Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17
1st Reading: Isaiah 42:1-9
2nd Reading: Acts 10:34-43
In Sara Miles’ book Take This Bread about her journey from atheist to unlikely Christian who ran a food pantry at St. Gregory Episcopal Church in San Francisco, she talks about an impromptu baptism. They distribute the food right there in the sanctuary and one day Sara was unloading groceries and noticed a 7 year old girl she knew from the pantry standing by the baptismal font. She offered her a snack. The girl instead asked whether the water was God’s water to make you safe. This girl had a lot of trouble in her life. Sara couldn’t promise that the water would make her safe, but understood her need for a connection and strength in the midst of crisis and pain. Sara asked her if she wanted the water and the girl said she did, so Sara baptized her then and there. Then she brought her directly to the priest for a blessing and anointing and the priest told the little girl, “Jesus is always with you, no matter what happens to you, even when bad things happen to you, you’re not alone.”
This child came in fear to a place she felt safe—the food pantry where she received bags of groceries that gave her life. Who knows where she had come from? Sara noticed that she had a split lip. Had she been in a fight? Was she physically abused by an adult? Did she have a fall? Did she bite her lip in worry? Whatever her situation, God shows no partiality.
Phillip tells a story in the book of Acts that he was traveling with an Ethiopian Eunuch telling him of the good news of Jesus Christ when they came to a stream and man said to Phillip, "Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?" So there he baptized him, even though Jewish laws would have prevented it. Was he circumcised or not? Did he know what kinds of foods were clean or unclean? What Christian community would he worship with all alone in Ethiopia? FYI: There is a group in Ethiopian Christians who trace their religious belief back to this man in the Bible. And the most pressing question of all, would God accept this man, damaged goods in the view of society and Judaism because he was a eunuch, he had been neutered?
Yet, the scriptures are clear, God shows no partiality. That reality was dawning on Peter as he was making this speech. He wasn’t preaching on a topic he was really comfortable with. This was brand new to him. He had just “finished” an argument with God about which foods were acceptable to eat and which ones weren’t when he got this message about Cornelius and his household coming to faith. It was just starting to dawn on him that God’s message wasn’t about food at all, but about different kinds of people. “What God makes clean, you must not declare unclean,” God said to him about the food. The same was true of people. God had accepted this Gentile—this foreigner, uncircumcised, uneducated in Jewish ways of living in community, a Roman and therefore an oppressor of Jewish people. God sent the Holy Spirit to Cornelius and his family, just as God had sent the Holy Spirit on Peter and the disciples. Now Peter found himself having to accept all these new people into the community. Peter was experiencing the brand new thing that happens when God’s Spirit comes to people that is promised in the Old Testament reading for this morning.
The baptism of Jesus is another one of these unconventional baptisms. John stops him. This isn’t the way it should be. “You should be baptizing me, Jesus.” Jesus’ baptism raises some questions. Why did Jesus need to be baptized? He didn’t sin. He didn’t need to be washed.
Maybe we focus too much on sin when we baptize. At Jesus’ baptism, he was named and claimed and blessed by God. He got God’s affirmation. Isn’t that just what happens in our baptism? We are claimed by God and the community as part of something bigger than ourselves. We claim a history of God’s people throughout the ages who emerged safe from the ark onto dry land, crossed the Red Sea, and whose brother was baptized at Jordan. We are named and honored as important to God, as insignificant and helpless as we are. We receive God’s affirmation.
To some extent, we do baptize to make ourselves and our children safe, like the little girl at the food pantry in San Francisco wanted to be safe. We do it to satisfy family expectations. We do it because that’s what was done to us. We do it because we fear for ourselves and our children.
All motivations are mixed, though. At a baptism, family members and friends come together and share memories and strengthen bonds. In that moment a word of hope is spoken, a congregation makes promises and opens their arms, parents make promises to teach children prayers and read the Bible to them, adults make promises to participate in faith community where they will hear a word of hope and experience the love of God through other people.
Sara Miles was baptized as an adult maybe a year before she baptized this little girl. She didn’t have a lot of the preconceived notions of baptism that many of us have—that a baptism has to fit a certain picture (It should be a baby in a white dress with two parents by a pastor in a church service after some study and discussion.) All she knew is that Christ had unexpectedly claimed her and called her into this totally foreign community. She was reading the Bible and trying to do what it said. So when this little girl came to her, she made herself this girl’s servant, and gave her the water of life that she asked for, no questions asked. Who was she to question this child’s request or think that she was more qualified to be baptized than this little girl. Sara realized that this is baptism into a life of servanthood. Yes, we are called and named and special to God. And to be a child of God, we are called to be servants to others so that they know they are special to God and loved and part of something greater.
