Did anyone bring your baptism certificate with you this morning? Do you want to share anything about it: when was it; where was it; how old were you; who were your sponsors/ godparents; who was the pastor that baptized you? Here’s mine. I was baptized on November 4, 1951; I was just over a year old. This was at Grace Lutheran Church in Pottstown, PA and my sponsors were my grandmother and my Aunt Helen. Edgar Brown, Jr. was the pastor, but he retired in 1955, so I really don’t have any memory of him. My baptism certificate is actually a little booklet with the whole baptism liturgy, but I’ve framed just the part about me. It doesn’t say what time the baptism was, but I know that back in the day baptisms were not usually held during the worship service the way they are today. And the baptism font was in a separate little room, called the baptistry.
The Sunday after Epiphany is the day we remember the baptism of Jesus, which signaled the beginning of his public ministry. Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the Lutheran Church, but through the ages there have been different ways that baptism has been understood – rightly and wrongly.
Story #1: In my first congregation long ago, I was visiting with a couple who wanted to have their baby baptized. Being the sort of person who likes to ask people what they think before I start in on the pastor spiel, I asked them why they wanted their child to be baptized, what it meant to them. The mother’s answer was: “You have to be baptized so you can go to heaven.”
I call this the “getting your admission ticket to heaven punched” view of baptism.
Story #2: In the same congregation, a couple tragically experienced the death of their infant son. The next Sunday in church, a member of the congregation made the unbelievably insensitive remark that “it’s too bad you didn’t have him baptized before he died,” implying that either he had not gone to heaven or was lingering in some kind of limbo. This is on the same order as #1, except baptism is seen as a ‘get out of limbo free’ card.
Story #3: At the second meeting with a new mom about having her son baptized, she informed me that after being pressured by her grandmother who was Catholic, she had agreed to have the baby baptized at grandmom’s church, but she also wanted him to be (as she said) baptized Lutheran. My explanation that the baptism at the Catholic church was valid, totally recognized by the Lutheran Church and there was no need for a re-baptism fell on deaf ears. As was an offer to have a ceremony of Affirmation of Baptism.
Story #4: On the other hand, there’s the story of my brother and sister-in-law who were re-baptized. That was because the church they had joined was in the Anabaptist tradition, which does not baptize infants and. Instead, believers’ baptism happens when a person is old enough to make a commitment of faith – which, of course an infant cannot do.
Story #5: A student from Japan, studying at the University of San Francisco, had been raised in a very conservative Christian church back home. She began attending church here and liked our more open way of looking at scripture and beliefs. At one point, she began to cautiously approach the subject of baptism. She had not wanted to be baptized in her home church, but now wondered if there was a different way of thinking about what baptism is and what it means to be a baptized Christian.
Story #6: And finally, from the father of a three-year-old, who says, “I was sitting in church one day, watching a baptism from the front pew with my three kids. The pastor was pouring water on the head of a tiny baby. My son was quite taken by this, and I could see that something profound was brewing. With a puzzled look on his face, he turned to me and asked: “Daddy, why is he brainwashing that baby?”
With all of these understandings and misunderstandings about baptism, how do we think about this sacred ritual that is so central to who we are as Christians? Certainly, as we’ve been more exposed to other religious traditions and have accepted their belovedness in God’s eyes, it’s hard to see baptism as a necessity.
In the book we’re reading in our book group, Wholehearted Faith, Rachel Held Evans writes from the perspective of evangelical Christianity, but her questions should resonate with us. She wrote:
“After high school, I attended a conservative Christian college that was supposed to answer all my lingering questions about Christian doctrine but instead propagated them. Chief among those questions was how a good and loving God could condemn to hell the majority of human beings who live on this planet, most for the misfortune of being born in the wrong place and at the wrong time. If only evangelical Christians went to heaven, I reasoned, this left out millions, even billions, of people who had never even heard the name Jesus. It left out whole continents and generations of men, women, and children raised in other faiths. It left out Anne Frank. We read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl in middle school, and Mrs. Kelly told us that Anne and her sister had succumbed to Hitler via typhus. I prayed for weeks afterward that God might somehow work a posthumous miracle and pluck her from the eternal fire in which I was sure she was being unfairly tormented. I couldn’t accept that a good, loving, and gracious God would burn Anne Frank forever.”
So, what does it mean to be a baptized? And why do it? Many parents today, having given up belief in a punishing God who sends unbaptized infants to hell, don’t even pursue it – unless grandma and grandpa pressure them and they do it out of obligation. Which is not the best reason.
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about Martin Luther King, Jr. We celebrate his birthday tomorrow, but as the Senate prepares to begin debate on the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, how can we not recall the 1963 March on Washington, DC for civil rights? On the 20th anniversary of that historic march in 1983, a crowd of 200,000-400,000 people came back to Washington. I was one of them. I wish I could say that I remember the speakers and musicians. I read that Pete Seeger was there. Stevie Wonder led the crowd in singing happy birthday, in an appeal that the birthday of the late Dr. King be made a national holiday.
