Preparing for Something New: Baptism

Matthew 3:13-17
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And 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. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

We stick slogans and names on our car bumpers. We wear our sport team’s paraphernalia. We poke pins into our lapels. Some of you pay close attention to the labels on your clothing and automobiles, carefully noting the country of origin, designer, or lack of label. Many of us also read the consumer information about our food, noting the presence of genetically modified organisms or if there are any cross contaminants like nuts or dairy. Smokers are particular about their brand of cigarettes and hipsters frequent only certain movie theaters. Some of you hang patriotic or holiday flags outside your home. Perhaps you wear a cross around your neck or share political rants on Facebook.  And then there are a few of us who go the more permanent route by marking our bodies with tattoos and piercings. 

Who are we? Who do other people know us to be? Our identity is robust. Our identity is a web-like formation that affirms our choices and goals in life. Often we are careful and intentional about how we reveal parts of our identity to our friends, coworkers, families, and acquaintances. They each might know different parts of us. This is a normal part of psychological development. So in this way we market ourselves to each other and to our society. Why do we do this? How is it that you know so much about me now because I let you know that I prefer local, organic food; I bleed blue; Diet Pepsi is never okay when I ask for Diet Coke, Mac is always better than Microsoft, and my Myers Briggs temprement is INFP? But even these outer labels only tell so much, don’t they? Maya Angelou’s mark of character is how one reacts to an unexpected rain storm, tangled Christmas lights, and rush hour traffic.

We long to be known and understood. We fall in love with people who appreciate the parts of us that others may not fully understand. We don’t have to filter our identity quite as much with those who live in our close circles. As our identity testifies to our deeper values, an important question rises to the surface. With each choice that we make in revealing ourselves to other people, what are we marketing? What ideas and ideals about life do we promote with each bumper sticker, jewelry selection, and item purchased? As Christians who gather in a sanctuary most Sunday mornings in the calendar year, how does our identity reflect our beliefs and concerns about the world? 

Let’s consider the Bible story for moment. Matthew tells us that Jesus approaches John the Baptist. Jesus asks John to dip him into the waters of the Jordan River. Why? John was baptizing followers with water for the forgiveness of sin. Jesus needed no forgiveness. So John was probably aghast when the Saving One, Jesus, approaches him for this ritual cleansing. 

Jesus wants to participate in the act of baptism. Essentially, Jesus wants to identify publicly with God by saying, “As I move beneath the surface of the water, I duck into the grace of God. It is God whom we follow. So let me show you how to receive God’s mysterious love.” Despite his confusion, John baptizes the One who needs no cleansing. After Jesus rises from the water God sends down a dove. 

It was just last week that we read about the star identifying newborn Jesus. Today we read about a dove identifying adult prophet Jesus, God’s child, with whom God is well-pleased. The dove, also a contemporary, international symbol of peace, symbolizes that Jesus will embark on a journey of justice. With this new identity as God’s beloved, Jesus spends the remainder of his life living into and out of this identity. We do well to follow this step of obedience.

Wouldn’t it be amusing if we all identified by our baptism ritual? It would be cool too. What if we walked around introducing ourselves with handshakes and the words, “Lauren Jones Mayfield, fresh water immersion, indoor church baptistry.” As my new friend extends her hand with the reply, “Jane Doe, salt water sprinkling, Atlantic Ocean.” We don’t do this as a matter of fact, because it is weird. And yet, this image mimics well our theology of baptism. Our baptism is a corporate confession of our dependence on God. Through the symbol of getting wet by baptismal waters, we receive God’s grace.

In the UCC tradition, when a new sister or brother is baptized into the family of God, the congregation participates in the liturgy with a corporate response. You, the congregation, promise to join in the covenant. I love this. It is like the congregation is saying to the baptismal candidate and to one another, “Remember your baptism.” We say this any time we are in a season of renewal, in fact, not just on Baptism Sunday. “Remember your baptism!”

It’s like we are saying, “Remember what to do in case of a fire.” 
Grab the extinguisher, 
get out of the house, 
ring the alarm. 
Stand in line quietly (if you’re in elementary school.)

Or it’s like saying to the couple on their fiftieth wedding anniversary, “Remember your wedding vows.” Remember your love and commitment. 

Really, it’s like we are saying, 
“Remember to whom you belong.” 
“Remember whose you are.” 
“Remember what’s important in your life as you are a member in the family of God.” 

Baptism is an identity marker. And it’s one part of our identity that we do not need to earn. God is the one who shares grace with us. The active work of being faithful follows our baptism, or precedes our baptism even, but during the event itself, it was we who are still and God who moves. Isn’t that beautiful? 

I suspect it is why John the Baptist was caught so off guard when Jesus approached him. He knew he was unworthy to untie the sandals on Jesus’ feet. And yet, here is the man whose birth was made known by a brilliant star in the night sky, whose teachings are already making a name for himself, who is supposedly the new king of Israel, wanting to be baptized? Through his baptism, Jesus identifies himself as a child of God. Through our baptisms, we proclaim that are we God’s children. And when we remember our baptisms, we recall that we value the people and the ideas that God values. 

Sojourners recently published an article written by pastor in Texas. Evan Dovile is also a regular blogger and guest contributor to many Christian online networks. The article title is “14 Things the Church Needs to do in 2014.” Have you seen this already? He writes in the opening paragraph that “New Years resolutions are supposed to give us tangible goals to better ourselves for the year to come.” I wonder if for our purposes here we might think of our church’s new year resolution as the call to remember our baptisms. Let me explain.

