What a gift to come back from vacation, and find that the gospel has already been preached in this service — from Caleb’s baptism, to Will’s baby dedication, to a testimony from one of our summer ministry interns, Cassie Starnes, whose ministry has meant so much to us. Some of you might have been thinking what I was thinking — remembering that Cassie was dedicated in this church as a baby like Will, and baptized in this church as a young believer like Caleb, and has grown in faith and following in the way of Jesus in the years since.
That can happen. We’re baptized, “buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life” — and sometimes, we actually do that: walk in newness of life, live in a different way, follow in the path of Jesus, immerse ourselves in the life of God.
Our Presbyterian siblings in faith practice baptism as a blessing and seal on the life of a baby, making many of the promises we made today in our baby dedication, raising that child in love and faith, and encouraging them as they decide to confirm that faith as their own later in life. It’s a similar process of discipleship, but the water’s in a different place. The longtime Presbyterian minister, Rev. John Buchanan, who served for many years at Fourth Prebyterian Church of Chicago, was once leading such a baptism for a little boy. The child was baptized with water, and Rev. Buchanan put his hand on the little boy’s head, and used the words of the Prebyterian prayer book: “You are a child of God, you are sealed by the Spirit, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.” And as he finished the pronouncement, the little boy looked up and responded: “Uh-oh!” (1)
A hilarious reflexive moment of childhood honesty, and also a stunning theological and liturgical affirmation. Whatever our age, this might just be the way to approach the waters of baptism.
In our newsletter this month, I share about one of the most powerful baptisms I have ever witnessed. The summer after my first year of college, I worked for an organization that sponsored mission experiences for youth groups in Appalachia. I was one of four young adults on a team, and I was given the keys to an old, donated pickup truck, and with the key given the charge to drive amidst the hills and hollers, meeting people, getting to know the community, looking for potential sites for painting light home repair. In the course of this, I met a local minister, Pastor John, who became a friend and resource for our group. Many Sunday mornings, I’d drive the old truck to the Harmony Holiness Church, where I’d increase attendance by 5-10 percent, depending on the Sunday.
It was baptism Sunday one week. But the clapboard church had no indoor baptistery, so baptisms were held at the local rock quarry after Sunday services. I went along and joined the congregation gathered on the shore, watching as people were lifted up out of the water by their larger than life holiness preacher, and also by the strength of the promise that they were raised to walk in newness of life. We held towels for those coming back to the shore. We sang hymns, “Take me to the water…” It was a powerful scene. One by one people stepped into the water for baptism, and as they did I noticed they passed a sign on the shore. White aluminum, red letters: “Swim at your own risk.”
I’ve never forgotten that. Because that’s the invitation into these waters — the invitation into this life.
I think about that rock quarry baptism every year around this time, as we at First Baptist Greensboro prepare for our annual outdoor baptism, coming up next Sunday. But most of the time, we baptize indoors. We have a pool. We have a robing room. We have a team of faithful volunteers who host and attend to every need. We’re able to control the temperature of the water. This morning, I was reading over my sermon when I was alerted to the fact that our heater had run too long, and the temperature of the water was too hot, so the pool had to be partially drained and filled back up. That’s how baptism Sundays begin around here, ensuring that the water is not too cold, not too hot, but a tolerable tepid or at least lukewarm.
It’s a gift to have this space, that allows us all to gather, to bear witness to the story of our faith told in the life of a believer, to be able to stand and offer our affirmation collectively as we did for Caleb. We don’t need to hold baptism outside to know its power. But we do need to ask ourselves if there are other parts of our faith that we’ve brought indoors. What parts of the Jesus way have we controlled? Domesticated? Insulated? Has it become too safe? Have we grown too comfortable with the conditions and the temperature? Have we settled for lukewarm?
