Taking Our Baptism Seriously

January 08, 2012by Rev. Dr. Peter Luckey

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Psalm 29
Mark 1:4-11

Do you remember your baptism?  Somebody is saying no, I don’t remember my baptism; I was a baby.  I don’t remember anything about being a baby other than I was the gleam in my mother’s eye. 

But maybe some of you do remember your baptism because you weren’t baptized as infants, you were baptized as an adult.  Perhaps you were baptized as a teenager.  You remember that day when you professed your faith in Christ.  Were you sprinkled?  Were you dunked?  Were you soaking wet?  Were you at the font in the sanctuary or were you out on the river?  We’ve got all kinds of places where we’ve been baptized. 

The late Peter Gomes, who died this last year, was for a long time the pastor at Memorial Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts serving the Harvard community.  An undergraduate couple came to Peter, and said, “Peter, we want to be baptized by immersion.”  Peter was a little perplexed because Memorial Church was not equipped to do immersion baptism.  They didn’t have enough bowls in the church.  So, they pondered what to do.  And as they thought about what to do, they thought that, though it was late October, this couple’s favorite place was Walden Pond.  Are some of you familiar with Walden Pond?  It’s the famous pond where, in 1845, Henry David Thoreau spent two years in a cabin and wrote his reflections on Walden. 

So they said, “Let’s go to Walden Pond.”  Peter took this undergraduate couple out to Walden Pond so they could be immersed in Walden Pond.  They got out there and waded into the water and Peter first took the guy, put him down and brought him up, put him down and brought him up.  Then took the woman and dunked her in the water and brought her back up again and as the woman came up out of the water, a crowd broke into applause.  Well, they looked around and realized that this crowd had gathered to watch this fascinating spectacle of baptism.  They came out of the woods to watch and to see there at Walden Pond. 

Of course, Peter was a little nervous about this whole crowd, not expecting all these people to show up and he was worried that maybe the police would come and they would be arrested.  So he had to explain what was going on.  He said, “This is what Christians do when they profess their faith; they are baptized.” 

Somebody from the crowd said, “Well, wow, do you do this sort of thing a lot?”  Peter said, “Well, I don’t do this all the time, but I do it as often as I can,” and then somebody from the crowd said, “Well, it sure looks like a lot of fun.”  Then the crowd disappeared into the woods and Peter and the couple, presumably with warm blankets and a fresh set of clothes, drove back to Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

Anybody up for Clinton Lake this afternoon?  Water is still chilly and cold. 

Baptism is a peculiar rite in many ways.  It must seem so to the secular world.  We all have rites of passage.  When you are a teenager, you get your driver’s license; you are behind the wheel and we parents cringe.  If you are getting a degree, you have a hood bestowed upon you.  Or you go through commencement.  Or perhaps you get married and you have a ring placed on your finger to let the whole world know that you are not available to everybody.  All these are significant rites of passage and ceremony. 

In the United Church of Christ, we have only two sacraments.  We have communion— the breaking of the bread—and we have baptism. 

You may think of communion as that sacrament which sustains us in our Christian faith; which nourishes us along the journey.  Baptism is that sacrament that sits really at the entry point of the Christian faith. Perhaps you noticed that in many sanctuaries the font is at the very entrance to the sanctuary.  It’s the beginning place when you walk in— significant architecturally, because it signifies that the baptism is the beginning of your journey in the Christian faith.

Some of you, perhaps, have been to the Amistad Chapel which is the small chapel at the United Church of Christ headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio.  The Amistad Chapel is designed like the galley of a ship. As you walk into the Amistad Chapel, there is a living fountain of water swirling around in this baptismal font.  As you sit there during worship, you can hear the baptismal font during the whole time of the worship service, and on the floor of the chapel, by the font, are embedded in the floor these waves of water that go out to the ends of the earth.  So, how perfect; here’s our river Jordan going out to the ends of the earth. 

Often if you go to worship service at the UCC Headquarters and you go to the Amistad Chapel, you are invited, as you go into the chapel, to take some of the water that is in this font and place it on yourself.  Why?  So you can be reminded of your baptism.

What is baptism?

In short, baptism is about a relationship.  It’s about a relationship that we have with God.  Baptism witnesses to and signifies that we no longer belong to ourselves but we belong to God.  Our identity of who we are is grounded into the reality of whose we are.  We are God’s people.  Baptism is about relationship. 

On Sunday morning when the pastor takes the baby around the sanctuary and walks up and down the aisles and the parents come up and make those vows and commitments and say, “Yes, I promise to see in my child the faces of all the children in the world,”  God isn’t the color of their skin or their background or their economic class, and we as a congregation look at that child’s face and are reminded that our face is in the face of that child.  In those acts of baptism, we are reminded of our own baptism; reminded that we do not belong to our job, we do not belong to ourselves, we belong to God. 

The hardest part about baptism is recognizing that it is about submission to God in our lives.  If we were to do baptizing at Clinton Lake today, the hardest part is not worrying about getting hypothermia, the hardest part is the act of one submitting oneself to God. 

I remember in my church that I served in Oak Park, Illinois, there was a young man (actually, I was young then too, we were all young then) and he wanted to join the church.  He was so interested in social justice; he wanted to bring about change in the world.  He wanted to join the church in the worst way.  I said, “Norm, that’s great but you have to be baptized in order to join the church.”  We thought about making an exception because he was such an incredible person and he would bring so much to the church; but the church said, “No, you have to be baptized if you are going to be a member of Pilgrim Church.” 

