“Wait: What Just Happened?”
by Rev. Mike Solberg
Sunday, April 15, 2018
10:00 a.m. Service
“Wait: What Just Happened?”
We just poured water on a baby’s head and her parents, Lindsey and Justin, and all of us made some pretty big promises, so what was that all about? What just happened? Well, to get into that I’ll mention a few things that may sound familiar:
Gun violence. Chemical weapons. Racism. Discrimination against gays. Sexual abuse and assault. Fake news. Fake fake news. Climate change. Drone attacks. Trade wars. Ten things, taken from national and world headlines, I could be talking about today that would make this sermon directly relevant to our lives today.
Unequal educational opportunity. Crime. Mental illness. Budget deficits. Health Care. It’s April 15, so taxes. Lead poisoning. The opioid crisis. The flu. Job insecurity. Ten things, taken from local headlines, I could be talking about today that would make this sermon directly relevant to our lives today.
Grief. Disappointment. Strained relationships. Hopelessness. Adolescent stress. Trust betrayed. Illness. Moral compromises. Directionlessness. Anxiety. Ten things, taken from our lives, I could be talking about that would make this sermon directly relevant to our lives today.
With all of those directly relevant, and many of them far more urgent, matters noted, I stand here today to talk instead about baptism, to ask – Wait: what just happened? As we baptized Lila Sue Danek, what just happened?
I suppose this is why movies and novels find it so easy to parody preachers. There are a million things going on in the world, our communities, and our individual lives, that really matter, like life-and-death matter. But the preacher instead drones on about something churchy, abstract, spiritual.
The sad thing is that that is exactly what baptism is notsupposed to be. It is no accident that the sacraments of the church, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, make use of the most common things in life. Water. Bread. Wine. A moment ago we used that special dish, silver, in color if not in composition. It sits there in its special decorated wooden stand, topped off with a cross. It practically looks like holy water. But it’s not. We get it from the faucet in the little kitchen over there. It is the same stuff that runs in your kitchen sink, that you water the grass with in the summer, with which you brush your teeth, the same stuff that rains down from the sky outside right now. In some places, of course, they baptize in rivers – like John the Baptist did. That might sound somewhat exotic to us, but also a little romantic, spiritual, until we remember that for most of human history, and still in many places, as I have seen so many times in Angola, rivers are places you go to wash the clothes, grind the flour, and draw water to drink for the day. In some cultures, when a child is baptized, they still have families bring the water from home, to make sure everyone sees that baptism comes from the everyday.
I want to make the case today that baptism is not churchy, abstract, and spiritual. But is rather the most relevant thing in our lives. It is more pertinent to our lives even than racism, taxes, and grief.
Last week Grant used a great phrase in talking about the power of baptism as ritual. He said baptism is more like a washing machine than a book. It doesn’t teach us something, or show us something. Instead it actually does some work. It objectively accomplishes something. It accomplishes something that otherwise doesn’t happen.
Of course, I want to be really, really careful and clear here. I am going to make some strong statements, but please do not take anything I say to mean that God is limited by our human actions. God can do whatever God wants, God can bestow whatever grace God wants, without water or ritual or even human awareness. Not being baptized does not put one’s soul in peril, nor make one any less a precious child of God. But baptism remains the normative, while not exclusive, way God and the church go about their work.
Now, most of us are not used to thinking of baptism as actually accomplishing something. Many of us, me included, instinctively shudder when we think of the old stereotypical belief that a baby can’t go to heaven without being baptized. I mean, come on, we say, it is really just a sign or a symbol or a cute tradition, it doesn’t actually make a real difference.
But I think it does, although not it that old stereotypical mechanistic way. It makes a difference like wedding vows make a difference. I mean think about it. Wedding vows are just about the one performative ritual we have left in our culture. We understand that wedding vows actually do something.
