for us
at this altar
for two thousand years;
bread that we will eat again in a few minutes.
Bread that feeds our bodies, and our souls.

Wheat gives strength to a body,
and to a community.
Chaff is the protective covering over each individual grain.

Not a defective piece.
Not some part of you that isn’t good enough.
Chaff is a shield.
It’s a shell that the grain grows,
to keep itself safe from predators.
But you don’t need to protect yourself
from the love of God that wraps around you.

Paul writes in the letter to the Romans,
“Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This is the power of the love of God.
This is the force of God’s longing for us.
We are loved from the moment we are thought of.
We are wanted. We are treasured.
God is love.
We are God’s beloved.
There is nothing we can do, ever,
that will put us outside of God’s love.
Baptism is our acceptance of that love,
for ourselves and for our children.
Baptism is a public confession of our faith
in the God who became human.
Who lived with us, and died, and rose again for us.
Baptism is when we say, Yes, back.
Yes, you are our God.
Yes, we are your people.
Yes, we will be your body.

One of my seminary textbooks says
that baptism is not an insurance policy for salvation—
it’s a commitment to a radically counter-cultural life.*
We promise to love, in the face of everything.
We say that we will live the life
of love, service, and justice
that God calls us to—
and we will do it, with God’s help.
It’s a commitment we need to be reminded of again,
and again,
and so we make it each time we welcome a new Christian.

Our prayer book says that the rite of baptism is indissoluble.
It’s not about being perfect.
You are still you,
when you come out of that water.
You still have the same good and bad habits.
You still make mistakes.
You do beautiful things—
and you still make harmful choices.
You belong to God.
You will always be loved.

This is what happens when we baptize someone.
We pray for them,
and make promises to support them.
We affirm our faith in the God who created us,
redeemed us,
and loves us still.
We thank God for the gift of water,
and for being present with us
through all our people’s memory.
We tell the story of our creation and redemption,
through the symbol of water.
We pour this holy water over them
in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We anoint them with holy oil.
And we mark them as Christ’s own for ever.

This is who you are.
And you will never be otherwise.
Baptism is a scary thing to do.
It’s a spiritual cliff-jumping.
A life given to God is not necessarily predictable.
Your faith can take you to places that you never thought you’d go,
sometimes to places you don’t want to go.
Baptism is also the most loving thing you can do for someone.
They are, as you are, as I am,
Christ’s own. For ever.

We will each of us walk through fire.
I had a health scare
that brought me face-to-face with the limiations of my own body,
even as it showed me, in screaming color,
the limitlessness of God’s healing power,
whether or not I was cured. (And I have been.)
Many people I know are facing financial crises.
You can still be hurt.
You will still be afraid.
But you are loved beyond all human understanding.
There is nothing you can do,
to be outside of that love.
And you do not need to try to protect yourself
from the God who created you,
and knows you,
and loves you.
All of those protective shells will be burned away.
They’re not bad.
We just don’t need them.

God says to us,

You are my beloved Child. In you I am well pleased.

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.

This is the gift in every baptism.
This is what belonging means.
We are loved beyond all our imagining.
God is with us,
and in us,
and for us.
And all that’s required of us,
through the promises we make in the Baptismal Covenant,
is to love God,
and love one another.

I will, with God’s help.

*Charles P. Price and Louis Weil, Liturgy for Living, rev. ed. (Harrisburg PA: Morehouse, 2000), 69.


Ann said...

Love it -- burn off the chaff - make us more compassionate- open to being bread.

Jeanne said...

Kirstin, I love this--as I have loved everything I've seen of yours. This touches me in so many ways, but probably most of all about my defenses. I'm looking forward to a collections of your sermons and homilies (I'll need the audible version).

LutheranChik said...

Wonderful thoughts!

Speed Centaur said...

"One of my seminary textbooks says
that baptism is not an insurance policy for salvation"- I wish more people could understand this! The apocalyptic portions of the Bible make me uneasy too - but it's good to get through the spectacle to the meaning.

Kirstin said...

Thank you all!