Jesus was baptized outdoors, of course. Not just in any water, but in a river that was moving and flowing. Not just in any setting, but out in the wilderness — not in the center, but out on the edges, where people gather to imagine the world anew. And it wasn’t just any baptizer, but John. Later, in Acts, Peter will preach to new believers that Jesus was baptized in “the baptism preached by John.” And the baptism John preached was a baptism of repentance, and radical renewal. A baptism that recognizes that everything has changed, life can never be the same. Jesus was immersed in that baptism in that space, and up from the water he learned that it’s what God intended for him all along: “I am pleased in you,” the voice from above said, “My son. My beloved.”
In our summer book read, Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen says this word, “beloved,” became for Jesus like a golden thread that followed him all the remaining days of his life and ministry.
The word forms the title for one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read — Belovedby Toni Morrison. Morrison, the Nobel prize winning author, passed away this week. She was once called the conscience of our nation, especially for her strength in narrating honestly the experience of people of color, particularly Black Americans, through books like The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Beloved.
The book includes memories of slavery and oppression, as the central character Sethe, recalls the tragic death of her young child. At the funeral, she had heard the preacher say “Dearly Beloved,” and she believed that word was for her baby. She claimed that for her own child. So, given space for only 7 letters on a tombstone, Sethe has BELOVED carved into the stone for her child.
That word is etched into every life, and especially into those where the world can’t see it or won’t acknowledge it. And it’s not a word to be insulated, or controlled, or kept inside. It was also Toni Morrison who said that it is the responsibility of those who are liberated to liberate. It is the call of those who have been immersed in the transformative love of God, to make sure that love is known fully by others.
This past week, I was texting with our friend and former Pastoral Resident, Rev. Courtney Stamey. Courtney is the Senior Pastor of Northside Baptist Church in Clinton, MS, and we were talking about how last Sunday, she was leading her first baptism at Northside. Pastor Courtney, whose ministry so clearly helps people hear the call “beloved” in their lives, was able to echo that call in those waters, celebrate that moment with her congregation, figure out the mechanics and logistics of it all for the first time, and we texted some about all of that and the joy of that moment.
But it was a few days later that our texts took a different turn. Northside Baptist is in Clinton, Mississippi, I mentioned. And that’s about 30 miles one direction and 40 the other from the sites of the mass arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement this week, which affected hundreds of immigrant families. Understand, we do not assume everyone in this church is of the same mind on immigration response or reform. But we do pursue the same mind of Christ towards the vulnerable. We seek the same compassion for the suffering. And Courtney’s church, which is very similar to ours, is seeking the same. In a short time, they’ve become the hub for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s efforts to provide some relief and care for those affected, working with others in their community to care directly for 120 families.
Pastor Courtney had just been celebrating a baptism. And within days, she is caring for the vulnerable, navigating the complexities and tensions and crises of this world with the way of Christ, trying to hold people together across their differences to share in a common work of love and compassion. How does that happen? Courtney had an answer in a letter she wrote to the congregation: “It is love from, for, and in response to Christ that unites us. It is the love that we have known that compels us to love another in suffering.”
Said another way, that is exactly where baptism leads. That’s where it led Jesus. In Luke’s version of the story, immediately the Spirit pushes him out into the wilderness, with all its temptations to be other than he is. And yet he remembers what God called him in the waters, so he emerges from that wilderness set on a path to ensure that others know that love, too.
At his first stop, back home in Nazareth, he stands at the front of the synagogue and proclaims what his ministry will be about: “Good news to the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim this as the year of the Lord’s favor.” And if you follow Jesus into the waters, this is where baptism leads for you, too.
But it can happen. We’re immersed in the life of God. We hear the word “beloved” proclaimed from a wide open sky. And everything is different. We are changed. We emerge to walk in the newness of life, to live in a different way, to follow in the path of Jesus. And all that we experience in the water starts flowing out of our very lives. We can never be the same.
In other words: swim at your own risk.
- John Buchannan, “Beginnings and Endings,” The Christian Century (Jan 25, 2012).