In our church, we ordinarily baptize here at the font during the church service. A person might be a baby, a child, or an adult. We baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in God’s name. We believe in one baptism. You don’t need to be baptized over and over again, although if you have been that’s fine, too. We believe more that it is God’s commitment to us that is being expressed. We make commitments, too in baptism, but we know who is the reliable one. We like to baptize during church, so that the community here can express its commitment to the newly baptize and welcome that person as a representation of the Christian Community everywhere. In some cases, we don’t baptized during church. We baptize in the hospital in an emergency. In that case, if the person gets well, we acknowledge that baptism at a later date in church. Not everyone feels comfortable coming to church for a baptism, so we can bring church to that person. We take some water and some oil for anointing and some members of the community to express that welcome. Some small babies in our church are baptized naked. What a blessing to have a font big enough to do it! There is something about a new creation there, the something completely new that God is doing. And there is a sense that all of us stand naked and exposed before God, not in shame, but completely loved for who we are, and don’t need to cover anything up before God.
I like to think of baptism as a kind of bath. I have the joy of bathing my son. Yes, he gets stinky, food in his hair, spots that are hard to reach. I don’t love him less because of that. But I know he needs to be washed. He sometimes tries to wash himself, but mainly I do it for him while he plays. And when I pull him out of the bath, I wrap him up tight in a towel and snuggle him close. We look together in the bathroom mirror at ourselves together and usually he likes to go show his dad how clean he is. It is a ritual of love, that is refreshing and beautiful, that says to my son that he is beloved and that he is part of something.
In our faith we sometimes talk about original sin and how babies are born with sin because of Adam and the sin we inherit from the beginning. I think it is important to emphasize that God created us good and nothing changes that. Yes, Martin Luther pointed out how demanding and self-centered babies are, but I am not so sure that is evidence of sin, but of little people making sure they will survive by demanding food and attention which we ought to lavish on them as much as is healthy. However innocent we start out, we are communal people and we are going to find ourselves part of systems and communities that teach us bad habits. It may be a matter of survival then, too, what we need to do make our way through this world, but still we make choices all the time that harm other people whether we are aware of it or not. Sin as the separation between us and the disregard for what happens to other people so long as I have my comfort, selfishness, will occur in pretty much every life.
God doesn’t ask that we just feel worse and worse about ourselves and bask in our misery. God asks for a changed life. God says repent. God says change. God says to participate in the new and surprising thing that God is bringing about. God says to follow the way of Jesus, though he was God, still he allowed John to baptize him and bless him. He humbled himself to become a servant to all. He showed that God shows no partiality, even to God’s own Son, but gave us the invitation to all become Sons and Daughters and servants.
God is bringing about something new as God promises. That new thing is justice. It isn’t justice by a heavy hand, with weapons and cops and military like we are used to. It is a gentleness that smoothes out the inequalities we perceive and shows us that we’re all on level ground and equal in God’s eye, that God shows no partiality. The way God delivers this message of gentleness is different. God is not going to use force or impose anything on us, but says in the scriptures this morning that this breath of God won’t bend a bruised reed or extinguish a dimly burning wick. There is a gentleness in God’s way of delivering gentleness to this world. So we are called to be servants in a very gentle way of each other and to treat all people as Children of God and as our own brothers and sisters.
Holy Baptism is called a sacrament in most churches. Martin Luther defined a sacrament as "a divine covenant of grace and blessing transmitted in the visible form." It was a promise of grace from Jesus as stated in the Bible that we can experience now through some visible, touchable element. Jesus was baptized as it says in the Bible. He commanded us to baptize and be baptized according to the Bible. He promised that we would know God’s grace and love through baptism. Water is the element that we can see and touch and taste and hear and smell that conveys this grace. Jesus’ words are the promise that accompanies it.
I keep going back to the river of Jesus’ baptism. It is part of a cycle bringing life to people. Snow falls on the mountains. It melts in the spring and makes its way down streams that flow into rivers. People wash in those rivers and gather their water from there, they irrigate their crops with those rivers and those rivers give life to fish and livelihoods to fishermen. That water evaporates, becoming clouds which then snow on the mountains and it all starts all over again.
In the creation story, God creates the heavens and the earth and separates the waters from the land. God blesses animals and people through this amazing water cycle that keeps water flowing and giving life. That water flowed down from the mountain, and God used it to bless Jesus that day. Jesus used it to bless his disciples and they used to bless their communities until eventually the river flowed to us here. And now it is our job to gently share it with people in need—make abundant life available to those who need it most.
Sara didn’t really follow the “proper” baptismal procedure according to church, but she listened to the Holy Spirit who is both gentle and wild and good thing she did because that little girl was truly in need to hear a word of grace and be touched by God’s river of love. May we receive that river and share that river with others, until abundant life will overflows and God’s new thing becomes our everyday.