Baptisms of Vincent Campagna and Qingnan (Sally) Zhang
Gospel According to Matthew 3:13-17
January 12, 2014
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved,* with whom I am well pleased.’ Matthew 3:13-17, NRSV
Today we will baptize Vincent Campagna and Sally Zhang. How great that these two gorgeous spirits have chosen to be baptized. The Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life reports that the number of Americans who say they have no religious affiliation has hit an all-time high. And, one in three young adults under the age of thirty….one in three, claim no religious affiliation…..A new breed of nones. N-o-n-e-s. Nones. As in, no religious affiliation whatsoever. So what a gift that this morning we celebrate the godly engagement of these two wonderful young spirits.
And, my two young friends, there is hardly a better day to be baptized than this one. Jesus was the first among us to be baptized with the Holy Spirit, and today is the day we celebrate his baptism. And so I think to be baptized on the same day that God’s own flesh was baptized trumps just about everything in the category of confluences of time and event that send us following in the footsteps of our Savior.
Because Jesus’ baptism is, or should be, the blueprint for our own. And the story of Jesus’ baptism is told, albeit slightly differently, in all four of our canonical Gospels. That’s how we know how important and central it is to our Jesus story. Jesus’ baptism marks the start of his public ministry, the inauguration of his mission on earth, his mission of unbounded love and unrequited inclusivity that leads him from the River Jordan…..to the cross. They are the bookends of God’s own mission on this earth, baptism and the cross. That is to say, if we actually live into our baptismal covenants the way Jesus lived into his…….if we actually do live lives guided by pure love….the cross may well be at the end of our road as well.
And so, baptism is no dear little, sweet little event. It is not like a birthday party, or a bon voyage with a vacation or cushy new life waiting at the other side. Baptism is an inauguration of our work on this earth, the beginning of a journey that honors God’s love and image, so indelibly etched on our hearts that it may well lead us to the cross, just as it did Jesus. But it is a journey that is so filled with spirit and grace, so steeped in connection with the divine, so authentic to our human purpose that the reward is no less than the Kingdom of God.
And so fresh off the high of our Christmas and Epiphany celebrations we now plunge (as the word baptism literally means) we plunge, with Jesus at his own baptism, into the muddy Jordan River teeming with frail, fragile, broken flesh. We are about to plunge you, Sally and Vincent, we are about to plunge you into that river of tough love, into the work that you were born to do. Plunge you into your life’s work, the dangerous terrifying work of loving all of God’s creation without measure. Are you willing? Are you ready?
As I said before, Jesus’ baptism is attested in all four canonical gospels. It is the first point in our story of Jesus, at which all four Gospels are on the same page, as it were. Today we heard Matthew’s version of Jesus’ baptism. And it is close, but slightly different from Mark’s version. Mark is chronologically the earliest of the four gospels, and it is the version with which I resonate, personally . First, because Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus’ baptism, not his birth. And so for Mark, the baptism is where Jesus starts.
But also because in Matthew, God’s voice speaks to the gathered crowd about Jesus: This is my beloved, with him I am well pleased. In Matthew’s version, God speaks of Jesus in the third person. But in Mark, I imagine God looking Jesus straight in the eye: In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
And that’s it. The whole account of Jesus’ baptism. Two verses. Nevertheless, it is, I think, the model, the blueprint for our own baptisms. In just few moments, Sally and Vincent, the figurative heavens will part and a Spirit will descend and you will hear the voice from heaven say: you are my child, my beloved with you I am well pleased. And then you will hear this community promise to remind you of those words every day of your live long lives. And it will be your job from this day forth to go out and pay that love forward.
You will note that Jesus’ baptism did not include any promise to be good. Did it? It did not include any marching orders from God. There is no promise to be or to do anything in particular. And there are no thou shalt not’s. Baptism is not the Christian version of the 10 commandments. Baptism is not an ethical choice. It is an ontological choice. Do you know what that means? It means that it is a choice that concerns your very being, not your particular behavior. It means that you are not promising to do love, but to be loving things; but to ground your lives, your very existence, in love.
