“I have an affection for a great city. I feel safe in the neighborhood of man, and enjoy the sweet security of the streets." -Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Gift of Water

Matthew 3:13-17

Each year, many children and adults come to this font to be baptized. They have the water sprinkled or poured over their heads. If they are infants, unable to answer for themselves, their parents reaffirm their faith, proclaiming their belief in Jesus Christ. We, as a community of faith promise to encourage them, strengthen them, and support them in the faith. This is not simply an individual act, but rather it is a communal act.

I remember the first time I baptized a child at that font. It was a joyous occasion for the family, but also for me personally as it was the first time I had baptized a child, ever. As a said the prayer of blessing over the water, saying the words “Pour out your Holy Spirit to bless this gift of water and the child that receives it. To wash away his sin and clothe him in righteousness throughout his life, that in dying and being raised with Christ he may share in Christ’s final victory.” I felt as if the spirit of God entered this sanctuary, covering this child, and strengthening his parents. It was a moment I will remember for the rest of my life. A few weeks later, his parents sent me a picture along with his birth announcement. Like a proud parent, or in my case, minister, that picture hangs on my refrigerator, reminding me of the way that God’s spirit covered both of us that day. I am sure when he is a teenager, or college student, or adult we will run into each other, and each time I will remind him that he was, the first child I baptized. With great joy, and perhaps a little bit of pride, I will tell him about that day. I would be surprised if after a few times he will be interested in the story, but for me it will be a cherished memory, a remarkable story.

Baptism is often difficult to understand, or explain. Various traditions have different opinions, theological stances, and interpretations about this holy act. As United Methodist we believe baptism is a sacrament; meaning God uses common elements, in this case water, as a mean of divine grace. For our church, baptism is the act of God through the grace of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.

As the water pours over the person, the Spirit of the Lord descends upon them. They become part of the community of faith. It is by water and the spirit that we are all baptized. It is by water and the spirit that we are integrated into the community of faith. It is by water and that spirit that we are all called children of the Almighty God.

Unlike the Methodist church, many traditions simply baptize because it is in the Matthew passage that we read this morning. In this passage, we see how Christ began his ministry. This is how it all started. It is the story of Christ going from a small child, Mary’s little baby boy, to an adult. It is here we see this transformation- the spirit of God descending upon the Messiah, affirming Christ, and declaring Jesus as God’s only Son. It is indeed a remarkable story. And so like Christ, we respond as well…offering ourselves, and our children for baptism, for transformation and incorporation into the Body of Christ. Knowing, that it is not something that we do, rather it is something that God does. God’s spirit ascends on us, covering us, loving us, and affirming us.

When I worked as an intern at First United Methodist in College Park, baptisms were an especially exciting time in the life of the congregation. The congregation at College Park is comprised of mostly older adults with few young families and children. When I was there we confirmed three teenagers, and that was cause for a great celebration since they had not had a confirmation class in over five years. It makes me very thankful for all of the young people we confirm each year. Funerals, at College Park, are much more frequent than baptisms, so when there is a baptism it is also cause for a great celebration. One Sunday, while I was there, we baptized one of the few babies in the congregation. To hear that community of older adults promising to raise this child in the faith brought tears to my eyes. They proclaimed the words we often say “With God’s help we will proclaim the god news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround this child with a community of love and forgiveness, that he may grow in his trust of God and be found faithful in his service to others. We will pray for him, that he may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life eternal.” When they spoke these words, words they rarely had the opportunity to speak, they meant what they said. They took the responsibility very seriously. The words that were infrequently spoken, were said with great great conviction. They made a promise to God, to the child, and to his parents, and they were serious about the promise. With those words, the spirit of the Lord came upon the child and his community of faith. It was a remarkable worship service in which all who were there encountered the Divine.

When we, this United Methodist community of faith, respond during baptism with the same words spoken in Untied Methodist congregations in Cameroon, Chattanooga, Chicago, or College Park we each live out those words differently even thought they have the same meaning. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, tells us that we have each been given different gifts[1] and we are called to use those gifts for the Kingdom of God… to lead all of God’s children in the “way that leads to live eternal.”

