“Remember Your Baptism?” / Isaiah 42:1-9 / 8 January 2017
Do you remember your baptism? It’s become a popular catchphrase that you hear pretty frequently in mainline churches: Remember your baptism. It’s a bit of advice that is sometimes followed by a little splash of water from the minister or priest. The problem is that our baptism is one thing that most of us do not remember. For most of us, baptism occurs at a time in life when our infant brains are still developing the folds they need to store memories. Better to say something like, “Remember your confirmation, or remember taking communion, or remember you’re hosting coffee hour next week.” And yet, when someone tells us to remember our baptisms, what they really want to say is, “Don’t forget that you’re baptized. Don’t forget that you’re initiated into Christ. You do not belong to yourself; you’re communal property, set apart for holy uses. The sorrows of this world are your business. Joy and hope are the stuff you must traffic in. Remember, you’re baptized.” God help us to remember!
Unlike most people in this room, I remember my baptisms quite clearly, both of them. Now, it’s strictly forbidden in Presbyterian circles to re-baptize, but I didn’t know that when I fled the sect that I grew up in—a strange breed of hyper conservative Methodists who only baptized people old enough to choose it, like Baptists. I jumped that ship entirely as soon as I left home and moved out west. In time, I washed up on the shores of First Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma City. This all happened twenty-six years ago; I was a grateful spiritual refugee just happy to go unnoticed in a large church where no one spoke to strangers, seeking a safe haven, not very sure about religion but comforted by ritual, and religious language, and majesty, and stained glass. The morning they received new members, an elder on session, as an afterthought, asked if I’d been baptized; it’s a requirement for church membership. I thought back to the day when I was twelve, when I’d gotten dunked with all the other twelve-year-olds, and, wanting to make a clean break with a past that I disdained, I said, “Not really.” She proceeded to give me the worst definition of baptism I’ve ever heard. “Oh, then honey, we’re gonna hafta baptize you. Don’t worry. Pastor’ll just put a little water on your head. It won’t even muss your hair.” And she was right. It didn’t even muss my hair, though the water did cause some of my man mousse to trickle down into my eyes. (The year was 1990, and you were using mousse back then, too.)
Well, I’ve told that story here before…maybe more than once. But I tell it again because at the time, baptism meant as little to me as it does to an infant. I did it both times because it was expected. I did it because it was a rite of passage, a hoop to be jumped through. And I fear that’s how many see it still. But today’s “Baptism of the Lord Sunday,” that Sunday in early January when we read about how Jesus underwent this strange rite of initiation in the waters of the Jordan. It’s always nice, too, if there’s a child to baptize on Baptism of the Lord Sunday—and coincidentally the family chose this date probably unaware of the occasion and with no prompting from me. It’s Baptism of the Lord Sunday, and in a world of half-truths and lies, a world of empty promises and meaningless rituals, baptism is a bundle of sure promises that gives us ownership in Christ and in each other. And we would do well to remember our baptisms.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew is the well-known story of Jesus’ own dip in the chilly waters of humanity, the muddy currents of the River Jordan. Unlike Mark, who tells the story directly and with no commentary, Matthew seems a little embarrassed to admit that Jesus got baptized—as if the Christ should have been above such things. But the very point of Jesus, I think, is that he is human like us, and not above the need for holy promises. But I want to shine a light particularly on the Isaiah text that we’ve just read, for in it, the God of the old covenant swears allegiance to God’s people, a proud, independent people whose temple was the center of their world; a people whose temple got destroyed by an invading army, whose independence was stolen, who were taken into bondage and left with the sneaking suspicion that their God had either forsaken them or never existed in the first place. This is an important story because, well, we’ve all been that nation every now and again. We’ve all been in the uncertain place where Israel was when the Spirit whispered hope to them through the Prophet Isaiah, “You are still my own. I have called you by name and taken you by the hand. I have kept you for myself, as a light to the nations. You are my own. I have marked you as mine, and your job is to give light to the world.” Israel had forgotten its baptism—its own stony crossing of the River Jordan, when it entered into the Promised Land. Or perhaps we might say that Israel, like me, got baptized twice: once in the crossing of the Red Sea and once in the crossing of the Jordan. But they had forgotten both. And we, too, forget our baptisms, the fact that we do not belong to the names that get attached to us; we do not belong to the things we produce or the tasks we undertake, our anxieties, our appearances, or cares; we do not belong to the passing things that clamor for our money and our time. We belong to God and to each other. And the purpose of our belonging is to be light, and hope, and peace to the world God loves. Let us never forget that we are set apart for lives of service. Let’s not forget our baptisms!
When his little sister, Annie, got baptized in church, six-year old Ronnie sobbed all the way home. His father asked him what was wrong, but he could barely speak through his tears. At last, struggling to catch his breath, Ronnie said, “The minister made you promise to raise Annie in a Christian home, but I want her to stay here with us.” And that’s what baptism is. It’s not powerful juju. It’s not a charm. It’s not a magical bit of hocus pocus that saves us from the very God who loves us. It’s a promise, or a bundle of promises. The parents make a promise; the church makes a promise. Most importantly, it is God’s promise to the child to never leave or forsake her or him. Of course, we all know that we cannot stay infants forever, and just like Israel in exile, we will all of us feel left and forsaken sooner or later. But baptism whispers gentle words of benediction over all our doubts and fears: I am the Lord. I have taken you by the hand and kept you. I have set you apart, given you to be a light to the nations. I tell you, if every baptized person on this globe remembered that, ours would be a blessed and a happy world. But we forget. We forget our own blessedness, and we live as if it were not.
There’s a beautiful story in Joshua about the children of Israel crossing over into their own country, the Promised Land, for the first time. They erect stones in the river as a perpetual reminder that they’ve been through the waters and come out on the other side, that they now have a home, and a name, and a calling, and a nation. It’s their baptism. And what comes with the blessings of any God-given identity? Responsibility!
We, too, need stones in the currents of our lives, if only to remind us that we do not belong to ourselves, or to the changing fortunes that life’s currents bring. We need stones to remind us that we belong to Christ and to one another, for we’ve been claimed by a life-giving promise. And whatever you go home to today, or whatever you face at work tomorrow, or whatever old, old fear keeps you awake again, or whatever good or ill this New Year holds, and whatever the timeworn cares that seem to keep you in bondage: you do not belong to these! They do not own you. You belong to a story, and a people, and a calling. Yours is a promise and a duty to be light to the world. We belong to Christ and to each other. We forget our baptisms, and so there are 200 little stones in the water that we will be using today for Eliza’s baptism. (No worries; I boiled all the germs off!) At the end of the service, I’m going to take that bowl from the font with its sanctified water and its holy stones, and I’m going to place it in the narthex. As you’re leaving, dip your hand into the waters of baptism and take a stone, any stone, and carry that stone with you in the year (or years) to come. And whenever you find yourself doubting or forgetting that there’s more to your life than its duties and cares, its failures and successes, reach into your pocket and rub your thumb against that stone and remember this: You do not belong to yourself; God has taken you by the hand and kept you. You’re set apart for holy uses. The sorrows of this world are your business. Joy and hope are the stuff you must traffic in. Remember your baptism. Amen.