Baptismal Sermon: May 10, 2015
Do you remember your baptism?
Mine was February 7th 1971 in St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Henryetta, Oklahoma. My baptism was special for that faith community because mine was the first baptism in their new church building. The priest, Father Bartnick, decided to baptize me during the service, instead of afterwards which was the custom. They moved the wooden baptismal font from the back left of the church and put it right up front next to the altar. I did not wear a traditional white christening gown, but a pale blue outfit. I was also sporting a cast on my broken left leg, the outward and visible sign of my brother dropping me.
My parents and Godparents were gathered around the font and my Godmother Sharla held me while the priest poured water on my head. I did not cry, but was quiet, as if I knew I needed this spiritual cleansing. The priest anointed my head with holy oil and handed my lit baptismal candle to Joe, my Godfather. My blue outfit was then covered as they draped a white chasuble over me; it had a red cross in the center. After Mass, everyone went to the Patty Ann restaurant for lunch to celebrate my first sacrament.
I can’t actually remember my baptismal day; I was only 6 weeks old. I only know the story because my parents told me. Yes, there are a few faded pictures, but it’s the telling of the story and living into the story that keeps it alive.
American theologian and Methodist Bishop Will Willimon writes about baptism, “Becoming Christian is something done to us and for us, before it is anything done by us.” As an infant, I was a passive recipient. Someone had to hold me. Someone had to pour upon me, in the name of the Holy Trinity, the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.Someone had to teach me that through the waters of baptism we die in Christ and rise into the new life of resurrection. Becoming Christian, having been done to me and for me, required a community to model for me what it meant to be adopted as a child of God and how to live and grow into my faith as a full member of Christ’s Body.
The idea of the sacramental act of adoption being done to us and for us before it is anything done by us really resonates with me. I can’t help but compare it to the adoption of my daughter Lucy and how she became a full member of my family.
Like with baptism, depending on the age, there are times when adoption is mutually agreed upon and there are other times when the one being adopted is too young to say yes to it. Lucy, who came to be a member of my family when she was 7 months old, was just a passive recipient. She was too young to say if she was committed to being a member of our family or not.
In the legalistic world, Lucy became our daughter on August 20th, 2007; the day Tricia and I signed the paperwork,… the day our signatures became an outward and visible sign of earthly adoption. On that day we made a commitment to Lucy, to do all in our power to guide her, to provide for her what she needed in life, and to love her no matter what.
For Lucy, Adoption Day was different. She did not sign any papers...she didn’t make any commitments to us…she was just along for the ride.
Just like it takes time to mature into and fully claim God’s adoption of us, Lucy’s commitment to being a member of the Woodliff family took time. In a life that is not easy and pain free, wholehearted trust requires a consistency of experiences and from a multitude of people. Lucy’s circle of trust formation is a tribe of people; a congregation made up of many doctors, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, behavioral therapists, teachers, brothers, grandparents, Godparents, God Grandparents, extended family, friends and many more.
Lucy became a member of our family through the stroke of a pen, but we continue to become her family through a holy Body of people; people who guide her, mold her, and push her to thrive. Her understanding of family comes from those who pick her up when she falls, wipe away her tears, hug her unconditionally, and love her no matter what. Lucy became a Woodliff, not just from what we could give her ourselves, but through us providing her a community where she could journey in life, a place where she could feel safe, a place where she could be a part of the story in order to experience the belonging necessary to grow into her unique image of God.
To me, this sounds a lot like Church.
This sounds like the Body of Christ.
In today’s reading from Acts, God taught Peter a thing or two about the baptism of adoption, and who is worthy to claim the title of Child of God.
Peter’s mind, his way of thinking, was stuck in a nice little box. In Peter’s mind, the only way to be Christian was to be just like him. You could not be baptized and adopted as Christ’s own unless you first became a Jew. They had to follow Jewish laws, they had to eat like a Jew, dress like Jew, wash like a Jew, and be circumcised like a Jew. And since Jews could only hang out with other Jews, clean upstanding Jews, this really restricted Jesus’ commandment to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
For this new community of Christ to thrive, God needed Peter to pull his head out of his box. Peter needed and see beyond outdated rules and beyond his own prejudices. In the Book of Acts, just prior to today’s reading, God gave Peter a vision which opened his heart to a new understanding of the way God sees humanity. In this vision, God instructs Peter to go be with a large group of Gentiles from Caesarea.
When he gets there, Peter says to them, "You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” God opened Peter’s heart that he should not call anyone profane or unclean. This is huge! This is a game changer…no longer is anyone to be seen as unworthy and an outcast. Peter is now to see those he encounters, not as profane, but as sacred.
The day before, Peter would not have given these Gentiles the time of day. They did not belong in the Church,… but God works beyond our comprehension and shows us that we should not exclude anyone by defining them as profane or unclean. It was through God’s new instruction that the Gospel of Jesus Christ became alive for Peter. And as he removed the Good News from his suffocating legalist box, the Holy Spirit fell upon them and Peter ordered that the Gentiles be baptized.
For some of us, God’s new instruction about who is worthy to be baptized into the Body of Christ is reassuring in our understanding of the Gospel. However, some of us struggle with not seeing certain groups of people as profane and unclean, so this new instruction might be a real challenge. The Good News for all of us is that each of our baptisms, each of our adoptions into Christ’s Body stands unconditionally. And the best news is that being adopted by God means we are never alone in our struggles; we are never alone in our growing pains as together in community, we embrace the lifelong learning process of trusting and claiming our adoption into God.
In a moment, we will stand together with parents: Hal and Christine, and Godparents: Monica, Shannon, and John, as they present their daughter and Goddaughter, Mikaela, for the sacrament of Holy Baptism.
Through the life sustaining water we are celebrating Mikaela’s Adoption in Christ, the outward and visible sign of belonging to the holy family of God. Celebrating this outward and visible sign of belonging is serious business which requires nurturing and support. A loving family would never throw someone in a lake and tell them to sink or swim. We, as a loving family in Christ, can’t just throw Mikaela into the deep end of the waters of Baptism.
We wade in the water. We walk with each other into the flowing, ever changing understandings and challenges in our life of faith. Walking with someone through their growing ownership of baptism requires patience, courage, vulnerability, stamina, and the ability to not put God in a box. Walking through life in baptism requires us to see the sacredness of God’s diverse image in all people.
Not only will Mikaela’s parents and Godparents vow to walk with her in her baptism, all of us gathered will be asked to do the same. When asked to support her, your answer as the congregations is “We Will”. When we boldly say we will support Mikaela in her life in Christ, we are not only saying it for her, we are also reaffirming that we support all Christians. We are saying “We Will” for those we have baptized right here at this font and we are saying it just as equally for others who were baptized somewhere else and have come to St. Paul’s to walk their Christian path within this community of faith.
This is risky business, however our trust in God can only grow when we share and live into each other’s baptismal stories. With God’s help, may we be up to the challenge of supporting and loving one another as Christ loves us.