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Baptism of the Lord Sunday – January 13, 2019
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Just down the road from my house, adjacent to a laundromat, there is a corner convenience store, the kind that sells gasoline and a little bit of everything inside at exorbitant prices, including colorfully constructed glass contraptions that are labeled in large block letters as TOBACCO PIPE, an obvious lie if I ever heard one.
From time to time when I stop there, to fill up my car or to get a snack or something to drink, I will see a man I do not know personally, a man around my age, standing near the cash registers scratching lottery tickets. When I see him, he is always wearing a an open black shirt with black trousers and black shoes, and as I see him, I can tell something about him that I suspect most people could not: that he is a priest. I know this because I have shirts like his, the black shirt has the short, narrow, standing collar that clergy shirts have, and the placket covering the buttons. I know he is a priest because I can see in his breast pocket the tip of the white clerical tab collar that he has removed to conceal, as much as possible, who he is.
In her book The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor writes in an essay about pastoral identity titled “Vocation.” In it, she describes how in many ways, pastoral identity intersects with the identity of the laity as baptized Christians. She writes, “I have often wondered whether the church would be even smaller than it is if that cross [made on our foreheads at our baptisms] were made not with water but with permanent ink-a nice deep purple, perhaps-so that all who bore Christ’s mark bore it openly, visibly, for the rest of their lives. In many ways, I think, that is the chief difference between the ministry of the baptized and the ministry of the ordained. The ordained consent to be visible in a way that the baptized do not. They agree to let people look at them as they struggle with their own baptismal vows: to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to resist evil, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace among all people. Those are not the vows of the ordained, but the baptized, even though we do not seem to know how to honor them in the course of ordinary life on earth.”
I wonder if she is right. I suspect she is. I suspect that all of us from time-to-time, if not at most times, remove our metaphorical clergy collars in an attempt to blend, to fit in, to be accepted, to not rock the boat, to avoid drawing attention to ourselves, to avoid being held to the standard that we suspect that we are as disciples of Jesus Christ. It reminds me of the first time I travelled outside of the United States, when I went to South Korea. In most of the northern hemisphere, if I could keep my mouth shut, I would have a reasonable chance of blending in to the populace, not drawing attention to my differentness. But not in Korea. When I walked down those narrow streets or through the open-air markets, my status as an alien was obvious, and for the first time in my life, there was no hiding the fact that I was from somewhere else. It was nothing like the year I lived in Washington, D.C. and tourists would ask me for directions, and I could reply, “I am sorry. I am just like you.”
Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, the day each year that reminds us of our differentness as the community of the baptized. In this morning’s text, after a characteristically fiery introduction by John the Baptist, Jesus receives his baptism. Rereading this text this week, I noticed something that had never before caught my attention: like you, I knew about the heavens being opened and the decent of the Holy Spirit and the voice of God proclaiming “You are my Son the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Yet what I never realized is how Luke makes a point of drawing our attention to the fact that this only happens after, as Luke puts it, “all the people were baptized.” In this morning’s text, the Son of God gets into the water, our water, the same water as all of us.
Indeed, in our baptisms, we are identified with Jesus; we are marked with Christ. In Jesus’ baptism, our God also chooses to be marked with us. So then, it behooves us to consider what baptism represents, and what that marking means.
As Bishop William H. Willimon reminds us, “You and I, by baptism and the gift of the Spirit upon us, are Christ’s body, the major, tangible, visible presence of Christ in the world. If the world is going to meet the one who was baptized that day in the Jordan, the world must meet him through the baptized, us.” He continues “I apologize if that wasn’t made clear to you at your baptism, but let’s clearly say it to ourselves now: we are Christ’s chosen way of being in the world. When you sign up for baptism—or get signed up, as is often the case—you get the job of representing Christ to the world, of putting your body where your belief is.”
Almost twenty-years ago, the church I served had a man named Don as our lay leader. Don was a retired Colonel in the United States Army, a kind and gentle man in his seventies who was consistently thoughtful and reasonable and, along with his wife, passionately committed to the church. Once while in the Army, Don had a near-death experience when he had fallen off a dock and become trapped beneath a boat and was, for a few moments, quite convinced he was about to die. In the years that I knew him, Don lived like a man who truly appreciated what it meant to be alive.
One afternoon in a Bible study I was leading, Don told the story of the time when he was in the Army and working with an officer who had nothing to do with religion, Christianity, or the church. The two of them never really discussed faith at all. Yet one day when Don had made an off-color joke in front others at work, this man would later say to him, “I am disappointed in you, Don. I always thought that because you are a Christian that I could expect more of you.”