When I was a child Miss Sue Ellen Autry took that promise very seriously as my two years old Sunday school teacher. Each Sunday she showed up to “teach” a group of two year olds about Jesus’ love for them. Although I did not understand Christ love for me at that point in my life, I was certain Miss Sue Ellen loved me and that was enough at the age of two. When I was three Miss Rhonda helped me find my voice and a microphone as I bolted out the words “If I were a bell I would ring, ring ding a ling I would ring, but a bell I will never be because I am happy you see just being me.” She took the promise she made at my baptism very seriously. When I was in the sixth grade John and Josephine Foshee took their promise very seriously as they lead about twenty 12 year old in confirmation, showing us that faith could be cool and fun integrating bands that we listened to at home like Phish or Dave Matthews into their weekly lessons. As a high school student I went on various mission trips with my youth group. Brad Norris, a contractor from my home church, took his promise very seriously as he helped high school students with construction in a third world country. As an adult, many of you have taken that promise seriously as you continue to affirm my call to ministry. The promises we make carry a great deal of weight. In their own way each of these people helped “lead me in the way that leads to life eternal.”

When we all make this promise, it is important for us to think about they way we are going to help lead the child “in the way that leads to life eternal.” Some of you have the gift of teaching, so when you say ”We will surround this child with a community of love and forgiveness, that he may grow in his trust of God, you are promising that child, his or her parents, and God that you will teach that child. You will teach them in vacation bible school, or Sunday school, or in a bible study when they are an adult. If you have the gift of administration you are promising to make sure that their playground is safe, their youth room is a place of growth, or that their Sunday school classroom is easily accessible when they become an older adult. If you have the gift of song you are promising to teach their 4-year-old choir, lead them in a youth praise band, or lead as an example in making a joyful noise during worship. If you have the gift of service and outreach you are promising to help them make cards for soldiers overseas, or support them in planning a college mission trip, or visiting them in the nursing home. If you have the gift of care and compassion you are promising to encourage them when they when they fall, love them when they do wrong, and support them when they grieve. If you have the gift of diligent prayer, you are promising to pray for them at all times and through all parts of their life.

Regardless of your gifts, you are making a promise to raise them in the “way that leads to life eternal” and this does not simply apply when they are a child but as they grow and mature in the faith. It is a promise we make to that child and we remember the promises that were made to us when we were baptized. It is a promise we make to the parents and we remember people who supported and encouraged us along our journey of faith. It is a promise we make to the Lord, vowing to care for our Creator’s children. It is a remarkable promise we all make.

Christ began his ministry on this earth by first being baptized. When we are baptized we are incorporated into the body of Christ, into the community of faith. It is here we begin our journey of faith… the journey of love and understanding of our Lord. This journey is not always an easy path. There are often challenges when our faith is questioned, but through those who have promised to support, encourage, and lead us in the way to life eternal our faith remains solid. It remains our foundation. As I look out into this congregation, I am reminded of the promise that I, with you, made to that precious little boy I baptized about a year ago. And with that promise I am reminded of my promise to all of you. When we vow to raise a child in the way that leads to life eternal, it is not just to that specific child, but rather it to the enter Body of Christ. The words we say certainly carry a great deal of weight. They are reassuring, comforting, and at the same time challenging.

I will always remember the first child I baptized, I will always remember hearing you say those words. Words of challenge, comfort, and reassurance. That day, that precious boy was incorporated into the Body of Christ, that day he became part of the community of faith. That day he began the journey. The journey that leads to life eternal. Let us remember the words that we so frequently proclaim” With God’s help we will proclaim the god news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround this child with a community of love and forgiveness that they may grow in their trust of God and be found faithful in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life eternal.” Knowing that with those words we person begins their journey and we fulfill a promise. Knowing that through the water and the spirit the individual is brought into the Body of Christ. God’s grace covers them. God transforms them, and they are given into our care. Let us go forth from here sharing in the promise, rejoicing in the spirit, and being cleansed by the water.

[1] 1 Corinthians 12:4-11

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