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Based on the Scripture readings:
Acts 17:22-31

2008 April 27
Sixth Sunday of Easter
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

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 hereBack to top 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 creation.

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.

Back to topBut 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 now.

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: 

You were buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him. You, who were dead, God made alive. 

Back to topAnd Paul writes in Romans,

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.


Ideas for this sermon came from Matthew Fox, William Willimon and Ernst Troeltsch, among others.

Copyright 2008 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.
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