Sermon: Baptism of our Lord
Most of baptisms I have performed have been in hospital rooms, with young mothers who sometimes have just moments with their babies before then lose custody. I use borrowed water. Moms promise to love God and their little one. I say the words of baptism and I give their babies the names their mama chose. Then, I trace a cross on their little foreheads and say those words; “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ's own forever.”
I love those words. I love them because I usually never get to see these babies again. The state usually takes custody within hours. I know these little ones have a long road ahead and so do their moms.
It is some comfort to me to say those words; “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
That as difficult as this little one’s life might be, another world is possible. Life is possible.
I think about the young people who ask me about baptism. The young woman in county jail who wants to be baptized.
Baptism is a kind of initiation. An initiation into the kingdom of God. In our text, John introduces it as another way to live. The people who come to him for baptism—farmers and fisherfolk, tax collectors, soldiers—come looking to turn around. To find a new way to live in the middle of occupation. To be initiated into something different.
I think of all the ways that our children in Grays Harbor are initiated.
Sometimes as young as 10 or 11, children are initiated into a life of poverty and struggle in juvie. Here on the harbor, we have the highest rate of child incarceration—for non criminal offences— in the country. Here, jail begins early. It is an initiation. I know young women who have been told from the time they are 12 or 13, by social workers, by judges, that they will never amount to anything. That they will never be anything more that drug addicted, knocked up mothers.
An initiation into a life of poverty and jail.
Gangs have initiation rituals, often violent ones, sometimes by proving your courage by letting gang members beat you up.
An initiation into a life of kill or be killed, of dealing on the black market and trafficking drugs, of surviving in a world that is hard to survive.
So many initiations. The moment our children realize no one is on their side. The moment mothers realize they cannot keep their children. The moment people really start to believe they have no future.
I am sure first century Palestine, just like 21st century Palestine, had its own initiations like that.
So, in all this suffering and all these initiations, baptism is a different kind of initiation.
First, its an initiation into a world where God cares. None of my young folks on the street believe that anyone cares for them. And sometimes they are right. But, in baptism, we say that God cares. We proclaim a faith in a God who says through Isaiah; “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” Few people on the street have their birth names, sometimes by fate, sometimes by choice. But baptism proclaims a faith in a God who knows your true name.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” In jail, in prison, chained or free, on the streets, in cold tents, couch surfing with people you barely know, in the hospital, dying, escaping death—those are the waters. Death is everywhere. Last week, I stood at the bedside of a young man who very narrowly escaped death. Everyone on the streets knows the waters. But a God who is with them, with us, who does not judge, but cares; who knows death with us, who died once with us—that is a radical God.
Baptism acknowledges the death around us. But even in the middle of the terror, it initiates us—ALL OF US—into a different life.
Into a different sort of kingdom. A kingdom that John preaches, a kingdom where soldiers and tax collectors stop exploiting people and poor people share with each other, a kingdom where everyone has enough and poor people don’t end up locked up or slaughtered.
We are baptized into death. We die to the empire and all its desires. We die to greed. We die to caring only for ourselves.
In a world that tells us to hoard all we have, we rise to share with each other.
In a world that tells us to only look after ourselves, we rise to love each other in real and tangible ways.
In a world that constructs prisons for children, we rise to struggle with them for their freedom and release.
In a world that calls too many of us trash and worthless, we rise to leadership in the kingdom of God.
We rise. We rise with a God who cares into a community that takes care of each other.
Today we celebrate the “baptism of our Lord.” Only, in Luke, the focus is on Jesus as just one of many who get baptized. So, this is a day to remember our baptism. To remember that we die to the world as it is, in all of its greed and cruelty. To remember that we rise to new life, in the company of a God who cares, in the hope of a better world, here and now.
As we celebrate a renewal of our baptismal vows this morning, I am going to be thinking of moms crying in hospital beds and tiny babies carried off, only held long enough to be baptized and named. I am going to be thinking of the young people who crave baptism in jail, who are dying, literally, for a better world. I am going to be thinking of the vows we say, to love God and each other and to respect the dignity of every human being.
And, above all, I am going to be thinking of those words, said over each of our heads and the heads of those I love; “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ's own forever.”