Category: Baptism

Fire and Water

Luke 3:1-22

blessings_watercolor_by_texas_artist_laurie_pace
“Blessings” watercolor by Laurie Pace

Once upon a specific time, writes Luke, the Word of God came to John in the wilderness. When the Word is upon you, you prophesize! And it was no different for John. He went into all the regions around the Jordan river, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John fulfilled the prophecies of the Prophet Isaiah, who heard the Word of God saying to prepare the way for God for ALL FLESH to see salvation.

“But we don’t need salvation,” said some. We were born from Abraham, we are the Chosen People. Today, it would be like saying – I don’t need to go to church to be Christian, or live a Christian life to be Christian – because I was born Christian in a Christian nation. I was baptized as a baby. Once baptized, forever saved. I never need to step into a church again. Courthouses can marry me and funeral homes bury me.

John replied, “God is able from stones to raise up children” – from the numerous stones all over the wilderness about them, from the field stones and river pebbles: God could make more humans. From dust like God did Adam or ribs like Eve. God can make more people.

John then foretells that God will destroy everyone — Christian or Jewish or not — who doesn’t produce good fruit. And those John speaks with panic – what should we do? How do we produce good fruit?

Should we go run away into the wilderness like John, away from society, and try to live pure? Should we go off and attempt to establish a faithful community by sword and war? Should we be the fire of God that burns the faithless?

What should we do?

“The first step of the redeemed community is for those who have to share with those who have not.” And John gives them concrete examples. If you have more than you need to survive – give your extras to those who don’t. Who needs two winter coats? Give one away to someone who needs a coat. Who needs two thanksgiving turkeys? Give one away to your food pantry. Whomever is using tax loops to avoid their fair share of taxes should stop. White collar crime is not victimless — the victims are everyone who suffers from the collapsed housing market or banks or economy. Whomever is in authority should use it for good, and justice – not use it to threaten people and make false accusations. Cops should be our security – not the force that oppresses people of color. Judges should be our law upholders – not the people breaking the laws. Presidents, Senators, House Representatives, and politicians of all sorts should be role models.

John focuses on individuals. The reign of God begins with individuals. With one person choosing to do good. Then another. Then another. Soon there are whole communities producing good fruit. But it begins with individuals choosing to confirm their faith by living lives that produce food fruit… good deeds, good relationships, good on heaven and Earth.

The people hear this, and get hopeful. Is John the messiah? The promised one who will change our society for the good? Who will right wrongs, bring about God’s reign, and bring wholeness to us all? Is John our savior?

No. John says. I am not. “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming;” he is so much more powerful I am not worthy to untie his shoes. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Again! Destruction! John likes to focus on it. John knows fire is coming, and he thinks of it as something that will destroy and remove the rot from his faith. He does not yet know of Pentecost and the holy fire God sends as the Spirit! Luke knows, we know – the Pentecostal fire alights us inside, burns in our hearts, drives out the rot, and sets us to living the lives God envisions for us. That unquenchable fire within us arrives with our baptisms and it flares up and down our whole lives – but cannot be extinguished for it is the Holy Spirit of God. The destruction is our old selves. Our old sins are cut away. New growth is welcomed in.

This new life calls us to good fruit. To integrity. Integrity is matching what one says is also lived and also believed. It is wholeness. A whole integer. It is the life of repentance John speaks of; the life of love of God and neighbor and repentance for the sins we do and that over take us.

It is a life that is congruent, not hypocritical, unified in the way we live our life, our priorities, our commitments, our personal relationships, our passion for peace and justice and our unplanned acts of compassion. ((cite: from the New Interpreter’s Bible’s Commentary))

It is the life that says ‘I am Christian’ and preaches love of neighbors, then does love for neighbors, out of belief God tells us to love one another. And when we fail to love, it is a life that is truly sorry and tries to make amends and love again.

It is a life that begins at any age, and continues our whole life through.

