Sunday, January 9, 2011

Getting Wet

Getting Wet

A Communion Meditation

Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Baptism of the Lord: January 9, 2011

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan

to be baptized by him.

I have prepared a sermon for you this morning. And inasmuch as this is the Sunday of the year when we recall Jesus’ baptism by John, I am going to deliver the sermon I have prepared. But also, inasmuch as I learned late yesterday, as did many of you, of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 17 other people, resulting in the immediate deaths of 6 – including a nine year-old girl – at a sidewalk meeting outside a grocery store in Tucson, I am not going to stop with the closing words of my sermon. As I tried to make sense of what took place yesterday, I happened upon an article written after the tragedy, by The Rev. Dr. Diana Butler Bass for an online magazine called Beliefnet, which I plan to read for you when I conclude the sermon I have written. I found Dr. Bass’s words very much on point both for a Sunday celebrating the baptism of Jesus, and an extraordinary day when events call us to take a hard look at who we are as a nation on this particular day in our history.

So … in Matthew 3 we have what at least one scholar has described as the “first anomaly in Jesus’ ministry [which] is but a foretaste of the great absurdity to come: that the Son of God will suffer and die on the cross to accomplish salvation.”1 For what must be significant reasons, the gospels all report that sinless Jesus sought John’s baptism, which Matthew reports was “for the remission of sins.” Jesus no more needed sins remitted than he deserved the punishment of execution on a cross, but he submitted to both in order to take on humanity fully, not out of necessity but out of obedience.

Even if we don’t know or appreciate the things Robert Fulghum has written, we’d still have to admire the unique titles he chooses for his best-selling books, the first of which, in my memory, was All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. One of his stories from a subsequent book, carrying the promisingly enigmatic title, Uh-Oh, stays in my mind.2 It involves an elementary school class, the annual springtime class play, and a singular individual in the class, named Norman.

The teacher announced one morning that the play she had chosen for the class members to perform was Cinderella. The usual chaos ensued, every hand went up, waving madly, as all the students fell to begging for an important part. The girls all wanted to be Cinderella, the boys wanted to be the handsome prince. Naturally, not everyone could play those parts, so the teacher made other parts, like the ugly stepsisters and the king and the members of the royal court, seem sufficiently attractive that the children accepted them willingly. After assigning all the usual parts, and some she had created from her own fertile imagination, there remained one quiet boy without a part.

With no additional suggestion left in mind, the teacher asked a dangerous question: “Norman, what character would you like to play?”

Norman answered without hesitation. “I’d like to be the pig.”

“Pig?” responded his stunned teacher. “But there is no pig in Cinderella!”

Norman smiled. “There is now.”

And sure enough, there was. And the pig became the hit of the show. The rest of the story is pretty cute too, but I am just sticking with the idea of a pig in the Cinderella story for the moment.

I had an old seminary professor who used to say that the church is meant to be a safe-house for sinners, but that bringing sinners into the church – which means all of us – is like bringing a pig into a fancy parlor. It’s not the pig that gets changed. It’s the parlor that is changed, of course. The arrival of a sinless Savior to receive the baptism of John is like a parallel truth. Bring a sinless Messiah into the world and it’s not the Messiah that gets changed. It’s the world.

The people who were coming to John at the Jordan to be baptized were seeking a baptism, as Matthew says, “for the remission of sins.” They wanted to be part of the redeemed people of Israel, but when they thought about it, redeemed people all looked to them like Cinderella or Prince Charming, and when they saw themselves reflected in the mirrors of their hearts, what they saw were pigs. So they came to John, hoping somehow to rejoin the chosen people on an equal footing by baptism.

It turns out that since the Messiah came, there are no pigs among the people of God. No matter who we are or what we have done, there is a path blazed by one who was sinless, giving us access to the throne of God, the kingdom of heaven.

On the ecclesiastical calendar, today is called “The Baptism of the Lord.” It is a day meant to be remembered on this day every year, the first Sunday after the day of Epiphany on January 6. It is scheduled every year because it is so important to remember that we are baptized people. Baptism is not just a sweet little ceremony occasionally performed in worship. It is meant to be a remembrance of the dying Savior who came that we might all know the promise of new life. Jesus invites us to reflect that we are baptized, and be glad. In him we are a royal priesthood, lived out in his call to humble service.

