Baptism of Jesus
Alan Watts, British-born philosopher and writer, once said, “To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead, you relax, and float.”
When I was doing my student chaplaincy at the Mississauga Hospital, I used to do overnight on-call shifts at the hospital once a week. Only one chaplain would be on call at a time; we would be responsible for responding to any and all calls during those hours.
I have to be honest – I never got totally comfortable with it. I hated the feeling of being alone and not having the other chaplains around for support if I needed it. I never knew what was going to happen or what trauma might come through the doors of the Emergency Room. The entire time I was on call I almost existed in a state of fear over the uncertainty of what might happen when my pager went off.
There were times when I was called to two or three places at once and felt like I spent more time on elevators and running up and down the hallways of the hospital than giving spiritual care. There were heartbreaking, tragic and traumatic calls. There were long and sleepless nights. Sometimes I would look at my watch all night and count down the hours until 8 a.m. when the other chaplains would arrive for the day and I could hand the pager off, go home and get some sleep. Don’t get me wrong – my chaplaincy experience was an incredible learning opportunity and an absolute honour – but it was also incredibly difficult at times.
Some mornings I would be so exhausted that I struggled to keep my eyes open. When I walked in the door to my apartment all I ever wanted to do was crawl into bed, pull a blanket over my head and try to forget that I ever thought a chaplaincy rotation at a busy city hospital was a good idea.
That being said, it never mattered how tired I was, I never came home and immediately crashed. I always had to take a shower first.
My post-on-call shower was never really about washing away the physical reminder of the on-call. In a bizarre way, I needed to wash away the emotional, mental and spiritual reminders.
I needed to wash away the tears that I had cried, the distraught family members that I had held and the words that I had prayed. I needed to wash away every call that I had hurried to and everything that I had seen once I got there. I had to wash away the sound of my pager, my inner grief and turmoil over why bad things happen to good people and the sad reality that there is real pain in the world.
In a strange way, like Watts said, I trusted myself to the waters that poured over me those mornings. They helped me feel refreshed and renewed; they allowed me to pause and clear my head; and they forced me to take a deep breath, relax and calm myself down.
I felt healed by those waters. I felt renewed. I felt like I could begin again.
This week all of the lectionary Scripture readings offer us the invitation to begin again. How many times in life are we invited to begin anew? It seems to me that the invitations are countless, but that sometimes we forget that we are always being welcomed by the creativity of God into possibility and newness. Many of us, myself included, find the very idea of being asked to begin something new terribly intimidating because we have become comfortable where we are, with what we have, and how we do it. But the nature of the Christian experience is that we are always being called out by God and invited into participation in the new creation.
What have been those moments in your life when you have been called into something new? Perhaps it was when your first child was born—or you fell in love. Sometimes beginning anew can be painful—we might receive a difficult diagnosis, or lose someone we love, or have to say goodbye to a job that has defined us. It could mean learning new technology to connect with friends and family or making the decision to move to another city or even country. There are thousands of times in each life when the invitation comes to form creation out of the chaos and void of our lives. It is one of the gifts of being alive and trusting in the Spirit who hovers over our life and over all of life that we are invited into this way of creative existence.
This morning’s Gospel lesson is all about beginnings. This is the Sunday dedicated to celebrating the baptism of Jesus which, in Mark’s Gospel, is the moment Jesus’ ministry begins. Whether we ourselves have been baptized or not – it beckons us to wonder how the significant moments of our lives define us? What are the defining moments in this community of faith and in the world itself? I cannot preach without acknowledging what occurred at the U.S. Capitol this week. As Canadians – and especially those of us who are white – we cannot distance ourselves from such terrorism. We cannot distance ourselves from the privilege that we see playing out by those in power both here at home and abroad. We cannot distance ourselves from white supremacist culture that is embedded within our own institutions, rhetoric, and systems.
