God's Open House

Sunday, January 7, 2018

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No Matter Who You Are

I ran across a news story about five years ago from the city where I grew up. It was about a Memphis woman who was about to go to jail for baptizing her children. It was part of a custody agreement. She and her husband had divorced a few years prior. She believed the children should be baptized as infants, and he believed that they should wait until they were older. As part of their shared custody they agreed not to make major religious decisions without each other. But she felt strongly enough that they should have been baptized that she had it done at her church without even notifying the father. And so it was that she was being charged with criminal contempt for violation of a court order….for baptizing her children.[1]

Now I’m not particularly interested in waging this particular religious dispute between the parents. I believe that both infant baptism and believer’s baptism say particular and important things about what God is doing in this world. When we baptize a child, we’re saying that God loves you before you could possibly deserve it. When we baptize someone as an adult, we’re saying that God is doing something in this person right now that has called and ordained them to a purpose, and we should recognize what God is doing in them. What does interest me, is that in a country and an era where Christians are rarely forced to choose between their faith and harmful consequences, what is it about this particular issue that makes it so important that she’d want to go to jail for it? Why is a little bit of water (and in this particular case the timing) so significant that she’d risk jail time in order to do it?

The answer (or at least my answer to that question), is that there are two messages at the heart of baptism that are profoundly important in modern life. Baptism is above all and before all an act of God which occurs in community. And what God is proclaiming in baptism is that you are enough, and you are a part of something more.

Let’s take a look at our story for a minute. We’re in Year B in the lectionary, which means we’re studying the book of Mark this year. And the book of Mark doesn’t do any talking about Jesus infancy or childhood, unlike Matthew and Luke, who each in their own way tell us the story of Christmas. Mark begins with the story of John baptizing Jesus in the waters of the Jordan River.

Mike Nichols, the director of The Graduate, once said that he likes to articulate a movie’s theme in its opening moment.[2]  That is, the first shot sets the scene. This is generally true of the Gospels: the beginning is meant to set the scene and show you the significance of what is to come. So this story in Mark is meant to establish who Jesus is, and why it is we should care so much about this one crucified man that we should pick up our own crosses and follow him.

This initial encounter between Jesus and John the Baptist sets the scene for the whole Gospel, and tells us who Jesus is according to Mark, and who we are, according to God.  John the Baptist has been baptizing in the Jordan River, and all of Judea and Jerusalem has gone to him to repent of their sins and be baptized. Jesus goes before John to be baptized, and when he does the heavens are torn open and the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove. And a voice from Heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).

At the moment of baptism, God tells Jesus, “You are my child. And you are enough.” This is the same claim that we make in baptism today. In Baptism we are adopted into the family of God. We are proclaimed, by God in front of everybody, to be a child of God. And for God, that is enough.

Whether you were baptized a long time ago, whether you are planning to baptize your child, or whether you have not yet been baptized, this is the message of our baptism. You are enough. You may not be perfect, but God has always worked through imperfect people. You may not know where you are going, but God will light the way. You may not know who you are yet but God has called you by name. At baptism God sends the Holy Spirit to rest in us, to guide us, and to challenge us to live according to God’s purposes. No matter what the world may tell you about how inadequate you are, that you’re not attractive enough or not beautiful enough or not smart enough. For God, you are enough.

The other proclamation at the heart of baptism is that you are a part of something more. This is evident in the narrative and social context of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus is part of a tradition and a community, and so are you. Mark begins the Gospel with an appeal to the prophets, and with John, whom he describes as a prophet. In so doing, the Gospel introduces Jesus as part of this long tradition of prophets who called God’s people back into relationship with God. Jesus is a part of the tradition of the prophetic calls for justice and righteousness among the people of God. He follows in the footsteps of Amos, who said “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” And he calls us like Micah, who said, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” Jesus is a continuation of those calls for the just and righteous kingdom instituted by God, and a fulfillment of God’s promised redemption. The arrival of Jesus isn’t an isolated incident, but a long-awaited one, through which God will proclaim once again God’s enduring love and faithfulness, and bring us back home.

In the same way, we are a part of that same tradition, one that has continued to grow and challenge us to faithful life in the modern world. We too are a part of the work of building a just and righteous world, and we hope to live up to the prophets of old as well as the prophets of our own era: Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day. When we are baptized we are welcomed into this larger tradition, and we become a part of the work of God now, following in the footsteps of those who came before, and leading the way for those who will come behind.

There is also a social context to what happens at Jesus’ baptism that tells us the we are part of something more. Jesus is not baptized alone, but in front of a crowd of people Mark tells us that all of Judea and Jerusalem have gone out to John to be baptized. Jesus is baptized as part of a community. And community is an essential part of baptism. It is a reminder that faith is not meant to be lived alone, but with others. In baptism we are adopted into God’s family, and God has a big family. Faith is something that has to happen around other people. People who challenge us when we can do better, and who lift us up when we are faltering. People who are with us week in and week out, who love us for who we are, who try with us, who fail with us, and who pick each other up, dust ourselves off and try again. Churches are not perfect places full of perfect people. But novelist Haruki Murakami says that “”A certain type of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect.” That is, only in spending our lives together seeking holiness, living and loving and losing together, do we fully understand what it means to be one with each other and one with God. To miss that is to miss an essential part of baptism. You are part of something more. You are a part of a community of people who loves you, who will bless you and whom you will bless. Baptism brings us into a community who will walk with us all our days.

Baptism is important to us because this is a profoundly important proclamation. In a world where we are increasingly siloed from each other, it is a reminder that you are a part of something more. And in a world where we human worth is constantly denied, it is a proclamation that you are enough, no matter who you are.

Our lives begin, are sustained, and end with an act of God.

And so we say of the deceased, that their baptism is complete in death. Baptism is the beginning of a long process, and it is not complete until we have run our race. It is an act of God, who names us and claims us, sending the Holy Spirit to rest on us. And it proclaims to anyone and everyone who has ears to hear: You are enough. And you are a part of something more. No matter who you are.


[1] Burke, Sheila. “Mother faces jail for children’s baptism” The Tennesseean, Nashville 30 March 2012. Original article is no longer accessible. Here is a similar one: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/tennessee-mom-faces-jail-baptizing-children-husband-consent-article-1.1054080

[2] Harris, Mark. “No Call Me By Your Name Didn’t Need More Nudity” Slate, 4 January 2018 http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/the_movie_club/features/2018/movie_club_2017/no_call_me_by_your_name_didn_t_need_more_nudity.html