Jesus came to John to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you; why would you come to me for baptism?” But Jesus answered him, “Please do it, for this is the proper way to be right with God.” So John consented. (from Matthew 3:13-17)
And so we encounter John and Jesus — relatives, friends, and colleagues in ministry — alongside the Jordan River, trying to sort out who’s going into the river first and who’s getting dunked. Jesus would like John to baptize him, but John feels that it’s more appropriate for Jesus to baptize him. John is saying, “Jesus, please go in first and I will follow you to be baptized by you,” while Jesus is saying, “No, please John, you go in first and I will follow you to be baptized.” It’s like that moment when two people try to pass one another on a sidewalk, but they both step to the same side, so the two dance and dodge around one another, each trying to be courteous to the other.
It makes sense to find Jesus and John in this momentary dance, being courteous and deferential, because they both admire each other so much. Jesus looks at John and sees a prophet who has committed hard days and long hours to proclaiming a socially difficult message (“Prepare the way!” when there’s no guarantee that anyone’s looking for a new way), so Jesus wants to defer to John for baptism in appreciation of and respect for John’s ministry and leadership. On the other hand, John looks at Jesus — the purpose and theme and fulfillment of all his proclamations — and feels it’s more appropriate that Jesus should baptize him; and John wonders,
“Who am I to baptize you?
What can I possibly do or say for you that will be helpful?
Who am I to touch and shape your life in this moment?
Who am I to sprinkle the water and blessing of God upon you?”
If, in observation of Baptism of Christ Sunday, I invited everyone to gather around the baptismal font and to take turns sprinkling one another with water — in remembrance of our own baptisms and/or as a reminder of the gifts of God that rain upon us — and to bless one another with the words of Isaiah 42:1-9 (“You are mine, my child whom I uphold; you are my chosen, in whom my soul delights”), I suspect that many of us might respond as John did:
“Pshaw! No, thank you, I’m not really qualified
to be dabbling with the water of baptism,
and I’m not sure that the person next to me will feel
that it’s an act of God if I get them wet.”
But if I asked us to positively impact one another in daily life, to encourage and guide one another intentionally, and to be caretakers of each other in this one body … would we still feel unqualified, or would we rise to the task? Would we join John the Baptist in overcoming our shock that Jesus wants something from us, and not only step into the river to shape one another but also let ourselves be shaped by the experience and the community as well?
It’s precisely this communal aspect of baptism that we are in need of remembering today — not just to recall baptism as a single moment when the baptized meets God in the water, but to live baptism daily as a community event of shaping and reshaping one another, like water changing a shoreline, like sandpaper transforming a wooden edge, like a hot shower washing away dirt — to be, in fact, an ever-baptizing community that guides and is guided, blesses and is blessed, shapes and is reshaped, without fear or caution that we are unqualified for the task. In the Christian sacrament of baptism, we agree to be guided and shaped and marked and honed by God. In living as a baptized community, can we agree to this same process with one another? As I drafted my sermon this past week, I viewed this as a good and thought-provoking (but not too urgent or troubling) question for our small church community.
The weekend’s shooting in Tucson, AZ, of US Representative Gabrielle Giffords, federal judge John Roll, and 16 others, points very starkly and much more urgently to the fact that we have not been willing to be shaped and informed by others, that as a society (regardless of baptism or religion) we have not been committed to the mutual process of honing one another. Instead we have picked our dogmas and our platforms, holding to those chosen ideologies with fierce determination, even to the point of violence and death. And no one can talk us down or reshape our perspectives about government, about money, about who is different, and about who can be trusted.
As much as I’m stunned by the Tucson shooting, I also find myself at a loss for words or excuses … because other people died from gunfire this weekend, too, all around this country; and we don’t know their names, and few if any of us know how many other shooting deaths occurred over the weekend in the US (let alone in the world’s war zones, or in the global community as a whole). We are a culture that accepts violence … which makes us, collectively, a violent people. Regardless of whether you and I carry guns or advocate for war, we are each part of the violence because we don’t pay attention to every shooting and we lose track of how many soldiers died in Afghanistan and we don’t ask our government to count the number of people we are killing in war. It’s not only physical violence that we tolerate and perpetuate; there is also a pervasive violence of words (demeaning or dismissive or too casually hurtful words) in every sphere of our lives — in our families, in our politics, in our communities of faith, in our everyday dialogue about ideas.