Today, we welcome Luke into our church family and have witnessed his baptism of water. Unseen, but felt, is the presence of the Holy Fire that now resides with him. Today we promised to be that community of integrity for Luke. Today we promised to be that orchard that produces many different types of good fruits. Fruits of love, of compassion, of peace. Fruits of wisdom and encouragement. Fruits of supporting his family and his walk in faith. Whether he is called by God to the wilderness or led to put down roots here… we are his family.

And family has a very important role to play in every child’s life. Every person NEEDS to hear from the adults around them, “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” We NEED to hear these words. NEED to hear it to grow into our best selves.

God the Father spoke them to Jesus the son – and Jesus was called into his ministry, his messiah-ship, his mission to bring salvation to everyone of every race and creed and gender and age and social standing.

We speak them to Luke – he is our beloved child, with whom we are well pleased. What great things God has already gifted him and will continue to gift him, and we will walk along side.

God speak these words to you – “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” You strive to produce good fruits and God encourages you to keep on keeping on. The fruits begin with individuals choosing to do good, to share, to welcome, to love.

The baptismal waters of life and the unquenchable fire of the Holy Spirit anoint you to do the good work of Heaven here on earth.

Go and be the church! Amen.

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Whose Baptism?

Acts 8:26-40

thekla2
This fresco represents the calling of Thekla, which led her to renounce her engagement and her life as a married woman. Thekla appears at a window (far left), listening to Paul as he preaches with his raised right hand on an open codex. Behind Paul, stands Theokleia, Thekla’s mother, with her right hand raised in admonition (her eyes and right hand have been scratched out, an indication that someone considered her a heretic). Thekla was not permitted to appear in public, but she heard Paul’s sermon from the window of a neighbor’s house and was spellbound by his words. In spite of her mother’s admonition, she renounced her engagement, followed Paul, and spread the word of God. “Stylistic comparisons suggest a date for these paintings in the late 5th or early 6th century A.D., in particular in the Justinianic period” [Austrian Archaeological Institute (www.oeai.at/index.php/st-pauls-grotto.html)].
 “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The Ethiopian treasurer asks Philip this as they ride along in the treasurer’s royal cart and carriage. “Look, here is water!”

And Philip responds by leaping off the wagon, and baptizing the new believer.

No special water.

No special time.

No special place.

An ancient story, not in our Bible but still from 180 AD, is the story of “Acts of Paul and Thecla.” Thekla, like the Treasurer in our Gospel today, is a noble. She listens to Paul’s preaching, and she decides to become a follower of Christ. She breaks off her engagement with another nobleman and says: ‘I’m staying a virgin and following Paul about and the Christ!’ This goes over just as well as you think it will. The town flogs and tosses Paul out, but decide to burn her at the stake if she won’t give up Christ.

And she won’t.

What begins is a series of miracles — rain saves her from the fire, smoke covers her like clothing so she doesn’t have to be naked, and Thekla walks boldly back to Paul. She now says – Don’t just let me come with you, listening, but let me cut my hair and pass myself off as a man, so I can preach this good news too! Just give me a baptism!

And Paul says no. She’s a woman, and women clearly don’t preach. So he won’t baptize her.

But Thekla doesn’t go home.

In the very next town, Thekla again is told to give up Christianity and marry a guy. And again she refuses. And again the town takes her clothes away to shame her and tries to kill her. Again miracles occur. When it looks like things are over and Thekla is in the middle of the city arena where the pond is full of hungry seals and the land with every angry beast, Thekla knees and prays.

“In the name of Jesus Christ do I baptize MYSELF” and she throws herself into the pond of hungry creatures.

No special time.

No special place.

No special water.

Then there are more miracles. Lightening strikes and fire and lots of chaos. Every animal and every human that tries to harm Thekla finds they cannot. In the end, the town is scared of her and asks, “Who are you?!”

