May I speak today in the name of God, and of the Beloved, Jesus Christ, and of our Counselor, the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we remember the Baptism of our Lord Jesus who allowed John the Baptist to cover him with the waters of the Jordan River. Today, we would have talked about baptism, even if there had not been a violent insurrection against our nation’s Capitol, a vile attack that sought to disrupt the peaceful transition of power and left 5 people dead. And, now, because I saw that mob at the Capitol carrying flags and signs that bore the name of Jesus, we absolutely must talk about baptism.
Baptism can look different for different people. My baptism was not in a river like Christ’s, but in a big baptistry tub, built behind the choir loft at my church. I grew up in a small Southern Baptist church, and my younger brother and I were baptized together on Easter Sunday. I was 10 years old. I remember there was a moment, where I stood in the bathroom, in my white robe, and for the first time in my short life, my teeth started chattering. This was well before any water was involved, so I wasn’t cold; instead, I was excited and nervous.
You might say 10 is young, but I was an old 10. When my pastor talked to me about inviting Jesus into my heart, I listened to him very carefully, and when he asked if I was ready, I told him… no! “No, this is a big decision, and I have to think about it!” As a 10-year-old girl, I had this understanding that if I did that, if I prayed that prayer and made that decision, that I was giving up control of my life. And as a 10-year-old girl, I already had precious little control over anything. I imagined my life as a ship on the waves and I knew that if I did what my pastor wanted, I would have to step aside and let Jesus take the helm and steer the ship. (How much I did not know then, about what God would ask of me! And yet, how right I was.)
After a long night of questions and prayer and some tears, I woke my mother up the next day and told her I was ready. She took me back to the pastor, and we prayed together, and on Easter I was baptized. I remember, hearing, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You are now buried with Christ in baptism….” and then the rush of being immersed under the water, the instant of being held under, and the gasp as I broke the surface to hear the pastor say, “and you now rise to walk in the newness of life.” He handed me a candle and said, “You are the light of the world.” Then he dipped two fingers into a little bowl of salt, and tapped the salt onto my lips, and said, “You are the salt of the earth.” And even though it’s hard to believe that detail now that we face a pandemic…. the memory of my baptism is precious to me.
Almost a year ago, I went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and saw many sacred places in Israel and Palestine. On that trip, I stood on the deck overlooking the Jordan River, where tradition says today’s gospel reading took place. It was so crowded, and I heard so many other languages being spoken around me! That day the Armenian Patriarch was there and huge crowds of Armenian Christians were waiting to be baptized. Many of them wore white robes, and there was beautiful singing and chanting. So many people disappeared under that brown river and rose again. But in the midst of that beauty, something caught me off guard: extra security officers were present due to the Patriarch’s presence, in addition to the usual armed Israeli soldiers patrolling the grounds. It was a strange thing, I thought then, armed soldiers and newly baptized believers there, together. Strange that so many would be prepared for violence when others were celebrating their faith in Christ.
We could not reach the river, but our driver was able to go down to the bank and fill a plastic bottle with water from the Jordan River. Bishop Rickel led us in the renewal of our baptismal vows and then told us to close our eyes and mouth (the Jordan is actually one of the most polluted rivers in the world!), and then sprinkled us with the water and said, “Remember your Baptism.”
When someone bids me to “remember my baptism”, part of me remembers being a little girl with chattering teeth who wanted time to think and frowned at the taste of the salt on her lips. The other part of me remembers the vows I take every time I recite the Baptismal Covenant, as we will today. I remember not only the experience 10-year-old Hillary had, but also the seriousness of the decision and the promises I made.
Some of you may not remember your baptism because you were baptized as a baby; your parents and loved ones made promises on your behalf, then. And in confirmation or reception, you took ownership over those promises. Maybe some of you were like me, and your previous tradition didn’t include the Baptismal Covenant, but you make those promises now at St. Luke’s. Maybe some of you listening have not been baptized. If that’s the case, I’m so glad you are here. (And if you want to talk more about it, Canon Britt or I would absolutely love to hear from you.)
But no matter how we do it or when, baptism is a sacrament that we share with billions of other Christians in the world. Ten-year-old Hillary in that Baptist church in South Carolina is connected to that the joyful crowd of Armenian Christians at the Jordan river, celebrating even as soldiers patrolled. And in baptism, we are all connected to Jesus of Nazareth, baptized by John all those years ago.
Baptism connects us to other Christians all over the world across thousands of years. Baptism ties us all together; in baptism we die together, being buried with Christ, dying to the old self and rising again. In baptism, we rise with Christ, and we promise to do difficult things, with God’s help. Difficult things like resisting evil, like repenting and returning, like seeking Christ in all people and striving for justice, like respecting the dignity of every human being. Hard things, with God’s help.
And the uncomfortable reality is that this past Wednesday, when a violent mob attacked the Capitol building, they carried Jesus’s name with them on banners that said Jesus 2020 or Jesus Saves. The uncomfortable reality is that many of those insurrectionists have probably also been baptized. Some may even have believed that Jesus of Nazareth would support their actions. As far apart as we may feel from the people we saw on TV, it is likely that baptism connects us to some of that crowd.
There is a sickness inside American Christianity, an insidious nationalism that made the cross of Christ into a flagpole. That evil was on display this week at the Capitol by people with whom we share the baptismal promise. All Christians must reckon with that connection. Hitching the teachings of Christ to xenophobia, violence, and white supremacy is idolatry. It is evil, and I renounce it.
Yet, my baptism doesn’t make me better than anyone else, no matter how or when it happened, no matter who they are. That water connects all of us, and in baptism, all are forgiven and made new. In baptism, we are following Christ’s example of making a public promise. And in that promise we swear fealty not to America, not to a political party, not to a denomination, not to a politician or pastor, but to Jesus and the way of love. We are marked as Christ’s own forever, and Christ has no flag, no borders, and certainly no walls! When Jesus was baptized, the Spirit of God descended not as a bald eagle, but as a dove, and God called Jesus not a King or a Warrior but a Beloved Child. We do not serve the empire or the economy; we serve Jesus Christ and through him, our neighbors.
So, my friends, I beg you: Remember your baptism.
-Rev. Hillary Kimsey, Curate