Being “Christian”: Baptism

This sermon was preached at First Congregational Church of Battle Creek, MI, on January 24th, 2021. The text is Luke 3.1-22, as rendered in The Message. Sermons are meant to be heard, so listen along here, starting at the 30 minute mark.

I speak in the name of the Crucified and Risen One. Amen.

First of all, this is going to be a little longer than usual because as I was writing this I felt myself being pressed by the spirit of my godfather, who was an evangelical United Methodist preacher and a revivalist, to bring forward some of that Methodist spirit that is part of my ancestry, a real gift for which I’m grateful, a revivalist spirit. (And me, being as Catholic as I am? This’ll be fun.) I’ll be breaking quite a few of my rules of sermons, too: it’ll be a little too long, it’ll be a little too self-reflective, a little too tender, just a little too much.

But, I’ve been breaking rules for a long time. 

I’m in a bit of an awkward situation as a Christian who believes in the practice of infant baptism, you know, baptizing people when they’re still babies, because I was actually baptized twice. Ooh! There’s one rule, right off the bat, that I broke: you don’t get baptized twice. 

Well, I did. Once as a baby, which I talk about often. But then there was the second time, as a young adult. I was 19 at the time, and I had fallen in with a particular brand of evangelical theology that promised real, deep community, a sense of cultural belonging, and a particular type of cultural identity that was something I sorely desired. 

But more than that, I wanted the same thing that so many of those who made their way to the riverside to be baptized by John wanted: I wanted to know that I was okay. I wanted to be okay. Because somewhere along the way I had picked up the cultural message that I wasn’t okay. And being not okay was dangerous.

For some reason, I never felt like I fit in growing up—of course, we know why now—but I think that in some ways I knew why then. My parents weren’t super Reaganite right wing Republicans, they were good centrist Methodists who voted on issues. But they also had some formation in the evangelical tradition, and so, among other things, the reading of Harry Potter was banned in our household. We didn’t celebrate Halloween. That’s the environment I’m growing up in. Bless my parents, I love them, they are saints, and I hope they’re watching this. 

But, I was, uh, really interested in Harry Potter, like, really, reeeeally into Harry Potter, as well as some other things that I had kind of realized, oof, maybe… weren’t going to fly in this family, nor would they fly in the prevailing culture. But I also had trouble fitting in in general, because, well, I was a large, loud kid with a big mouth and an exhaustive knowledge of… more than a normal amount of esoteric subjects, for one, and who was really, really good at being a “Christian.” You can imagine how that went for me in middle school.

Once I arrived at my alma mater, an Evangelical Methodist school, it wasn’t long before I received this delicious invitation from a more intense shade of Evangelical culture: you’re welcome! You belong! But that cultural identity and belonging was bolstered by the shadow side of Evangelicalism: knowledge that, deep down, we were right. We were special children of God. Which meant that our view of the world was the right one. And you belong only so long as you fit within those cultural rules and behave like a good Evangelical.

Now, the problem was, that in order for me to truly feel welcome within that evangelical culture, I had to lay aside the very thing that I knew would prevent me from being able to fully participate in evangelical culture: I had to lay aside the deep strangeness I felt in myself, the sense of disconnection from the way that I was told that men should behave and act and be interested in. Being an Evangelical meant being surrounded by a community that gave me gold stars for actively hating a fundamental part of myself. But gosh, that deep strangeness just got louder and louder the more I tried to ignore it.

And that’s why I decided to get baptized a second time: I thought it would finally make me okay, at least according to my definition of what “okay” was supposed to mean. But it didn’t actually have the effect I wanted. I thought it would literally “wash the gay away.” I can’t believe I actually thought that, but I did, and it made sense in my head. But when I got back to my dorm room later that night, I laid on the floor and wept, because I realized I still felt the same way, and nothing had changed. And yet, the pastor who had rebaptized me had hugged me and said, “welcome, child of God!” 

How could I be a “child of God?” So, of course, I pressed it even harder away, pushing myself to be the best that I could be, checking off all of the Good Christian Boy boxes, even going (ulp) to seminary, to show God how much I loved him! To bring healing and safety to me! And yes, I did end up getting married because of this, and, I’m thankful to God that that happened because I have the gift of being able to be a father as a result of it.

But eventually the dam broke. The Hogwarts Letter arrived.  “I am who I am,” I said aloud, and my life as I knew it imploded overnight. The text messages and the Facebook messages started pouring in. There were the usual suspects: people feigning concern, people telling me “I’m praying for you,” people just straight up telling me I’m going to hell, there was a death threat or two mixed in there, of course from people who were “Good Christians,” whatever. But then there were the people whom I hadn’t talked to in years reaching out to say how grateful they were that I could finally be who I was supposed to be.

Liberating this child of God meant some radical re-configuration of my life following the end of my marriage and the shattering of that false identity. That resulted in, among other things, the way my family is shaped right now, my return to seminary after flunking out of it, my recovering of a sense of a call to ministry that emerged from my own experience of resurrection. It is thanks to the compassionate loving care of many people that I am standing here today. Some were Christians, some baptized people. And some weren’t Christians at all, through them, the Divine moved to call me out of darkness and into light, who chose to stand by me.

Many of those people who had been baptized into the living tradition of Christianity had views that at the time probably would have gotten them cancelled, either by the liberal left or by the conservative right. But those people, people like my parents, like several of my seminary professors, like my clergy friends, and others too, friends who have come into my life through strange happenings and criss-crossing journeys, have all in some small way helped me not just to continue living as I was, but rather, to be raised from the dead, literally and figuratively. Whether they were baptized or not. Whether they were “the right kind of person” or not. They loved me back into life. They helped me know that I am okay.

