Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Claim on This Side

Mark 1: 4-11

Baptism of the Lord
Preached January 15, 2012, in the Center Moreland Charge

There was a time when I believed that when I was baptized, God would save me from my sins. There was a time when I believed that to be baptized meant that God would reach down into my heart and change me, take away the things about me that caused me to hurt people; that caused me to judge. Being baptized, becoming a Christian, was going to bring me God’s intended partner for my life. Baptism was going to help me lose weight. Baptism would help me get a good job, because I was obviously now one of Christ’s’ own.

So I asked to be dunked in a backyard above-ground pool by a pastor of an independent church in Napa, CA, in 1991.

And almost immediately wondered if I’d made a mistake.

The church that I had joined was in many ways a good group of people. Many of them had a good heart and helped me out greatly in a difficult time in my life.

But they were a church that I quickly found out was on the opposite side of many of the issues of that day from me. And, stubborn as I am, I did not accept the teaching of the leaders as higher than the feelings of my own heart. I knew that the people they told me were going to hell were good people, and I loved them. They embraced the world, embraced creativity, and honed the gifts they had been given, in contrast with the people who I had now thrown my lot in with, many of whom saw the world as dangerous and evil, and any gift given by God was either to be used by God in church or was not really a gift.

So now I was in conflict. I believed in my baptism, but by becoming associated with the baptized, at least these baptized, I was setting myself up in opposition to all whom I’d known before, all that I’d known before. And while it’s true that becoming a Christian in many stories is the story of beginning to reject the evil powers around us and becoming better, in this case I began to feel the reverse was true. My baptism had put me on the wrong side of my heart, and I was beginning to think my baptism had put me on the wrong side of God.

There were quite a few life events immediately after the day of my baptism, and within a few months, I had moved away from Napa and back to Delaware. I was in crisis, wondering if my baptism was valid, and it was in that frame of mind that I followed a friends’ advice and checked out the Methodist Campus ministry at Delaware, where I was soon to resume my studies.

Ahhhh. Here were people who were not afraid of gray. Here were people who lived in the tension of not always knowing immediately what God wanted, and were willing to study, pray and listen until God’s will became clear. And here were people who said to me that even though I was not the kind of Christian of whom had baptized me, my baptism was nonetheless valid, and I was still one of God’s children.

Here was a place for me to grow, explore, and change, a place where the Word could be discussed rather than dictated, and the simple reasonable pleasures of life were not always tests of one’s commitment to God.

It was in that environment that I began to wonder about God’s call on my life, the leading of the divine, and my eventually being encouraged by my peers and the campus minister to explore seminary.

There was a time when I thought baptism was going to change me. And it turned out that I was right. I just was wrong about how, and in what ways. Baptism didn’t help me to lose weight. But it did put me in a situation where I was able to find my life’s partner, and the mother of my son. It did set me on a track toward a vocation of service to God. If you want to say that baptism brought me a wife and a good job, though, that sounds a little incomplete, a little shallow. I would say that baptism has brought me my life. It wasn’t instant, and it wasn’t easy, the journey from there to here has been painful at times as well as joyful, but I do not think my life would have been as rich or as full, or would have taught me as much, had I not been dunked in the above ground pool back in 1991.

Baptism is the one unifying symbol of one’s status as a Christian. Catholics baptize as infants, Baptists baptize as adults; there ware many ways to understand baptism, many way to perform the ritual. But the symbolism is universal, Egyptian Coptic, Guatemalan born-again, Italian Catholic, Alabama Baptist or Pennsylvania Methodist: We are marked as Christ’s own, we are claimed by God and the people around us as a child of God.

It is such an important symbol to the people around us that Jesus even demanded baptism from John for the visible symbol it represented to those around him, and even though John was reluctant, it was done.

What does your baptism mean to you? Are you baptized? If you aren’t please come talk to me after the service if you feel moved, and we can discuss how and when and why. If you are baptized, what does it mean to you? I would encourage you to think about it as more that just your ticket to heaven, your safe passage to what’s next. Baptism is the mark of God’s claim on this life, too. What does that mean for you, to have God’s claim on your life on this side of death?

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