The entire list of fourteen tasks for the church is pretty excellent in my opinion. But it’s not an easy list; that is certain. Instead of reading all 14, I’m going to walk us through two or three of them. The second job Rev. Dovile suggests for the 2014 church calls us to honestly answer the question, “”Why in the world would anyone want to come to this church?” Wow. Consider all the churches in Louisville. (There are over 600 churches in this city.) Now consider just how many churches you drive by on your way here to this one. (I counted approximately nine on my drive this morning.) And now expand this to consider it from the perspective of people who are busy with life, tired from work, who enjoy sitting with the Sunday morning newspaper at a favorite coffee shop, or might use this time to run errands for the week ahead, or to workout with a local running group. With so many options for Sunday morning worship, and with the bad rap that religion gets from right wing conservatives, and too many other obligations fighting for our attention, what is that Lynnhust United Church of Christ offers to this community in such a way that to not attend church on Sunday morning is to miss a blessing from God? 

This is a really hard question to ask, Church; and maybe even a harder one to answer honestly. According to the article, it is questions like this that force us to examine our ministry, our outlook, and our mission. And yet, when we are able to approach the possibilities, and when we can fully respond with exciting confidence to this answer, when we can say, “These are precisely the reasons someone would want to come to this church...reason A, B, C, and D....” then we experience and remember our baptism! 

What if all of us were excited enough and empowered enough to say, “Billy would want to come to this church because we remember our baptism!” 

You see, when we really remember our baptism, who knows what might happen. 
We might see the power of salvation and redemption loosed.  
We might see doves descending from heaven. 
We might see an increase in attendance, Then again, maybe not because maybe we might see that that isn’t what’s necessarily going to carry us into the next century. 
We might hear the voice of God gazing upon faithful stewards saying, “Look at my children with whom I am well pleased.” 
We might discover that our purpose in life is not to sit on pews but to change the world.
We might learn, Lynnhurst, new secrets and joys of abundant living that are so effectual and powerful that we cannot not come to this church. This church that makes the world a better place for all of God’s children. 

So I say to you this morning, “Let us answer this question: why would anyone want to come to this church. Let us remember our baptism.”

As your designated pastor for the next six months, I really want to help you think through your answers to this question.

Another one of Dovile’s things for the church to do in 2014 comes in at number 13 on his list. It is this: “Stop targeting ‘young people’ (especially if you aren’t going to do what it takes to keep them.” Yikes! And yet, I couldn’t agree more. Listen to what he writes. It’s so spot on. “Young people aren’t lazier than the previous generation and it’s not the IPhone’s, MTV’s, or the devil’s fault that they aren’t attending church. Listen to this extended quote from him,

There is this unwritten understanding that ‘we want people to come and experience the Jesus we know even if it          doesn’t speak to them.’ This is another door slammed in the face of the next generation. The younger generations do not want to join committees or organizations; they want to join causes...this is a shift the church must recognize. The church has lost its particularity in society. Why go to church if it means serving on a committee when you can make just as much of a difference with CASA or United Way or Habitat for Humanity? Churches that have a cause to unite others with ministries they are passionate about will generally have the younger generation more invested.

What do you think when you hear that? How does that feel? Does it resonate? Is this idea of church-as-a-cause a foreign concept, or one that makes you think, “Duh! Church should be a cause to make a difference”? Either way, it leads right in to his closing point, number 14—promote justice!

 As I see it, these three points are entirely related and useful to us. Understanding what is particular about Lynnhurst Church, knowing our cause, our mission in this community, then unfurling it in ways that bring justice can spark a social revival here in South Louisville. When we remember our baptism we remember that we are God’s children working together to bring forgiveness and reconciliation. 

Let’s quickly speak to at least two reasons people might want to attend Lynnhurst. Your work with South Louisville Community Ministries. This is fabulous. You support an organization whose sole purpose is to increase the dignity of life for members of this region through various services offered in an interfaith, ecumenical context. This is that justice peace. This is worth celebrating.

Another reason I think people may want to attend this church is because you get what it means to be a family. You welcome others into your family with open arms. Many of you have attended this church since childhood, while some of you are relatively new; yet, all of you treat one another with respect. Many fellow ministers in Louisville, when they learn of my move here have said things like, “Take care of those people! That’s my home church and they are amazing and precious.” In a world where people struggle with intense feelings of isolation, loneliness, and abandonment, feeling like they are not worthy of community, Lynnhurst you have a unique gift to offer...the loving arms of hospitality and warmth of presence. This is a gift, and it is real here. I see that dove hovering around in this way.

And what else? What are the other reasons that people in this world, this city, would want to attend this church?

When we remember our baptism we remember that we don’t have to market ourselves to a new generation with expensive campaigns and sleek strategizing. We simply have to do the particular work to which God calls us. The gospel is for all generations—young and middle-aged and elderly. I believe that when the Church is busy enacting gospel principles in her community, people see things changing, and they want to participate. We just have to be the church, working with the world to let people know that they, too, are beloved children of God. When we remember our baptism and then find the strength to come together in this community to make the world a better place, the dove of peace finds new places to descend with her justice. 

Remember your baptism, Lynnhurst! And together let’s discover God’s redemption and vision for 2014. Amen.

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