The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire


  
Sermon  January 10, 2016
Scripture Reading: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22




The Rev. Robert Vodra

 

     I don’t get to perform a lot of baptisms.  In fact, I can only think of three baptisms I have done, and one of them was for a set of little brothers about 2 and 4, so not sure if that would count for one or two, but since my numbers are so low, I count it as two for the time being.  That, and the Lord’s Supper are the two sacraments recognized in the United Church of Christ.  But we do the Lord’s supper every month, only get baptized once in your life.


     Marriages are not a sacrament, and it has always confused me why so many people want a minister to marry them, when they have no intention of being involved in a church.  There are Justices of the Peace who do weddings, have a lot more experience, and are probably better at it.  I have, by default, become the family minister to perform weddings.  Recently I was talking to one of my cousins who said “You married our Uncle and our cousin, are you going to marry our cousin who is planned her wedding for next June?”  I quickly corrected him, while I am pretty sure that in some states you can probably marry your first cousin, and maybe some states where you could even marry your Uncle, it is illegal in all state to be married to more than one person at any time, and I am only married to one person, not a cousin or uncle.  I have not been asked to perform my next cousin’s wedding ceremony yet. 


     Baptism is not well understood, probably because we don’t do them that much, and many of us were baptized before we could remember.  When I moved into New Hampshire I had a man come into my office one day, I didn’t recognize him.  He looked at me, started to smile a little bit, and said “Well I guess some of it must have stuck.” Turns out that he was the minister who baptized me when I was a baby.  He left the church a few years after he baptized me, while I was still too young to remember.  After 40 years I don’t know if I would have been able to recognize him even if I remembered my baptism.


     Until fairly recently, at least in many of our churches, baptism was something that we did to babies.  If you ask some people, they will tell you that they were taught that babies were baptized to wash away original sin, so they would go to heaven if they died.  This is non-biblical, and in my opinion horrible theology.
 

     When I was in seminary we were required to do one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education.  This was normally where you went into a hospital or nursing home or some other similar setting, and paid them so you could work with them for several months.  I did mine at West Virginia University Hospital, in Morgantown, West Virginia.  There were about 7 of us, so each day, and the following night, one of us would carry the pager.  This was the number any department would call if someone requested a chaplain or the staff thought a chaplain would be helpful.  Most of us had paged to the Emergency room within the first few weeks.  They were very good about calling when they had a bad car accident, or someone arrived and they could not save them.  We were supposed to stay within 15 minutes of the hospital, and even had a bed we could try to sleep in at the hospital.  One night I got a call from a different number.  When I called it back, it was the Maternity ward.  They quickly explained that a woman had given birth to a baby with severe heart problems.  They had talked over the options with the mother.  If the mother wanted, the baby would require approximately 10 different painful surgeries, each one with about a 10% survival rate, spanning over many years.  They called the chaplain because the mother decided the best thing to do was to let the baby die peacefully, but wanted it baptized.
 

     Luckily this was very early morning, and my supervising chaplain would be in very shortly.  The baby was baptized later that morning and died about 36 hours later.  Since several of us were involved with this situation, we decided this would be a great case study for us to talk about during our twice weekly meetings.
 

     We decided that baptism had two main components.   The first is that baptism has to do with identity.  We baptize in order to welcome a child into the family of God, and specifically into our church.  The vows that we use during baptism contain vows the parents take to raise the child in the Christian faith, to teach the child about God.  And as the church, we also promise to provide opportunities for that child to be raised up that way, and to provide opportunities for the child to learn about God. 


     The second thing about Baptism that is important is that it is not us who do the baptizing.  Who baptized Jesus?  No, might not have been John the Baptist, if you go back after church today and read the verses we left out, John the Baptist was arrested, probably was in jail by the time Jesus got baptized.  Kind of in the same way that I do not marry people, I don’t baptize people. I perform a baptism ceremony, but the relationship you are establishing is between the Holy Spirit and the baby.  Since it is the Holy Spirit that is doing the action of the baptism, it is a perfect relationship.  No matter what happens to other relationships in your life, this is one that will last forever.

 

Now I do have a confession to make, Glenn and Collin are not baptized.  They were born in the Bible Belt. 
At that point we were not members of a UCC church, although I was ordained and held standing in the UCC.  For those of you who have not read up on your UCC history lately, the UCC is made up primarily of 4 denominations, plus other smaller denominations.  One of those small groups were historically African American churches in Eastern North Carolina.  When I moved down there I called the Conference office and said that I was ordained in the UCC, had to have my membership held by a UCC church, but was having a hard time finding one within 45 minutes of my house.  The conference minister explained that there was only one, struggling church about an hour away, but if I went there, while she was sure I would be welcomed, I would stick out like a sore thumb.  Those were her words.  My skin was the wrong color.

