Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 14, 2007

2007.10.14 “Church at the Passages of Life: Baptism”

CENTRAL UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

“Church at the Passages of Life:  Baptism”

Matthew 28: 18 – 20

Rev. David L. Haley

October 14th, 2007

Of all the pastoral acts we celebrate together, are there any that give us as much joy as baptisms?

You see, there are two ways to grow a church:  through invitation (which we Methodists are not as good at) or through procreation (which we Methodists are not as good at).   Yes, those denominations that are growing are often no better at us than invitation, but they do tend to be younger, and therefore better at procreation, having more kids and therefore more baptisms.

So when we do have a baptism, isn’t it an occasion of joy?  The sight of a tiny, new human being, being offered to God, has a way of making all of us feel new again.  

I have a secret to share with you:  I have a record to preserve, of never having a baby cry during a baptism.  It’s so amazing that I had two women in my former congregation who threatened to start pinching babies to make them cry.

But not just babies:  the joy of an adult being baptized can be as moving.  Just a few years ago, I had a middle-age construction worker who joined the church but had never been baptized.  When I baptized him, as the waters ran down his head, the tears streamed down his cheeks, as they did also for many members of the congregation. 

What is it about baptism that makes it so moving?  I suggest it is because when we offer ourselves to God in baptism, we embrace – and are embraced by – a love so strong and so enduring we will never see its end.

This is the third sermon in my sermon series, “Church at the Passages of Life, thoughts on the major ways the church impacts our lives at some of the most important times of our lives.  Today we look at the entrance rite of the Christian faith, Holy Baptism.

The story of baptism begins in the Bible with John the Baptizer, who preached and performed a baptism of cleansing and repentance.  Jesus submitted to it, and the baptism of Jesus became the model of our own.   At Jesus baptism the voice of God is heard, saying, as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “You are my child, chosen and marked by my love, the pride of my life.”  It was spoken of Jesus, but it could be spoken about us as well.

Baptism became a sacrament Jesus charged his disciples to continue, in Matthew 28: 18 – 20: 

“God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far an near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.” (Eugene H. Peterson, The Message.)

Ever since, in lakes and streams, in country churches and magnificent cathedrals, the Church has baptized not only new believers of any age, but the children of Christians.

As a sacrament and symbol, baptism is rich in both cultural and theological meaning.  At baptism, we are initiated, crowned, chosen, embraced, washed, adopted, gifted, reborn, killed, and thereby raised and redeemed.

In the old days, questions and controversies about baptism tended to be theological:  “Who should be baptized?” (Infants, children, adults?) “By what method? (sprinkling, pouring, or immersion)?  Is it our pledge to God, or God’s to us? (Both!)

Nowadays, questions about baptism tend to be more practical, reflecting the “fee-for-service” mentality of our consumer-oriented society:  “How much does it cost?” or “What do we have to do to have our child baptized?”  It’s not only us; I have talked to pastors in many churches who experience the same thing: young couples who come with a newborn, attend faithfully until the child is baptized, and then disappear.  It is so frustrating!

Others ask, “Do I have to be a member?” or, in a related question, “Can I do it privately?”

Well, as they say, “It takes a village,” or at least a congregation.  That’s why I walk around with a baptized child through the congregation, so that the child can see the people pledging to support and uphold them, and so that YOU can see this child you are pledging to support and uphold. That’s also why we enter the child as a preparatory/baptized member of the congregation, until age 18.  

And, the answer is, “No, you don’t have to be a “member” of the congregation to have your child baptized,” and also, “No, it shouldn’t be done privately.” In fact, given our mobile society, sometimes the only people who will be able to support and uphold the child as they grow will be the members of their extended family, a “congregation” in themselves. That’s why on the occasion of a baptism, it’s so important to have present – at the very minimum – those family and friends.

So, where are all those children now? They have grown up, they have gone away to college, they are in the military, they have moved away to jobs – in effect, they are “graduates” of the congregation.  Either the “God-seed” that was planted at their baptism has already shown signs of fruition, or we are still waiting for it to do so, as – once planted – I believe it will.

Occasionally people come wanting to be “rebaptized,” which we don’t do.  They say, well, I was baptized once long ago, but it didn’t take, so I want to do it again.  My I reply is usually, “I guess it did take, after all.”  “That’s why you’re here!”

I like the way United Methodist Bishop William Willimon puts it, in his book, Remember Who You Are: Baptism, A Model for Christian Life (The Upper Room, Nashville, TN, 1979).  It’s like this:

Some time or another, our mother or father sent us out the door with the words, “Remember who you are.”

