Baptism

Way back in June, we had a baptism. James and Brianne stood at the front of the church, and I held a kind of squirmy Kaelyn, and I baptized her in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And it was a wonderful day. We welcomed Kaelyn into our family… our little corner of the Kingdom of God.

And, later, someone asked me how I felt about what was obviously my first baptism. And I laughed it off.

But the truth is, that wasn’t my first baptism. It was just my first baptism that wasn’t in a hospital… and my first baptism where the clock wasn’t ticking, or where the clock hadn’t already struck.

You see, baptism is one of our sacraments. It is a distinctive and sacred Christian rite; an outward and visible sign of God’s grace.

In the Catholic and Orthodox churches, there are seven of these sacraments: baptism, confession, communion, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and anointing the sick. For our Lenten program later this year, we’ll be reading a memoir by Rachel Held Evans organized around those seven sacraments.

In the United Church of Christ—and in most Protestant churches—there are two sacraments. We push confession, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and anointing the sick aside. They’re important, but they’re not sacraments. We stick with baptism and communion. 

And we stick with those two because, we say, they were instituted by Christ himself. 

Communion on the night he was betrayed, when he took the bread and blessed it and broke it and shared it with his friends, saying, “This is my body, broken for you.” And likewise, after supper, when he took the cup and blessed it and shared it, saying, “This is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you. As often as you drink of it, do this in remembrance of me.”

And baptism when… well…

A few weeks ago, during Advent, we met Zechariah and Elizabeth. 

They had a son, named John, and they were told that he would be great in the sight of the Lord. He would turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. The spirit and power of the prophet Elijah would go before him. He would make ready a people prepared for the Lord. And I can only imagine how proud they must have been when they imagined the great man that their son would be.

And in today’s reading, we see John… all grown up.

He lives in the wilderness. He wears camel hair clothes and a leather belt. He lives on locusts and wild honey. And the locusts might be a misunderstanding of a word for pancake, or they might be the pods from the carob tree, or they might be insects. He baptizes people in the water of the river Jordan for repentance. He calls Pharisees and Sadducees—Pharisees and Sadducees(!)—a brood of vipers.

He talks about the one who will come after him: the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

And then the one who will come after him… shows up.

It has to be a strange moment. Here is Jesus, the Messiah, king of kings and lord of lords, standing before John in the Jordan, asking to be baptized.

And John responds the same way anyone would respond, “Why are you asking me to baptize you? You’re the Messiah, the king of kinds and lord of lords. I’m not fit to tie your shoes. I need to be baptized by you.”

And Jesus says, “No. We’re doing it this way.”

And John baptizes him, and the heavens open, and the Holy Spirit descends, and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Baptism is a sacrament. It is a distinctive and sacred Christian rite; an outward and visible sign of God’s grace. And it’s hard to get a more outward and visible sign of God’s grace than the heavens opening and the Spirit descending, and a voice saying, “I am well pleased with you.”

But understand this, because this is so important. Baptism is not a sacrament because Christ performed the first baptism. Baptism isn’t even a sacrament because Christ was the first person to be baptized. 

Baptism is a sacrament simply because Christ joined us in being baptized; and simply because we can join him in that baptism. Whether it’s through a few drops on our heads or being dunked in a river.

And even more: through baptism we join in each other in this family, in the this little corner of the Kingdom of God, and in the whole great big Kingdom of God. Whether we are being baptized in a church on a bright sunny summer morning or in a hospital at the last possible minute or anywhere or anywhen else.

It is no secret that we live in deeply divided times. One of the beautiful things about the United Church of Christ in general—and about First Congregational United Church of Christ in particular—is our diversity. I don’t want to overstate things, we could be a lot more diverse. But one of the joys of serving this church and this denomination is that I get to work with all sorts of people.

And that isn’t always easy. We don’t always get along. We argue.

Sometimes, we argue over important things. Sometimes, we argue over petty things. Sometimes, we argue in a spirit of love. Sometimes, we argue in a spirit of anger. Sometimes, that happens in church. Sometimes, that happens in families. Sometimes, that happens in politics. It happens everywhere. We live in deeply divided times.

Even as a pastor, it can be easy to be pessimistic and fall into the same patterns that we see everywhere else. As a church and as a nation, we face serious challenges; and we live in deeply divided times… and I have this chance to stand in front of you on Sunday morning— behind the authority of the pulpit—and speak to you.

