These Baptisms are Killing Us
There is a couple in this church who tell the story of what brought
them first into this sanctuary over two decades ago. The way that I
know the story is that the husband -- a newish parent -- was in the
building for something else, and he ran into one of the folks who was
then a pastor, and he asked, "Do you baptize babies here?"
And he received a positive response, and the rest is history.
Now that's obviously the hugely abbreviated version, but there is
something essentially important about that question, "Do you
baptize babies here?" As a pastor it is one of my highest
privileges and honors, as well as the thing that takes me to some sad
spots, like the call to baptize dead or dying babies. But I've also
baptized folks in their eighties and twins and parents and children
together and more than a few teenagers right before confirmation.
Baptism is a gift to me.
Whenever I baptize someone over the age of about three, I engage
them in a preparatory conversation. Mostly we talk about water and
mystery, two things that kids understand quite well. We talk about how
water washes us and replenishes us and gives us power and transports us
and how it is essential to cellular life and psychological health. We
talk about how we can play in it and how it exists in this cycle of
rain and evaporation and how it flows deep yet makes mud on the
surface. Kids understand mud quite well, too.
Today I want to explore some of the lesser-emphasized dimensions of
baptism, and so I'm about to explain how baptism is about death and
negativity as well as about Irish wild geese and global political
transformation. This is all inspired by the Book of Acts with a little
Paul and John too but not so much that I'll go on too long.
At my first church there was a retired couple who spoke to me every
time I celebrated a baptism to tell me that I was doing it wrong or not
well enough. Jim and Marian were the only true fundamentalists -- and
they were both -- in a 600-member church I served, but as good,
honorable literalists they were consistently filled with love and
charity which I say without reserve. But I got regular remonstrations
from Jim and Marian because in my sacramental conduct I did not, they
said, ever emphasize enough that baptism is fundamentally about death.
Now, some of you will nod along with them and say, yes, it's got to
be about death. Others of you are checking your glasses right now to
see if this is still Ken up here and wondering how in the world the
sacrament of embrace should emphasize loss. But it should, for some
tragic and effervescent reasons, and let me explain.
I do not, as a habit, when I'm chatting with kids, ask how water
brings death, but of course it does. Our bodies need something over a
gallon of water to hold together each day, but if you put a few ounces
of it in the wrong place, we're gone. And if you live in Thailand, or
near sea level, even rather small waves of ocean water can destroy your
home, your field, your well water, and your community. Kids don't need
that graphic explanation, but grownups know that it's true. From
Genesis to the Gospels, water is chaos and destruction as well as
But there is actually more to this than water's darker powers. For
example, several times Jesus refers to his own death by calling it his
baptism, and if we go back to a theme that we repeated every week in
Lent we might see that the idea of repentance, or going beyond the mind
that you have, and of death, as it means casting off the layers of
injury and destructiveness that grow onto us, then this is actually a
rather liberating line of thought. Almost every time we tell how to
start the Christian story, we say that it starts with death.
Christian scholars talk about the via negativa: the way of
the negative. When other spiritual traditions talk about letting go or
detachment or ending the cycle of Samsara, the cycle of birth
and death and birth and death, we find, I think, wisdom and insight in
the shedding of burdens. That's what the via negativa reflects,
too. The via negativa is not about saying critical things
regarding our being. It is about facing darkness and shedding
destruction. So it is about freedom from those powers, too. It is about
the death of those powers. Now, do we want baptism to include words of
negativity or death?
Well, I hope so, because the scripture keeps talking about how
Jesus' baptism reveals freedom and release from what was. It means,
paradoxically, a new way to live because of the death of what had been.
It means living without the power of Pharaoh or Caesar, of wealth or
poverty, of education or ability deciding your worth. It means that the
exodus story is not over: liberation through water, and that is good
news. I don't know if I'll ever emphasize death enough for Jim and
Marian, but I'll come back to it in a minute.
But first let me tell you about the Irish wild geese.
