Always welcome the stranger among you for you never know when you may be entertaining an angel. We’ll call this angel Helen. She stood weeping in front of me as she was leaving Sunday Service. She was 90 years old and, as I later found out, was weeping for a sister she never knew. As it is today, it was Baptism of our Lord Sunday.
As the years progressed throughout my ministry, I had become less compliant with certain practices which I, as an ordained person, am supposed to abide. I have baptized outside of the church. I welcome anyone to the Lord’s table because, well, the last time I checked, it was the Lord’s Table. I have always wondered when we are going to start requiring Baptismal I.D. cards to be presented in order for people to share in communion. Are we going to say to those not baptized, “Hey, you in the pew there, wondering if you have been baptized or not. You just sit there and keep passing that wine and bread to the person beside you but don’t you partake. Better to hedge your bets on the side of human reason than God’s grace.
I support any baptism done by any person, not just the ordained, who has confidence and trust in the efficacy of God’s word and the truth of God’s abundant grace. It was this last one that got to Helen. During the sermon I had apparently said, “It is God who baptizes, not us.” “Is that really true?” she pleaded as she stood before me. “Is what true?” I asked. “That it is God who baptizes?” “Yes, that is true.” Leaning over the steam of coffee and tea during fellowship time, I began to understand why her emotional cup had overflowed.
Helen told me about her sister who was born years before she was. Her sister was born very ill at home and lived for only two months. When the thief named death came for her, she was quickly baptized by her grandmother. Helen’s parents then went to the pastor of a church they had been life long members of to plan the funeral. The pastor refused to hold the funeral in the sanctuary because he himself had not baptized the baby. The funeral was held in the basement of the church.
Now, you know why tears of relief swam to Helen’s eyes. Her whole life she had grieved for the salvation of a sister she never knew. “Does this mean that my sister is okay? Is she really okay?” “By the grace of God, I can assure you Helen, your sister is okay.” Tears of grace filled her eyes once again.
Now, before we go all spiritually tsk, tsk, tsking on that poor pastor, hear this. Baptism with water into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is the sacrament by which we are signified and sealed in our union to Christ and participation in the blessings of the new covenant. All may be admitted to the Lord’s Supper who make a credible profession of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and of obedience to His law. That is straight out of the Basis of Union of our United Church. This, of course, implies that if you are not obedient to the law of Christ (whatever one may deem that to mean, and whoever gets to judge that) then you are not deserving of God’s grace to come to the table. So don’t tsk, tsk, tsk this pastor. We can be exclusive as well.
That is why it has never set well with me when we take a ritual executed in the wilderness and make it legalistic, restrict it, and, in doing so, we domesticate God. But, we love our baptismal traditions. Breanne’s proclamation this morning when she publicly declared that she believes herself a child of God, washed, redeemed and saved, is powerful, touching and moving to us all.
We especially love dunking those little babies, the sleepy ones, the cooing ones, even the crying ones and the ones who spit up all over my stole. Young parents present, hope abounds, future bright, Bibles received, candles lit. Everything in this sanctuary so proper, so clean, so sanitized.
But that’s not what I am hearing in Jesus’ baptism. Nothing tame here. Wilderness. Barrenness. Wind whipping up dust clouds and the heavens being torn open right in front of our eyes. The city is left behind. Society left behind. Social systems left behind. Politics left behind. Constructs of success and power left behind. Sanitation left behind. Order left behind. Out in the wilderness only one thing matters, survival. Out here life is reduced to its essentials. No chaos, no grey areas, only what it takes to survive.
It is to a place such as this Jesus comes to be washed, baptized because, in Jesus’ soul, he knows that without God there is no life. God is essential to our living, to our survival. It is clear that Jesus came to be baptized into something, a renewed relationship with his God. What we do here may not be total submersion into the muddy waters of the Jordan, it may be but a small splash of water, but it marks the beginning of a whole new life. Why? Because look at what God does. God could not stand it any longer. God could not stand to be separated from God’s creation, from his only begotten son. So God tears open the heavens. It doesn’t say that God opened the heavens. There is a perfectly good Greek word for ‘open’ and it is simply not there in this passage.
Feel the energy in this, the urgency in this, the desperation in this action, the passion of a God who loves the world so much that God tears open the heavens to be with God’s son. One usually associates this kind of God power with chariots of fire descending to right a wrong and bring justice to the world.
But here, this kind of power is used by God to do one thing, to say to his child, “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” It means that much to God to be able to tell his son this. Of course it does, it meant enough to God to tell us, God’s children, we are loved, that God was willing at Christmas to cloak God’s infinite power with our finite humanity to tell us that God loves us. God was willing to allow his son to suffer the wounds of our humanity and to die disgraced on a cross to tell us how much God loves us. God will rip open the heavens to tell us how much God loves us.
So I would say to you, let’s get out of the way of God’s grace. Let’s quit trying to make the wild, extravagant grace of God proper. Let’s stop trying to sanitize what God does. Let’s quit trying to domesticate our God. Let’s let God be God.
Today, let’s affirm our own baptismal vows by entering the wilderness, leaving behind all that tries to define grace, and let God loose to rip open the heavens and expose to us, in any way God desires, God’s grace, God’s passionate desire to tell the world that God loves us all.
Let’s celebrate grace wherever it is found even if it is with the stranger at your door.