Baptism Beyond Comfort

42baptism_of_jesusThis past week I was able to participate with the Montreat College Conference, where over 1200 students gathered for four days of worship, discussion, fellowship, and to learn about what it means to live and work for justice as Christians in today’s divided world. The conference was entitled, ‘Beyond Babel’, referencing the story of the tower of Babel from Genesis, where, as the story goes, humanity was scattered to the ends of the earth by God, and helps to explain why we have people with so many different languages, cultures, and customs. Our question for the week as participants was simple, and yet so challenging: What do we do now? What do we, as Christians, do now in a world that seems so divided, so conflicted, especially along lines of race, political affiliation, and religion?

We were able to hear from many wonderful speakers throughout, including many leaders of the PCUSA; however, one of the speakers during this conference caused a special stir in the crowd. This person was able to inspire these college students to talk about faith, racism, violence, and love, in a way that seemed especially appropriate considering the monumental issues that this country has been facing over the past few years including the Black Lives Matter movement, the presidential election, and ongoing stories of international terrorism, war, and oppression.

 

from valariekaur.com…Valarie Kaur was born and raised in Clovis, California, a small town near Fresno where her family settled as Indian Punjabi farmers a century ago. She was raised as a Sikh whose faith inspires a commitment to social justice. She became an activist when family friend Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered in a hate crime in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. At twenty years old, she set out across America to chronicle hate crimes against Sikh and Muslim Americans. The journey led to the award-winning film Divided We Fall (2008) and initiated her work as an artist, scholar and activist, where we met her this past week.

Ms. Kaur was able to tell her story to a packed auditorium of college students who were yearning to respond to that simple and yet challenging question: what do we do now? Her answer: we are here to share revolutionary love with the world.

 

I think what Valarie Kaur was able to speak to was something larger than even the conference theme of confronting racism and injustice. In her own way of sharing stories and experiences of her work over the past fifteen years, she was able to share with the young adults in this conference that they were put on this earth for a purpose. And in another way, I believe that we are asking very similar questions even here today in our home communities. We may not be college students. We may not be listening to a world renowned speaker (although I don’t think I’m THAT bad), we may not even be at a beautiful place like Montreat, sitting as participants at a wonderful conference. However, we ask similar questions:

What am I here on this earth for?

What am I supposed to be doing with my life?

How do I respond to the world’s problems?

Who am I?

 

The gospel message according to Matthew 3 shares with us one of the most beautiful moments in the life of Christ as we celebrate Baptism of the Lord Sunday. It is here where Jesus meets his cousin John the Baptist in the river. It is here where he is submerged in the River Jordan for Baptism. And it is here where the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and where God speaks to share with the world that this Jesus is God’s son.

Today we remember this wonderful story as we remember our own baptisms and God’s call on our lives. But I also would like to share another story that speaks to God’s calling on our lives. The words of the prophet Isaiah speak to God moving within the world to reconcile humanity and the world towards God’s self in chapter 42.

 Verse 1 speaks of God’s servant. While many naturally make the connection to Christ as the servant being spoken of, it’s also important to note that perhaps the ‘servant’ can be understood in a larger sense. Perhaps we can be the servant.

1Here is my servant, whom I uphold, 

We read words that will later be shared as the clear connection between the gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism and that of Isaiah’s text:

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;

But here is where things change. Much of our baptism liturgy is based on the opening words from the gospels that connect Christ to Isaiah, but we often disregard the rest of the text when we think about baptism:

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

 

What does bringing justice to the nations look like? If we are to look to other examples from our history, most of our understanding of justice has been accomplished through war and violence. However, the vision of Isaiah is different:

2   He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3   a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4   He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

The remaining verses remind us that these words are not just one inspired by an individual, but they are the words of the LORD:

5Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
6   I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
7        to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
8   I am the LORD, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
9   See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.

 

My question for us today: What should our baptismal vows include? Yes, it is great to understand God’s covenant with us through baptism. Yes, we are claimed by God as beloved children, just as Jesus was on that day in the River Jordan. Many times it is our parents and the congregation who pledge to raise us in the church and to share with us God’s love. But is this where baptism stops? Is this where our calling as Christians stops?

In her book Beyond Apathy: A Theology for Bystanders, Dr. Elisabeth Vasko writes,

“To be a Christian is to take sides with those who are marginalized, dehumanized and subject to violence. Whether we like it or not, neutrality isn’t an option. In the face of violent activity, to hide behind the mirror of ignorance is to take sides with the powers that be.”

 This past week at this conference with college students I was reminded of how God works intimately in and through people to bring the Kingdom to our lives each and every day. Yes, we spoke of brokenness, racism, personal and communal lament…and we also spoke of response, action, and hope.

Perhaps our baptismal call in this world does not end with getting dressed up and showing up for church each Sunday. Perhaps the vows we make in baptism should embrace not only the words of Matthew, but of Isaiah as well. We are being called to action for justice as brothers and sisters in Christ.

6   I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
7        to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

 

Friends, the Good News is challenging news. It is news that asks us to become uncomfortable. It is news that will not make everyone happy, especially those who find themselves living with many privileges that others on society’s margins do not experience in their daily lives.

The Good News this morning: God calls each and every one of us in baptism as children of God, and as agents for God’s work of peace, justice, and grace in the world today.

What will our lives look like if we take this call seriously? Will we develop relationships with others who may not look, sound, or talk like us? Will we engage in dialogue with others who do not vote the same way or worship with the same faith? Will the stories in our daily news compel us to pity as passive bystanders, or will these stories compel to peaceful action?

Today, as we remember our baptisms, let us be uncomfortable. Let us be reminded of the life-altering power of these waters as we are called from death to new life. Let us not be content to allow the injustices in this world to simply be part of the status quo; instead, let us be inspired to work together as children of God seeking to establish God’s Beloved Community here on earth today.

May we be called peacemakers. May we seek justice. May we be both recipients and benefactors of God’s grace. Amen.

 

 

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