NRSV ISAIAH 9:1-4
9 But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
2 The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness–
on them light has shined.
3 You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
4 For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
NRSV MATTHEW 4:12-23
12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles–
16 the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”
17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come
18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
There has been a common response lately when I’ve told people in this church that we will be celebrating a baptism this Sunday. It is along the lines of “Didn’t we just have a baptism?”
Well, yes, sort of. It was the Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Vows for a Congregation, a service we have had here on the Sunday after January 6th for quite a while. It’s a great opportunity for us to remember who and whose we are, and for some of us to receive a blessing for the year ahead.
But this is different. Today we are celebrating the baptism of two young ladies, as well as the reception of this family into our community of faith. They have actually been with us for quite a while, and they officially joined the church last month. But with Aubrey and Aurora being baptized, we thought it would be great to put it all together.
It’s been a while since we had a baptism here – the last one we had was on Maundy Thursday two years ago. So it’s good to remember what this is all about – and what it isn’t. It is not a sanctified inoculation; this is not insurance against the fires of hell. Thankfully that has gone out of Christian theology a long time ago, but there are some who cling to the old belief that we are all wretched sinners headed for the fire without baptism. Our salvation is in God’s hands, completely, totally and unconditionally. That’s why for us Presbyterians it’s a big deal to have infant baptism. Little Aurora cannot figure this out, she didn’t make a decision for anything. She is brought here as a child of God, as is Aubrey. They are blessed by the presence of God’s love in their lives, and their baptism is a sign and seal of their membership into the church of Jesus Christ.
But there is water involved here, and this is a washing. That’s why I tell individuals or family members to bring a little towel with them, because when I am celebrating this Sacrament, they will get wet. I remember baptizing my youngest grandson last month in Charlotte, and when I gave him back to our daughter, Mindy said, “Well, you did tell me he would get wet, Dad.” Sure enough. But that is because of the power of the images to portray our faith. We take bread and wine (grape juice) for communion, water for baptism, common elements, visible elements which point us to an invisible grace that binds us to God in a way that should take our breath away.
At least, I hope it does; for me as well as you. The problem is, we can ooh and aah at the cuteness of the baby, wonder when they are going to cry out and fuss in the minister’s arms, marvel if they are quiet, and generally think this is such a nice, cute thing the church does. Actually, it’s a bit scary. Aubrey and Aurora will now spend the rest of their lives figuring out what this Sacrament is all about, how to live into it, and discovering where it will take them. Just like I am doing, and just like you are doing. Baptism is never in the past. It is always with us; it is always a part of our present moment in the faith.
And sometimes that present moment transform us in ways that are more troubling than comforting, but always revealing. I often think about Annie Dillard’s line in one of her books about how we domesticate the movement of God’s Spirit in our worship. She chided a church she attended for the ushers blandly passing out bulletins, saying that they should be distributing crash helmets and Hazmat gear. Same with baptism; we say this is where we remember who we are and whose we are; who we are – beloved children of God. And whose we are – we are not separate entities out to do our own thing. We are called by God. And sometimes that call will lead us to challenge things that are not lined up God’s way.
Lately I have been reading Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Invention of Wings.” It is a fictionalized account of two real people – Sarah and Angelina Grimke, sisters who grew up in Charleston, South Carolina in the early 19th century. The real sisters were noted abolitionists and suffragettes in a time and place where either one would have gotten you into hot water; to be taking on both they walked a tightrope of social ostracism. Having family who lived in that time and place, the activities of the Grimke’s has always amazed me, with a serious and healthy respect for their strength and fortitude.
In the novel, though, Sarah is a young woman who is struggling to find her way to that positon, awkwardly at times. Her private slave, Hetty – whose basket name is Handful – is a rather begrudging coach because she is a fiery presence who does not take being a slave lightly. One day upon returning to the family home Sarah finds her door locked. Handful finally opens the door, dripping wet; she had been taking a bath in Sarah’s tub, a strictly forbidden activity. As Kidd writes:
“She (Handful) had the look of someone who’d declared herself, and seeing it, my indignation collapsed and her mutinous bath turned into something else entirely. She’d immersed herself in forbidden privileges, yes, but mostly in the belief she was worthy of those privileges. What she’d done was not a revolt, it was a baptism.”
Kidd does not go on to explain what she meant by that, as all good novelists do; they just let our own imaginations fill in the blanks. But for me, Handful had asserted who she was – a daughter of God, no more and no less than the white folks who thought they owned her, but who instead were owned by an evil system. She also asserted whose she was –a child of a gracious God who had given her a fiery spirit which would transform not only her but the white woman who needed her spark to ignite her own.
Cristina and John may not want me to bring this up, but baptism can be like that – a spark to a lifestyle that may put you in opposition to the way things are. Especially if those things are racism, prejudice, oppression of people who are different; opposition to a lifestyle which keeps you up while keeping others down. The baptism of the Triune God is not an entrée into life as usual, but life as unusual when transformation becomes a daily occurrence.
Consider the passage out of Matthew we just read, and have heard so many times. The fishermen are called to follow Jesus, and they follow. I will make you fishers of men, we sang and sang and sang in Sunday School. But there is more going on here than that. They left their nets, they left their families, they left everything they had known and were comfortable with. They left immediately and followed this one man on his ministry of curing and healing and lifting up.
The process was repent, follow, proclaim. And then do it all over again. As simple as that, and not as simple as that. Repent – recognize you are going the wrong way, you are traveling down a path that will take or is taking you nowhere. How many of us do that? It’s one of the toughest things we will ever do – to recognize that we are wrong, are going the wrong way, or seeing that the ways we have been living our lives have been injurious to others. Repent –change directions, change your mind.
Follow – not just anyone, but the One who says deny yourself, let it all go, take up your cross, take up that which will bother and disturb you. Jesus does not lead us to our own private comfort zones, but to those places where the world’s deep hunger meets our deepest needs, our deepest yearnings for connection, justice and love.
Proclaim – not just a private activity, but something we share. This is something that has gotten Christians into trouble because it has not demonstrated a humble walk with God but an arrogant stroll with our own egos. Proclaim does not mean badgering people to think like you do. It is to open yourself up to wonder at the movement of God in your life, and being so thrilled at the process that you cannot keep your mouth shut.
Then – you do it all over again. That’s what baptism is: change directions, follow Jesus, share it with others, do it all over again. Because we do not always get it right. And that’s okay. But we keep at it, over and over again, and we keep supporting each other as we share what it means to be baptized to live differently; baptized to live in love with one another, following the One whose love calls us.
Welcome to the church of Jesus Christ here at Farmville Presbyterian, Aubrey and Aurora. But as we witness the baptism of these new sisters in the faith, may we remember we are not spectators in this. Jesus calls each of us to change directions, to follow him, and to let others in on the good news of love, openness and joy he gives to us in the waters of grace. Amen.