by The Reverend Nancy L. Wilson, Moderator Metropolitan Community Churches
Delivered at Joy MCC, Orlando, Florida, on January 8, 2006
Baptism, in the Christian faith, is about beginnings and initiation.
I am sure that's why the creators of the lectionary paired the story of Jesus' baptism by John with the first few words of the story of creation itself, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Years ago, my friend and MCC LA staff clergy, Rev. Carlos Jones preached from Genesis, "In the beginning...God!"
The creation story begins with wind and water.
In the last few years, we have had a lot of wind and water on this troubled planet. We have certainly had our struggles here in Florida, in Orlando a couple of years ago. But now that seems like nothing when compared to the tsunami of Southeast Asia and the floods of New Orleans and the U.S. Gulf Coast. Paula and I were in New Orleans a few weeks ago, encouraging our church there, and we were absolutely amazed at the devastation, and their determination.
The author of Genesis uses wind and water to describe the watery chaos out of which God created the heavens and the earth. We have known the terrifying power of wind and water, in hurricanes and floods. After these past couple of years, I don't think I will ever underestimate their power or read that part of Genesis the same way again.
In the beginning, God brought order out of chaos, created light, and established the very first day and night. Genesis tells of a primeval history that culminated in the Sabbath, when God rested.
Sometimes, it still feels like chaos is winning. Not only chaos in the natural world, but chaos in the human spirit. I am not sure God gets very much rest these days.
God, it says in Genesis, did not make creation "value-neutral." God actually called it "Good!" The atoms and molecules, every cell in our bodies, every star and river and mountain. Every woman and man, every child is "good" from the beginning. In the activity of creation, God separates, creates order, names it all and declares it good.
In baptism, God brings us out of chaos again, and we are named "Beloved," as Jesus was so long ago.
The Gospel of Mark (the simplest, shortest gospel, written in 4th grade Greek), starts with the very same words "In the beginning...the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ." In that story, we are invited to hear about another creation story, a New Creation. The author wanted us to make a profound connection between the first creation and this new chapter that begins with Jesus' baptism.
John the Baptizer was preaching and inviting people to come to the river and to come up and through watery chaos into God's light and order. More specifically, John was inviting them to a "repentance for the forgiveness of sin." Water and wind were involved again! This time it was the River Jordan and the wind of the Holy Spirit. And a Voice form heaven declaring Jesus' goodness, his "Beloved-ness" in God's eyes.
Later, Jesus was to say to disciples (who, in the Gospel of Mark seem not particularly bright and not able to really "get it"): "Are you able to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" In other words, are you really able, willing to follow me through this process? Are you willing to share in my struggles and suffering, as well as in the glory? In that moment, Jesus used baptism as a metaphor for the struggle and spiritual re-birthing process that was required in order to follow him. And the sacrifice. That day the disciples all chimed in "Yes, we are able!" Not long after that, they would all fall away, back into chaos, into fear and faithlessness. And our hearts sink, not because they are so different from us, but because we understand them all too well.
In MCC we are all over the map about baptism. It seems to me we are a lot clearer about communion, which we celebrate every week. We are clear about our open communion, about the depth and power of that sacrament, and its many, many, meanings. Communion is central in our worship, and in our inclusive presentation of the gospel. We have claimed communion as ours. We know it is God's gift to us that calls us to respond.
In baptism, our practice, as with communion, is diverse -- but I think our theology and teaching about it is underdeveloped. Maybe that's something we will work on during the next few years. Wouldn't it be wonderful and amazing if in MCC we were able to have discussions about spirituality and what we believe about baptism and other things in safe spaces in our local churches, at our Regional Gatherings, at Conferences? What if we deliberately created safe spaces where we did not judge each other, or try to "convert" each other to our point of view, but where we just listened and learned and allowed ourselves to be amazed at the depth and breadth of our feelings and thoughts about our faith – so that it might unite us more than it divides us? I long for that kind of experience.
So many of us came from churches where it was not safe to really express our deepest questions, longings, thoughts. Where it was not OK for us to change our minds, or think differently than the majority. Where we had to edit ourselves all the time. Where we were afraid that what we felt or believed would separate us from others, or even from God. Where disagreeing was dangerous.
If we are growing in Christ, if we are a New Creation, we are always changing and learning more about the God who created us and called us good. God is not afraid of or unfamiliar with our thoughts!
I'd like to start a discussion about baptism with three things that baptism means to me and for us in MCC:
Baptism is Invitation: Quite simply, it is an invitation to follow Jesus. Now, how we do that, in MCC, in our world in the 21st century is the real question that may take more than one lifetime to answer. What I know is that it is the greatest adventure! I was baptized as an infant in the Methodist Church, and in that ritual my parents promised to bring me up learning about Jesus and being a Christian, and that they did. But, growing up, I was always hungry for more. I struggled with that alienation so many of us felt in our families and in our churches, if we grew up in church. I struggled with my sexuality and identity, often alone.
