Do you know the origin of stained glass windows in churches? Before the creation of the printing press, few people could read. Clergy could read the Bible, and they did, at every worship service–in Latin. But that didn’t help people who couldn’t read or understand Latin.
So, someone got the idea to depict Bible stories in stained glass windows. A picture paints a thousand words, right? The advent of stained glass art in churches was a boon to worshipers. No longer were they dependent on educated priests; now, they could “read” Bible stories for themselves in the church’s windows. The sanctuary itself had become a teaching tool.
Renovations to this space have turned it into a teaching tool, too. First, there’s the space. Before the renovation, the chairs used to face the cross. Looking at the cross was lovely, but unless you were on the front row, it was hard to see much else besides the backs of the heads of the people sitting in front of you. Now, you can see each other! This new arrangement teaches us about the importance of community— in worship, fellowship, service, in life.
About the cross. If you read the plaque attached to the cross you learn that Colonel Chuck Johnson made it out of a tree that was cleared when this structure was built. Recently, I learned that Chuck made the cross not only as a gift for the church, but also as a way to atone for things he’d done during the war. The cross reminds us of Jesus’ death, of how the innocent suffer when evil pushes love to the margins. It also reminds us that in the end, love wins. And God forgives.
We have stained glass windows now! For those who weren’t here before the renovation, those windows used to be clear. The building was designed so that, during the winter months, we could raise the blinds and benefit from passive solar heat. A great design…except that we had to keep the windows covered during worship. It made the room feel dark.
Now, we have stained glass windows! Those windows tell a story all their own. The many colors in them speak of diversity. The globe speaks of our connection to the larger world…and to the earth. The ribbon across the globe that says, “Let There Be Peace on Earth” not only echoes our congregational song, it also represents our commitment to social justice, our desire to act all people into well-being. The doves in the windows represent peace, as well. The bits of clear glass represent God’s presence running through everything.
One of my favorite parts of those stained glass windows is the way they bathe the room in colored light, especially this time of year. And because the light is cast by the sun and because the sun and earth are in constant motion, the colors always are shifting. It’s like the room itself is alive—alive with color, alive with light, alive with God.
From the arrangement of chairs, we learn the importance of community. From the cross we learn that love wins and that God forgives. From the windows we learn the beauty of diversity, the call to social justice, and the importance of living in the light.
And now, we have this stunning sculpture. It’ll take us a while to find all the meaning in this beautiful piece of art….which is art’s job: true art continues drawing us in, inviting us to increasingly deeper levels of meaning. I’m sure my own reflections on this depiction of baptism will result in many more sermons in the future. For now, here are a few thoughts.
The first thing to notice is that now the room embodies the full gamut of Jesus’ ministry: it goes from his baptism to his crucifixion and resurrection. As followers of Jesus, when we come here to worship, to fellowship, to commemorate births, marriages, or deaths… whatever we do in this place, we do it literally within the context of Jesus’ ministry. Cool, huh?
Now for the sculpture itself. As we drove home from seeing the almost-finished installation Friday night, Allen asked me what I found most striking about the piece. I didn’t hesitate: “The colors.” The colors carry the artistic theme from the windows over to the wall… they also carry the theological theme of diversity. Diversity is beautiful. It’s important. It’s vital to our mission. This sculpture now invites us to reflect on what diversity means in the context of baptism. Whatever color glass is behind it, the clear glass—symbolizing baptismal water—reveals that color. It doesn’t suddenly become opaque with some colors and make others shine more boldly. The baptismal water covers all colors equally and reveals them all. Equally.
Baptism is the great equalizer. In baptism, we are made one. In baptism, we all are claimed by God. In baptism, God tells each one of us: “You are my child, my beloved. With you I am well-pleased.” As one wise person said, “We’re all God’s favorites.” Indeed.
The colors represent diversity—its beauty, its vibrancy. What in this piece reveals the full depth of the colors? Yes. The light. Each color is unique and beautiful…and we see the colors best when the light—representing God’s light—shines through them.
In the smaller circle, we see a dove. Again, that dove carries the theme of peace and justice-seeking to the sacrament of baptism. It also represents the Holy Spirit. As we heard it read earlier: “As he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” At baptism, God’s Spirit rushes into us and becomes a constant conversation partner, leading us, guiding us, reminding us always of God’s love.
Now, to the main sculpture. Let’s get this out of the way. Yes. That person is emerging from a baptism by immersion. And, no. I’m not reverting back to my Baptist ways! Here at Pilgrimage, we come from many denominational traditions. Some of us were sprinkled as infants or children. Who does that describe? Some of us were baptized by immersion in a baptistry, river, or lake. How many? Some of us were baptized as adults. How many?
This depiction of baptism—though not the exact form of the ritual many of us experienced—does represent all our baptisms in at least two ways. First, Jesus was baptized by immersion. If we imagine the person emerging from the baptismal waters as Jesus, then, as Paul suggests, when we look at the sculpture, we can identify with Jesus in his baptism.
The second thing this depiction represents—and I love this part—is the fact that the person emerging from the baptismal waters is also a big water drop and splash. Essentially, this person is his or her baptism. What does it mean to say that we are our baptism? Being our baptism means living out of everything else we’ve talked about—knowing that we are loved by God; knowing that everyone else is loved by God; living in ways that make God’s love real in the world; remembering that when we are baptized, not only are we claimed by God, but we’re also claimed by a community….a poignant reminder that we don’t have to go it alone. Not only is God with us, but this community of friends is with us, as well.
The last things to consider are the water drops. When we were here Friday night, Merridy and Mary told me they’d been debating about whether those pieces of glass were water droplets or teardrops. The debate intrigued me…especially since this wall art also is a memorial, which means it’s being funded by tributes in memory of people who have died. The invitation to contribute further in memory of other deceased loved ones will remain open. We’ll soon receive more information from Council on how to make those contributions.
Mary and Merridy’s debate got me thinking about the connection between baptism and death…there’s the whole thing of dying to one’s old self and being transformed to “walk in newness of life,” as Paul says. So, there is that figurative death in baptism…
But then I remembered a story about baptism and a literal death. It speaks volumes about those pieces of glass Merridy and Mary were debating.
Once, a student chaplain in a hospital was asked to lead a memorial service for a stillborn baby. “Doug tried in vain to get a more experienced chaplain to officiate…because he felt he didn’t know what to do.
“When he found [he’d] need to do the service himself, he quickly prepared some things to say. However, when the nurse brought the stillborn baby into the chapel where he and the parents were, Doug found he couldn’t say [anything]. All [he] could do was stand there and cry. Not knowing what to expect, Doug was not surprised when the nurse handed him the baby to hold. ‘I want you to baptize my baby,’ the mother said. ‘Her name is Nicole.’ Doug nodded, but he saw no water with which to baptize the baby. Almost without thinking he took a tissue, wiped the tears from the eyes of the parents and his own eyes, and touched it to the baby’s head and whispered, ‘Nicole, I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.”*
Teardrops or water drops? The answer is yes. Both baptism and tears are sacramental– each reveals God. Each speaks of life and death and life beyond death. Each speaks of our connection to God and to each other. Each reminds us of how much we are loved and how much we love others. And each empowers us to share that love with every person we encounter.
Teardrops or water drops? Yes! Death or life? Yes! Stunning work of art or reminder of God’s deep and abiding love for every one of us? Yes, yes, yes!
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2013
*Patton, John. From Ministry to Theology: Pastoral Action and Reflection. Journal of Pastoral Care Publications, Inc., 1995, p.11.