January 13, 2013

“A Family Event”
Theme: Baptism
Text Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

I remember a five-year old kid in the first church I served as pastor. His parents had wanted to wait to have their son baptized until he would be able to remember and have some understanding of the meaning of the occasion. So one Sunday after worship–the Sunday before the baptism was scheduled–Max, his mom, his dad, and I gathered around the font. I sensed that Max was a little dubious about the whole affair, but I dove in anyway. I took the top off the baptismal font, reached my hand down into the dry bowl, and pretended to scoop up a palm full of water. I placed my dry hand on his dry head and said brightly, “Next week, we’ll be doing this with real water.” Max folded his arms across his chest, looked me straight in the eye, and announced, “No way, man. No way.” Eventually Max relented, even as my belief in the value of infant baptism deepened considerably.

Today we are going to a baptism. We are not going as a the congregation. The congregation comes with a certain amount of distance. These days it almost seems to be an exercise in Voyeurism. We watch what is an intimate moment. I know, I know, the pastor will ask us a question eventually about our willingness to care for the one baptized. This promise is not the same as the promises made by family.

We are family today. Like it or not we are part of the family. So bring your camera. Plan on going over to ‘memaw’s and ‘papaw’s’ afterwards for some barbecues, bologna and cheese, macaroni salad and all that. We are family, like it or not, at this baptism.

The family. We are strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another’s desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together. Even though we are what some commentators call ‘postmodern’ people without the strong cords of genetics, not so here. We are family. And we are a family who does not need those deep maroon cords to save seating for those of us who are real family.

I don’t know about you, but the more I think about this, the more I don’t like it. One of the problems of identifying family too closely is that it becomes a process of exclusion rather than inclusion. I do not know of anywhere in Scripture that supports such a position. Oh, there are plenty of other examples, insisting that God’s people, if they really are God’s people, often find themselves giving something of themselves for others, sacrificing even, so that the circle may be widened.

There was an Apostle named Philip who went down to Samaria to widen the boundaries. Do you remember who the Samaritans were? They were cousins to Israel, and over an old family feud they had become outcasts. They were the ones whose invitation to the family reunion always must have gotten lost in the mail. “You didn’t get your invite?” I cannot imagine what must have happened! Yes you can, you know what happened. “relatives are the worse friends” said the fox as he got chased off by the dogs. (Danish proverb).

But down to Samaria he goes. Then, as an insurance policy, Peter and John go down there too. See, if I was a Samaritan and heard that from now on I would not only get my invitation to the family reunion but that I would be welcome when I arrived, I would be skeptical. How welcome would these new members of the Kingdom of God really be? Some of them probably heard this news, all you need to do is come. This banquet is not that difficult to enjoy, you just have to sit down to it.

Then the most straight laced Apostles came. You would anticipate problems when these two show up. Maybe they have come to enforce the seating chart. These were two of the insiders who were there at the transfiguration. They were trusted to put together the details for that first of the last suppers. “Let’s see what happens,” some probably whispered, “you know, before we go all in and get the rug pulled out from under us, again.”

And they learned what every Christian community has come to know since then: that through your baptism there is now, and never will be, any division. Those old hostilities are turned to unity through the power of the Spirit.

An ancient Christian catechism describes baptism as a “visible sign of invisible grace.” By the grace of God, we are surrounded and upheld every day. Moreover, we are defined, not by outward appearances, but by this same grace. The great Protestant Martin Luther was plagued at times by a sense of unworthiness and despair. To drive back those demons, he kept an inscription over his desk that read, “Remember, you have been baptized.” Often, he would touch his forehead and remind himself, “Martin, you have been baptized.”

Yesterday I conducted the funeral for Anna Firestein. As I drove along in the funeral procession I was greeted by the usual impatience and frustration of others that his line of freshly washed cars, lead by a hearse, would have the audacity to interupt their morning schedule of errands and make them pause for a moment. Then, in the middle of nowhere, just over by the Sheets, there was a man walking along the side of the road. For some reason he was nicely dressed. Suit. Tie. Topcoat. When the procession passed, he stopped his walk, turned toward the procession, slightly bowed his head, and ‘crossed himself.’ I thought, there is one of the ‘family’ who couldn’t be with us today.

I would like to think that folk in that messy church down there in Samaria are my Ancestors. You don’t choose your relatives, I know that. Ancestors are another thing all together. Ancestors are not required to be in the same bloodline. Ancestors are chosen by the decedents. This is an altogether different kind of family. So by virtue of our baptism, Abraham and Sarah are our ancestors. Issac and Rebecca are too. So are lesser known, but no less important folk like Priscilla and Aquilla. We are part of a long line.

In his book Craddock Stories, celebrated preacher Fred Craddock tells of an evening when he and his wife were eating dinner in a little restaurant in the Smokey Mountains.

A strange and elderly man came over to their table and introduced himself. “I am from around these parts,” he said. “My mother was not married, and the shame the community directed toward her was also directed toward me. Whenever I went to town with my mother, I could see people staring at us, making guesses about who my daddy was. At school, I ate lunch alone. In my early teens, I began attending a little church but always left before church was over, because I was afraid somebody would ask me what a boy like me was doing in church. One day, before I could escape, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the minister. He looked closely at my face. I knew that he too was trying to guess who my father was. ‘Well, boy, you are a child of. . .’ and then he paused. When he spoke again he said, ‘Boy, you are a child of God. I see a striking resemblance.’ Then he swatted me on the bottom and said, ‘Now, you go on and claim your inheritance.’ I left church that day a different person,” the now elderly man said. “In fact, that was the beginning of my life.”

“What’s your name?” Dr. Craddock asked.
He answered, “Ben Hooper. My name is Ben Hooper.” Dr. Craddock said he vaguely recalled from when he was a kid, his father talking about how the people of Tennessee had twice elected a fellow who had been born out of wedlock as the governor of their state. His name was Ben Hooper.

Children of God, remember that you have been baptized and rejoice. Yes I know, this family line is both wide and deep. Being part of a family is not always easy, but this one is worth it, claim your inheritance.

I would also want us to remember that Baptism creates the kind of family where we are free…every one of us is free, in this family at pour out the contents of who we are, chaff and grain together, knowing that gentle hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness and grace, blow the rest away.

Remember. Please? It will be helpful from time to time, I promise.

Let us pray.
For the baptism of Jesus, when he was made one with us, and for our baptism when we are made one with him and one another, we praise you, O God. As we enter a new year, help us to remember whose we are, so that we might glorify and enjoy you forever.

We lift up to you all those you have randsomed everything for: for those whose lives seem to be nothing more than difficult days, those separated from these family ties by, misunderstanding, violence, sickness, and even the grave.

Because they are yours as much as we are, we trust your grace; and that even now your Holy Spirit is working in them, and on their behalf. We pray as Jesus taught us,