 

     We did arrange for the association to hold my church membership, and she suggested that I attend a church less than an hour away where I could blend in a little easier.  This meant that I could not really join any church, many were pretty strict about only members doing things like serving on a committee or getting too involved.  They also tended to be more on the conservative side and more than once left church saying “Well, I do not agree with the pastor on that.”  While I may not agree with everything my pastor says, between that and being held kind of at arm’s length since I was not a member, I decided that I would not ask them to baptize Glenn.  Do I want him to be welcomed into a community that I am on the fringes of, that I cannot really belong to, and whose beliefs I fairly often do not agree with?  Or do I want to hope that God loves all of us so much that the Holy Spirit will establish a relationship with him, and hopefully, someday, he will make the choice to be baptized.  By the time we moved up here and settled into a church, he was 7, so I was comfortable in waiting until he makes the choice.


     And there is nothing wrong, in my mind with waiting.  Many Christian Churches have believer baptism.  They wait until the child, youth or adult makes the choice to follow Jesus, and then they are baptized.  They will often use the term reborn, with the baptism as a symbol of being reborn into this new life of following Jesus.  Since we are only baptized once, I have always been a little jealous of those who were baptized at an
age they can remember.  But for those of us who were baptized as children, we have confirmation, where we take on the vows for ourselves the vows that our parents took for us when we were baptized.  I will try to follow Jesus; I will try to learn more about God.  And also the identity piece, I am child of God, I want to have a relationship with God.

 

     I could not find the reference, but one of the reformers suggested that every time we touch water, we remember our baptism.  As a junior high kid at summer camp I was first told this, and then the camp chaplain took a pine branch, dipped it into the water and splashed it out on us saying “Remember your baptism and be thankful.”  My mind must have been wandering at that point, and must have been shaken back when I got hit by the water, since I thought “I cannot remember my baptism.”  I know he must have explained it better, but didn’t get that part, only be splashed at a worship service.  A few years later he was the chaplain for the whole summer when I was on staff there, and he explained it better to me.  You may not remember the actual moment you were baptized, but hopefully you realize that it meant something to you.  I was doing maintenance work that summer, so at the end of the day I was covered in grass clippings, sweat, that stuff that leaks out of the bottom of trash bags, good and dirty.  I went back up to the building where I was staying and jumped in the shower.
 

     It was at that moment that I realized what he was saying.  I was standing before God, totally naked, no way to hide behind anything.  The water was taking off all the junk that had accumulated all over my body that day.  When I stepped out of the shower, I thought “Yes, I am now ready.”  Normally I am a “morning shower person.”  Now there is a difference between a morning shower person and a morning person, I am not a morning person but take a shower in the morning.  And it makes sense over and over again.  God sees me at my worst.  Bed head, unshaven, morning breath, often trying to drink coffee and get the shower in while yelling at my kids to eat breakfast, brush their teeth and put on their shoes.  I am grumpy, short tempered, and frankly would rather be back in bed for another 15 or 20 minutes.  As the water flows over me, I do remember my baptism.  I am a child of God and God loves me even when I am at my worst.


     The man who built our house, and then lived here for several years installed many mirrors in our bathroom.  Over the sink, on the shower door, on the closet door, on the back of the bathroom door.  He liked mirrors.  So when I am in my bathroom, everywhere I look I see myself in a mirror, and I think this also helps me.  There are things that I see in the mirrors that I would like to change.  Never had a six pack, but looking more like a spare tire over the past couple years.  If I used some moisturizer on my legs, they would be less itchy, and I would not have all those scratches.  And I see the scars, those spots where I had moles removed to be checked for cancer many years ago, the big one on my back, from when I was younger and stupid.  God sees it all, including those things we cannot see in the mirror.  Those areas inside us that we really should be working on, and the scars we all have, from things that happened to us or we did to ourselves.  Things we can change, may take some work but are within our control, and those things that are beyond our control or have happened to us.  And I am a child of God with all my imperfections and scars.
 

     When I remember that something does change.  Our baptism changes us.  As I was preparing this morning’s sermon I was reading about one minister who used to use the pine branch in the water on Sunday morning during church.  Done right, it can be powerful, but for them it was too passive.  You will get a bit of water on you even if you just sit there.  But that is not what our faith is about.  Oh, sure, if you attend church sometimes, hopefully a bit of Holy Spirit will hopefully land on you.  But if we go back to the vows that we took, or were taken for us during baptism, or during confirmation, or upon joining the church they are not passive.  They do not include attend church every week, and forget about God for the other 167 hours each week.
 

     “On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?  Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?  Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?  And to all who are gathered for the baptism ceremony: Will you nurture these persons in Christ's holy Church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God's grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life?”


     This is active, this is what we are called to do, this is what we promise to do.  We don’t promise to be perfect, or promise to be anything, we promise to do.


     After the service today I invited you to stop by the baptismal font, dip your hand in the water.  You can make a cross on your forehead or the back of your hand.  You can just feel the water, and maybe say “I remember my baptism and I am thankful” or “I am a child of God.”
 

     While I do believe that God loves us all if we were baptized or not, if you were not and would like to consider it, please come and talk with me.  But even if you are not baptized, not a formal member of this church, God still loves you.  God wants to be in relationship with you.  You are still a child of God. 


Amen. 


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