Baptism, Tragedy, and our Call

A Sermon preached January 9, 2011 at Southminster Presbyterian Church.

Isaiah 42:1-9

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the LORD, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.

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 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, 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.”

I had another sermon written for this morning.

But then yesterday in Arizona, there was a shooting. And so this is a different sermon.

Because when I heard that someone opened fire on a crowd of people at a grocery store who had come to meet and talk with their congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, I was angry. And sad. And scared about yet another example of the state of our discourse and the level of rancor and hatred that is out there in our society.

I was praying, praying, praying for the people who were injured. For the families of those who were killed. For the people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the reminder in that of the fragility of life.

One of the people killed is related to people who many of you know, people who worship with us on occasion.  Gabe Zimmerman, who was Representative Gifford’s Director of Community Outreach, is the great nephew of the Matthew family. He died yesterday from his wounds.

A 9 year old girl named Christina Taylor Greene, who had just been elected to the student government at her school was invited to the event by her neighbors because of her interest in government. She was killed.

Federal Judge John Roll had just been to Mass at his church and stopped by to see his friend, Representative Giffords. He was killed. The names of the others killed haven’t been released yet. But we pray for their families.

This particular tragedy, perhaps, is no different from tragedies that take place around the world every day.

But I was thinking about these texts. And about Jesus’ baptism.  And about our baptisms. And I was hearing the news from Arizona. And I couldn’t get away from the notion in these texts that God calls us to do something specific to make the world a better place.

Listen again to the passage from Isaiah:
Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

The people who were there for Jesus’ baptism, when God’s voice came from the heavens and the Spirit of God descended on him as a dove, those people recognized Jesus in these words of Isaiah.

And they connected his baptism and the beginning of his ministry with a story from Isaiah in which a suffering servant is called to serve God’s people. It seems that even Jesus received a call by God to go about his work in the world.

After the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus, his voice is heard saying,
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

So, in light of the tragedy yesterday, and all of the tragedies around us, I am reminded of our CALL in baptism.
In baptism, we believe that we are joined with Christ in his baptism. When we are baptized, and when we have our children baptized, it is our way of acknowledging before God and before each other, that we are a part of God’s family.

It is how we claim, both visibly and symbolically, that we belong to God.

Just as Jesus was baptized at the start of his ministry, our baptisms also make a claim that we, too, have begun our ministry, and are joined in God’s work in this world for justice, and for peace. More than that, perhaps, we claim that God’s work in this world is OUR work in this world.

And this is a call I hope we take seriously. Because yesterday’s events remind us that not everyone regards the lives of our neighbors as sacred. There is a lot of division and enmity in our world right now. Which means that you and I have a lot of love to share.

Think about baptisms here in this church. Our most recently baptized person was Milly. She’s not quite a year old now, and she was about 7 months when we baptized her.

We didn’t baptize her because we agree with her politics. We didn’t baptize her because of her views on the authority of scripture or her understanding of the doctrines of the church. We didn’t ask her if she is gay or straight or red or blue or mean or nice or healthy or if she prefers rock and roll or hip hop or country music.

We baptized her because she’s one of God’s children.

That’s it. That’s her, and all of our, best qualification for being here. Because God loves us.

And we took vows when she was baptized.

In case you can’t remember exactly what you promised, here it is:
Do you, as members of the body of Jesus Christ, promise to guide and nurture Milly, by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging her to know and follow Christ, and to be a faithful member of Christ’s church?

And I see you living out that vow. This baby is only rarely held by her own parents. She has lots of people who love her here. I see you living out that vow by teaching Sunday school for the other children who were baptized here or in other churches. You keep this building in good repair so these children will have a safe place in which to learn about God’s love. You feed the children at coffee fellowship and you share stories with them during Time with the Children.

And I kept wondering, while watching the news yesterday, how can we be so good at accepting babies and children, and then so bad at accepting each other as adults?

What happens? How are we not fulfilling the vows taken at baptisms when we end up judging, and hating, and killing each other?

And I kept thinking what causes someone to open fire in a crowd of innocent strangers? I don’t know anything about the shooter. But I wonder if he was baptized as an infant in a church like this. I wonder if the congregation ooh-ed and aah-ed over him as an infant, made vows to raise him in the faith and teach him of God’s love. I wonder if he has a community now.

I know that a few of the victims in yesterday’s shooting are Jewish, so I’m really not trying to impose a faith perspective in this story.

But how are we, here in this place, living out our baptismal call to join in the work of God’s suffering servant?

The good news for us is the reminder that we aren’t baptized because we have spectacular skills. We’re baptized because God loves us. And then we’re equipped to do the tasks at hand.

Listen again to the passage from Isaiah.

Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the LORD, that is my name;

We aren’t the ones who created the heavens and earth. That’s God’s job. But it is God who called us in righteousness, and has taken us by the hand and kept us, and given us as a light to the nations.

And I know it is daunting to consider that God has work for us to do, but as one of my favorite authors, Madeleine L’Engle said,  “We have to be braver than we think we can be, because God is constantly calling us to be more than we are.

That is why it is right for us to remember our baptisms, because in our baptisms, God is calling us to be more than we are.

In the days to come, there will no doubt be plenty of theories for why the gunman did what he did. But let’s try to remember, as we discuss this and other tragedies, that the people who see this differently than we do are also God’s beloved children. Let’s seek common interest. Let’s aim for the common welfare. Let’s share the love we’ve received in an angry world desperate for Good News.

In our baptisms, we have been called to be God’s people. And to offer the world a different and much better narrative than hatred, animosity, and violence.

A friend shared this quote with me yesterday. It quieted my soul a bit, so I’ll share it with you. This is also from L’Engle. (from Reflections on a Writing Life)
We do not draw people to Christ 
by loudly discrediting what they believe,
 by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, 
but by showing them a light that is so lovely
 that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.

So, my friends. Let us go and show the light of God to the world.

Amen.

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