I’m going to come back to that story later.  But I tell that story because I am reminded of how difficult it is for so many people to come to that place to be willing to submit themselves to baptism and totally submit themselves to that sense that we are God’s beloved.

Sometimes I wonder. We have infant baptism and I’m not proposing that we change that.  What a wonderful moment it is when a child is lifted up in front of the congregation and God.  But I often wonder if we wouldn’t get more out of baptism if we waited until we had a little bit more life experience under our belt. Until, for instance, some of the storms of life have weathered us and pushed us and we felt some of the ravages of life upon us. Then we might even be a little bit more open to this incredible sacrament where we are reminded that no matter what happens in the world, we are beloved.  “You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter, upon you my favor rests.”  Perhaps it’s only when we get on in life that we recognize how important it is to hear those words and have that experience. 

Martin Luther, for instance, was so anxious and lonely when he was leading the Reformation and he was isolated in a Chapel at Wartburg Castle that he would often scribble on his desk, “I am baptized.”  Why?  To remind himself that he wasn’t alone.  That he was God’s beloved. 

Some years ago, Henri Nowen, who has now been dead for 10 or 15 years spoke to a group of UCC pastors in Florida.  He spoke to us and he made this point about how important it was for us that we hear the message of God’s belovedness and how difficult it is for us.  He said, you know, you get into life and you recognize after a while that the people you love hurt you and wound you. He said, “Your minister is just your minister and your teacher is just your teacher, and your parents are just your parents, and your spouse is just your spouse; they hurt you and wound you.” He invited us in that moment to say, when we are wounded by those who love us and whom we love, that we are catapulted back into that first love, which is God’s love for us.  Catapulted back into that voice that says, “You are my beloved; upon you my favor rests.”

It is hard for us to let go of the myth of our self-sufficiency; to let go of this pride we have about being so independent, thinking we can handle everything on our own, and we don’t really need God in our lives.

I was curious and amazed to learn how many people don’t have a need for God in their life.  I am curious about the fact that people submit their lives and make the plunge to get married sooner than they would make the plunge to welcome God into their presence. 

There is a pastor in the Bay area of California whose name is Rev. Emma Bouliare.  She does weddings, non-denominational weddings, for people in the Bay area.  She said that in 2001, 30% percent of the people who come to her asking for her to do the wedding ask for the God-free wedding service.  Wedding service but no God!  That percentage has gone up to 80%.  Eighty percent of the people that come to Rev. Emma asked for a wedding service without any mention of God.  Can you believe that?  No God.

She says that the only thing that the couples profess their complete faith in is each other.  I cannot imagine being a bride or being a groom and making a leap into marriage with my bride or groom knowing that my beloved placed all 100% of her faith and trust and love in me.  That’s not a good idea!  We need to be grounded and centered in the belovedness of who we are as God’s people, especially when the storms of life ravage us.  We need to find the center of that innermost calm and serenity.

So it was on the day that Jesus was baptized, “The heavens parted,” said the text. “The Holy Spirit descended like a dove and a voice from the heavens spoke, saying, ‘You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.’”

There are three things I want you to take home with you about this lesson today that are so important.

1. Don’t forget that baptism is always connected with the Holy Spirit.  Why is that   important? Because the Holy Spirit is that power which rests upon us and gives us the power of God’s love inside of us.

2.  Most important is to recognize that the baptism of Jesus with the Holy Spirit, is not just about Jesus, it’s about every one of us.  The waters of baptism go out to the ends of the earth and it doesn’t matter about your sexual orientation or the color of your skin, or your economic background.  All of us are welcome to come and make this profession of faith in Christ.  It is all of us.  We are not second-tier to Jesus.

3.    Most important, is that we are baptized and empowered with the Holy Spirit not to be served but to serve, to go out into the world and to serve in Christ’s name.

When you think about it, those people standing on the bank at Walden Pond, weren’t saying it, but they were thinking it, “This is really silly.  These people coming out here at the end of October and getting dunked in cold water. Why, this doesn’t make any sense at all.”  You know some of them are thinking that. 

I want to tell you about my friend, Norm, back at Pilgrim Church.  After we said to Norm, “Norm, I am sorry you can only join Pilgrim Church if you are baptized,” it was only a week later when he came to me and said, “Peter, I want you to baptize me.”

That young man came and we had a service in the sanctuary just like this one, filled with his family and representatives of the church.  At that moment when I placed water on Norm’s head, I could see the tears in his eyes. 

I want to tell you, my friends, 20 years after that baptism, I am in touch with Norm on Facebook.  He has spent his last months of the year in Haiti rebuilding homes for Habitat for Humanity.  He is going to Africa this spring for Habitat for Humanity.  He is now engaged in coordinating and engaging volunteers for Habitat for Humanity.  When he has a Sunday off, he goes to Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School class at the Baptist Church, in Plains, Georgia. 

That is what Norm is doing with his life.  Now, who is to say that if he wasn’t baptized, he might still be doing the same thing there?  Who knows?  All I’m saying is that he was baptized 20 years ago, and he is making a huge difference in the world serving Christ.  We should never underestimate the power of baptism.  Amen.