The Politics of Baptism
| Matthew 3:13-17
|Sun, January 14, 1996
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Someone said that it was one of the most fascinating spectator sports of the 1995 holiday season. "It" was the debate which occupied the pages of the Globe and Mail concerning a pastoral letter written by Marion Best, Moderator of the United Church of Canada. We received her correspondence a week before Christmas. In it she urged the church to mark the birth of Christ by standing up against "a growing war on the poor in our society". The editors of the Globe and Mail were quick to reply by slamming the moderator's poor understanding of economic reality. For two weeks the letters flowed in. One might have expected them to offer a range of opinions. But there was no real debate. Instead, every letter seemed to deride the newspaper's editors for their scrooge-like mentality. Perhaps the Globe's own columnist, Michael Valpy, put it best. "Given Ms. Best's adherence", he wrote, "to a religion whose fundamental literature speaks of social justice and sharing with the poor as being among the chief acts of imitatio dei - imitating God - she is required to speak out against political and economic policies that widen the gulf between rich and poor in Canada". It all reminded me of my old friend Ralph Donnelly's experience with a Pastoral Relations committee in small town Manitoba. Ralph was being interviewed as a prospective minister when, towards the end of the interview, a weathered farmer asked bluntly: "You don't bring politics into the pulpit, do you?" Ralph's immediate response brought an an audible sigh of relief: "No ... I wouldn't dream of bringing politics into the pulpit", he said ... and then he continued, "the only problem is, the darn Bible keeps doing it!".
Witness this morning's reading from Acts. Politics in the pulpit once again. Oh, it may not sound like politics on first hearing. You won't hear any catch phrases like "social safety net" or "war on the poor". But, believe me, the tenth chapter of Acts from which it comes is about as political as you can get. The words we read folow hard on the heels of a dream ... a dream in which Peter is commanded not once, not twice, but three times to eat a truckload of unclean food. Now, telling a good Jew like Peter to eat a smorgasbord of pork and snakes is a little like telling a vegetarian to fill up on liver and cow tongue. It's gross. It's nauseating. It goes against their religion. But then Peter is awakened from his dream by knocking at the door. It is Cornelius, the Gentile. Cornelius the pagan. Cornelius who represents everything that Peter - and the newly formed church - are not. And Cornelius wants in, he asks to be baptised, he says he wants to belong. It makes Peter and his friends sick to their stomach to think of eating meals with one of 'them' ... one of 'them' with the oily skin and the strange customs and the even stranger dialect. There's only one problem, God says: 'Let him in ... he doesn't look unclean to me ... I'm not partial to your purist ways ... dunk him in the water'. And with the immersion of Cornelius, God immerses the church in a politics of adoption, a politics of baptism.
Now by politics I don't mean all members of the church carrying the same political party card. When I say that the church is political I mean that our life together is all about the shaping of an alternative 'polis', of creating a distinctive community whose values often run against the grain of society. At the centre of this peculiar people is the baptismal font ... the place where we are initiated into this political reality called a 'church'. Even on all those Sundays when no one is being baptised the font is still at the heart of our preaching and praying. As William Willimon likes to say, preachers are always either saying something like: "Come forth, be washed, and you shall be odd" or "You are washed, you are ordained, you are odd" ("Peculiar Speech", p. 3). To be fair, this has not always been our experience. Those of us baby-boomers who were baptised into the overcrowded Sunday Schools of the 1950's were anything but odd ... we represented mainstream, ordinary, status quo Canada. We weren't being taught to be different, we were being taught to be model citizens. But things are changing. Now baptism is an odd thing for parents to consider. Now the decision to belong to the church at any age sets us apart. Just try mentioning at the office or in class or over the back fence that you are going to Bible Study in the evening or that you aren't going skiing on Sunday because you sing in the choir at church. Watch the upturned eyebrows and listen to the bemused question: "You mean you go to church?". Odd, indeed.
Odd even more so because baptism initiates us into a new family, makes us brothers and sisters with perfect strangers. As Willimon suggests, it takes us more than a sermon or two to figure out just what this means. You find yourself bothered by the noise of the children, wishing that their parents would take more responsibility for them ... after all the children are theirs, not yours. Then, one day, you are reminded that in baptism everything has changed. When they come out of the water the children are adopted into this family ... they become our children ... here we must share equal responsibility for them with their blood relations because in this family water is thicker than blood.
I remember when that reality hit me. It was at the annual meeting of B.C. Conference in 1990. A debate was raging about a motion that committed the church to a campaign in support of the resolution of Native Land Claims. For once the church was promising more than moral support - more than a few painless resolutions telling the government to fix the problem. This time the church was saying that it would raise one million dollars for the cause. As the argument at the microphones grew more intense something grabbed a hold of me. For the first time in my life I felt a deep sense of aboriginal people not as 'them on the reserve' and 'us in town' but as Jim and Doreen, as my own 'brothers and sisters'. And though I didn't really want or intend to I found myself submitting to the call to spend the next four years chairing the Campaign. God's call is like that. It is not simply an intellectual question asked of ordinands: "Are you in essential agreement with the basis of Union?". Nor is it the emotional plea of an evangelist's tent: "Do you feel the Spirit, sister?". God's call is political: it asks "Will you join in ... will you sign up ... will you risk your secure and comfortable life?"
Not many people realize that Jim Strathdee found the words for the hymn "I am the light of the world" in a Christmas message sent by Howard Thurman. A famous black preacher, Thurman was passionate in his belief that Christmas leads to the formation of a radically odd community. Now that our creche is safely packed away for another year his words hit the mark: "When the song of the angels' is stilled and the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and the shepherds have found their way home ... the work of Christmas has begun". It is time to decide if we will join in the work that God has begun at Christmas. Oh, we can choose to live as people who believe that "what is mine is mine ... and what is your is yours". It is the choice our culture urges us to make everyday. Or we can be 'odd', we can choose to live as those who have been adopted ... adopted into a family of brothers and sisters we have known only as 'strangers': a household gifted with noisy, loving children ... a family dining table that has room for the poor who bear the burden of balancing society's books and for natives who no longer negotiate as 'one of them' but now as 'one of us'.
Gathered here, at the river of life that flows from some deep artesian source within the font, we have a choice to make. It is the same choice Jesus faced when he waded in to the river to be baptised by John. We can choose to stand as onlookers who observe the action from the safety of the shore ... or we can follow Jesus into the chilly Jordan waters and risk the unknown. Don't be fooled ... it is a scary thing to go under the water ... it is no easy thing to submit to God's new way of life. But it is new life ... thank God for that!