On the second Sunday of January each year, we hear a different Gospel writer’s take on Jesus’ baptism. This year, it’s Matthew’s turn.
Unique to Matthew’s version is this little dance that goes on between Jesus and John the Baptist. So, John’s out there baptizing people in the Jordan River, telling them about one who is coming “who is more powerful than me.” Then—before he’s finished his sentence—Jesus shows up and asks John to baptize him. Let the dancing begin! John says, “No! I need to be baptized by you!” Jesus says, “Baptize me.” John says, “No!” Jesus says: (CHOIR: ‘Take me to the water to be baptized.’) So, John baptizes Jesus….
…which is a beautiful thing. Jesus—the special, holy, powerful one—Jesus asks John to baptize him. His request empowers John. In asking to be baptized, Jesus identifies with everyone else coming for baptism. Jesus needs to be reminded of God’s love for him—just like everyone else. Jesus needs to be reminded that he’s part of something bigger—just like everyone else. Jesus needs to commit himself to living God’s love in the world—just like everyone else.
In giving John power to baptize him, Jesus also signals that, when it comes to doing God’s work, the leader doesn’t have all the answers. In fact, sometimes, the best leadership comes from the led.
A case in point. As we debated what to put on the bulletin cover this week, I had a stroke of insight. “I know!” I said to Lynne. “Let’s immerse all the bulletins in water and let them dry. Then when everyone sees and feels them all crinkly from the water, they’ll think about baptism!” I thought it was a creative idea. Lynne wasn’t so sure.
After immersing a bulletin and setting it out to dry, Lynne came back into my office and said, “It might be nice to put a picture of the new wall art on the cover of the bulletin.” I didn’t yet understand that she was trying to steer me away from the baptized bulletins idea. So, I said, “Sure! Let’s see what it looks like.” It looked nice.
THEN Geoff Heilhecker dropped by. When he saw the black and white bulletin, he said we should try it in color. We did. What you have in your hands is the stunning result.
By this point, the baptized bulletin had dried. So, we compared. Mine. (baptized bulletin) Lynne and Geoff’s. ( artwork bulletin.) See what I mean? Leaders don’t always have the best ideas. J
In allowing himself to be baptized, Jesus sends a strong message: we all need baptism. We all need to be reminded of God’s deep and abiding love for us. We all need to be reminded that we are part of something bigger. We all need to remember to take the love we have experienced and share it with others in the world.
In a moment, we’ll have the chance to renew our baptismal vows. After the Music for Reflection, you’ll be invited to come forward, touch the water in the font, then come to me for a blessing. It will be a way to remember your baptism, a way to recall God’s love for you, a way to recommit to living your baptismal vows out in the world.
Before we begin the Ritual of Renewal, I want to share two stories. The first speaks to the part of baptism where we’re claimed by God as beloved children. The second demonstrates one way to live one’s baptism in the world.
There’s a restaurant my mom frequents in Gainesville, Florida. At supper one night last month, we were served by a person I hadn’t met before, a woman named Sunday. Yes, that’s S-U-N-D-A-Y. Sunday. I asked her how she got her name.
She said her grandmother had named her. Until she was 15, she didn’t know why she’d been named Sunday. Until then, all she knew was that it was a dreadful name, one that kept her in the principal’s office because of her aggressive responses to the teasing of other children. When she was old enough, she started going by her middle name, Denise.
Finally, when she was 15 and her grandmother was near death, the teenager asked, “Gram? Why in the world did you name me Sunday?” Her grandmother smiled. “I named you Sunday because, as the Sabbath is sacred to God, so are you sacred to me.” “From that day to this,” our server said, “I’ve been Sunday.” She paused, tearing up. “I love my name.”
Our baptisms remind us that—regardless of what we do—we are sacred to God. (David sings: “You Are Mine.”)
Our baptisms also remind us that—because all people are sacred to God—we have a calling to share God’s love with others. That familiar definition of love as “acting others into well-being” works especially well in the context of living our baptismal vows.
What are our “baptismal vows?” In addition to affirming that we believe in God and a few other things, our baptismal vows ask that we affirm these two promises:
“Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?”
And: “Do you promise, according to the grace given you, to grow in the Christian faith and to be a faithful member of the church of Jesus Christ, celebrating Christ’s presence and furthering Christ’s mission in all the world?”
Here’s a story about taking these baptismal vows seriously.
A couple of years ago, a woman named Pat Bradbury dropped by to introduce me to a program called Family Promise. Pat lives in North Carolina. She believes in Family Promise so much that she’s spending her retirement talking with leaders of congregations in areas where they’re thinking of starting a Family Promise affiliate.
When Pat introduced the program to me, I thought it was terrific. Using the buildings of congregations that are virtually empty during the week to house families who are homeless? A no-brainer, right? Here’s what I told Pat. “The Pilgrimage folks would be all over this idea…. but we’re so small. I just don’t know whether we’ll have the number of volunteers it takes to participate.” Great salesperson that she is, Pat said, “Don’t decide right now. If you decide right now, you’ll say no. Just give it some thought.” Then she left some brochures and a video for me to peruse at my leisure.
After that meeting, I did give some thought to our participating in Family Promise….then promptly threw the materials away. Yes, it seemed like a great program, but I just didn’t see a way for us to make it happen. I thought we were simply too small.
Then—about a month later—Janet Derby came to me….said she’d been talking with Julie Binney and some other folks about a program called Family Promise. Had I heard of it? As the Jetsons’ dog Astro used to say: “Ru Roe.”
I told Janet about meeting with Pat—and my subsequent session with “File 13.” Then I said, “It’s a great program. If the church can make a go of it, I’ll support it…but the church is really going to have to step up to the plate.” And step up to the plate you have. In spades! Pastor’s idea (baptized bulletin). Church members’ idea (other bulletin).
Fast forward to this past Tuesday night. Tuesday night, Camilla Worrell, Coordinator for Cobb County Family Promise, offered a training session for volunteers. When I introduced myself after the session, Camilla said: “Pilgrimage! You all are rock stars!” When I asked what she meant, she told me that when she first saw the long list of Family Promise volunteers from Pilgrimage, she assumed that “Pilgrimage was one of those mega-churches.” When someone told her that, in fact, we were a small church, she was stunned. “You must have 60% of your congregation participating in Family Promise!” she said. I’ve never been more proud to be your pastor….proud, but not surprised. Because the Pilgrimage community has a long history of taking its baptismal vows seriously and living them in the world. Family Promise is just one example of that. (Choir: Go Make a Difference!)
This year, we have an added aid to our baptism reflections—this beautiful artwork. Back in November when we dedicated the sculpture, I preached on the symbolism in the piece– the colors, the figure emerging from the water, the multiple meanings of the water/tear drops. I thought I’d pretty much “drained” the meaning out of it for you.
Then Kathleen McNulty came up to me after the service and said—“Those ripples going out…what beautiful symbolism!” I had missed that completely. She was so right…both artistically and theologically. What happens in baptism—believing in and receiving God’s deep love for and acceptance of us—does create a ripple effect into the world. Once we know we are loved by God, that experience translates into our actions in the world.
As we renew our baptismal vows today, the invitation is to receive God’s love and acceptance…then, imagine how that love might ripple out into the world. It’s what Jesus did. It’s what all those folks baptized by John in the Jordan River did. It’s what we in this room, with this font, with that beautiful artwork can do, too—remember our baptism, receive God’s love, then share it with others in the world.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2014
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The Baptism of Jesus
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved,* with whom I am well pleased.’