Two people may love each other and be committed to each other, but still, when they come forward and say their vows and I give them God’s blessing, well, something is different when they walk out from when they walked in. The vows actually accomplish something. There is a legal dimension to it, of course, but it is so much more than that. Only words were spoken, but with those words, spoken in that ritual context, something is different. Work has been done.
So it is with baptism. Something is different now with Lila than it was an hour ago.
Before I get to what is different, though, one more background matter. Baptism has become largely devoid of meaning today because we sort of put the emPHAsis on the wrong syLAbel. When I said to Lila I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, it seems like the important word there is baptize. But in reality the important words are in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Or as the early church often just shorten it, in the name of Jesus.
You see, the truth is that everyone is baptized into something. Everyone lives under the authority of, or in the name of, something. In the early church the main options were living in the name of the Roman emperor, or in the name of Jesus. Now no one was actually baptized in the name of Caesar as far as we know, but one was constantly immersed in that loyalty. You were a subject of Rome and that identity was communicated to you in a 1000 ways every day. So, when you were baptized in the name of Jesus, you were choosing sides. You were saying, okay, I reject the ways of Caesar and I claim the way of Jesus.
Today, we like to think that we have some neutral ground to stand upon. We like to think that we are free independent people who make up our own minds about things like identity. But we are mistaken. We all live in the name of someone or something, and there are three main contenders today. One contender for Lordship is a nation-state that demands you support violence in order to keep peace, and that you tolerate injustice to keep your economic advantage. Two is a consumer economy that demands you keep buying more stuff in order to show your value and buy your way to a group identity. Three is, your very own self, elevated to the status of Lord. A self that thinks it is being neutral and independent, but is really only serving its own interests, whether malign or benevolent.
The point is that there is no neutral ground on which to stand in this world. We are all baptized in the name of some Lord, be it Rome, America, Consumption, or Self.
But thank God, we have another option. We can be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We can be baptized in the name of Jesus.
And at last I can answer the key question I put before us earlier: What just happened a few minutes ago? What work was done? What is different now compared to an hour ago?
As the water fell upon Lila’s head and as words, Father, Son and Holy Spirit filled the air and fell upon her, a new relationship was created. A new relationship was created between God and Lila Sue. From God’s side the relationship is infused with grace and love and invitation, and from Lila side the relationship is infused with love and adoration and commitment. God’s love is poured out and Lila’s cup runneth over. Lila’s commitment is given, and in that commitment she finds life and freedom.
A new relationship has been created. The gift of grace has been offered by God, and accepted by Lila, and that grace now grounds a lifetime of call and response, of loving and serving.
Lila is willingly, joyfully bound to God and God to her. She has promised to serve God and God has promised to use her gifts in the world.
My friends, because your baptism is a union with Christ, the divine at the heart of all creation delights in you. God delights in you, so God wrapped you in loving arms, poured water on your head, and said, “you are mine. In you I delight.” Baptism is the blessing the never ends, the relationship that cannot be broken.
The waterof baptism, the water, that ever present, common, everyday, water, though, makes it clear that this is not simply an inner thing, a spiritual thing, a heaven forbid, religious thing. This is a life thing. No blessing, no assurance that God delights in you, is connected to you, can be known, felt, experienced, treasured, unless it is lived out in our lives. The way of life to which God has called us, sharing in the way Jesus, the way of generosity, compassion, truthfulness, patience, justice, the way of love, that is the blessing – the way of life, that is the blessing. Following Jesus in a way of life that is not always easy, but is always a blessing, that way is how we know most fully that God delights in us.
My brothers and sisters, my brothers and sisters through those baptismal waters – a relationship is created. A relationship of love and grace and blessing, and response and commitment and joyful cooperation. You are blessed, your everyday is blessed, because God delights in you, not in spiritual you, not in pious us, not in perfect you, but in you, everyday, as common as water, you. So live wet everyday, drenched by your baptismal water, following the way of Jesus, not just when it comes to things from the headlines, but in all things, knowing that your baptism is the relationship that never ends.