As you exit the sanctuary this morning, you might want to think about going out by the side doors so you can pass by the baptismal font up here. I invite you to do just that, if you like, to touch the water and remember that you are baptized, cleansed by the one who knew no uncleanness. Remember you, like Jesus, are baptized. And be glad!

And be glad? Those were the words with which I planned to end my sermon. But yesterday’s events in Arizona caused me to rethink leaving things there, and the following words from Dr. Diana Butler Bass seemed to me to provide help in sorting out the kind of baptism to which we are called as modern American Christian people:

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords: Speaking for the Soul

by Diana Butler Bass


Saturday January 8, 2011

The Sunday after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, my husband’s family attended their Presbyterian church. They went with heavy hearts, expecting the pastor to help make sense of the tragedy. The minister rose to preach. The congregation held its breath. But he said nothing of the events in Memphis. He preached as if nothing had happened.

My husband’s family left church that day disappointed; eventually, they left that church altogether.

This Sunday, many Americans will go to church. A sizeable number of those people may be hoping to hear something that helps them make sense of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the others who had gathered at her sidewalk townhall in Tucson. Some pastors may note the event in prayer and some may say something during announcements or add a sentence to their sermons. But others might say nothing, sticking instead to prepared texts and liturgies. Many will eschew speaking of politics.

That would be a mistake.

Much of American public commentary takes place on television, via the Internet, and through social networks. We already know what form the analysis of the assassination attempt will be. Everyone will say what a tragedy it is. Then commentators will take sides. Those on the left will blame the Tea Party’s violent rhetoric and “Second Amendment solutions.” Those on the right will blame irresponsible individuals and Socialism. Progressives will call for more gun control; conservatives will say more people should carry guns. Everyone will have some sort of spin that benefits their party, their platform, and their policies.

But who will speak of the soul?

Since President Obama has taken office, many ministers have told me that they have feared addressing public issues from the pulpit lest “someone get hurt.” Well, someone is hurt--and people have died--most likely because bitterly partisan lies have filled the air and most certainly because some unhinged individual killed people.

At their best, American pulpits are not about taking sides and blaming. Those pulpits should be places to reflect on theology and life, on the Word and our words. I hope that sermons tomorrow will go beyond expressions of sympathy or calls for civility and niceness. Right now, we need some sustained spiritual reflection on how badly we have behaved in recent years as Americans--how much we’ve allowed fear to motivate our politics, how cruel we’ve allowed our discourse to become, how little we’ve listened, how much we’ve dehumanized public servants, how much we hate.

Sunday January 9 is the day on which many Christians celebrate the Baptism of Jesus: “When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” Jesus’ baptism in water symbolizes life, the newness that comes of cleansing. But there is a darker symbol of baptism in American history: that of blood. In 1862, Episcopal bishop Stephen Elliot of Georgia said, “All nations which come into existence… must be born amid the storm of revolution and must win their way to a place in history through the baptism of blood.” Baptism as water? Baptism as blood? Baptism accompanied by a dove or baptism accompanied by the storm of revolution?

American Christianity is deeply conflicted, caught between two powerful symbols of baptism, symbols that haunt our political sub-consciousness. To which baptism are we called? Which baptism does the world most need today? Which baptism truly heals? Do we need the water of God, or the blood of a nine-year old laying on a street in Tucson? The answer is profoundly and simply obvious. We need redemption gushing from the rivers of God’s love, not that of blood-soaked sidewalks. If we don’t speak for the soul, our silence will surely aid evil.


Diana Butler Bass holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Duke University and is the author of A People’s History of Christianity: the Other Side of the Story (HarperOne, 2009), and the best-selling Christianity for the Rest of Us (HarperOne, 2006).

1 Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Advent-Epiphany, Marion Soards, et. al., Abingdon, 1992, p. 106.

2 Uh-Oh, by Robert Fulghum, Ballantine Books, 1991.