Monday, April 20, 2009

Risen to Walk In the Newness of Life: Thursday's Beresheth Sermon

“I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” We practiced on each other in a swimming pool. Because I was one of the smallest “ministers” in my seminary class, I had to baptize the biggest man there. Fortunately he was my best friend so if I dropped him in the water, I wouldn’t be too mortified and embarrassed; although he might have dunked me in retaliation. “Tell your baptizee to bend their knees and you’ll lean them back. As long as you both do this, you’ll be fine…”

Four years later, Roger Paynter and I practiced again, this time focusing on the theology of the baptism. I was to perform my first baptism except not in a swimming pool and not on my best friend. “You will take her under the water and say, ‘Buried with Christ.’ And as you bring her up out of the water you will say, ‘Risen to walk in the newness of life,’” Roger explained. At that point in my faith, I began to really internalize what it meant to live resurrected. I began to understand why baptisms were often performed on Easter. And in the light of Easter, I began to understand Lent.

Two years before I performed my first baptism and one year after I practiced in a swimming pool, my Waco pastor and friend passed away preparing to baptize a parishioner one Sunday morning. There was a problem with the baptistery’s pool heater and the water was charged and as soon as Kyle touched something outside that baptismal pool, he became the road for the current to travel and his own road stopped short.

At a baptism.

So I have mixed feelings about baptism: it’s amazing but it’s very scary. Then again, most of us do have mixed emotions when it comes to baptism. While there are those who immediately run and fall at the feet of Jesus begging to be healed, while there are those to whom faith comes easily, most of us are Nicodemus who come to chat with Jesus in the concealed darkness of the midnight hour, most of us are the rich young ruler who can’t let go of his possessions, most of us are Thomas who doubt what God had done, most of us are the older son, lamenting the party being thrown for the prodigal little brother. We like our lives and we like ourselves, and pride most always keeps us from surrendering to God.

And in that way, pride does come before the fall because when we fall back into those baptismal waters we put to death, we say goodbye, to ourselves, to our hopelessness, to our giftedness, to our self-securities because none of those things matter or will get us anywhere while sin reigns in our lives. We have to let go of ourselves before we can let God perform a miracle.

While it may be considered just a symbol, in baptism, we get the miracle of resurrection.

I love Easter for that reason. The wilderness wanderings of Lent and Holy Week, the disciplines, the dying, it’s so very dark, but on Easter, all that has died is brought back to life not dark and deafening as it was before, but clean and new. Like Jesus, raised from the grave, death isn’t going to win in our lives. Our sin and our sorrow aren’t going to get the last word if we’ve committed to follow Christ. Rather, we experience resurrection… here and now…

I remember my own baptism. I barely remember the robe and the dressing room and wading into the baptistery. But when I came up out of the water I’ll never forget how I felt. Although I was only nine, I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off my body, lifted off my shoulders. As I came up out of the water gasping for breath, I got it. Breathe enough to last a lifetime and then some. I felt relief and probably even joy although until that point, happiness was all I’d ever really known as a kid.

However, twenty years later I made another discovery.

While nostalgically perusing my baby album one afternoon, reading things my mom had recorded, looking at strands of hair from my first trip to the salon, I stumbled upon a certificate I had never noticed before.

I called my mom completely flabbergasted, "I was baptized as an infant?!"

But my mom didn’t remember that ever happening and neither did my father or grandma whose church actually recorded the baptism.

"Well there's a certificate in my baby book that says otherwise," I informed them all, indignant. "It has a minister's name and my name and the date. And it's glued in my baby book!"

Now, it should be noted that I have no problem with infant baptism. It is not a practice of my denomination, nor is it my preference for the baptism of a believer, but I understand what it symbolizes theologically and respect the tradition. In face, Frederick Buechner says this about Baptism, “Baptism consists of getting dunked or sprinkled. Which technique is used matters about as much as whether you pray kneeling or standing on your head. Dunking is a better symbol, however. Going under symbolizes the end of everything about your life that is less than human. Coming up again symbolizes the beginning in you of something strange and new and hopeful. You can breathe again.”

Buried in Christ. Born to walk in the newness of life.

He continues, “Question: How about infant baptism? Should you wait until the child grows up enough to know what’s going on? Answer: if you don’t think there is as much of the less-than-human in an infant as there is in anybody else, you have lost touch with reality. When it comes to the forgiving and transforming love of God,” Buechner writes, “one wonders if the six-week-old screecher knows all that much less than the archbishop of Canterbury about what’s going on.”

Buechner sure has a way with words. But I'm a Baptist minister and when I found that certificate signed and sealed in my baby book, I felt that knowing whether or not I was baptized as an infant and then re-baptized as a nine year old was fairly critical to my story. I mean, it’s my job to tell my story and encourage others to do the same in which case it becomes fairly critical for me to know my story...

So I guess part of my Christian story is that at one time, my family thought it was important enough to commit their first-born daughter to the community of Christ, and the covenant occurred. . . . It’s just that no one remembers it. ☺

My grandpa has almost the opposite experience. He was baptized at age 90. One Sunday I returned to my hometown where most of my family still lives. I preached at my home church and my grandparents came over to hear me. That Sunday after church my grandpa announced to my grandmother, “I want to be baptized.” And even though my grandpa is a lifelong member of the Methodist church, he’s also a demanding old man, set in his ways. So if that Methodist wants to receive a believer’s baptism, he’s gonna get one. Sure enough, several months later, he was the first in line, waiting in the baptistery as the curtains opened with my mother standing behind him to help escort her feeble father out afterwards. “Buried in Christ. Risen to walk in the newness of life.” As the minister gingerly and quickly pulled my grandpa out of the water my grandfather exclaimed, “Hallelujah!” and everyone in the congregation laughed, the joy contagious. That was the same Sunday I performed my first baptism. I doubt either of us will ever forget that day.

The choice I made as a nine year old child, confessing to my pastor that I loved God and wanted to be with God forever, is my first memory of the significance of baptism. The water that washed over me (and all other believers) as I was submerged, dying to myself and was then raised from, resurrected, into a new life with Jesus Christ remains the most special and significant water I will ever enter. No wonder early Christians saved all their baptisms to be performed on Easter Sunday. After 40 days of fasting and repenting and realizing their depravity, they let go of the depressing nature of carrying it alone and gave themselves over to the freedom of belonging to Christ. They were washed clean. Resurrected in the water. And though the Hydrogen and Oxygen compound is at it's most basic description just elements and numbers, it is a memory in each of us that is charged with symbolism, tradition and yes, something even magical. I left that pool of water 21 years ago changed – lighter and freer, and even my nine-year-old heart and mind knew it.

And so we enter into Eastertide: the period in the church calendar after Lent and Easter. We practice living daily what it means to be resurrected people: not perfect, and not without pain, but also not alone. We are accompanied by Christ, by one who became like us and went before us and resurrects us into new life with him every day.

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