Baptism Stories

Mieke Vandersall
Matthew 3:13-17
Not So Churchy
June 15, 2015 


Matthew 3:13-17 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

I have some very exciting news for us, and that news is that our sister Hannah has come requesting to be baptized. Basically Hannah tells the story that she fell through the cracks of baptism when she was a kid. Her first brother was, but then life happened and, well, her parents just didn’t get around to baptizing Hannah. And so we have the deep joy of baptizing her in partnership with her other spiritual communities: St. Lydia’s and Parables. We will spend some time over these next many months, as Hannah will be spending time as well, formulating what we think of baptism, so that when she is baptized, we will all be transformed.

I have realized that we conveniently have not spoken much or experienced much with baptism here at Not So Churchy. It isn’t an intentional oversight, really, other than it seems like such a huge topic that I never knew how to broach it before Hannah gave us this opportunity. Although we take communion every week, as well, we haven’t talked much about what that means either. The beauty of that is that there is power in doing something again and again, and the power comes through repetition, practice, after coming back over and over. Repetition can be powerful. It is something I have learned in my martial arts practice, that the same movements have to be practiced repeatedly, and perhaps only after the 500th time do I feel like my body moves seamlessly and powerfully and I “get it,” and then of course it may take 500 more times before that happens again. Repetition is where it is at.

The hard part about baptism, is that it isn’t something we do every month. Generally speaking baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and many of us are baptized as babies, so we don’t remember it. Baptism has meanings that are vastly different throughout the Christian tradition. The tradition I come from does not believe that baptism has anything to do with salvation or with protection, but that doesn’t mean that others don’t believe this. In asking my non-religious wife this morning if she remembers her baptism she said that no, she didn’t. I asked what she thinks about it and she said that it didn’t hurt anything so why not? She thought maybe it gave her a protective spell somehow or another, to keep some of the bad stuff away. Now, granted, this comes from a woman who upon meeting me was frustrated that I wouldn’t rebaptize her because she wanted presents and a new set of godparents. She for sure keeps me from taking myself too seriously.

I appreciate her candidness, and the fact that she has only a little wiggle room of when I choose to share stories about her.

Baptism is one of two Sacraments in the Protestant Church, and Communion is the other. I could go into why we have two and Catholics have seven, but perhaps that is a story for another day.

According to one of my favorite theologians Fredrick Buechner, “a sacrament is when something holy happens. It is transparent time, time you can see through to something deep inside time.”

I would say that is the case I have often had with Communion, that in the sharing of this meal of simple gluten free bread and homemade grape juice, and strangely calling it a feast, I can see through to something deep inside time. It is a liminal time, it isn’t 100% definable but can really only be experienced.

The same is true with baptism. To be completely honest with you I don’t have all the words I would like to explore baptism with you today. There are moments that I get it—when I actually do perform a baptism and time seems to be suspended, but I don’t have a lot of words to try and convince you of its power. All I know is what I have experienced, that there is great power in connecting people and communities to generations and generations in this way. I have been taught that baptism is an outward sign of an inward grace and I believe those are beautiful words. Fredrick Buechner says that in watching a baptism “you are apt to catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life.” I think it is all true. And yet there is something that I can’t put my finger on. But in these next months, Hannah will begin to put more words together around what this means to her and we will as well, and the result will be us gathering around a bunch of water to play in and to remind us of how much we are beloved.

In our reading today we experience Jesus’ baptism in the story that the author of Matthew writes. The word “baptism” literally means to plunge, immerse, wash. It was used as a general noun, in addition to connect us with Jewish and pagan traditions of cleansing and purification. Tonight we encounter a Jesus who is at the beginning of his public career, and that beginning presents him in a vulnerable and exposed place where his cousin John baptizes him. Perhaps he was experiencing a cleansing ritual to get him ready to go into the belly of the beast, to confront all the many powers that be, to protect him to go through a very hard life.  Perhaps this was written, you know many, many years after his death once baptism had become more of a Christian thing, to connect him with us. Or perhaps, in reality, we don’t really know why he was baptized in this place and time.

One commentary I read said something to the effect that the meaning of baptism for Jesus, and for John, and for others at that time has a very different meaning than baptism for us today, and God knows today there are so many different understandings. But the reality is that its meaning has changed over the years.