How we baptize is important. It's important that we use water and
prayer, and in our tradition it's important what we say and what we
mean. About three weeks ago, we got an urgent phone call from a kid who
grew up in this church. This kid was just about to get married in the
Greek Orthodox Church and had to have written proof of how we conducted
baptisms or else the wedding was on hold. This is not good news to the
mother of a bride. The issue at hand was whether we use the Trinitarian
formula: "in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy
Spirit," and we do, although we say more, too. You see, as I've
said before, almost all of Christendom recognizes the Trinitarian
baptism as participation in the body of Christ. Anyway, we sent off our
emergency embossed envelope, and I'm assuming this kid is married by
But what is this Trinity? I can't answer that question in a
sentence, but it means something like the meditation from Fred Buechner
in the bulletin, as God entails something beyond, something among, and
something within. The Trinity is our creator God, our resurrection
Christ, and our Holy Spirit, which is where the goose comes in.
In general our symbol for the Holy Spirit is a dove, flying
downward, which is quite pristine and elegant. Long ago, some European
churches had several-ton doves, held by chains, above the baptismal
fonts and altars to be lowered on special occasions, which is a
different image. But consider also Celtic Christianity. For the Celts,
the symbol for the Holy Spirit was not the dove but the wild goose.
Now, think about the geese at City Hall in Newton. Think about
gaggles of geese that you know or those that fly in V formations in the
fall. My family used to keep a small pack of African Geese as guard
animals at our farm in Maine. Geese are not pristine, elegant
creatures. Which is exactly what the Celts thought of the Holy Spirit.
It was noisy, meddlesome, and messy sometimes. It invaded your space
without nuance. It, or she to be Biblical, couldn't be overlooked. Jim
and Marian might remind me that along with death, the urgent engagement
of the Holy Spirit too often gets short shrift, too. But that is part
of our baptism.
Listen to this line from Colossians, referring to Jesus:
And Paul writes in Romans,
You were buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised
with Him. You, who were dead, God made alive.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ
Jesus have been baptized into His death … (so that) we might walk in
the newness of life?
What does that mean? It means that when we are doing baptisms right,
we should talk about death a little bit and about the via negativa
and about wild geese. We should talk about the Biblical story of
letting go and liberation from the crust of culture's death that
encases us. We should talk about freedom from every Caesar in every
age, freedom from fear, from difference, freedom even from death. We
should talk about freedom to follow God. We should talk about political
freedom across God's creation. We should talk about how water changes
the global community when we share it, when we organize to provide it,
or when we drink so much of it from plastic bottles that the fuel it
takes to transport it becomes destructive. We should talk about the
waves we make with our global warming as we overuse resources and
about how we are connected in life and death to the whole world
community, especially the poor and the vulnerable. Baptism is the
sacrament of embrace and entrance to the Body of Christ, and as such it
connects us with the whole creation, so we become constituents in
preventing its destruction. Baptism is the rite of death and new birth
and passage to every compassionate, social, cosmic, psychological,
fear-bearing, hope-sharing element of life. Baptism is our call to the
elegant pristine effervescence of the Spirit and to the noisy, messy
world which She calls us to serve. Baptism is our encouragement to be
meddlesome when the way of the world is not following the way of
Christ. Baptism is the presence of God within the bounds of our senses,
says one great theologian. It is, like water, essential to our life
and much, much more than words by a fount. Baptism is life, embrace,
engagement, empowerment, encouragement. It is not about personal
immortality but global morality. It is our highest honor and call, as
sacrament and symbol.
Do we still baptize babies here? I hope so. I hope we baptize babies
and youth and adults and visitors with the whole story of God for the
whole people of God. I hope we emphasize all the right bits, and I hope
we share God's sacraments of food and power constantly, every hour,
because the world is always preaching the power of death and its
finality, and our best hope is in Jesus' baptism beyond death and its
personal, political, social, compassionate morality. I hope we do this
in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God who
is mother of us all.
Copyright © 2008
Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.
Ideas for this sermon came from Matthew Fox, William Willimon and
Ernst Troeltsch, among others.