Faith Presbyterian Church,
January 10, 2021
Water and Spirit
The first time I can remember
thinking about baptism,
I mean, really thinking about it –
I was sitting in Anderson Auditorium in Montreat, North Carolina.
I was maybe eight years old
tagging along to a conference for high schoolers
because my parents were youth advisors,
and I didn’t have much of a choice.
The memory is a little hazy, because I was so young,
but I think we were sitting on the right hand side of the aud, about halfway back.
The room was full,
and to my young eyes, it was like we were in the middle of a vast sea of people.
Worship was like magic, electric
when it happened with so many people in such a huge space.
There were two worship leaders, a man and a woman,
wearing brightly colored dashikis
And they were preaching about baptism.
I don’t remember the message really,
but I do remember what they did:
Carrying huge bowls of water
they walked up and down the long aisles,
they dipped palm branches into the bowls and waved them over the pews,
flinging water near and far, splashing our hair and faces and those old wooden pews, while crying out:
Remember your baptism! Remember! Remember your baptism!
The next day we had a free afternoon,
And went on an adventure at sliding rock,
A big slab of granite that formed
A natural waterslide in the middle of the Davidson River.
It’s no wonder, looking back on that day, as we slipped and slid down the rock
into the freezing pool of river water,
we shrieked, “Remember your baptism!”
as laughing, we splashed beneath the waves
and rose again,
sputtering, gasping for breath,
squeezing the icy drops from our hair,
flinging the water from our fingertips.
Remember your baptism!
I don’t, of course – remember my baptism, that is. Like many Presbyterians, I was baptized as a baby, with my parents making promises to raise me in the faith, the congregation pledging to support me, promises sealed by a sprinkle of water that grafted me into the body of Christ present at 900 Jordan Street in Shreveport, Louisiana.
The water on my forehead dried a long time ago; yours probably did, too. I’ve heard a recording of it, though, standing in my mother’s kitchen, words warbly on an old cassette tape. John Rogers, my pastor when I was a child, tells me words I’ve now said to countless others, “for you Jesus Christ came into the world, he did battle in the world, he suffered. For you he went through the agony of Gethsemane and the darkness of Calvary. For you he cried it is fulfilled, for you he triumphed over death. And the though you little child do not yet understand anything about this, thus is the promise of the apostle foretold: we love God, because God first loved us.”
Baptism begins the life of faith, a life lived in response to the love, grace, and goodness of God. In baptism, we are saved, named and claimed by God not because we are good, but because God is good. When I preach baptismal texts, I usually talk about the incredible grace of being named a child of God. Blessed and beloved. Precious and worthy of belonging. And we are – you are. It’s amazing. It’s good news.
But as you might guess, the events of this past Wednesday are weighing heavily on my heart this morning, and they change how I read and respond to this text. The white nationalist insurrection and violent invasion of the US Capitol building were horrifying, but they should not surprise us. The coals of that fire have been smoldering in this country for a long time, and the president and his colleagues have delighted in stoking it.
I keep turning over images from that day in my mind:
a gallows on the Capitol lawn,
confederate battle flags and guns carried by white men in animal skins and tactical gear,
their ability to infiltrate and desecrate the seat of our government, disrupting democracy, with fewer than forty people arrested in a day of destruction, death, and mayhem. Contrast that with the more than 350 arrested this summer during Black Lives Matter demonstrations in DC.
The mob in a frenzy, protesting the results of a free and fair election in part because of the growing enfranchisement, the voice and the vote of black and brown people.
Maybe the events of last Wednesday have left you sick or numb, overwhelmed or hopeless, furious and outraged, and questioning what we’re doing here if they can get away with that there. Maybe you need to hear today that you are a child of God, created in God’s image, blessed and beloved. Precious and worthy of belonging. So hear this: remember your baptism, and know that you are loved.
But what’s been on my mind this week is a promise we make as part of our baptismal vows. The Book of Common Worship puts it like this: Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?
John appears in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin – repentance lays the groundwork for Jesus’s ministry to begin.
For us too, baptism is just the beginning of the ongoing work faith: turning from the ways of sin, renouncing evil and its power in the world, taking up Christ’s ministry of healing, feeding, love, and justice. It’s why we confess our sin each week as part of worship: we name our common brokenness, and ask for the Spirit to enter in – the baptismal waters washing us with grace, and renewing us for the work of love and justice week after week– we turn and return, back to God, away from the ways of the world, saying no to the power of empire and yes to the power of God over and over.
We can’t know what the day was like when Jesus met John by the Jordan. I imagine it was hot, the sun beating down on the crowds that gathered to hear the baptizer preach, so hot that people were eager to splash down into the water when it was their turn. Can you see Jesus making his way through the crowd – politely, carefully walking down to the water’s edge? Picture him stooping down to unlace his sandals and take them off, setting them neatly side by side in the sand before stepping into the water.
Plenty of ink has been spilled by scholars trying to explain why Jesus needed to be baptized. He was without sin, after all, so why did he go to the river that day?
We can’t know for sure why he went.
If to repent means to turn around, maybe he was just reorienting himself, turning toward a new phase of public ministry. Maybe he was washing away his own self-doubt. Maybe he was reluctant to enter the fray of conflict with Rome and the Jewish leaders, and felt he needed to seek forgiveness. Maybe he came because he knew how hard it is to be a faithful human in the world. How hard it is to come up against the powers and principalities, to stand against the power of Empire, to confront the power of hate.
What we do know is that Jesus is there with the people:
with all the others who were going to be baptized by John.
He came to stand with sinners, to step into the same muddy waters as the rest of us.
And to show us how to swim.
Scripture tells us it happened like this: after he wades out to John. After he is plunged down beneath the green water. After he rises, gasping for breath, dripping, back into the sunlight. Before he makes his way back to the shore, the skies are opened. The heavens are torn apart, Mark says, and the Spirit descends like a dove upon Jesus.
He hears a voice… you are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.
Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch gospel says it like this: you’re my son. I’m proud of you.
Words every child longs to hear.
According to the gospel, the spirit came into him, and God was let loose in the world. Bringing forth his new life, new ministry. Empowering him to work wonders and challenge power and initiate God’s reign in the world. That same Spirit which remains with us, empowering and enabling us today.
There’s an old folk song called Healing River that I learned about a year ago. It’s a song Pete Seeger sang in Meridian, Mississippi in 1964 while giving concerts as part of the “Freedom Workshops.” These were classes to educate people about voter-registration requirements, part of the larger movement to win the vote for African Americans at that time. He was in the middle of a concert when he learned of three civil rights workers who had been killed and had to share that news from the stage. Healing River is the song he sang. We’ll sing it together at the end of worship.
In his memoir, Pete Seeger said, “The right to vote is the crucial thing. Better schools, jobs, and housing will flow from this. And, if we believe this is one country, the United States, then we must be concerned with a part of it which has for so long lagged behind the rest of the country. How long will it take?”
How long will it take? I don’t know. But I believe we are in a moment when the spirit of God is loose and at work in the world. Because it was out of chaos that the world was created. Out of the darkness of the womb that new life is born. Out of the waters of baptism that each one of us is called forth to the work of love and justice. So in the week ahead, try to remember your baptism. As you wash your hands. When you have a drink of water. Remember your baptism, and trust that the Spirit is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.
 Seeger, Pete, “Folksinger’s Field Report, August 5, 1964” in The Incompleat Folk Singer, quoted by Ken Bigger, on Sing Out! Blog, https://singout.org/2012/06/13/folksingers-field-report-august-5-1964/