Messy, Holy, Real Life Together
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at St. Matthew’s UMC January 12, 2014, The Baptism of the Lord.
Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17
Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. And some of you might immediately feel your eyes begin to glaze over as you wonder what that has to do with anything remotely connected to life as we know it. I’m here to tell you that, as a matter of fact, it has plenty to do with real life. But in order to be clear, let’s just do a little recap of the back story of Jesus’ baptism—and our own.
Jesus’ baptism didn’t zap him into being the Son of God or the Christ; he came into the world that way. Rather, Jesus’ baptism was and is an affirmation and confirmation of his true identity. In the version of the story we hear today, Jesus and John have a disagreement about how this thing should go down—and it becomes clear that Jesus knows that he needs to be baptized “to fulfill all righteousness.” What does this mean? 1) To be righteous means to do the will of God. And, 2) while baptism signifies many things, it is, at its most basic level, an initiation rite—it is the end of an old way of life and an entry into a new one. Jesus seemed to understand that his baptism was necessary in order to enter fully into solidarity with our human condition and that it also was an entry into a new phase of his life in accordance with God’s will; for from there, he was led into the wilderness for 40 days and nights wrestling with the deceiver, praying and fasting, and preparing for his public life and ministry.
When we are baptized, we are adopted by God and brought into the Christian family, incorporated into God’s life, enfolded into God’s love. This doesn’t mean that we are outside of God’s love prior to our baptism—but rather that at our baptism, like Christ, our truest identity is affirmed and confirmed, namely, that we are beloved children of God. As we pass through the waters, we are initiated into a new life and—here’s where things get messy—we are initiated into a new community. These days it is very common for folks to talk about how they are spiritual but not religious. This is often just another way of saying, “I believe in God but don’t want to deal with the PEOPLE of God.” Let’s face it, the people of God are a pretty mixed bag after all; so it’s not surprising that lots of folks opt out of getting involved in any meaningful way with them. But here’s the thing: our baptism connects us to all those people—and, of course, “those people” are YOU; “those people” are THESE people sitting around you…and millions more. If you are baptized, you are IN the Body of Christ with all of them, and they with you. The gracious waters of baptism cover the little babies (like Dexter) we receive with joy, and those waters also cover the backbiters and the hypocrites, the criminals and the manipulators, the power-mongers and the bigots. The waters of baptism cover those who are on fire with the love of God, the ones who give you hope and inspire your own faith, and the lukewarm pew-sitters. In other words, we are all in this thing together, connected through our baptism, whether we like it or not. One of my favorite stories about this is told by Kathleen Norris who writes:
“It was January, bitterly cold and windy, on the day that I joined the church, and I found that the sub-zero chill perfectly matched my mood. As I walked to church, into the face of that wind, I was thoroughly depressed. I didn’t feel much like a Christian and wondered if I was making a serious mistake…I still felt like an outsider in the church and wondered if I always would. Yet I knew that somehow, in ways I did not yet understand, making this commitment was something I needed to do. Before the service, the new members gathered with some of the elders. One was a man I’d never liked much. I’ll call him Ed. He’d always seemed ill-tempered to me, and also a terrible gossip, epitomizing the small mindedness that can make small-town life such a trial. Standing awkwardly before our small group, Ed cleared his throat and mumbled, ‘I’d like to welcome you to the body of Christ.’ The minister’s mouth dropped open, as did mine—neither of us had ever heard words remotely like this come from Ed’s mouth. Like distant thunder, the words made me more alert, attuned to further disruptions in the atmosphere. What had I gotten myself into? I was astonished to realize, as that service began, that while I may never like Ed very much, I had just been commanded to love him. My own small mind had just been jolted, and the world seemed larger, opened in a new way.”
