A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
January 13, 2013
By Rev. Julie Emery
Text: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22; Isaiah 43:1-7
“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth — everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
The story of our faith is saturated in water, from the crashing waters of creation, to Noah and the flood, to Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea. The Psalms call upon the image of water as refreshing and sustaining, with some of the most beloved metaphors of the life of faith including a tree planted by life-sustaining water or a journey beside still waters. Indeed, it’s as if the most basic stories of our faith reflect the knowledge that our planet and our bodies are made up mostly of water.
But water is not only refreshing and cleansing, and certainly these stories of our faith tradition are not only filled with joy and salvation. While Noah was saved from the flood there are many who weren’t, many for whom the waters meant a final punishment for their wicked ways. While Moses and the Israelites passed through the waters unharmed, behind them Pharaoh and his men were consumed and drowned. Water is scary and powerful, worthy of fear, as anyone who has experienced the power of an undertow or current could tell you. And as so many who faced damage or loss of a loved one in the wake of Hurricane Sandy are well aware.
Perhaps this is why I’m a bit disappointed in Luke’s telling of the baptism of Jesus -merely a footnote after his detailed and memorable stories around Christ’s birth. I long for a big splashy baptism with lots of water, something that inspires awe and power. It’s a bit anti-climactic for something that displays such strength in both our lives and in the story of our faith.
The prophet Isaiah offers up language that seems a bit more fitting to our understanding of baptism and the power of water: “But now thus says the Lord: he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelmed you…” Isaiah seems to both understand our natural fear of water and our need to be protected from it, assuring us, like a mother to her child at her first swim class, that there is nothing to fear.
Baptism itself has this element and understanding as well; containing within it both blessing and fear, of vulnerability and power. But perhaps too often we tend, like Luke, to leave it as a footnote, allowing it to reside within the sentimental to the detriment of the profound.
One reason could be that Presbyterians tend to baptize infants, like Roman Catholics and Lutherans, so many of us have no recollection of our baptisms at all. But there are also likely many of you who were baptized at an older age. Yesterday at the orientation of our new board members we saw that over half of the folks gathered had grown up in church traditions other than Presbyterian, and of those – at least on the side of the room where I was sitting, a strong percentage of those grew up Baptist.
In many of those traditions, Baptist and Church of Christ and others, the emphasis is on ‘believer baptism,’ when young people are given the opportunity to decide for themselves when they might be baptized; usually any where from age 8 to age 14, but sometimes earlier and sometimes later. The reason is the belief that baptism should be connected with our choice – to respond to God’s love by choosing follow the God who loves and created us, and who redeems us through Christ.
Infant baptism claims to instead emphasize God’s prevenient grace: the idea that God loves us and claims us as God’s own before we even know what that means, before we understand who God is, and before even we can say ‘yes’ to God’s call. For those who baptize babies, it can be a powerful testimony to the unconditional nature of God’s love and grace, both for families and for the community of faith. As Isaiah puts it, “I have called you by name, you are mine…Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…Do not fear, for I am with you…”
For those who follow believer baptism, the experience and memory of one’s own baptism can be transformative, grounding their faith for the rest of their lives. And yet that tradition can sometimes fool us into thinking that there is something we could do to earn God’s grace and love, and worse into thinking that there could be something we could do to turn away from it. For those that baptize infants, the truth of God’s choosing us is deeply meaningful, but can often be sentimentalized or perfunctory, allowing it it lose power and meaning.
The truth is, baptism is both. We believe both that God chooses us first, AND that our response to that choice is essential to our lives. It is both individual and communal, drawing upon our vulnerability and our sacredness. However we are baptized, Christians find in our baptism the answers to some of our most pressing questions as disciples, as humans: who are we, to whom do we belong,and what makes us worthy?
Our culture gives us the answers to these questions in a variety of ways: We are what we do, we are what we accomplish, we are where we live or how we vote. We are bankers or lawyers or doctors, we are mothers or fathers, young working adults or retirees, democrats or republicans. Sometimes, we are what we drive or what we wear. We ourselves are evidence that we have accepted these activities as the core of our identity. When is the last time you introduced yourself and you didn’t name an activity or a group you participate in? When was the last time you described yourself to someone and one of the first things that you shared was about your faith?
Both the prophet and the gospel writer raise up this language of identity: that of Jesus, and that of the chosen people of Israel. “This is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased.” “Hear O Israel…I have created you, I have called you by name.” Our baptism is at the very core of who we understand ourselves to be as followers of Christ in our world. And it is out of our baptism, that we live lives of meaning and purpose.