She answers, “I am the handmaid of the living God; and what I have about me-it is that I have believed on that his Son in whom God is well pleased; for whose sake not one of the beasts hath touched me. For he alone is the goal (or way) of salvation and the substance of life immortal; for unto them that are tossed about he is a refuge, unto the oppressed relief, unto the despairing shelter, and in a word, whosoever believeth not on him, shall not live, but die everlastingly.”

The governor orders clothes given to the woman and her permitted to leave.

But Thekla says no. She’s put on the garments of salvation, and those are what she’ll leave with.

A whole lot of the town converted to Christianity that day.

Thekla then traveled, preaching, testifying, healing, and teaching the Word of God.

When she ran into Paul, he was amazed to see what a following she had, and he asked what was going on – and did she still want baptized? She answered, “He that hath worked together with thee in the Gospel, hath worked with me also unto my baptizing.”

In other words… The same person who converted you, Paul, to Christianity and brought you to understand the scriptures is who baptized me.

That same person is who baptized the Ethiopian treasurer. Philip just was there, enabling the receiving of the gift.

That same person baptized each of us.

The water doesn’t matter.

The time doesn’t matter.

The place doesn’t matter.

Baptism is a gift from God to us, and we respond back to God. And as a community, we welcome our new sibling and begin to walk with them through all of their lives.

It is why little ones can be and are baptized.

Baptisms are from God.

No human can prevent them because we humans, we’re participating in and witnessing a sacred moment between an individual and the Holy Divine.

No one here heard the conversation Rebecca and God had today. But it happened. It is in her soul. There in the desert near Ethiopia, or in the crowded coliseum arena of a city, no one HEARD the conversation that man or woman had.

But Philip and a whole ancient city witnessed the holy moments.

Today you are Rebecca’s witnesses. You need to tell her the story of her baptism. Just like you need to tell the story to Alden, and every one of our children — age 0 to 100.

And we need to remember our own baptisms, and the stories we’ve been told about them.

At that moment, you and God connected in a brand new way. At that moment, you joined in Christ’s birth, and life, death, and resurrection. At that moment, you gained a family that will never, ever fit in one place for a family reunion. (Well… no reunion here on Earth.) At that moment, some human baptized you in the name of Christ – but it was God who reached out, touched you, washed you, sealed you with the Spirit, and gave you a new life in Christ.

So who’s baptism is it? In our scriptures, we hear of people arguing about whether someone has received the baptism of Paul’s, or the baptism of John’s. You may today hear today people refer to the Methodist baptism, or the Catholic baptism, or the United Church of Christ baptism…

But there is only one baptism. One God. One Creator, sustainer, and redeemer in who gifts us this sacred ritual.

We all share the baptism of Christ.

Amen.

Dancing in the Spirit

Genesis 1:1-5water
Mark 1:4-11

Water throughout the Bible –

In the beginning – our translation today says a wind from God sweeps over the face of the waters. But this could also be translated as the spirit of God hovered, the breath of God danced, the soul of God fluttered.

Much like a dove’s flight.

A dove’s flight tells Noah when the waters are receding.

The Spirit, like a descending dove, alight upon Jesus at his baptism in waters bringing God’s personal words of love.

Water in the Bible is the source of life. Out of water, God brings forth peoples and animals, plants and insects, birds and fish. Out of water, to this day, we are born from our mothers. Water is life.

Water is cleansing! Water is used as a holy bath before approaching the temple of God. Water is used to cleanse hands before prayer, and feet upon entering houses, and, of course, our baptisms.

Yet, water is also death. The Red Sea parts for escaping Moses, but it comes back together to kill the Egyptians. Noah and his family survive the flood, but that flood kills all other humans and animals and life.

Hand in hand, life and death, water is given to us.

Baptisms are the same water. The water God first made, and the water that Jesus walked upon… but also the water that makes up blood, spilled on battle field after battle field, city after city, and upon the cross.