And in the midst of the brokenness of this world, when I preach on controversial things anyway, it can be tempting to speak like John did to the Pharisees and the Sadducees. It can be tempting to preach his little sermon:

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

And I’m not going to promise that you will never hear that sermon. I’m not going to promise that I will never preach it.

But today—on this Baptism of Christ Sunday—I am hopeful. Because in spite of all of the divisions in the church and in the world, we in this sanctuary, and in churches around the world, are united by the bonds of our baptism.

In spite of all of our differences and disagreements… Maybe even because of them, we are one body, guided by one spirit, called to one hope under the rule of one Lord, sharing one faith, cleansed by the waters of one baptism, worship one God the mother of all.

That is a truth… and that is an opportunity.

You may have noticed that there is something new in the order of worship today. Already this year, I’ve moved some things around… and today, after the sermon, is a time for silent reflection. We’re going to try this for a little while and see how it works; we’re going to take a moment to think about what we heard in the scripture and what we heard in the sermon and what we’ve encountered in our worship and how we can apply it in our lives.

And I’m not going to end every sermon like this.

But today, I want you to think about that person—or, maybe, those people—who you don’t get along with. And I want you to think about the water that touched Christ… and the water that touched you… and the water that touched them. I want you to think about water and the spirit and the promise that binds us together. One Lord, one faith, one baptism.

And the next time that person—or, maybe, those people—are getting you riled up or getting on your last nerve… the next time you feel the bile of anger and hatred rise up in you… think about that water… and the way that it connects you… as beloved children of God.

Baptism is a sacrament. It is a distinctive and sacred Christian rite; an outward and visible sign of God’s grace. 

But it isn’t a sacrament because Christ performed the first baptism. And it isn’t a sacrament because Christ was the first person to be baptized. It is a sacrament because Christ—whose shoes we are not fit to tie, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, who carries the winnowing fork, and who will one day clear the threshing floor—joined us in being baptized and bound us inextricably together as one people.

Hallelujah. Amen.

The Big Peace

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. And today, we hear a part of a story that we don’t hear very often.

There was this priest, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. They were righteous before the Lord. And, like so many people in the Bible, they were old and they were childless.

And, one day, an angel appeared before Zechariah and said to him, “Elizabeth will bear a son and you will name him John… and he will prepare the people for the Lord.”

And, like so many people in the Bible who are old and childless, when they hear that they will have a child, Zechariah said, “That… seems unlikely.” And the angel struck him mute. And Elizabeth conceived.

Later, Elizabeth bore a son. They took him to be circumcised, and their friends and family wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father. Elizabeth said, “No. His name is John.” And, like so many people do when a woman contradicts the crowd, they say, “Let’s check with your husband.”

So they hand Zechariah a tablet, and he writes, “His name is John.” And right at that moment, his tongue is freed and he is able to speak again.

And he does what all new dads do when they are able to speak to their newborn son for the first time: he prophesies.

He praises God. And he says that God has remembered her covenant with Abraham, and raised up a savior from the house of David, who will rescue God’s people from the hands of their enemies.

And he says to John, his son, “You will be a prophet. You will go before the Lord and prepare his ways. You will give knowledge of salvation to God’s people by the forgiveness of their sins.”

And he says, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Dawn will break… there will be light for those who live in darkness… to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Today, we light a candle—a light in the darkness to guide our feet—for peace. And God knows that we need it. We do not have peace.

Peace is a hard thing to talk about. It’s a word that has many meanings.

On the one hand, there is the little peace: the absence of conflict. Or, sometimes, even less. “Peace is not the absence of conflict,” said Ronald Reagan, “but the ability to cope with conflict by peaceful means.”

And God knows that we need that little peace. We do not have it.

Some of the conflicts that we face, and that we cannot resolve, are huge. There is a generation in America that only knows a nation at war. There are people in high school—there are people in this sanctuary—who are younger than the war in Afghanistan.

And the truth is that most of us only know a nation at war in one way or another. In its two hundred forty-two year history, the United States has only been not-at-war for about seventeen years. There are people about to graduate from high school who have lived longer on this earth than our nation has lived in relative peace.

We can all name some of the famous wars: the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Spanish American War, the Civil War, two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But there have been so many others: against Native peoples and in far-off lands. Official and unofficial. Hot and cold.