It was not until I walked through the doors of an MCC that I really connected my passion about God and Jesus to community and a cause. And that connection was another kind of baptism for me – I was invited to a deeper, riskier, and closer walk with the God who called me "beloved" at my first baptism.
It was MCC that helped me put all the pieces together, and dared me to live in relationship with God as Jesus did, as "Beloved." I remember even as a young person thinking it was so cool that Jesus had been baptized by John. He didn't exempt himself. He was not the kind of spiritual leader who asked you to do things he was not willing to do himself. He accepted a huge invitation that day – to accept his calling, publicly, openly as the Christ, as the Messiah of God. He joined his heart to the heart to the heart of God, and today we are invited to do the same. If we really did that, don't you know what would happen? Don't you know that the human chaos that causes so much suffering in the world could be conquered and healed? That the realm of God would be tangible and nearer that we had ever imagined?
Every Sunday at communion we are invited to remember we are called "Beloved!" In a sense, communion is the weekly reminder of our baptism, and the welcome that God is constantly offering through us, through our communities. What if we could see baptism as inclusively as we see communion, and really made it our own, got comfortable with it, reinterpreted it with the authority and power with which we celebrate communion week after week?
Are we inviting each other into Jesus' baptism? – John's was a baptism of repentance and forgiveness: Jesus' baptism includes that but moves beyond it – in Jesus' baptism we are invited to join our hearts to the heart of God and to claim our "Beloved-ness."
Baptism is Identification: One of my favorite theologians was Georgia Harkness – an Episcopal lay woman who lived with the same woman for more than 30 years. She said, "It is easier to praise Jesus than to follow him!" Jesus knew that too, and told stories about it. Paul talked about baptism metaphorically – as dying and rising with Christ." It was the way we immersed ourselves in Jesus' cause – the reconciliation of God and humanity. It was the way we were the Body of Christ in a world that is besieged at times by water and wind and floods and hurricanes and tsunamis. And by wars and hatred and addiction. By racism and sexism and homophobia, By violence. Recently I read somewhere that one way to understand baptism is that it is, among other things, "Liberation into a new humanity in which barriers are transcended." I think they were talking about MCC!
Is it too audacious for us to really identify with Jesus? So many come into MCC with chronic unworthiness and low self-esteem – and we are supposed to identify with Jesus? Yes! Today, we are invited to see ourselves in that river, coming up, free, and open-hearted, and new – and hearing the Voice of One who called us "Beloved" and says that we are pleasing and good. So many who come to MCC and are still too scared to even put our toes in the water. But, nothing's going to change until we do – until we are immersed in the values, the way of loving and living that Jesus lived and taught. Christianity was not meant to be a religion, after all, but a way.
Jesus invited us to identify with him. Why else would he have said that we would have the opportunity to do even greater things than he had the chance to do in his ministry? I think Jesus loves being at MCC, in all our diversity, in all our newness, even in our awkwardness and struggles.
I felt Jesus in a conversation I had a couple of weeks ago with a young gay activist from Jamaica. He is 27 and has been out since he was a teenager. For many complex reasons, Jamaica is one of the most lethally homophobic places in the world right now. Recently, his best friend Steve, an AIDS activist, was murdered -- just for being gay. No one in the government, in the University or in any church will stand up to the epidemic of homophobic violence that has devastated the community. There have been at last 12 murders in the last 18 month, five of them close friends of this young man. He spends his time visiting people in hospitals, dealing with grieving families and friends. He has created a meeting place, and people come from all over the island to find shelter. He and his friend Steve had an underground gay choir that rehearsed every Sunday at 4 PM. Steve was a musician and my new friend's eyes lit up as he talked about him. The choir would sing at the funerals of those who had been brutally murdered. I told him his choir sounded a little like a church, and he smiled and said he thought it was. I think Jesus is there, with them, and is suffering with them.
I know that we in MCC have to identify with our Jamaican friends, and be baptized into their pain and suffering. We cannot turn our eyes away or say it is not our problem. I am not sure how we are going to help. But I know we have to, and I know we will find the way.
Baptism is Alignment: Finally, in baptism, we commit. That's what happen when Jesus came up out of the water that day – he publicly committed, came out. He agreed to walk the talk, to show the way by being the way. To be baptized is to be willing to have our priorities challenged and changed. To offer our life and resources. It means washing away all that does not match up or measure up to that calling. It means saying and doing what is true to our values and what we say we believe. Letting go of what doesn't fit anymore, what distracts, detracts and consumes us.
In a way, "sin" is simply non-alignment with God's heart and God's way. Baptism is the life-long process by which I allow myself to be continuously re-aligned. That realignment can be painful at times, joyful at others. Sometimes it is a major course correction. Sometimes it is more subtle than that.
Today we are invited to identify and align!
We are invited to consider what baptism might mean for us at this time in history.
Just as Jesus was called Beloved, we are invited to hear that Voice calling us today.
We are called to remember our baptism.
To embrace it.
And to be thankful!