“Welcome to the Body of Christ.” That is what we say to someone who is being baptized. That is what we hear as we reaffirm our own baptismal covenant to serve Jesus together with the church which he has opened to ALL. It’s a welcome into all the messy, holy, real life shared by people who in ways beautiful and sometimes deeply broken try to know and follow the will of God. We are welcomed into a space of grace—in which we are assured of God’s mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and love, and in which we are challenged to share mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and love with others. It would be nice if it was always nice. It would be helpful if we always gave and received mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and love. It would be an easier “sell” if Christian community was somehow immune to all the messiness that ensues when people share life together. But we in the church are far from immune to the difficult, destructive, painful realities of our world. We shouldn’t be surprised. Just look at what happened to Jesus. We shouldn’t be surprised since Jesus always made it clear that he came not for the saints but for the sinners. That is good news, after all, since we all fall into that “sinner” category in one way or another…
The reality is that the church is called to welcome all people and to strive to share the compassion, forgiveness, and love of Jesus Christ. St. Matthew’s takes this seriously. BECAUSE we welcome all people, we have to be realistic about the fact that some of the people whom we welcome may not be coming among us for the purpose of seeking God and God’s love, but instead come into a place where they can take advantage of a trusting and open community and do harm to its most vulnerable members. For years, St. Matthew’s has had a Safe Sanctuary policy in place that seeks to protect the most vulnerable among us—our children and youth. This policy includes background checks for those who work directly with our youngest members as well as a “Two-Adult Rule” that assures that no child or teenager will be left alone with one adult at any time for any reason. Last year, the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church called upon all the churches in the conference to develop an addition to our Safe Sanctuary policies that specifically addresses the difficult issue of how to respond to persons who attend—or wish to attend—our churches and who are on a state registry of sex offenders. The Baltimore-Washington Conference asked us to take up the issue because it is a real issue that churches in our region are dealing with; we know, for example, that there are sex offenders who are on trial in the Bowie/Crofton area. Dealing with this kind of thing is part of the messy reality that comes from being baptized into and living within the Body of Christ which is the church. St. Matthew’s formed a task group to prayerfully address this issue and received input from a number of persons and groups, including our own youth council. The result is a policy that includes a process for cross-checking our members and attendees with the state registries of sex offenders and providing a covenant and accountability process for persons known to have committed such an offense so that they can safely and discreetly participate in the redemptive fellowship of this congregation. The policy serves as an example of grace in action insofar as we know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ or seek to follow Christ as disciples sin and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) At the same time, the policy is also very clear that the most important goal is to maintain a safe and secure environment for all people, with the safety of our children and youth being the highest priority… If you want to know more about our Safe Sanctuary policy or have questions about the latest addendum, we will have task force members available (in the fellowship hall/parlor) after worship to talk with you. You can also check out the website or a brochure that is available on the welcome table for more information… Praying and studying and struggling with difficult issues such as these and seeking a way to live together that puts us at least in the vicinity of the will of God—this is part of what it means to actually live into the life that our baptism implies. Welcome to the Body of Christ!
Perhaps you didn’t come to worship today expecting to hear about such things. My guess is that none of you did. But my hope is that even in the messiness and discomfort that such topics entail, you will be encouraged and even inspired to know that this congregation of the people of God is seeking to live out the baptismal promises right where grace and real life meet—and to create and sustain a communal life that nurtures growth in trust, faith, and service of God.
Today in our Epistle reading we heard Peter say that “God shows no partiality” and that the story of Jesus is a story of peace, healing, new life, and forgiveness. We are ALL the recipients of the love and mercy of Jesus and in ways large and small, and all of us—saints and sinners alike, thanks be to God—share in the story. Today, as a way to reaffirm our place in the messy, holy, real life of the people of God, you are invited to come forward and to place the object you have been holding in the baptismal font. As we pray and the waters are poured, we will be reminded that we are all covered by the waters of baptism and given grace and strength to enter more fully into the life that is promised and to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” We are in this thing together. And this thing we’re in is none other than God’s love and mercy. It’s not easy. It’s often messy. But it’s holy. Thanks be to God.