I cannot read Scripture and preach today until I speak to the deadly violence set loose
in our Nation’s Capitol this week. It has been a shameful week in our country’s history and
anyone with ears to listen and eyes to read social media tweets has seen this train wreck of
violence coming. My prayer is that finally, finally, this is the week that we regain our moral
voice not to pretend that we all basically agree on most social and political matters, because we
do not. I pray, though, that we can regain our moral voice across all our divides to denounce
bullying our way by means of intimidation and violence into getting what we want. I pray that
we can regain our moral voice, insisting that lies and violence are tools of the weak, but that
the truth, especially the truth that we know in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of
Jesus, is that truth that sets us free. So, join me in a time of prayer that our nation, our
nation’s leaders, and each of us will regain our moral voice. Let us pray.
Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, January 10th, 2021
I had not been serving the church long when the phone rang. The grandmother, the indisputable matriarch of the family was calling on behalf of her daughter who had just had a baby. I congratulated her on the good news and offered to visit the parents and new child in the hospital. My offer was
politely dismissed. The grandmother quickly moved on to her main concern. “Pastor Charles, I’m calling to arrange to have the baby done on Saturday afternoon, March 5. I hope you’re free. It will be a lovely ceremony in the rose garden behind my house.”
After a deep breath, I mustered my best pastoral response. I explained that for Presbyterians baptism is a community sacrament, a time not only for individuals and families to make sacred promises before God, but for the whole community to do so. I told her that I would be glad to meet with her daughter and son-in-law to discuss the baptism of their child.
That was not the response she wanted. She went on to tell me that she had been a Presbyterian all her life and that all of my predecessors had “done” her children in her rose garden and that her first grandchild would be “done” there on March 5! When I tried to say more, she informed me that she would find someone suitable to do the ceremony and then told me not to anticipate any future funds for the church coming from her family, and promptly hung up.
In fairness to the grandmother who asked me to “do” her new grandchild, the way Presbyterians understand baptism has evolved a great deal over her lifetime and mine. For years in most mainline Protestant churches, baptism was a sentimental and somewhat peripheral religious rite of passage for
children and families, something to be noted in the baby book along with the first word spoken and the first step taken. It often carried with it the notion of something to be “done” to our children, like cutting the first precious lock of hair. On the day of baptism, almost always of an infant, the baptismal font was
pulled out of a closet or moved from its visual obscurity in an alcove of the sanctuary and then neatly stored back out of sight when the deed was done.
Where churches ever got such a diminished, utilitarian, and sentimental understanding of baptism, I am not sure. I am sure that they did not get it from reading the baptism story of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. Sentimental Mark is not. In Mark, John baptizes in the river Jordan not as a perfunctory rite of
passage for penitent Jews. He baptizes in the name of the One who, in the baptism of Jesus, tears open the buffer zone between heaven and earth.
Roger Gench, the new editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, notes: “Mark tells us that as Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the heavens being ‘ripped apart’ and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him . . . It is important to note that the heavens do not simply ‘open’, for something that opens can
close. Mark tells us that the heavens were ripped apart – that reality was irreparably altered as a fissure in the heavens appeared – marking a permanent elimination of the boundary between heaven and earth” (The Presbyterian Outlook, week of January 4th, 2021).
Mark’s language strips away any perfunctory notion of baptism; it says that every time baptismal waters flow, a new identity is formed, God names us, the same God who is on the loose. My friend and New Testament scholar, Brian Blount, says that God on the loose results in a “wild world out of religious, regulatory control . . . a world so sure that God is right around the corner that it stops thinking about standing in line and starts lining up . . . to help each other. It’s a world that cares more about purifying those who are sinners than being pure and separate from sinners. It’s a world that cares more about touching and holding those who have dirtied themselves or have been dirtied by the situations of their lives than it cares about sweeping their churches and lives clean of anybody who’s made mistakes.
“It’s a world that would willingly and willfully break laws and customs that segregate people from each other, break laws that send people into unjust wars, break laws that allow the powerful and wealthy to have more opportunity in life than the weak and poor. It’s a world that would look very much like
Mark’s world of Jesus walking around possessed by the power of the Spirit of God. In such a world you either go with the man and help him create the holy chaos he’s creating or you find a way to do everything you can to stop him so you can get your people back in line” (Brian Blount and Gary Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, p. 33).
In 1994, Rwanda was the scene of one the most devastating holocausts of the 20th century. In this largely Christian country, violence between Hutus and Tutsis left nearly a million people dead. Greg Jones, Dean of the Duke Divinity School, tells of a trip to Rwanda: “The next morning,” Jones writes,
“we took a bus to a small Muslim community in a village called Nyamirambo. Our host said, ‘This is the only area in Rwanda that didn’t experience the genocide.’
“`Why is that’? a student asked.
“`Because their identity as Muslims is so fundamental, so important to them, that they could not envision killing one another. Their commitment to Allah created their fundamental identity, more important than any tribal or national identity.”
The Rev. Jones goes on to wonder: “What would it mean for Christians, in Rwanda or in the United States or anywhere else, to take our baptismal identity in Christ as the primary defining character of our lives – relativizing all other loyalties? What if, for example, we adopted the Mennonite Central Committee’s Modest Proposal for Peace: `Let Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other’. How would we then envision our identities, our lives, our relationships and commitments?” (L. Gregory Jones, “Secret of Nyamirambo” in the December 13, 2005 edition of The Christian Century).
As we know from ancient and current history, Muslims like Jews like Christians like Hindus have a tragic history of violence and Nyamirambo is more the religious exception than the rule. I am intrigued, though, by where Greg Jones and Brian Blount are pushing us. What if baptism were more than a
sweet family ritual in our rose garden or in our sanctuaries, a sacrament where parents agree to whatever the preacher asks, children offer their own cute consent if old enough, and the adults say their obligatory, “We will”? What if our baptism were a new set of glasses through which we see ourselves and see our God on the loose?
According to Mark, at his baptism, Jesus heard God announce his identity, “You are my beloved Child.” What if we heard that voice at every baptism, the reminder that before I was Joe and Marguerite’s boy or a native Virginian or a proud American, I was and am a child of God, washed and claimed in the waters of baptism, and I live and love and serve in a community that wears the same birth mark and follows the same untamed God on the loose?
I doubt that the day the infant Gary Charles was baptized that the congregation said, “This baby was born to be an ordained and installed minister in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., to engage in a ministry of compassion and to work for justice and to advocate for peace.” But I am confident that long before, at the time of, and long since my baptism, the lively, at-loose, God has been at work creating something new, disturbing what has grown old, and tearing down all in me, all in us, all in the church, all in the world that slows our steps in following the baptized, crucified, and resurrected Jesus.
(at the font) If all that is true, if God tore open the heavens at Jesus’ baptism and tears into us in ours, if God is on the loose, then maybe we should find a closet to store this beautifully, hand crafted font before the at-loose God gets hold of us. Better yet, maybe it is time to fill a container with water near the entrance to our homes, a front and center reminder that in baptism you and I are the cleansed and claimed children of the at-loose God.
(splashing the baptismal waters) Remember your baptism! Remember, that our God is on the loose!