So my testimony is not as much today about me, but it is about what God has done for me through the community of some incredible, ordinary, holy, and messy people who made the choice to love me without condition. I am privileged to be in communion with these people in one way as a baptized person, one, but more importantly, as another human being, as another person for whom God has said, “you are my child, in whom I am well pleased” by saying “yes” to humanity through the incarnation of figures like Jesus Christ.

(Now I’m going to stop telling my story because I’m even tired of hearing myself talk about myself, and I’m the preacher. Also I think I’ve used up all my “personal story” points and won’t be able to use a personal story as a sermon illustration for the next six months.)

Baptism is one of those cornerstone practices that identify Christians. And yes, I do believe that something incredible happens through baptism. Baptism surrounds us with a covenanted community that comes together out of all people, languages, nations, and races through this shared experience, way back in our cultural memory, of unconditional love pouring itself out toward us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

But here’s the deal: I’ve never physically met Jesus of Nazareth. I only have the imaginal version of Jesus that I developed from hearing so many different stories, so many different ways of telling the story. Hymns, songs, stories, images, VBS, Sunday School, all of that. That is the cultural identity that I inherited from my parents, from my environment, from my upbringing (just like I also inherited the cultural identity of an American, to which I will return presently.) That is the cultural identity that it’s also my responsibility to critique and challenge, because it came bundled with racism and the cultural construct of “whiteness.”.

But beyond this cultural identity within the container “Christian,” with the ways that the Jesus story was told to me, for good or for ill, I also have met God elsewhere. I have recognized God in the lived testimony of people who have shown me unconditional lovingkindness, regardless of their own limitations, and regardless of what it was that they believed. Every person who chose to love me helped me to recognize the presence of this living Spirit, something bigger than them that I was swept up in. They didn’t just tell me I was a child of God; they showed me I was a child of God, and they showed me how to live as one. Christian or not, baptized or not.

The Bible is clear (I can’t believe I said that, yikes) that God will use whatever means necessary to get our attention to remind us that we belong, that we are okay, that we are “children of God.” And that good news, that Word of God, comes not just to hairy fellas out in the Jordanian desert! It also comes to vagabond princes who leave behind their birthright and sit under a tree until they wake up or to wandering fugitives who make a wrong turn in the desert and find themselves face to face with the Supreme Reality hanging out in a shrubbery. It also comes to young women and queer folk and even stranger voices that we’ve yet to meet. But then God’s love grows even weirder: God also reaches out to us through the love of ordinary people, ordinary acts, everyday folk like you and me. 

Which is to say, God will probably try to reach out to love someone through you. 

And there are many ways to say “yes” to that, and baptism is one way. Being a Christian is one way.

And what God is trying to tell us, whether that message comes through in the language of Christianity or another one of the languages we use to describe reality, is that we are, each one of us, a child of God.

If the God language isn’t working for you, take it out of there. You are human. You are of this Earth, you are born of this humus, you are a child of this planet. As am I. Let’s imagine a future of life coming together out of the rubble of what happens just as a result of us being fragile, messy, humans. We are, after all, children of God, a God who was willing to become just as fragile and messy as the rest of us, a God whose omnipotence is to be found chiefly in letting go of omnipotence, if you’d believe it. A God who is a human.

In the end, that’s what strikes me about Luke’s version of this story, the story of the baptism of Jesus: There’s no grand entrance of Jesus onto the scene, there’s no weird conversation with John about, “I must be baptized,” and so on. It’s just…. Jesus is there. He just shows up. He’s just one more face in the crowd. Nobody knew who he was, I bet, but there he was. And God showed up. God got hold of him. As he was baptized.

And when we’re baptized, either as children or as adults, we are saying to ourselves and to the world, “I’m one of the ordinary people. I belong here. I’m okay. I know I am a child of God. I know you are too. And I know we can be at peace with one another because of that, no matter our differences in will, no matter our differences in ideology or the way our bodies are wired for love or the amount of melanin in our skin or who our momma was or who our daddy was or any of that. And we have nothing to prove. Which means that we have nothing to fear, and that we can be truly just, truly equitable.”

As St. Paul also said, “there is neither male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, for all are one in Christ Jesus.”

Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman stunned us all this week with her winning words at the inaugural ceremony. But there was one line that caught me especially: “being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.” I think her prophetic voice has, as well, a word for us: being Christian is more than this life we inherit. It’s also a past that we step into, and how we repair it. And if we inherit Christianity, if we are baptized people, we need to inherit it, to step into it, and repair it.

As John’s fiery words on the Jordan riverside challenge us: “bear fruit worthy of a transformed mind!” If we know that we are children of God, we know that everyone else is a Child of God too, and yeah, that means we’re content with our wages, we don’t extort people, we don’t exploit or use or despoil other people or other lifeways on this planet. And living into a fully-inhabited, baptized Christian identity can allow us to live in that reality all the time.

Have I achieved that? Oh hell no, absolutely not. But I’d like to get there. I’d love to get there. Because what a joyful, free place to live life from. I’m sure I’ll disappoint y’all a couple of times on the way, too. But I believe we can help each other get there; the work of love is ever-deepening. But whether we do or not in this lifetime, well, we know that deep down, below all our striving, below all our imperfection, all our messiness, below all our ill-conceived plans to secure ourselves in the face of our impending mortality and our false sense of separation from Reality itself, that, we are, each one of us, children of God. And that makes us okay.Amen.

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