Now, our faith tradition has tended to use baptism as the antidote to our fallen nature, a cleansing of our original sinfulness, and therefore a badge of Christian exclusivity for having been cleansed. Cleansing of sin and initiation into the Christian community have been the hallmarks of Christian baptism for centuries. But it’s hard to reconcile these notions of baptism, if we take Jesus’ baptism as our blueprint. Because there he was, God in the flesh, sinless and yet standing shoulder to shoulder in the sinking mud. Lined up to be baptized along with all manner of seedy sorts and scallywags. And we just have to wonder, if Jesus had no sin, what was the point of his baptism? And then what is the point of ours?
And what about our notion that baptism is an initiation into the Christian community? But there was no Christian community at the time of Jesus’ baptism. So again we have to wonder, what would have been the point? If Jesus had no sin and there was no Christian community into which he was initiated, what in the world was his baptism for? And what in the world do we likewise, make of our own?
And all I can figure, is that Jesus’ baptism was the proof positive that we, vulnerable and broken as we are, fragile and weak and fearful and fractured as we can sometimes be, Jesus’ baptism is the proof positive that God will always stand with us, that humanity will never again walk alone. That with the spirit of the dove, and the assurance of our creator, that we are loved and pleasing to God no matter what. This promise from God to us will be our rock and our salvation. If we base our baptisms on Jesus’ baptism, it is as much about God’s promise that we are loved as it is about our promise to love God.
Cleansing and initiation are one way to make meaning of our baptism, another way is to take Jesus’ baptism as our model, as a gesture of compassion and solidarity with all of God’s children, as an expression of pure love backed up by God’s assurance that we are both beloved and worthy, no matter what. Jesus did not need to be cleansed, and yet he stood with his brothers and sisters…..and he never stopped standing. Not ever. It took a cross and four nails to stop his solidarity in the flesh, to move him from his place by our side in the muddy river to life everlasting in the empty tomb.
Jesus’ baptism marked the moment at which we would never again walk this earth alone. From that moment on, God walked with us, and stands with us now in this muddy swirling, often treacherous, river of life.
I know, it does not sound like Good News, my good friends. It sounds like living into your baptism is going to make you very…….vulnerable. But I think that in many ways, that is what baptism is all about, baptism is about allowing ourselves to be vulnerable; as vulnerable as God’s own self was willing to be. That’s what the incarnation is all about. God becoming vulnerable. Before Jesus, God hung out safely in heaven, fully divine and inexperienced in the pain that permeates this mortal coil. But with the incarnation, God’s own self was plunged into our human vulnerability. It is a mind blowing thought….the vulnerability of God, but that is just what Jesus’ baptism means, I think. For embedded in our notion and need for baptism is the central reality that we are nothing if not vulnerable. And so our call to love each other is not a call to make ourselves more powerful or impervious to pain, but to make ourselves more accessible and sensitive and……yes, vulnerable. The promise that you will make today, Vincent and Sally, is really just a promise to live every day with love; and there is no way to love without opening your hearts. And there is no way to open your hearts without making yourselves vulnerable. And it is a bit oxymoronic to think that our ability to open our heart is directly determined by our willingness to have that heart broken….we cannot live into our baptismal covenants to love with all of our hearts unless we are willing to have those hearts broken; to be vulnerable.
It’s not a very popular notion; vulnerability. In fact, I might suggest that vulnerable is the one thing that we do not want to be….even more than we do not want to be wrong, we do not want to be vulnerable. And we do not want any part of our lives to be vulnerable, not our families, not our communities, not our nation. We are not even willing to be vulnerable as football fans. Last night Thalia and I left a friend’s house at halftime in the Patriots playoff game – they were playing that team with the horse shoes on their uniforms (I would have thought they would have been luckier!). But as Halftime, the Patriots were not playing so brilliantly. They seemed to be losing the plot and the ball pretty readily, and as we headed home to watch the second half, Thalia lamented “ah, they’re going to lose tonight.” ……..It was half time. And they were winning. But, maybe they wouldn’t, and what a disappointment that would be! And so even the vulnerability of routing for a possibly losing football team was too much to bear.