Of course, we knew what they meant.  They did not mean we were in danger of forgetting our name or street address.  They meant that, alone, on a date, in the midst of some party, or in the presence of strangers, we might forget who we were.  That we might lose sight of the values we were raised with, answer to some alien name, or engage in unaccustomed behavior.

In our society, admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to find out, much less remember who we are.

– We are mostly a body, a sexual being, lusting and being lusted after, the movies, the soap operas, the culture tells us.

– We are mostly a brain, a rational, thinking, reasoning being; absorbing facts and figures, going to school.  Knowledge is power, the schools tell us through 12 plus years of education.

– We are mostly a consumer, a maker and spender of money, a capitalist, a coveter of iPhones and cars with leather seats or racing stripes, preparing for a first mortgage in suburbia with a two car garage and forty year payments, so the advertisers tell us.

– We are mostly a self-centered, autonomous, self-made being, the modern, scientific, secular world tells us.  Nobody will look out for you but you. You are the most important project in your life:  nurture, care for, love your adorable me.  There are no values save the ones you create, no meaning save the meaning you choose.

How idiotic of modern society to tell its young, in effect, “We have no values, nothing to pass on to you, no claim upon your life, no name.  Go out and find your own identity.  No wonder so many get lost along the way!

How unfaithful of the church to tell its young, in effect, “We have no values, nothing to pass on to you, no story, no claim upon your life, no name, no mission. In so doing we produce adolescents of twenty and thirty years, paralyzed by anxiety, cast adrift upon a sea of moral relativity, answering to any ideology or cult which promises them an identity, “Just drink the Kool-Aid.”

But the church says, “Remember who you are, a spiritual being, a child of God, a follower of Jesus.” So, compassionately, courageously, and hopefully, at the baptismal font we embrace our young and say, “This one is ours.”  “This one belongs to us.”  “God has big plans for this one.” “We’re calling this one “Christian.”

        There, in baptism, we are given a name and an identity.  Just as in our families we do not discover our identity nor earn our family name, we are given them as gifts.  We then learn who we are through the day-to-day love and care which our families showed us. 

In the same way, we learn what it is to be called by the name “Christian.”  A baby at six months will not bear the name Christian in the same way as an old saint of seventy years.  But give the new Christian time, and with a little help from his or her friends, he or she will grow up to his or her name and it will fit him or her just fine.

And, once God names and claims us, God does not easily let us go.  

In his book, Bishop Willimon tells the story of a boy in his church – who could just as easily be a boy or girl from our church – who returned home from his first year in college.  He went to Willimon’s office to tell him that he would not be seeing him at church while he was home over the summer. 

When I asked why, says Willimon, he told me, “Well, you see I have been doing a lot of thinking about religion while I was at college, and I have come to the conclusion that there is not much to this religion thing.  I have found out that I don’t need the church to get by,” he said.

I responded by saying I found all that interesting.

“Aren’t you worried?  I thought you would go through the roof when I told you,” he said.

I had known this boy for about five years, had baptized him a couple of years earlier on profession of faith, and had watched him grow during his high school years.  He came from a difficult family situation.  The church had been very interested in him and had a hand in making it possible for him to go to college.

“No, I’m interested, but not overly concerned.  I’ll be watching to see if you can pull it off,” I told him.

“What do you mean ‘pull it off”?  I don’t understand.  I’m nineteen.  I can decide to do anything I want to do, can’t I?

“When I was nineteen I though I was ‘on my own,’ too.  I’m saying that I’m not so sure you will be able to get away with this,” I said – to the increasingly confused young man.

“Why not?” he asked.

“Well, for one thing,” you’re baptized.”

“So what does that have to do with anything?”

“Well, you try forsaking it, rejecting it, forgetting about it, and maybe you’ll find out,” I suggested.

“I can’t figure out what being baptized has to do with me,” he said.

“For one thing, there are people here who care about you. They made promises to God when you were baptized.  You try not showing up around here this summer, and they will be nosing around, asking you what you are doing with your life, what kind of grades you made last semester, what you’re doing with yourself.  Then there’s also God.  No telling what God might try with you.  From what I’ve seen of God, once God has claimed you, you don’t get off the hook so easily.  God is relentless in claiming what is his.  And, in baptism, God says you belong to him.”

The boy shook his head in wonder at this strange, unreasonable brand of ecclesiastical reasoning and more or less stumbled out the door of my study.  In a week or so, he was back at his usual place on the second pew. The baptizers had done their work. God’s possessiveness had remained firm. 

And so it does, for baptized children of all ages. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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