John Lewis was there, as he was in 1963. This is what he said, “We have a mandate from the martyrs who have given their lives in the struggle for human rights. We have a mandate from the masses who have worked together, prayed together, stood up together, sat in together, were beaten together and went to jail together. We have a mission to create a new agenda for America, to create a better world, to create the beloved community.”
The Beloved Community. MLK talked about it often. He wasn’t the first or only, but it was the essence of his dream: “Let us live together in peace and love in the Beloved Community.” So when we read in the gospel, “When Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven said, “You are my own, my Beloved,” how can we not take notice? At this point in the story, there’s nothing about sin or death or judgement; it’s about being named Beloved. So it is at our baptism. We are named Beloved and incorporated into the Beloved Community. This way of thinking of baptism isn’t about creating an in group of the saved, those with a one-way ticket to heaven. No, the Beloved Community is now.
Not that the dream has been completely realized. In the way that Martin Luther talked about the kingdom of God as being both “now and not yet,” so it is with the Beloved Community. Here’s a little bit from a resource called Becoming Beloved Community Where You Are: A Resource for Individuals, Congregations, and Communities Seeking Racial Healing, Reconciliation and Justice:
“Walking the road toward Beloved Community is an adventure, fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit, and no Christian should ever expect to arrive at the destination. This is a spiritual practice, after all, and no one ever finishes with spiritual formation. We are always praying. We are always reading scripture. We are always seeking to love and serve our neighbors. And we are always learning and practicing Jesus’ way of love, especially as he calls us to cross racial, cultural and ethnic lines, to examine structures of oppression and their impact on our own and others’ lives, and ultimately to nurture Beloved Community.”
The juxtaposition of the Sunday we remember the baptism of Jesus and the birthday of MLK, helps us see the two-directional nature of baptism. As we affirm our own baptisms, we acknowledge that we have heard – and taken to heart – the fact that the God of all the universe loves us. This is an inward adventure, because there are many voices, including our own that try to convince us that we’re not good enough, not worthy, not lovable. Living into our baptismal covenant involves leaning into the vision that God has of us, believing it, and living out of it – which means that we live into the vision of the Beloved Community.
Because it’s not only a personal and inner endeavor. Baptism brings us into community. Not an exclusive community that keeps others out, but a community of people committed to living out the love of God. Church is meant to be that kind of community. And often is. In these days of COVID, though, it’s harder to define what our little corner of the Beloved Community looks like. How do we maintain our connections to one another? How do we maintain our connections with those we haven’t seen for almost two years? How do we envision our connections with our neighbors?
I don’t know if you’ve seen the article about the housing developments being planned for Burlingame. Part of Rollins Road is being rezoned to allow single-story warehouses to be replaced with six-story apartment buildings. I’m not sure about this, but I think we might be the closest church to these new homes. And I wonder, if we want to reach out to new residents with an invitation the Good Shepherd, how will describe the community we’re inviting them to?
In Wholehearted Faith, Rachel Held Evans says this: “Most of the openhearted wanderers I’ve encountered are looking not for a bulletproof belief system but for a community of friends, not for a spiritual encyclopedia that contains every answer but for a gathering of loved ones in which they can ask the hard questions.”
A community of friends, a gathering of loved ones, a beloved community . . . hmm, seems to be a theme here. How do we tend the precious kinship we already have here? And how do we extend it to others? Of course, there is risk in doing that. Rachel Held Evans also wrote: “I have come to believe that wholehearted faith, like all wholehearted living, requires taking risks, cultivating vulnerability, and embracing uncertainty – both in our individual lives and in our communal life together. It demands that we admit all that we cannot know, and it encourages us to pursue it nonetheless.”
In other words, the baptismal covenant is also outwardly directed – to our neighbors, to the earth, to the work of dismantling racism, patriarchy, and other systems of oppression. As Howard Thurman, one of MLK’s mentors, co-founder of The Church for The Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco in 1944, wrote in his poem The Work of Christmas:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.
We are going to remember and reaffirm our baptisms in just a few minutes. If you have your baptism certificate, keep it nearby. Have some water ready. you will be invited to dip into it and anoint your forehead or your wrist – with a cross, if you wish – as a sign of remembrance. As you do, pay attention; listen closely. You just might hear the rustle of the wings of a dove as the Holy Spirit hovers over you and a voice from the heavens whispers in your ear, “You are my Own, my Beloved. And I love you!”
O God, we long to co-create with you the Beloved Community, which looks to the common good; privileges all equally and creates societal systems which celebrate the humanity and the gifts of all.
Help us to listen to your voice, to hear your call to be drum majors for justice, peace and righteousness.
When the work of peace and justice overwhelms us and building the Beloved Community seems impossible, renew our strength and resolve – and our awareness that we are bound together in an inescapable network of mutuality and tied to a single garment of destiny. Amen.
Creating the Beloved Community: Service Prayers for Martin Luther King, Jr., Weekend was written by the Rev. Dr. Cari Jackson, Founder and Director of the Center for Spiritual Light, New York City.
Copyright 2014 Local Church Ministries, Faith Formation Ministry Team, United Church of Christ, 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115-1100. Permission granted to reproduce or adapt this material for use in services of worship or church education. All publishing rights reserved.