And, despite our romanticism of American history, I don’t believe for a second that this level of violence is new in society or that it’s gotten worse since kids started playing video games and families stopped having seven-days-a-week-hot-meal-on-the-dinner-table meals. It is different that we see it more and hear it more today because there are more avenues for seeing and hearing news of violence, and there are more overlaps and opportunities for running into each other — figuratively and literally and electronically, accidentally and on purpose. It’s not that fifty or sixty or seventy years ago we were all a little nicer; it’s that our social circles were more isolated and our news input was more limited.
So we didn’t hear all the news
about people being awful to one another;
and if a man hit his wife
that wasn’t called ‘violence’
it was a ‘domestic issue’;
and we didn’t have to think about whether or not
we would allow ourselves to be shaped and honed
and having our thinking challenged
by someone different from us
because we lived in a much more
obviously and legally segregated society.
(Many of those legal segregations still exist!)
But throughout US history, when those segregationshave been broken or shifted or challenged,the culture of violence gets unveiled to itself,
over and over again,horribly, disturbingly.
So in the years after slavery was ended,
our taste for violence and our intolerance for being reshaped by others
manifested itself in the nightmare of lynchings;
and when the Civil Rights Act passed
the tear gas and fire hoses and assassinations
represented white people’s vehement refusal
to have persons of color reshape the white worldview.
In the late 70s and 80s (and still in the 21st century),
when gay men and women, bisexuals and transgender persons
started naming their relationships and their gender identities
in the same conversation
as they talked about faith or ordination to ministry,
challenging the shape and trying to hone the collective Church,
the “straight” church folks went nuts with verbal and theological violence
(and are still doing so today)
in resistance to rethinking theology and reshaping
the face of Church.
We are so rooted in the ideologies of patriotism
and so accepting of violence that supports a nationalistic perspective
that even now
— almost ten years after going to war in Iraq for the 2nd time —
our primary protests occur around the safety of our kitchen tables
and not on the street corners;
so collectively rigid are we, and so certain
that there is only one way to be patriotic
and only one way to express loyalty,
that when people heard that local high school students
chose not to recite the Pledge of Allegiance,
the newspaper lit up with letters to the editor
and violent words of condemnation and condescension
against students and against school leaders.
We are a violent society that violently resists reshaping and rethinking, that refuses — to use Church language — to participate in an ongoing baptism of communal growth and mutual responsibility. We are quick to use weapons to hurt and words to hurt in our desire to be unquestionably right, in our determined efforts to remain collectively and individually unchanged. At the same time — in an ironic twist of self-blindness — we also ignore the violence around us and we ignore the violence that we cause, so that the shooting of a congressional representative surprises us and we wonder aloud when it all got so bad.
In the midst of it all — in the midst of the horribly obvious and the much less obvious (or less willingly observed) violence — the purposeful living of baptism as a communal responsibility —
and gently honing
one another with love and truth
— stands as a counter-cultural commitment over and against that societal & individualistic attitude that refuses to change at all costs.
And it doesn’t matter, really, if you or I feel daunted by the idea of being called to shape one another and to be reshaped by that social engagement, or if we feel inadequate to the task like John. By our baptism, by witnessing the baptisms of others, by participating in one baptized body, we are called to the task of ongoing baptism:
called to the task of shaping and being shaped,of cleaning and being cleaned,called to pay attention to the life and the lives around us,called to be a blessing — not with drops of water,but with our lives and our social responsibility;called to respond boldly when God beckons,
not saying “Who am I to do this?”but rather
“Here I am,
ready to be reshaped and remadeand reusedthrough this baptism of community.”
1/09/11 sermon, preached at Grace United Church of Christ.