Gospel: Mark 1:4-11
1st Reading: Genesis 1:1-5
2nd Reading: Acts 19:1-7
“In the beginning...” Where to begin? A given story has any number of places you can begin. You can tell a story a thousand times and never begin it the same way. What is the beginning of your story? Do you start with the day you were born, or with your parents meeting, or on some day that everything changed for you and you started becoming the person you eventually became?
Any of us could start our story with this reading from Genesis. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. At that moment of the big bang, all the elements were formed that would eventually come together to make us, our bodies and our world. Our story is the story of the formation of the stars and universe. We are made of stardust. Of course if you start there, you are going to have a very thick book.
Some of us might start with the day of our birth. What kind of a day was it? What happened that day? Who were the key players? What were those first moments, that first day of life like?
And some of us might start with our baptism day. It is a day of beginnings. God has always been with us, even before we were ourselves, even at the creation of all the elements and particles that would become us. God has been with our families before us and forming us in the womb, and there in the miracle of our birth and in our life. But we so easily forget. We have a million distractions. We have a lot of learning to do. We have people to keep up with. We have all of the temptations of life. We have trouble to get into, mistakes to make, in all our learning and growing. So we need a day in which we are named by God, in which we touch the water or the water touches us, in which the community surrounds us and reminds us that we are not alone, that we belong, that there are people there support us and care for us and are responsible for our upbringing and agree to be examples to us and help answer our questions and say hello and look out for us. We need a day to remember God's promises to always love us, to provide for us and adopt us. We need a day to hear the words from God, “You are my beloved Child! With you I am well pleased.” We need a day to mark the beginning of new life in Christ.
This is a day that offers us strength, forgiveness, and a reminder of who we are. It is a day to remember a new beginning and all the new beginnings God offers us.
Children baptized in this church receive a banner. It hangs here for a year to remind the newly baptized that they are a part of this church, this community. It hangs there to name the child and to remind all of us of our responsibilities and to ensure that they child knows how important they are. The butterfly signifies the new life that is developing and growing, like a chrysalis becoming a butterfly. Then after a year these banners go home with the child. It is a visual reminder at home of this special day. It is a reminder there of the community to which the child belongs. It is a reminder of that date, so it can be celebrated and marked each year. Recent reports from some children of the congregation tell us that some of these banners are hanging on bedroom walls well into their teens and some as young adults, reminding them of who they are and the love God has for them.
Some of us can remember our baptism day. Others of us were infants. We may or may not have people to tell us what happened that day. Whether we can remember our baptism or not, we are encouraged to “remember our baptism” every day and especially on Sunday. Every day is a new day, a beginning of sorts. God's forgiveness and the chance to start again, to try again to live in a life-giving way for ourselves and others, comes daily, hourly, every minute, every second. We are invited as we start each day to give thanks for the new life the comes with a new day. Some may focus on showering or washing one's face as a good time to remember their baptism, or maybe when walking out of the house in the Oregon rain. Some people do morning devotions to help remind them, or keep a prayer near their bedside so that God's promises are the first thing they see when they wake up. Some may remember their baptism as they pass a church on their way to work or school. Some remember their baptism in prayers at mealtimes. Some may remember it primarily on Sunday, when walking into the church and seeing the font. Sunday is the first day of the week, a good day for new beginnings. Some may even dip a finger into the water and retrace the cross on their forehead that the pastor traced with oil on the day of their baptism when these words were spoken, “You are sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” And some may mark their baptismal anniversary by lighting their baptismal candle and discuss that day and what it meant with family.
The question about beginnings is this, “The beginning of what?” “Where is this going?” The answer is that we don't entirely know. We believe it is the beginning of something good, that recognition of a relationship with God. But we let go of outcomes. We don't know if the newly baptized will ever fully realize the gifts God has given them. I mean, who of us really does? Or maybe that person totally gets it from the beginning and new life is apparent from then on. Some drop away from faith for a while. Some seem to never return, although we can't know what all the Holy Spirit might be doing. It might not look like faith in the way we'd expect it to show itself. We let go of knowing the particular journey of faith that will follow. We trust that God is with this person and we are with this person, through our commitments that we make today. And we trust that God will draw this person home with God in eternal life on the last day.
We let go of outcomes. We pray God's presence and we let go. There have been a couple of bishops in the news lately, one recently and another a year or so ago, each involved in a hit and run. I think of the trajectory of their lives, baptized, lives of faith, entering the ministry, becoming a bishop, their lives seeming so holy and blessed, then this mistake in the blink of an eye, bad decisions to flee the scene, the guilt and pain of taking a life, facing prison, yet baptized and beloved in the eyes of God. We are all a mixture of joy and sorrow, good and bad choices, and the accidents of life both positive and negative. Through it all we know God is present and loving, calling us by name, never leaving us, guiding us and teaching us, forgiving us and helping us to forgive others and ourselves.
The writer of the Gospel of Mark saw Jesus' baptism as the beginning of the good news. Some of the other Gospel writers started with his birth, but Mark goes to beginning of Jesus' ministry, to his baptism when he is named by God and is beginning to reveal himself and all that his ministry is about. We needed a little background on who is baptizing him, John. And Mark tells us very quickly that Jesus didn't just come out of nowhere. We've been expecting him. The prophets have been anticipating this for a long time and John is here pointing to Jesus and preparing the way for him to live among us. The part about the heavens torn apart, refers to the barrier between heaven and earth being destroyed, so that now we have full access to God, nothing comes between us anymore. That's the beginning of the good news. No barriers. No walls or drapes between us.
For those of us who know Damon, who will be baptized this morning, we might see the beginning of his story as starting with John and Cathy, or maybe Tova and Didrik's wedding day, or we may think of the day of his birth. I think of the first time they boys came to Bible School, clinging to their mother. How did they get from there to this point in which this congregation is theirs, too, in which Damon notices this font, asks about the water, is interested enough that he keeps coming back to it and wondering what it has to do with new beginnings for him? Who knows where his life might take him or what new beginnings he might encounter, but as I imagine, I jump 60 years and place him where John is today, the grandfather he's named after. Maybe he, too, will have the joy of journeying in faith with a grandchild of his own, the two of them with the same twist of an eyebrow thinking over the questions that life throws at us, and not knowing all the answers but pondering with the assurance that we are God's beloved children, that God has always been a part of who we are and always will be, and that new beginnings are not only possible, but happening all around us. We may call it new life, forgiveness, one day at a time, love, being in the moment.
And we also thank Damon and his family for this new beginning for our congregation because it was the feedback from the boys that led us start a children's activity during the sermon which was the beginning of this influx of children. We let go of any outcomes of what this is going to mean, but are thankful each day for all new beginnings and try to learn and grow from their presence among us as God remakes us daily into God's precious children.