As we remember Jesus’ baptism, we remember that in that simple, yet sacred act, Jesus becomes part of the gathered community. “In his baptism, Jesus entered into the full, unwieldy messiness of the human family… In our baptisms, we vow to do the same… To embrace Christ’s baptism story is to embrace the wild truth that we are united, interdependent, connected, one. Whether we like it or not, the bond God seals by water and by the Spirit is truer and deeper than all others. It makes a stronger claim on our lives and loyalties than all prior claims… It asks that we bear all the risks of belonging. The risk that others might hurt us. The risk that others will change. The risk that they will change us” (Debie Thomas, Wild Water.)
When we remember our baptism, we may not remember the moment itself, but the meaning of the ritual is powerful; baptism is a symbolic act through which God acts and is actively changing us and the world. It reminds us that we are part of a community larger than ourselves.
As part of our baptismal liturgy – both in the questions asked of parents or those being baptized and in the shared words of The United Church’s A New Creed we make a promise to resist evil. Evil isn’t something that we like to talk about much in The United Church of Canada. But it is a part of our baptismal promises and the call of our Creed. It is at the very heart of who we are and how we live and move in God’s beloved community.
This past Wednesday evening, The United Church of Christ held a National Call for Prayer and Vigil in response to what happened at the U.S. Capitol. United Church of Christ minister John Dorhauer passionately connected our baptismal promises in response to evil in the world:
“When the evil of racism destroys the lives of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour, my baptismal vows ask me to resist it. When the evil of homophobia leads to the humiliation of our kindred who identify as LGBTQ+, my baptismal vows ask me to resist it. When the evil of climate change threatens to undo life on this planet as we know it, my baptismal vows ask me to resist it.” (Paraphrased, John Dorhauer, The United Church of Christ, National Call for Prayer and Vigil)
We cannot be seekers; we cannot be a people of faith if we do not acknowledge the evil that exists in the world. Nor can we ignore it. But more than this we are called to proclaim the Good News in the face of such evil. In spite of such evil. Resisting evil and proclaiming love at every opportunity. In Jesus we are reminded again and again and again that love wins.
Love wins. One of the deepest joys of being a minister is to be able to witness that love in the midst of a common meal or a simple blessing with water or in the lighting of a candle, the extraordinary power of the Spirit of God shimmering in our midst. Of course, Spirit is mostly intangible, but there are moments when Spirit is made manifest among us. I have felt the calming Spirit when nervous parents bring their precious baby forward for baptism, hoping that the baby will not scream or pull the minister’s glasses off. Every time we baptize, it seems to me, that the baby is as surprised and pleased as the rest of us by the blessing of water. I have felt the nurturing Spirit raise up in the breaking of the bread and in the blessing of gentle and strong hands when someone is departing our midst for a long or a short time. I feel the power of the Spirit of God hovering over us when we raise up the names and lives of those in need of our prayers. I feel the push of the Spirit of God calling us to action and in the lives of those who actively resist evil. The grace of God is palpable in our midst. In spite of evil. In spite of it all. Love wins.
Is there a Living, Moving God who calls forth a new creation in our midst today? Is there a Living Presence who beckons you forth into new beginnings and new life? Is there a higher power who creates out of chaos and calls forth holy birth and vitality from each one of us and in our community?
Much of contemporary Christianity tends to be about what we are doing to change the world and make it a better place. Even here at Parkminster, we can forget that we are being led into new life, that we are not doing the leading, but God is leading us toward a new creation and a new time. We can plan and discuss and figure it out only so well. Our deepest call is to trust that a Loving God is leading us in love through the power of a strong and vital Spirit.
Here we are together, in the beginning of the New Year, in the midst of a pandemic and a tumultuous, hurting world, yet we are surrounded by a community of saints and seekers. As evil persists – love is all around us. As we begin again and again and again, let us remember the loving power of the Creating God to make all things new and let us trust the Spirit to open us, challenge us, and support us as we live more deeply into our holy baptism and common calling.
Beloved friends – as you encounter all of the ways that water touches your lives this week and beyond – may you see it as a daily reminder of our call to live out all that baptism encapsulates. To seek justice. To resist evil. To be a beloved community of love and action in the world. Remember your baptism. Remember that love wins.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Heather Power