Down to the Water

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | January 8, 2023

Matthew 3:13-17

Baptism changed the course of my life journey; literally. Twenty years ago, it was time to move on. There was no sense of finding greener pastures. Just the sense that it was time to follow the Spirit’s call to the next place. Conversations about baptism determined the outcome.

There was a church in an east coast city that expressed an interest in talking to me, so we set up a phone interview. It was a big church, a big steeple church; a big staff of people working there. It was a church known in the city for its music and arts. The sort of place that represented the top rung of the minister’s ladder.

Soon into the conversation, I realized it was not my kind of church. One fellow asked the question, “You live in Minnesota. What do you know about the east coast?” How does one answer a question like that?

“Well, it all started back in 1492. Although evidence has emerged that the Vikings arrived much earlier. And of course, there were already people living there at the time. But over time….”

I asked them a question: “Suppose there was a request for a baptism and the parents happened to be a same sex couple. How do you think folks in your church would respond?”

There was a moment of silence. It was hard to tell over the phone whether or not it was an awkward silence. One person answered, “We would like to think that they would be welcome here; but honestly, the subject has never come up.”  

We ended the conversation in mutual agreement that both of us would seek more suitable outcomes for our search.

The other conversation was a face to face interview in Glasgow. No one asked what I knew about Scotland. Though one fellow wanted to know if I played golf. The question they asked about baptism was this: “What would you do if a seventeen-year-old single mum asked you to baptize her baby?”

I said, “In the worship service when I baptized the baby, I would ask the congregation, ‘Who will stand with this mother and child?’”

That’s where the journey led; because of baptism.

When Jesus was baptized, he had to answer a question. He presented himself to John the Baptist, but John said, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?” The story has Jesus saying, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ On the face of it, we might wonder what that means.

Basically, Jesus is saying, “Don’t start imposing rules. It’s the right thing to do.”

In our Presbyterian system we have a set of rules and guidelines that direct our polity and worship. We like to do things decently and in order. Our guidebook is even called, “The Book of Order.” When I first read the Book of Order, I knew that here was a system that speaks my language. We are not an anarchy or a dictatorship. We Presbyterians are an orderly democracy. In theory at least.

One of the early church conflicts I had to manage involved baptism. The book of order states that parents presenting a child for baptism must meet with the session. Someone thought this was to determine the worthiness of their child. They didn’t like that, so they withdrew the request. Word circulated that the church was refusing a baptism. It was a missed opportunity. After that, I tried not to miss any other opportunities. Some things are difficult to quantify, that is, to put into a neat and orderly framework. That’s when I try to come down on the side of decency.

Why did Jesus need to be baptized? Theologians have answered in many ways. I try to keep it simple by understanding that in bringing our children or ourselves to be baptized we are following the example of Jesus. He was baptized. It was his way of reminding us, “I am with you.”

We sometimes refer to baptism as Christening. As a “Christ-ining” it is a reminder that Christ is with us all.

When Jesus was baptized, as he came up out of the water, he saw the Spirit of God and he described it like a dove fluttering down and landing on him. It was an image of peace and hope.

He heard the voice of God speaking to him. God said, “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

That was the message he took forward. He taught it, he lived it, he died because of it and God raised him from the dead to prove it. That is the message we share any time someone is baptized. 

I soon learned why a question about baptizing a baby was so important to people. Traditionally, ministers had been making it difficult for people wanting a baptism. It’s as if they were the disciples of Jesus who were telling the children to get lost. As if him saying, “Do not prevent them from coming to me,” were meant for someone else.

People would ask, “What do I need to do in order to have my wean baptized?” My response was generally, “The service starts at 11:00. Make sure you get here on time.”

We had to place limits on no more than three families on a Sunday, otherwise there would no room for everyone who wanted to be there.

After the service, people would hold a huge celebration for all their friends and family. Usually at the party room of one of the local pubs, it would go on all day and into the evening. A grand banquet with food, drink and dancing. All because a baby was baptized.

How could someone possibly say no to that? Unfortunately, there were those who said, “no” time and time again. There were even some folks in my own church who grumbled about the crowds. They were unruly; yes, they certainly could be that. They didn’t know how to behave in church. True, as on the Sunday when we passed the plate and some folks thought the offering packets were chocolates being handed out.

Oh, and the way those women would dress. This came from the folks who remembered the days when women wore hats and gloves to church. Well, these visitors for a baptism wore hats and gloves too. Only it was as if they were on their way to a night out on the town; leaving little to the imagination. I told one of our stalwarts, “You’re right about that. Do you ever notice that during a baptism how I try to just keep looking at the baby?”

One Sunday, a number of folks showed up to the worship service wearing plastic flip-flops. Some of them were wearing track suits. This was because we would always recite a statement of belief and they asked that their favorite statement be said on the day. It goes like this:

“God is good, God is love, and God wants fairness and justice for each and for all.

I believe the Spirit of God filled Jesus of Nazareth, who in humble strength came to announce good news to the destitute, hungry, and forgotten; he announces freedom for captives of war and addictions, he delivers restoration of sight to those blind in body and soul, and he wins liberty with justice to all who are oppressed.

He is for all people, whether clothed in fine raiment or wearing track suits and flip-flops.

He lived among us, making it clear, once and for all, that the new day of God’s good salvation has arrived.

God is good, God is love and God is like Christ Jesus.

Into this faith I have been liberated.

This I do believe; so help me God.”

Jesus lived out the meaning of his baptism by sharing it with everyone who was willing to receive it. He had harsh words for those who would prevent others from receiving God’s message of unconditional love. When his followers tried to keep parents away who wanted Jesus to bless their children, he said, “If you want to understand what it means to be my follower, then become like these children.”

He also said, “If you would put a stumbling block in the path of one of these little ones, then it would be better for you to put a millstone around your neck and jump into the lake.”

Perhaps you were baptized at an age that you remember it. Perhaps you were a baby and you don’t remember it. But think back to that moment, whenever it was. Like Jesus, the water touched you and that was a sign of God’s blessing. The minister said some words of blessing.

Think back to that moment in time and hear these words of baptismal blessing now:

“Children of God, beloved of God, in all your journeys and becomings, all your changes and challenges, all doings and undoings and unknowings, the Blessing of God embraces you, the Delight of God accompanies you. All that is holy and strong in you cannot change or be taken; it is eternal. Your wholeness is unfolding. Each day is a newness, a birth, each challenge a chance to learn. May you be well and whole and a blessing to this world. Heaven travels with you.” Amen.

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