We are so wired to protect ourselves from our vulnerability, from pain and disappointment that we are often willing to sabotage our hope, our joy, our enthusiasm so that we will not have to feel the sting of defeat. I don’t know about you, but when things are going really well for me, sometimes I worry that my good fortune will be short lived. Sometimes instead of enjoying the high points, we tend to prepare for the inevitable fall….to make ourselves less vulnerable to the pain that we know is on its way. And so, the amount of time and treasure and effort and energy that we dedicate to protecting ourselves is, in the vernacular of our young friends, epic.
But vulnerability is what the incarnation is all about. So we cannot talk about the incarnation, or the baptism of Jesus without talking about vulnerability.
And so Sally and Vincent, I can say to you that today is, in many ways, about your willingness to make yourselves vulnerable for the sake of love. The good news is that vulnerability is not a sign of weakness. As the Apostle Paul tells us over and over again, there is great strength in our vulnerability. Vulnerability is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of courage. It takes great courage, (the word courage literally comes from the Latin root for heart) to allow our hearts to be broken. Courage is the prerequisite to the sort of vulnerability that allows us to live a life full of love. And when we en-courage each other, when we put heart into each other, we allow each other to be vulnerable too. It is holy ministry, the ministry of en-couragement, the ministry of allowing and inviting mutual vulnerability. And I might go so far as to say that it is the ministry of our baptism; to strip ourselves down to a place where nothing but love makes any sense…..nothing but love has any meaning. And when nothing but love matters, nothing but vulnerability opens the doors.
And so, my young friends, you are on deck. And this moment in your precious lives is not to be taken lightly. It is serious business, baptism. Maybe the most serious business of your life. Because it cuts to the heart of who you are/ who we are, all of us, as children of a God who will never leave us, who will stand with us, by us, for us, no matter what, no matter what pain, no matter what fear, no matter what inconvenience, no matter how unpopular or impractical or un pc, or un pleasant things may get. We are joined by a God who is willing to bear all of our human suffering, all of our vulnerability, all of our mucky muddy water, for nothing more than love. And by our baptism we are called to reflect that very image of God, etched on our hearts, every day of our lives.
Baptism reminds us that we do not worship a God who stands at the margins, but a God whose own self is marginalized. A God who never could hang with the cool kids ; a God whose own flesh was always shunned and derided, always bullied and rejected by those who had seats at the table; a God who never had enough to eat or a safe enough place to lay his head. We are etched with the image and likeness of a God who not only supports those on the margins, but a God whose own flesh was as marginalized and brutalized as any on this earth has ever been.
I have been meeting with Sally and Vincent and their parents to prepare for this fabulous day. And one thing that strikes me over and over again when I talk to kids about things like baptism and confirmation, is the religious baggage that our culture has laid at their feet.
And it always reminds me of that old Celtic story of the monk in the monastery who passed away and, as was the custom, his brothers interred him in a tomb in the wall of the monastery. And about three days after Jerry’s death and interment, the brothers heard a knocking from inside the wall, right about where the tomb was. And they gathered all the power tools they could round up and they blasted through the wall that had been sealed and there stood their brother Jerry who had just died. And he seemed very much alive. And he said to them: Hey, I have been to the other side and you would not believe what I have seen! You know all that stuff we have been believing for two thousand years, all the strict regimens, all the infallible theologies, all the do’s and don’ts that have been breaking our backs and crippling our lives….it’s not at all what we thought, none of those things matter……And the monks looked at each other. And they looked at Jerry. And they pushed him back in the wall, and sealed it up. Safe and sound – all the comfortably certain “truths” they have always believed would continue to rule the uncomplicated roost.
Vincent and Sally, your baptism is the time to break through the walls and the baggage; to ground yourselves in God’s promise that you are beloved and worthy, and to go forth with that assurance and pay it forward. Today is the day when you ground your belief in the depth of your heart, etched with God’s image. And your only charge is to open your heart wide, trust it fully, and share it with wild abandon. Baptism is a journey to be led by nothing more than your open, trusting, vulnerable heart. Alleluia! Amen.
© January 2014 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
* If you are interested in thinking more deeply about the value of vulnerability and its grounding in courage, I highly recommend exploring the work of Brene Brown.