Isaiah’s words to God’s beloved people – to you and to me – are filled with an alternate grounding for our identity: Created and beloved by God. Baptism is the way we claim this as who we are and have always been: precious in God’s sight. The waters we use are those same waters that represent life and death. The sacrament is one that holds both choice and unearned grace. The act is a visible sign of God’s often invisible work in our lives and hearts.
In part for this reason, Reformers like Calvin and Luther also insisted that every time we bathe should be a reminder of our baptism. Each time we step into a shower or slip into a warm bath we should recall the ways we have been recreated in God’s love, and marked as God’s own. This alone is our identity, this alone makes us worthy.
Harvard professor Stephanie Paulsell shares a story about a friend of hers who was plagued by terrible acne as a young teenager. The friend recalled one day when her anguish over her appearance made her unable to leave the house. “Her father, seeing her distress, took her to the sink and taught her a new way to bathe. He leaned over the sink and splashed water on his face, telling her, on the first splash say, “In the name of the Father,” and on the second, “in the name of the Son” and on the third, “in the name of the Holy Spirit.” Then look up into the mirror and remember that you are a child of God, full of grace and beauty.” As her own bathing became connected with the words of her baptism, she could see begin to see the image of God in herself and in others.
Each phase of our lives raise new questions about our identity: Who am I if I am not his friend anymore? How will I still be me now that I am married or a parent? How will I tell people I am now divorced? How do I define myself now that I have been laid-off? Who am I if I live so far away from the place I have always known? How can I find purpose in retirement? Who am I without my loved one by my side?
“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine…You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
Paulsell also writes of her friend Kay, whose mother had taught her a love of baths as a child. Kay remembered her mother ending each day of her childhood with a bath, taken with ritualistic care. The mother would turn on the heater in the bathroom, clean out the drain, run the hot water so the tub would warm and then regulate the temperature with the inside of her wrist. Kay’s mother would undress and immerse herself, pouring water over her body while Kay would lie on the bathroom rug and chat at her mother about her day, sharing stories and secrets in the intimacy of the bathroom.
Many years later, as Kay’s mother was dying of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, she was given the opportunity to provide for her mother’s last bath. With care and attention, Kay arranged the water just as she has learned to do: turning on the heater, cleaning the drain, warming the tub and setting the temperature. She then went to help her mother sit slowly up from her bed, waiting with patience and sorrow as they both endured her vomiting from the medicine and illness.
When her mother regained her strength, Kay ushered her to the bathroom in slow shuffles and then helps her sit on the edge of the tub, helps her reach for the grip bar. And then, Kay writes, “that precious body I have looked at and loved and memorized lower into the water. She never opened her eyes…lay there, still and silent, then put her hand out and I placed a plastic up in it as we had discussed I would. She slowly lifted a cup of water and poured it over her arms. Lying back down she poured another cup over her throat and neck signing a tiny sound of pleasure. The water sounded like baptism, holy, quiet, small splashes…”‘
For Kay the ritual of the bath invoked her mother’s belief, and her own, that she was precious and loved. It was the core of her being. While it could not keep her from experiencing the death she was dying, it promised that her dignity could not be compromised by bedsores or vomit. It means that no matter how bad her illness becomes, even unto death, God’s love surrounds her and redeems her again and again.
For Kay too, her baptism ritual compelled her to see that beloved-ness in others, most especially in her mother. The care she took with her mother grew out of an understanding that all people deserve that compassion, and that those moments when we are most vulnerable should be met with moments of deepest blessing and sacredness.
In this we see how baptism is both individual and communal. The Apostle Paul reminds us that as many of us are baptized in Christ are clothed in Christ. In our baptisms we take on a life that binds us in relationship to all people, invoking compassion, respect, honor and dignity. We are marked and sealed as God own so that we might live as a blessing to others – as we strive for justice, love our neighbor and reach out to the poor and outcast.
Each of our lives contain waters that threaten to overwhelm. The sorrows of Hurricane Sandy and Newtown linger on. The grief and pain of loss, the anxiety about the economy and our future, the fear about our safety and that of our children, can consume our thoughts and lives.
And yet Isaiah reminds us: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be consumed…Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…Do not fear, for I am with you, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for glory, whom I formed and made.
May we live immersed in that love, today and always. Amen.