And there you have it: once people have seen that clerical collar in our pockets or that purple baptismal ink in the shape of the cross on our foreheads, we just cannot hide it, can we? The world is watching, and this world today is hungry for the hope, healing, reconciliation, peace, and redemption that Christ comes to bring, and more often than we might think, the world is looking for it in the place where the gospel says those things will be found: in the lives, choices, and witness of the people who have stood in the water with Christ, people like you and like me.
In a book by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon titled Resident Aliens, Life in the Christian Colony, Willimon tells a story from his life pastoring in Greenville, South Carolina. He writes, “One of our former parishes was next door to the synagogue. One day over coffee, the rabbi remarked, ‘It’s tough to be a Jew in Greenville. We are forever telling our children, ‘That’s fine for everyone else, but it’s not fine for you. You are special. You are different. You are a Jew. You have a different story. A different set of values.’” “Rabbi, you are probably not going to believe this,’ [Willimon] said, ‘but I heard very much that same statement made in a young couples’ church school class right here in Bible-belt Greenville the other day.’”
Is this how we see ourselves as Christian people, as people who are different, special, people with a different story and a different set of values than the world around us, or do we see ourselves as essentially no different than the non and nominally religious world around us? Should we?
When I lived in Albemarle County, my family and I loved to cross Afton Mountain on Saturday mornings to visit the little town of Dayton, just outside of Harrisonburg to visit the Dayton Market. We would peruse the little shops and sample the locally made cheeses, and we would eventually stop in the restaurant area for something to eat. This area was staffed largely by teenage girls, Old Order Mennonites in their print dresses, their long hair pulled back into a tight bun covered with a small bonnet. I used to tease my daughters, “That is how I will expect you to dress when you are teenagers.”
Old Order Mennonites dress like they do because it is practical, simple, and modest. However, something I did not realize until fairly recently is that one of the reasons for the style of Mennonite dress is that it visibly sets them apart from the rest of the world, marking them in a subtle but potent way as disciples of Jesus Christ, as resident aliens who are citizens of God’s kingdom serving in the world until the advent of the day we pray for each time we gather, when God’s kingdom comes, when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
All of this makes me think of what parents, whether we fully realize it or not, are getting ourselves, and our children into when we bring them forward to receive the sacrament of baptism. In my experience, many parents are most concerned with the moment of baptism, concerned with what may happen during the liturgy itself. What will the baby do when I, a stranger, take her into my arms. What happens if he cries when the water is applied in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? What happens if she screams when I carry her down the aisle so that the congregation can see and recognize her, this child they have just covenanted to raise in the faith? What happens as all of this takes place as everyone is looking at him?
There was a time in the not-to-distant past when the culture made it possible for us to believe that baptism was a safe method for making our children, making ourselves, just like everyone else. Be it water or be it purple ink, that sign of the cross on our foreheads could camouflage us into the mainstream of American culture such that we did not need to fear this mark of new birth placed upon us, for most everyone else bore the mark as well until it, for many of us, became invisible.
Today, I am not so sure. I wonder if we, the church, need to reclaim, through our baptismal vows and our baptismal living, our inherent differentness. I wonder if our lives, characterized by the mark placed upon us, is less about how the baby in worship responds to the pastor/stranger taking him in her arms and more about how we grow into people who welcome the stranger as Christ commands us to. I wonder if our lives are less about the child crying when the water is applied and more about us hearing the voices of those who cry out for mercy and justice. I wonder if our lives are less about the child screaming when she is carried down the aisle and more about our willingness to raise our voices for the voiceless among us, and I wonder if our baptisms’ mark upon us truly less about fitting in and more about standing out, and standing up, standing for all that which is good and right and joyful.
Most of us, I believe, were raised to not stick out, to blend, go with the flow, and for many of us, our formative years featured lesson upon lesson of learning how to do just that, how to fit in. However, we were likely all, in one way or another raised to stand out, that is, to be exceptional, to distinguish ourselves, to excel above others, to be all that we can be.
Our baptisms and our place in the church in many ways requires us to do both. The claim that God makes upon our lives in our baptisms is permanent and cannot ever be washed away. We are all God’s adopted children, claimed, renamed, redeemed, bought with a price. We have a different story, a different set of values, a different way of looking at and relating to the world and its people. In our baptisms, we discover our call to stand out.
And yet, that adoption, that different set of values, that different way of looking at and relating to the world and its people marks us for life. Thus, in how we live, in how we speak, in how we listen, in how we act we will always stick out as well.
And friends, that is the hard part.
How has your baptism set you apart? How has your baptism visibly marked you in a way that cannot be washed off? What about you is different because of your baptism? And what does it mean to you today for that marking to say to you that the living God of all life has said of you, “That one…that one, I will forever claim. That one is mine?”
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.