Water changes, is renewed, but remains the very same water, same molecules, through all time. Through rain and snow, through rivers and underground creeks, through oceans and through the organs of animals and leaves of plants. I’m sure you’ve heard the joke that we’re drinking dinosaur pee. We are. But we’re also drinking the water that Abraham gave to visiting strangers – angels! – and the water God gave to Hagar and the water that anointed Jesus.

Water is death and life. Water is full of billions of previous creature’s lives and it enables the current life of billions of creatures.

The spirit of God dances throughout it.

When we are baptized, we are baptized not just in the name of God, Christ, and Spirit… but we are baptized into the DEATH of Jesus.

Symbolically, we drown. We go down. We die. We return to water, or rather, return the waters God gifted us.

Symbolically, we cease.

Spiritually, the old us DOES die.

And in the baptism, with coming up, with drying off the water, we are baptized into the LIFE of Jesus. A new life. Reborn. Reborn of not just water, but also the Spirit of God.

Symbolically, we have over come death.

Symbolically, we have emerged back into the world anew.

Spiritually, we are a new creation.

In baptism, we die and conquered death. We follow Christ to the grave and beyond. We see and affirm that nothing can separate us from the Love of God. We see and affirm the Spirit that dances all through creation also dances within us. We see and affirm the way of Christ is one of life and death, joys and sorrows, mixed blessings, muddy waters that are hard to discern and crystal clear waters that refresh us again and again. We see and affirm we are followers of Christ.

We see and affirm we are the children of God, loved, beloved, and with whom God is well pleased.

Rejoice in your baptisms! Remembered or not. Rejoice in other’s baptisms! Seen, or not. Rejoice in the baptisms that have happened, are happening, and will happen – for the Spirit unites us all as one in holy rites such as these.

Amen.

A Different Spirit

In honor of the baptism of Caleb.283

Numbers 13:26-33-14:11; 14:22-24
Matthew 28:18-20

The Israelites have traveled and traveled and traveled from Egypt and at long last, have reached the Promised Land… but they find it is already occupied. So they send in 10 spies to check out who is living in this area.

In our reading, the spies come back with the report that the people already living there are the children of Nephillim — angels or giants. They’re so big and strong that the Israelites feel like grasshoppers around them. Tiny little bugs! When they hear the report, everyone in the camp begins to fret and worry.

But Caleb stands up and says: hey! We should trust God’s promises. God says this is where we’re supposed to go, let’s go!

But no one wants to listen to Caleb.

Moses and God have a talk about what to do. God is upset – why do the Israelites keep not trusting me? Didn’t I do miracles in Egypt to get the people free from Pharaoh? Didn’t I do miracles at the Red Sea, and miracles in the desert with manna, and water, and birds to eat? This situation looks hopeless, but I AM GOD! I DO MIRACLES! WHY CAN’T THE PEOPLE GET THIS?!

God decides to order the Israelites to wander around in the desert for 40 years. And in those 40 years, everyone who is complaining and regretting leaving Egypt will pass away from old age. A new generation will return to the Promised Land and maybe they will believe God this time. But Caleb will live a long life and enter the land because he has a different spirit, a spirit that trusts God wholeheartedly.

Jesus, too, tells us to live with a different spirit in us. The Holy Spirit. A Spirit that comes upon us with our baptisms and keeps faith in hopeless situations, keeps trust in God through hardships and trials, and strives to live a life of love for God, and for others.

We’re called to live our lives in ways that make believers of all nations. Caleb lived this way. And our Caleb is called to live this way. No one is able to do it alone. It takes the whole body of Christ.

So you, who have the different spirit, the Holy Spirit, be the guide to disciple Christ’s newest follower – our little Caleb. Be his parents’ support, his sister’s assurance, his own encouragement. Live your life in a way that leads him towards the promised land. And remind him of this day – the day we affirmed he is baptized in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and he is a part of Saint Michael’s UCC, and a part of the Body of Christ universal.

Amen.