One thing that has stayed the same, is that there is power in it, and in water. Water can be healing and restorative. Certain water can renew your skin, and in the process of being in it, your spirit. Water can bring great joy when we play in it. Water cleanses us when we bathe in it and when we drink it. We need water to survive. Water can also be destructive. Waves can knock us off our feet and carry us undertow to our death. Violent firehoses can be used to stop us from demanding human rights. Hurricanes can destroy entire cities. Water, like everything else, requires moderation, and the reality is that we can’t live without it.

For Jesus, he comes to the Jordan after knowing that he was being hunted by King Herod. The writing of this book is setting it up for us to know that Jesus was a dangerous man, that his very presence was going to get him in terribly sticky and vulnerable situations, and we knew that he did not have long to live before the Roman government and collaborators from within the community found him and had him killed for the revolution he was staging. The chapters that this story today is embedded in are preparing us, and Jesus, for what is ahead. After his baptism he goes to the wilderness and is tempted. He proves that he can resist temptation, both that day and as the days go forward when he probably just wanted to bag it all and run away.

And so he comes to the Jordan requesting baptism, but it seems that this baptism is a bit different from the baptism of his Jewish and pagan heritage that informs that. I don’t know who was allowed to conduct the rites of baptism in the past but here John seems to think that Jesus is supposed to. Jesus turns it around though and said that John should do it, that this is even the right way to do it. It seems there are role reversals happening here and that they are probably quite political and revolutionary.

But then something happened that I don’t know if it ever happened before, and that is that God’s Spirit descended on him and lit him up, and some voice from heaven, God’s voice I am assuming, calls Jesus a Son, a child, a Beloved, one that is pleasing. I think this is an entirely different baptism than had happened before, this baptism presents a God who calls Jesus a beloved child, a Son, and God is the model of a parent, a parent though who is pleased and proud and speaks words so many of us long to hear from our own parents, that we are their beloved. Perhaps in the speaking of these words, the cleansing happens, and Jesus is ready to face the world.

Remember how I said last time that how we think of God is intimately tied up in how we think of ourselves, and our responsibility to others and the earth? Here we have a model of God as a parent that we can add to a God who seeks us out, a God who is frustrated by us and yet decides not to punish us, a God who is not far away, but dwells with us through this very Jesus who comes to be baptized, and through Wisdom, a co-creator, a strong woman who acts as God and with God, who emerges later as the same word used for Jesus.

Tonight we have a model of God as a parent, one who is proud and speaks with such gentle and simultaneously strong language about our own preciousness. If we really believed this, like deep down in our blood and guts, if we really did…then can we imagine a different world…I could.

Many of you know that in my previous life I started a community for those of us who were studying and attempting to be pastors who happened to be LGBTQ. When we started this community it was not legal for us to be ordained as pastors. When my friend Eily and I started this we put out the call to have a retreat for these amazing people, and we had no idea who would come. This is well over 10 years ago now. Surprisingly to us, people came from all over the country, the majority of whom were closeted, and scared for what might come before them. Many lived consistently in fear, many had no community like that which was gathered around the table. The very first night we sat around a circle as strangers and read this story. Each of our names was called and then we were told that we were God’s beloved. I would say: Paul, you are God’s Beloved, and then Paul would put a flower in a vase. Then I would say Mireya, with you, God is well pleased, and then Mireya would put a flower in the same vase, I would continue with Hannah, you are God’s Daughter, and then Hannah would put a flower in the same vase. And we continued around the room. It was one of those moments when time was suspended. I remember it clearly. It was a moment that we really believed it. That we knew we were claimed as God’s own, that there was nothing we could do better or even worse, for all we needed to do and be was ourselves, as hard as that could be. It was a moment that we remembered our baptism and couldn’t explain it so much but did know that with the common water that we would drink and bathe in, we would all be fed and cleansed. Those flowers needed water to live, they needed that water, and they shared it with each other, and so do we.

Baptism isn’t necessary for salvation, or for feeling claimed as God’s own. No one is better than another because they have been baptized. But I think that what baptism does do is serve us as a reminder of this God as a parent who far exceeds any way that our parents have parented us.

Beloved of God, I don’t have lots of definitions to share with you, just stories, just like we hear about the story Jesus had of being called God’s very own beloved. All I’ve got are stories. Maybe that is how it should be, though, because stories might be one of the few things that can communicate what happens in thin spaces, where you are “apt to catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life.”