And it isn’t just us. War is a living reality for countless people around the world. There are big wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Mexico and Syria and Yemen. And there are dozens of other wars and conflicts and skirmishes and clashes that don’t make the news.

And it isn’t just war. Communities across our nation and around the world face police brutality, mass shootings, gang wars, and other forms of violence. For too many of us—which is to say, for any of us—violence is part of life.

God knows we need that little peace; that absence of conflict. We do not have it.

Some of those conflicts of huge. But some of them are small and intimate.

Some of us are in conflict with our families: our spouses or partners, our parents or children, our siblings or cousins or nieces or nephews.

Some of us are in conflict with someone at work: a supervisor or an employee, a client or a vendor, a coworker.

Some of us are in conflict with a friend, or someone who we go to church with, or a complete stranger who blocked the aisle with the grocery cart while looking at spices.

Some of us are in conflict with ourselves. Some of us have inventories of our faults—real or imagined—and fight against ourselves mercilessly.

And sometimes those conflicts turn to physical violence. And sometimes they are verbally or emotionally violent. And sometimes they just just are.

God knows we need that little peace; that absence of conflict. We do not have it.

But the absence of conflict is just a little peace; it’s an imitation peace.

“Peace is not just the absence of conflict,” said the Rev. Dr. King, “it is the presence of justice.”

And he went on. He recalled a conversation with a man who was upset about… ‘the bus situation’.

“Yes, there is more tension now,” King said, “but even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have real peace.”

“If Black folk accepted their place,” he said, “their place of exploitation and injustice, there would be peace. But it would be obnoxious peace of stagnant complacency and deadening passivity.”

“I do not want a peace,” he said, “if that means that I have to accept second class citizenship; or keep my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil; or be well-adjusted to a deadening status quo; or be willing to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated, and segregated.”

“Peace is not just the absence of conflict,” he said, “it is the presence of justice.”

And he was right. The absence of conflict is a little peace; it’s an imitation peace. Real peace comes when there is also justice. And there is not enough justice. And it is often the same people who face violence who are denied their share of justice.

God knows that we need the little peace; the imitation peace. We do not have it.

And God knows that we need the big peace; the real peace that comes alongside the presence of justice. We do not have it.

But we do have Zechariah—a priest serving in a land occupied by an empire—prophesying to his son.

“You, my child, will be a prophet of the Most High. You will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. You will give knowledge of salvation to his people. And by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

His name is John. And he will become John the Baptizer, who proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

He will become John the Baptizer, who will proclaim the good news to the people. He will become John the Baptizer, who will baptize the Messiah, our Lord, Jesus the Christ.

Think about that for just a minute.

It is tempting to imagine that peace—whether it’s the little imitation peace as the absence of conflict, or the big real peace as the presence of justice—is a big systemic thing that is… out there. And that’s a little bit true. Peace is a big systemic thing. And reaching it will take big systemic steps like the tender mercy of God and the dawn from on high.

But it is also true that big systemic things have their roots in individual acts of every day life. It is true that when I—or you, or anyone—stand up for peace and against not-peace, there ends up being a little more peace in the world.

John was not the Messiah. He baptized people. He told them to repent. He told people who had extra to share with those who didn’t have enough. He told tax collectors to only collect the amount they were supposed to. He told soldiers not to extort money.

I can do that. You can do that. Anyone can do that.

When we see injustice, we can say, “There is injustice.” And we can call people to repent and turn towards the God who is just.

When we see violence, we can say, “There is violence.” And we can call people to repent and turn towards the God who is love.

When we see not-peace, we can say, “There is not-peace.” And we can call people to repent and turn towards the Prince of Peace.

John did that. And so I can do that, and you can do that, and anyone can do that.

And I know that’s hard. I know that’s scary. I know that I fail at it.

I know that I don’t like conflict. And I know that, among my many privileges, is the privilege to avoid conflict. And I know that sometimes—often, maybe even usually—my desire to avoid conflict is so much greater than my desire to work for peace.

I know that I stay silent when I should speak. I know that I stay still when I should act.

So I light a candle.

I light a candle as a light in the darkness.

I light a candle to remind myself that there is always a light in the darkness, a dawn from on high, a light that can guide my feet into the way of peace.

I light a candle to remind myself that I—and you, and everyone—am called to be the light of the world, preparing the way of the Lord, and calling others to the big peace that comes alongside the presence of justice.

I light a candle… for peace.

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